The Person Behind the Issue: How one woman Reminded the world of Something We Have All But Forgotten
In case you missed it or had no desire to watch, last night’s US State of the Union speech had a moment that will likely live on well past the evening in which it occurred. It happened near the close of the President Trumps address. No, it was not a rousing policy statement or political one-liner. It was when the widow of a fallen US Navy Seal wept, and for several moments an entire nation grieved with her loss. In that moment, war and foreign policy were not just issues. They were embodied in a person. Even in the midst of a heavily divided room, a tiny bit of peace and unity was restored. The political back and forth banter was replaced with genuine empathy and compassion.
It seems that moments like this are few and far between these day. There is a great meme video that I saw recently of several dogs barking at one another on the opposite sides of a retractable fence. While the fence was in place, the dogs barked angrily, tossing back and forth death threats and possibly even comparing one another to the most unenviable creatures — cats. But amusingly, when the fence began rolling back and the dogs had to confront their combatants face to face, without the protection of a fence in between, they all retreated and left one another alone. (If you know about this video you can post it in the comments below because it’s a real gem!)
When I saw this it kind of reminded me of breaking up hockey fights as a referee. Truth be told, many if not most of the fighters in hockey do not really want to fight. Even in the NHL I have read several stories by former “enforcers” like John Stott who fought simply because that was the only way they could stay in the league. Most times (in lower level hockey for sure) the two players would be more than content if referees pulled them away from one another just before the first throw of punches was exchanged. Just think about that. They actually want the referee to hold them back but are too proud to skate away themselves. So they stand there barking at one another, mentally begging the ref to keep them from following through on their verbal threats to one another.
Humorously, or not so humorously, barking is not only limited to dogs and angry hockey players. Humans love to bark at one another in every day life. But we do so through the fence of “issues.” And somehow this makes everything okay (or not). Take cultural hot-button topics like abortion, euthanasia, drug use, human rights, immigration and so forth. It feels like I have heard more talk about these issues in the last twelve months than I had in my lifetime prior to that point combined!
Unfortunately, I think as people we often get stuck into what I call the boomerang effect. In other words, even if a group from an opposing viewpoint does something well, we still find it hard to compliment them. We might throw out something nice, but we always bring it back in by saying, “But of course I do not care for that person myself.” An easy example of this can be found in the way people responded to last nights remarks by President Trump. Directly following the speech, many Christians and non-Christians who had always had a leaning of being pro-republican were quick to make statements like, “It is time to bring our country together” and “This was a fantastic speech.” "Potentially even huge!"
Personally, I won’t dispute their reasons for making these statement. I thought the over all tone and message was good (and many from both political viewpoints would say the same - e.g. CNN’s Van Jones). However, I suppose what disappoints me is that it was just over a year ago when the same people who supported Trump’s words last night were quick to dismiss the words of then President Obama. After all, “He was just a liberal pretender” a “novice leader” bent on “destroying the country.” Very few Republican leaning people could simply say, “Great speech and let’s pray for our President!” and just leave it at that. And when President Obama brought up the victims of gun violence to stand behind him in a speech, he was viewed a phoney playing on the emotions of his audience. Likewise, few Democrats could listen to the President’s speech last night and simply say, “Well done” without attaching a huge asterisk to Trump's words. “He didn’t really mean what he said,” “His actions speak louder than his words,” and so forth.
However, here is what I feel Christians and Pre-Christians alike often miss. We fail to see that when we attack an issue through our social media post or everyday conversation, we also attack the person who represents that issue. For instance, if I open my mouth in the locker room of my rec league hockey team and spout off about how I cannot stand an action taken by our Prime Minister, Premier, or Mayor, I can immediately alienate myself from those around me who supported those same individuals. Think about the last time someone attacked an issue you stood for either online or in person. How did that make you feel? Even if their critique was accurate, if it was not done with grace it doubtless left you with a tiny feeling of resentment and built up a tiny wall that it is likely the person posting had no idea they were building.
Now, is my point in all of this to say that we should never post or talk about issues that we know some of our friends would disagree with? Of course not. But, I do believe a good principle to follow for any conversation we have is what I call the Know Principle. (Okay, I just made that title up :) ) But seriously, ask yourself, do I know and understand the opinions of someone who represents the issue I am sneering at or attacking?
And when you are around others who have a tendency to build up walls, maybe start involving Andy Stanley’s “Really” question. Even if you agree in principle with their statement, maybe start using a few of these responses:
Statement: “Donald Trump and a lot of his supporters are small-minded, anti-Muslim, and fly-over land racists!”
Response: Really? Do you know someone who voted for him and the reasons they supported him?
Statement: “This whole gay rights and transgender debate is just stupid!”
Response: Really? Do you have several friends in the LGBTQ community?
Statement: Christianity is a religion for the weak of mind and just causes wars. Besides, all religions are basically the same thing anyways.
Response: Really? Have you talked with someone who truly understands and lives out the deep aspects of the Christian faith and compared this with someone from another point of religious belief?
Statement: “I’ll never give any money to a beggar on the street because they’ll probably just walk around the block and jump in their Mercedes that they purchased with all the money they make each day.”
Response: Really? Have you worked closely with homeless people and understood the deep struggles they face?
Personally, I have found that the more that I get to know people, the real part that begins to change in me is my compassion. Just the other day I sat with a fantastic family from our church in the immigration office. The wife is pregnant and it is important for numerous reasons beyond this that they remain in Canada. I can tell you that this changes my tone when it comes to immigration and boarder security. When I first saw Baby Zoe’s ultrasound pictures a couple of weeks ago and heard her heartbeat, the “abortion issue” and my respect for human life is suddenly that much stronger as I saw a human life on the screen before my eyes. And when as a Pastor I engage with people who have chosen alternative lifestyles than those taught in the Bible, it helps me see them not as opposing viewpoints to be attacked but souls to be offered grace and redemption.
In all three of these cases, it is not that my moral views on these issues suddenly changed on a whim. After all, if we allowed our morals to be dictated by our experiences and personal encounters with others, we would simply fall into a relativistic trap that leads towards having no basis for the morals we conscientiously feel the need to uphold. We would all become populists with truth being defined as that which is “culturally acceptable.” But I can tell you that what did change in my mind was both my compassion and my heart.
So here is a challenge: Before posting your opinion about a hot-button topic in culture, first ask, “Do I know a person who represents the opinion I am talking about and would I feel comfortable saying what I am about to post directly to their face?”
If Christians do this, I believe we will be genuinely amazed at some of the doors that will begin to open and conversations we can have. That person who maybe wrote us off as being narrow minded might just begin to hear what we have to say and see the love of Jesus shining through us. And while they may continue to reject our beliefs and want little to do with the Jesus we love, we can rest comfortably at night, knowing that changing others is up to God while sharing his truth in love is up to us.
Thank you to a brave widow last night who reminded us all to remember the face behind the issue!