It is risky to write about making peace at a time when so many volatile issues divide us. It is risky because some of you will think I am selling out or defecting to the dark side while others might intentionally misrepresent what I am about to say. (I have already taken heat for promoting mutual respect within my limited sphere on Facebook!) Nevertheless, I am hoping that most of you will read fairly, openly, and astutely enough so that, in the end, I will at least have introduced a new option into the mix and maybe even started a movement toward understanding and innovation.
As I see it, the biggest problem we face in the United States these days is not any of the individual issues that divide us but the fact that we have become utterly and almost irreconcilably polarized. Everybody recognizes our condition, of course, but I have yet to see anyone do anything about it. After each calamity that makes the news, we are told that we “need to dialogue” or “tone down the divisive rhetoric.” But the dialogue never takes place, and after a few days, we return to our respective corners and begin deriding each other once again. Combatants on both sides post clever memes that affirm their own indignation while caricaturing their foes as either elitists or Neanderthals. No one is willing to acknowledge the concerns of their opponents or even hear them out long enough to know what they really think and believe. Instead, we are all “singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying hurray for our side,” to quote a Sixties song.
It has gotten to the point that the two sides have abandoned all respect for each other. My friends on the right have been listening so long to divisive media that they use the word “liberal” as if it were a swear word connoting a kind of vermin bent on destroying the country. My friends on the left have been so assured of the righteousness of their own cause that they have not been willing to acknowledge the valid concerns of those on the right. We revel in demonizing each other and feel justified in doing so. We seize on the evil actions of extremists on “the other side” just so that we can despise them all the more. To put it bluntly—we love to hate. To that extent we have been totally deceived and, for those who identify as Christians, led astray from our calling as followers of Jesus.
New Prescription, New Paradigm
That’s why, in spite of the risk of being misunderstood and misrepresented, I would like to propose a new paradigm: that we shift from being partisans to peacemakers. We have been advocating for our own views long and hard enough—and there is certainly a place for that—but what we should be doing at this point is ratcheting down the animosity, affirming the humanity of those who disagree with us, and opening up to the possibility that most of our opponents hold their views in good faith. We might even allow that there may be some value in their positions.
So that is my prescription. That is what I mean by suggesting we move from being partisans to peacemakers. It means we stop assuming the worst about others just because they think differently from us or because some sharp-tongued celebrity has convinced us to do so. It means acknowledging our opponents’ concerns and interests even when we disagree. It means letting our guard down long enough to get beyond the stereotypes and find out what regular people on the other side really believe. And it means introducing our ideas into the mix, too, once we’ve established a modicum of rapport. If we fail to do these things then we are relating only to a caricature of the other, neither engaging their genuine concerns nor gaining a hearing for ourselves.
To put that in Christian terms, it means we start following the New Testament lead of seeking unity as far as possible. After all, Jesus did not say “blessed are the snide and sarcastic,” “blessed are those who threaten violence,” or “blessed are the self-assured proponents of their own moral superiority.” He said “blessed are the meek;” “blessed are those who endure (rather than dish out) abuse,” and “blessed are the peacemakers.”
In other words—and this is a key point—being a peacemaker means more than merely advocating for peace and other benevolent values. If that’s all we do, then we are not really building peace; we are just acting like partisans promoting our own vision. Being a peacemaker means actually working toward peace with the other side.
On a societal level, that requires the same skills and actions as in interpersonal relationships. No matter how right we think we are, we cannot push our own ideas while minimizing or ignoring the ideas of those we are engaged with. Making peace means attempting to build harmony with our opponents by listening and genuinely trying to understand, helping them feel respected and then talking about how our views differ. Conveying the impression that our ideas alone are valuable, as both sides normally do, does not heal or help anything.
What I Am Not Saying
No doubt some of you are freaking out by now, thinking that this is the worst possible time to advise making peace or even lending credence to the enemy. “Things have gotten really bad,” you want to scream. “There’s too much at stake not to fight!” And I agree that there is a lot at stake and that things have gotten bad. It may even be too late for us to recover. But I do not think we would have reached such a desperate condition in the first place if both sides had been doing what I am suggesting here.
So before a full-on conflagration erupts, I am making a last-minute appeal. If we are going to fight anything, then let us fight to listen and hear with open minds, both because it is the right thing to do and because it may gain us a hearing in return. Let us fight to understand rather than insult, to acknowledge our opponents’ worth rather than write off entire swaths of our fellow citizens. And let us fight on the same side against the opportunistic voices that pit us against each other for their own profit or political advantage.
Be assured that I am not advising we surrender our values or turn a blind eye to bigotry, violence, or injustice. Nor am I saying we abandon our ethical principles or even our policy preferences. I am saying we start trying to work with each other in a civil manner while taking our differences into account all along. That is the new paradigm. It is not about giving up our ideals but about changing our attitude, approach, and methodology.
And for my Christian friends, a question. We claim allegiance to a leader who taught us to do good to those who mistreat us, a leader who gave up a position of power to take on the role of a servant and then die on a cross. We believe in a God who created us with free will and the corollary expectation that we would be persuaded by reason and love rather than coercion. How can we purport to follow that type of God yet be so consumed with our own agenda that we do not respect, listen to, or acknowledge the concerns of others?
I think I know the answer: We have been swept up in the spirit of the age. But it is a bad spirit. And if we insist on lining up against each other, we will not only lose out on input from half the population now, but we may lose everything in the end. As the apostle Paul warned the feuding factions in Galatia, “If you bite and devour one another, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Hartsdale Seventh-day Adventist Church in Westchester County, New York, and a member of the Metro NY Adventist Forum. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.
Image Credit: FreeImages.com / Davide Guglielmo
 Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”
 Philippians 2:5-8
 Galatians 5:15
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