What Now?

By Scott Hughes

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Some people are cheering. Some people are afraid. There are a whole host of reactions to the recent presidential election. The reactions are varied, even in our church pews. How do we help parishioners cope? What part can church leaders play when our country and congregations are so obviously divided? Here are a few things we can start doing now:

Listen. Listening can seem like a minor, inconsequential step. However, right now, listening might be the most important step we can take. Now, more than ever, is the time to cultivate relationships - relationships with those whom we agree and disagree. Relationship building is founded on deep listening. People protest because they don’t feel that their voices are being heard. Another response is to retreat out of fear. Truly allowing people the safe space to voice their hopes and their feelings of despair is a gift many need. If we don’t understand why some are fearful while others are cheering in the wake of the election, that should be a signal that we need to listen and learn. Now is the time to take a posture of curiosity and learning.

Stop labeling. The use of demographic information can certainly be helpful, but it can also serve to deepen divisiveness. To dissect the results of this election, we have lumped people into voting blocks. “Oh, you’re a white male without a college education, well you must have voted for Trump; therefore, you must also affirm…” When we categorize people, we dismiss them and fail to do the hard work of listening. As our first General Rule reminds us, we are to “Do no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind.” People choose to vote for a candidate for a whole host of reasons. I also heard someone assert, “Your demographic is not your destiny.” Our demographics do not determine our perspective or voting preferences. By dismissing people, our relationships remain broken, and we fail to learn the hurts and hopes others possess.

Read instead of post. Some have suggested limiting time on social media. I have had to do some of that. But there’s also a place for reading social media posts, especially posts written by people you don’t understand or agree with - and then not commenting. (Again, “do no harm.”) Reading social media posts from a variety of perspectives can be an opportunity to listen and to understand. The Prayer of St. Francis offers wise counsel, is worth being quoted in its entirety, and should be prayed often:

"Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life."[5]

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Stay engaged. My default at times when I don’t feel my vote matters or when things look bleak politically is to become less engaged in the political process. Now is not the time for that. The second General Rule reminds us, “Do good, by being in every kind merciful after their power…” Now is the time to stay engaged. As my wife and I discussed with our kids the results of the election, we challenged them to think about what we can do now. It became a teachable moment that we still do have ways to communicate with our elected officials and about our process of government, which has checks and balances. The prayer we had with our youth the morning after the election was to be reminded that Jesus’ vision for his disciples is to be peacemakers. Being peacemakers is far from the easy position to take. Being a peacemaker is not a call to silence our voice or recoil at the presence of evil. It takes courage to be peacemakers (“Do good”) who work for reconciliation instead of adding to the brokenness. Now is the time to seek opportunities to do good in all the ways we can for as many as we can.

Fight the urge to cocoon (stay in your bubble). In times of anxiety, our normal response is to surround ourselves with those who agree with us. Whether that means speaking only with those who are disappointed and afraid or with those who are cheering. Many congregations have folks from both camps. Instead of pretending that our church is full of people “of like mind,” now is the time to bring out into the light our diversity (especially since the label “white evangelical Christian” has been thrown around as it has). Through intentionally creating safe spaces for discussion, churches can play a large role in working to promote listening across the ideological perspective. (See the resources for Courageous Conversations as one example.)

Focus on emotions. Most adults are not always skillful in dealing with and articulating their emotions. When anxiety and passions are high, dealing only on the level of facts and opinions can often inflame instead of relieve tension. When discussing politics and social issues, often the best place to begin is addressing our emotions. Now is the time to create brave spaces for people to express their emotional responses (both joyous and fearful). What makes people sad or afraid? What brings them happiness from what has happened?

My hope is that United Methodist Christians, loving God and neighbor, will play a crucial role in writing the future of the American culture.

Focus on relationship building. These and similar questions that focus on feelings can open doors for relationship building. Only from that foundation can we begin working for reconciliation and common goals. The third of the General Rules reminds us to “attend upon all the ordinances of God; such as the public worship of God, the ministry of the Word, the Supper of the Lord, family and private prayer, searching the Scripture, fasting or abstinence.” These acts keep us mindful of who God is and who we are in light of that. Attending to these acts of spiritual formation can help us uncover unconscious biases that lurk deep within. Perhaps they might also call us toward fasting from labeling and move us toward empathy.

Stick to facts. When discussing difficult issues (this applies beyond politics), it is best to stay away from opinions and conjecture. This often means we should deliberately slow the conversation down to keep our emotions from ruling our reason. (For more checkout the article: “My Brain Made Me Do It”). Instead of focusing on what “might” happen or what seems like an obvious consequence, stick to what is known. History has not been written yet.

My hope is that United Methodist Christians, loving God and neighbor, will play a crucial role in writing the future of the American culture.