Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
December 20th, 2011

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.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Parker

    Two years after the original posting, we don’t seem to have made much progress toward national unity. Three of my grown children are liberals, but, even though I try hard, I must confess I don’t understand them. When an issue comes up, it seems their response goes to some other, unrelated area. My mind tries to go to “What WILL work?”, but the closest I can get from them is usually “What SHOULD work?” Is that familiar to anyone.

    I must take issue with Robert’s comment above. While we certainly should not disrespect other persons, we cannot truly respect their opinions and beliefs unless we ourselves find merit and/or truth in them. To do otherwise is hypocritical and foolish.

  • Michael

    Hi Phil – I did not check the date until after I had read the comments. So pertinent even after two years! I recall then the strange feeling that overtook Americans (and us outside of the US) of a new way of doing things. Alas, Obama did not even have two years to try to build an administration on consensus as the Democrats, Republicans, then the right-wing then left-wing pundits all started chipping away at the idea of a more perfect union for the politics of Now (scoring points, positioning for one’s next election, spreading fear and innuendo).

    Listening is so difficult, especially when someone puts a microphone in front of you. Even when a politician holds a town hall meeting to “listen to the people”, nobody seems to be listening. We need to change that. It doesn’t take a Democrat or a Republican – it takes everyone of all stripes. Maybe the American Family (all 350 million) needs to sit at the table for a real Thanksgiving Dinner.

  • Robert

    thank you for trying to make the peace between both sides of the isle… I would ask anyone reading this to respect opinions and beliefs of others.


  • Phil Fox Rose

    Thank you all for your comments so far. It’s OK that some of the comments are partisan. What I am suggesting, though, is not that we agree on who’s right. What I’m suggesting is that the conversation isn’t useful unless BOTH sides are open. I say that NEITHER side has the higher ground on being open-minded. A left-winger is just as likely to be echoing what they heard on Olbermann as a right-winger is Limbaugh. This is a condemnation of neither but an observation of reality. Most people don’t dig deeper, and most people don’t open themselves to the possibility that they could be wrong.

    And it’s also possible that someone on either side is a good, decent person who has thought long and hard, read many opinions, and arrived at their view on their own. If it is impossible for you to believe that a person can arrive at the view they hold while remaining a good person who is trying to do the right thing, then you shouldn’t be having a conversation, because you’ve already demonized them.

    My challenge in the article is that we all try to approach political discussion with an open mind, especially (but not exclusively) when the person with the opposing view is a loved one. And that if both sides can’t do that, we refrain from it. (Happy New Year!)

  • Matt

    Jim – I like how you start out talking about how “open” you liberals are about being “willing to consider other points of view” and then you end with a quote that basically says conservatives are too foolish to bother having a discussion with. How very ironic and telling.

    Kat – you hit it right on.

  • Kat

    We had a particularly brutal Thanksgiving, instigated by the bellicose liberals present. I find that that what jim says is true—liberals generally pride themselves on their openness and willingness to consider other points of view. As a conservative, I can assure you that this pride is absurd, as the much vaunted openness and tolerance ends abruptly with the introduction of conservative ideas. (“I’m open to your ideas, as long as you agree with me” doesn’t really count for openness and tolerance, does it?) When challenged and bereft of any answers, a liberal will often snarl, “Where did you get that? Fox? Limbaugh?” rather than actually addressing the topic or question at hand. This accusation is especially pathetic when I don’t even know what Fox or Limbaugh has to say about the matter. I actually haven’t found an open-minded liberal yet (independents are another story), our current radically leftist president included. Needless to say, at Christmas my husband and I plan to ban political discussion. We can always meet separately for that if the guests are so inclined. Christmas is too precious to waste on something we can do every other day of the year.

    I’m with John H re: Obama. Partisanship is at its zenith now. How anyone could believe that the senator with the most liberal voting record could suddenly become a champion of bipartisanship is a mystery to me.

  • jim

    Liberals generally pride themselves on their openness and willingness to consider other points of view. There are entire colleges devoted to the study of “Liberal” Arts. Since there really is no “Conservative” philosophy-no colleges are devoted to the study of “Conservative” Arts-there can be no middle ground because the two are not opposites on the same spectrum. The common understanding of conservative is just a list of talking points that allows no dissent-Obama is bad-Sarah Palin is good. There are some intelligent Republicans, who will probably convert to the Democratic party. But there are few on the Right who even want to fairly engage in any meaningful way. As Lincoln put it-never argue with a fool-onlookers may not be able to tell who is who.

  • John Hechtlinger

    Regarding your statement: “I hope and believe that compassionate Republicans, Democrats and Independents will find in the years ahead a hospitable climate to grow and thrive”….on the basis of what do you hold this belief? The climate seems to be deteriorating with every passing day as the partisan divide continues to widen, not decrease. Yes, Obama campaigned on a promise to usher in a new era of bipartisanship but his view of bipartisanship is a peculiar one. He will politely consider alternative conservative/Republican ideas, he will reject them in their entirety, and then he will wield the power of the Democratic majority to ram through his ideological agenda. Or so it seems. This is not what he promised to do in his campaign. But then if people had any idea this is what he planned to do he never would have been elected. If you believe the ends justify the means then this shouldn’t trouble you. It bothers me.

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