A few weeks ago, Ellen DeGeneres attended a Dallas Cowboys football game and was seated next to her friend, the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush.
The next day, DeGeneres took to social media to explain why she sat next to a president whose policies she often opposed. As I read the replies to her post, I couldn’t help but notice that most conservatives applauded and praised the meeting between the former conservative president and the liberal talkshow host while most progressives denounced and condemned their friendship.
I get it. I do. As a progressive — and a Christian — I want to stand up to oppression and seek justice every chance I get. But when does righteous anger cross a line into something else altogether? Into something ugly and, well, decidedly regressive?
Progressive Christians ought to be able to extend love and kindness to the conservatives among us, be it online or in person. Why do I charge progressive Christians with this task? Simply put, I believe progressives can be more toxic than conservatives because we have a greater tendency to attack the other side. In fact, we attack our own with the same level of vitriol and vengeance.
Don’t believe me? Just hop on Twitter and join conversations happening around issues like LGBTQ rights, white privilege, abortion, gun control, or the latest thing President Trump has tweeted.
We progressives are so quick to pounce on anyone who doesn’t fully agree with our position, and we seem to possess an inability to conduct ourselves in a way that invites healthy dialogue. We appear to be addicted to showing the world just how progressive we are — the name for this is “virtue signaling” — rather than interested in our interlocutor.
A friend of mine recently tweeted (using slightly stronger language): “The right are arrogant jackasses and never care that they are. The left are arrogant jackasses and never know that they are.”
As a result, I believe we are driving away scores of conservatives who may be attracted to some progressive ideas but don’t know how to articulate their doubts or don’t know how to ask the right questions.
More times than I can count, conservative friends have engaged with me on social media, only to be scared away by a liberal friend who jumps into our conversations with guns blazing. Every word, idea and nuance my conservative friend shares is suddenly aggressively critiqued. The conversation comes to an abrupt halt. (Regrettably, there have also been times when I was the liberal friend who jumped into the conversation.)
In the spirit of progress, here are a few ways we can kindly and boldly engage with people with whom we disagree on the internet and in real life:
Stop being so angry all the time. There are plenty of reasons to be angry. And there is a time and a place for anger. But by and large, anger disrupts our work, alters our wellbeing, inhibits creativity and rarely leads to action. Anger keeps us from formulating ideas and seeking solutions.
Be a better listener. If you go into every conversation with your mind already made up, people who disagree with you will match your certainty. Instead, try to understand not only what they’re saying, but where they’re coming from. Listen for tone and context. Some people may be just trolling, but plenty of people will be genuine and open if they don’t feel attacked themselves.
Check your motives. My friend William recently shared this thought with me: “When talking to someone, do you try to get them to adopt your ideas? Or do you, through discussion and question, help clear away falsities so that the other person may better develop their own ideas?” The point of engaging in discourse with less progressive people is to work through their arguments and yours — not simply to convince them you’re right.
The very term “progressive” signals that we are on a journey, right? I grew up in a staunchly fundamentalist, King James Version-only, teetotaling, hellfire-and-brimstone Christian community. Now, I’m an egalitarian, LGBTQ-affirming, beer-loving, universalist Anglo-Catholic who loves Jesus a lot.
I was able to make progress in my journey only because countless people and the Holy Spirit were patient enough to allow me to wrestle through good and bad ideas, learn to ask good questions and ultimately become more enlightened on myriad issues.
So, whether we are discussing how people are saved or discussing whether we should put kids in cages or women in church leadership, we must check our motives from the very beginning all the way to the end of these conversations.
Have more important conversations in person. Each one of us has probably typed out something online that we’d never say to the person if they were standing in front of us. The most effective way to keep ourselves from engaging in destructive online conversations is by taking most of these conversations offline and into coffee shops, restaurants and around our dining room tables.
In the same spirit, don’t feel the need to have to jump into every conversation you see happening — even if it’s an important issue for you. A few months ago I set a new rule for myself — if I’m not willing to build a relationship and commit to the long-term well-being of the person I am engaging with online or in person, then I shouldn’t even begin to engage at all. I can’t do it all.
Be humble. Earlier this month, it was the Feast of Saint Teresa of Ávila — a spiritual mother to Christians past, present and future. Regarding humility, she said: “There is more value in a little study of humility and in a single act of it than in all the knowledge in the world.”
There is a colossal lack of humility among progressive Christians. We berate conservative Christians for proudly embracing doctrines we find abhorrent and for not being willing to budge on their position. But we’re doing the same exact thing, aren’t we?
Friends, let me be crystal clear: I’m not advocating for us to ignore evil and to stop seeking justice wherever we go. But our posture must be one that seeks the well-being of all people, one that aims to lovingly persuade our brothers and sisters without embracing anger, bitterness and pride.
Fred Rogers perhaps put it best: “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”
Jesus went one step further when he said: “Love your enemies! Do good to them.”
Social media has made us all “neighbors” in ways we never were before. Let’s be kind out there in this new neighborhood.
(This op-ed was originally published on RNS)