Forming A More Perfect Union

For families divided by politics or religion, gathering on the holidays provides both challenges and opportunities

My relatives are an eclectic bunch, pretty evenly split — to use crude and somewhat useless political labels — between Left and Right; our religious diversity includes Catholics, Mormons, evangelicals, United Church of Christ members and a few who are unaffiliated. Throw in my surrogate family (that’s a story for another time) and you add Presbyterians, Jews and Buddhists. As we gather around our family table and share letters and cards this holiday season, I will be looking for opportunities to be a healing force.

My family is like millions of others in the United States who come together this time of year for the holidays and struggle to put their passionate differences aside for a few hours. Of course, these divides always existed, but recent years have been different for two reasons. First, major shifts — generationally and ideologically — have left many feeling left out of the party, so to speak. Second, politics is the ugliest it’s been in modern history. There are plenty of hurt feelings all around. A lot of fear gets stirred up.

In couples counseling, it’s an axiom that the most toxic thing to a relationship is not when the partners disagree, or even fight, but when they stop respecting each other. For several generations now, there has been little trust and respect in the political sphere. Both sides have demonized the other, have assumed ill motives on their opponents’ parts.

But of all relationships, the deepest and oldest, next to our relationship with God, is family. So it’s sad when distrust and lack of respect attacks relationships with literal brothers and sisters.

Truly listening

We all should do our best to hear. This has nothing to do with a sloppy relativism that assumes what people are saying is right for them and cannot be faulted. But it challenges us to accept their view as legitimately arrived at, rather than dismissively ignoring it as uninformed or evilly motivated.

My Christian faith teaches me that there is that of God in everyone, that all are my brothers and sisters — to see everyone through love; look past surface differences, past things that annoy and anger me, to that of God in them. Each of us is a flawed silly creature doing our best to make sense of the world.

One of the traps of politics is that it’s so easy to entrench oneself in a particular camp or philosophy, surrounded by like-minded people — to never listen to the other side. That will be a challenge for some of us who gather at table this holiday season, no doubt.

Hebrew has (at least) two words for listen: shama and he’ezin. He’ezin literally means “give ear” and it describes words falling on the ear. Shama, on the other hand, means “hear” or “listen,” and it describes a very different act, that of being open to the words, of allowing them in and gaining understanding.

We all should do our best to hear. This has nothing to do with a sloppy relativism that assumes what people are saying is “right for them” and cannot be faulted. But it challenges us to accept their view as legitimately arrived at, rather than dismissively ignoring it as uninformed or evilly motivated.

To truly listen. Not to close your ears and mind and dismiss what someone is saying before it’s even reached your cortex, but to listen. To seek understanding — what they mean and where they’re coming from.

Of course, some people’s minds will be closed to seeing that of God, that of love, in your position and it will be pointless to pursue this kind of discussion. Your words would fall on their ears but they would not hear you. It still may help to put the mustard seed out there — you never know where and when it might bloom — but only do so if it might bring harmony, not discord. If your family is one in which a lively political discussion can’t stay friendly, consider throwing yourself into love and service, helping with the food and asking how others are doing.

A Eucharistic spirit

The Eucharist is a family thanksgiving meal. We leave jobs and politics and status outside the church door and come together in peace as brothers and sisters in Christ to give thanks to God. I pray that we all approach our family celebrations this year in a Eucharistic spirit of love and peace.

Despite the drama of recent political events, there remains, I think, the opportunity to build a bridge across the divide, a bridge of compassion. Focus on basic goods on which you can agree. Establish that you are both decent people who believe your political positions advance the common good. Then perhaps you can start debating the tactics and strategies. But perhaps not. In many cases, it’s enough to recognize that you both believe your positions are for the good. Respect and trust can begin there.

Many Christians practice a family meal every week, or at least regularly: the Eucharist is a commemoration of the Last Supper, which itself was a Passover Seder. Eucharistia is Greek for “giving of thanks,” referring to Jesus’ saying grace over the meal, and communio is Latin for “sharing in common,” referring to the family of God coming together to share in the Eucharist. So, not to put too fine a point on it, but the Eucharist is a family thanksgiving meal. We leave jobs and politics and status outside the church door and come together in peace as brothers and sisters in Christ to give thanks to God. I pray that we all approach our family celebrations this year in a Eucharistic spirit of love and peace.

Whatever your political views, we as a country must change the way we approach politics. For several decades, leaders in both parties have used divisiveness to build their power base. Those of us whose families have been divided in the political realm have a particular challenge and a particular opportunity this holiday season to begin healing the nation. Thank you, God, for giving us this special role. Give us the willingness and wisdom to be part of Your divine work.

I wish you all a peaceful and gratitude-filled holiday. Maybe you can be a part of making that happen.

Have your own holiday family stories to share? Please use the comments section below.

Originally published on November 24, 2008.


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