It’s something of a cliché to say that we live in a culture that is deeply divided. And the thing is that we all know that we live in divisive times, and most of us are tired of it. But, frankly, we just aren’t sure what to do about it. How do you find the middle ground among people who disagree so sharply and with such animus?
It isn’t just a problem on cable news or Twitter. The vitriol has too often found its way into our family relationships, community networks, and even within the pews of our churches. Disagreements can damage relationships and even harm the way we see one another.
This is further exacerbated by the fact that we most often would prefer to talk at each other than to each other. Most of us are fairly conflict avoidant. So once we see a person’s political rantings on Facebook or Twitter, even if they’re someone who is close to us, we may avoid discussing anything of substance with them, lest we uncover ideological or political discord. It’s easier just to talk about the weather or the latest sports game results.
That can be okay. You don’t need to discuss every single policy issue or philosophical inquiry with everyone in your life. However, our reticence to have any of these discussions with other flesh-and-bone human beings with whom we may disagree often stands in contrast to our willingness to give full expression to our thoughts and ideas online, where we do not have to look anyone in the eye.
On the other hand, if we are willing to wade into these waters with people we care about, and we do so in a healthy way, what we may find is that we deepen our relationships, even if we don’t end up agreeing.
Iron sharpens iron, and spirited debate can be a good thing—just not if it means that we’re going to rip each other to shreds. There is middle ground to be found. There is a way back from the corrosive vitriol that is so characteristic of our culture today.
Here are three things you need in order to find some middle ground among the people in your family, community, or church who apparently stand on the opposing side of a political or ideological chasm.
One phrase was often repeated among leaders in the denomination I grew up in. It has often been attributed to Saint Augustine, though it may have been said by someone else: In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.
In other words, we must first keep in mind that there exists a hierarchy of truths. For Christians speaking with other Christians, we can’t simply “agree to disagree” on things like the deity of Christ, the exclusivity of the gospel, or the triune nature of God.
But those aren’t the things that we tend to divide on anyway.
We are far more likely to disagree on matters that could be deemed non-essential. That is, not essential facets of the Christian faith or necessary for salvation. We actually tend to spend most of our time on these issues. But because they are not essential for salvation, we have to acknowledge that people may fall on a different side of the argument, as important as the issue may be.
As deeply as we feel about issues like women in church leadership, how to address racism, abortion laws, or student loan forgiveness, we need to be willing to admit that our particular view isn’t on par with the Nicene Creed.
Most important of all is that we hold to all of our positions charitably.
Charity isn’t simply being nice to one another—though that isn’t a bad idea. Charity doesn’t mean waffling on what we believe. It isn’t about softening our conviction. It’s about being willing to be fair and kind when representing or responding to an opposing view.
When you summarize a theological or political argument in order to refute it, a person who holds to that position should be able to identify with and own what you have laid out. If they can’t, then you aren’t being charitable, and you are refuting a strawman: a position that no one actually holds. This is neither fair nor honest to do.
Even more than properly summarizing the tenets of what a person with opposing beliefs affirms, charity requires us to not assign unseen motives to their seen actions and stated beliefs. Too often in public discourse, we fail to adequately address an opposing view and instead opt to characterize the person on the other side of the argument as evil.
Being charitable means realizing that every person is the protagonist of their own story. People’s motives are generally good, even if the means they take to accomplish their ends are in error. If you want to find the middle ground, you must always keep that truth at the forefront.
In tandem with charity, we must also exercise curiosity. Finding the middle ground requires that we be relentlessly curious about those on the other side of a theological, political, or ideological divide.
When you feel yourself completely unable to understand why someone would hold a particular point of view, therein lies your first line of inquiry. What is it that brings a person to this conclusion? Ask them. Study the demographic, cultural, and historical factors that may be at play. Try to see the world from that person’s eyes. Listen to their story. Ask follow up questions. Feel their emotions. Try to uncover their root motivations.
When you’re willing to do this, what you discover is that this person, though they hold a view that you find completely errant, is not that different from you. You can sympathize with how they arrived at the conclusion they did. From a certain point of view, it makes sense. Even more, you may feel compelled to soften your own stance in light of their insight and experience, even if you don’t change your view.
Curiosity gives way to making connections that give you empathy, which in turn makes you more charitable.
3. Humility and Security
Part of the reason why we fail to be charitable or curious about others, thereby deepening a divide instead of finding the middle ground, is because of our pride.
Now, it would be easy to list Bible verses that denounce pride as sinful and foolish—which it is. Nevertheless, what often lies just behind our pride is a sense of insecurity. We fear that if someone on the other side of the theological or political argument makes a compelling case for their view, we will have lost, and we will have wasted our time investing in an idea that ended up not being the one that was most true or beneficial.
That fear makes us angry, unkind, and it shuts down our willingness to learn from others who are different from us.
When we hold our convictions with open hands, we are given permission to be much more curious and charitable with others. After all, they may be right. We need a sense of security in our identity in Jesus that allows us to hold our non-essential convictions with open hands and be willing to change our view on a particular issue if a compelling case is presented.
It is no source of shame to change your view, to learn more, to be proven wrong, to be convinced of something that you didn’t previously believe to be true.
That doesn’t mean that we allow ourselves to be tossed to and fro by every idea that sounds somewhat coherent. Nevertheless, when we engage in discussions where there is significant disagreement without making ourselves feel like we’re fighting for our lives, disagreement can be something we actually enjoy. It’s an opportunity to learn. It’s an opportunity to be sharpened. It’s an opportunity to reexamine something that we took for granted and see if it still rings true. It provokes us to further examination.
Finding the Middle Ground Isn’t About Just Appeasing the Other Side.
Finding the middle ground in divisive times isn’t simply about compromising our values in order to be accepted by those on the other side or to create some delicate facade of peace.
Rather, it’s about expanding our ability to live in tension, to acknowledge the possibility that we may be wrong in certain beliefs, and accept that we don’t have all the answers as we continue to place our trust in the one who does.