You should know that I begin this article from a frustrated, and maybe even angry place. That’s not a comfortable place for me to be. I much prefer hope to despair, compromise to acrimony, and love to hate. I’m not there right now. God usually has to lead me through the truth before we can get to the hope. Cross before resurrection, something like that.
About four years ago, after Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States over Hillary Clinton, I reached out to my conservative family and friends who had supported him. I am someone who rarely shares partisan opinions and had worked for a Republican congressman in the past, but I had shared publicly that I was voting for Hillary partially because she was the first female candidate for president from a major American political party. I knew how it felt to be a woman in male-dominated professions, as a current pastor and former sportswriter.
In my message to my family and friends after the election, I said that as Trump had proven victorious, I wanted to acknowledge that perhaps I’d missed something that they’d seen.
I wanted to listen and to understand, to have the opportunity to move into the next four years together.
I did more than just send that message. I ended up spending a whole year traveling the country and interviewing Christians in red states and counties about the 2016 election, resulting in my first book, Red State Christians.
One reviewer said I’d displayed “intrepid forays of empathy,” and I liked that. I liked the idea that ordinary Americans could listen to each other and gain insight; that we could burst out of partisan stereotypes to share our truths and learn from the truth together. I saw this happen in several people and places where I went: from Florida to Texas to Appalachia.
And so I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years talking about the hope I see in America, even in the midst of a devastating pandemic and a much-needed and overdue reckoning with racism and white supremacy, particularly in the church.
The truth is that humanity gives me hope. Most of the time.
A couple of weeks ago, after Election Day 2020, I re-read that conciliatory message I’d sent to my family and friends after the 2016 election. I waited to see more messages like it after the 2020 election, particularly from Trump supporters.
I am still waiting.
And I keep hearing questions from pastors and teachers and grandparents and grandchildren and parents and college students and ordinary Americans all over this country. They’re asking me how we can move forward together again after 2020: how I can help them facilitate healing conversations that enable “both sides” to be heard.
Ecclesiastes tells us that for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. There is a time for dialogue. And there is a time for hard truths.
Dialogue, hope, and reconciliation cannot be a one-way road.
We have to meet each other in the middle. Far from a desire to listen and grow and learn from 2020, as we also had an impetus to do in 2016, instead the overarching message from President Trump is a blind refusal to consider that those who disagree with him have a legitimate right to even be heard, much less listened to and understood. Regardless of their efficacy, Trump’s attempts to undermine America’s electoral and democratic process are wantonly destructive of our nation itself, driving ordinary Americans to cynicism, despair, and hatred.
What are Christians to do?
At my Southern Baptist Bible camp in rural northern Minnesota, we sang a song:
He has shown thee
What is good and what the Lord requires of thee
But to *do justice***
And to *love mercy***
And to *walk humbly with thy God***
So we are called, unremittingly, to mission, to action, to love, to forgiveness, to justice, to reconciliation with our neighbor.
Jesus has some advice as well. These are the words he sent his disciples out into the mission field with, words I often repeat to Americans seeking dialogue, community, and hope:
As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. (Matthew 10:7-14)
“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”
In the days, weeks, and months ahead, American solidarity is needed to defeat the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. American solidarity, especially among white Christians, is needed to confront and repent and repair the devastating effects of racism and white supremacy in our churches. None can do this work alone. We need each other, like urban Americans need food from farmers; and rural Americans need broadband connections and engineering from urban tech workers. We need desperately to talk, listen, understand, and forgive one another.
And we are faced with some tough choices. I still believe that my utmost task is to see the God-given humanity in every single person. That every single person has a sacred story to share, and that their story and their world matters. I desperately believe in the power of listening and sharing and knowing each other deeply, so that we can love each other as God has first loved us.
But there will be times when dialogue isn’t working, when the truth crowds out empathetic understanding, and when failing to speak painful truths is more enabling than kind.
There will be times when we all are called to shake the dust from our feet: to refuse to stand silently by when ugly and hate-filled venom tainted by lies is spewed into the American atmosphere, threatening our country’s long tradition of bipartisan democracy and at least the idealistic hope that every single person has inherent value, no matter their political beliefs.
I titled this article with a question I’ve been wondering about. Is this the end of dialogue?
I will never say that. I will never lose hope in ordinary people’s ability to listen to each other and come together to work for the greater good.
But for me, I will no longer enter into unbalanced dialogue, meaning that dialogue without a shared commitment to understand each other is unproductive and harmful to the truth.
Jesus guides us in this way. We are called to go to one another, in this Covid era perhaps via Zoom or on the phone, and we are called to share God’s love and God’s word. We are called to radical mutuality. And we are called to the truth. Without a shared commitment to hearing the truth, we are called to shake the dust from our feet and walk away.
Angela Denker, author of Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump (Fortress: August 2019), is a Lutheran Pastor and veteran journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, Christian Century, and Christianity Today. She has pastored congregations in Las Vegas, Chicago, Orange County (Calif.), the Twin Cities, and rural Minnesota.
To write Red State Christians, Angela spent 2018 traveling across America to interview Christians and Christian leaders in red states and counties. While spending time with the people in her book - and her own loved ones living in red states and counties, she found surprise, warning, opportunity and hope. In retelling those stories, she hopes to build empathy and dialogue without shying away from telling hard truths about the politicization of religion and the prevalence of Christian Nationalism in churches across America.
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