I found your site when I googled “how to talk to Evangelicals.” (No kidding). Then I read one of your posts about witnessing and I really liked it.
I’m a progressive Jew from a small town in the Midwest, although I currently live on one of the coasts. I have a relative who is an Evangelical Christian. Our differences in religion and politics make it really difficult to actually talk to each other. For example, as the granddaughter of a Jewish refugee and as someone connected to the immigrant community, I am really, really concerned about the results of the recent presidential election.
My relative posted on social media that you shouldn’t place so much significance in one man or woman (I am assuming Trump or Clinton) but instead should find security in Jesus. But I am a Jewish gal (unlikely to ever find security in Jesus) whose grandmother had to flee because of one man.
Rightly or wrongly, I feel like my relative does not acknowledge that Jews (or Muslims, or atheists, or mainline Protestants, etc.) are also people of worth and dignity, who deserve respect as people and as Americans, even if they never convert. I wish that I could convey this to him in a way that would be respectful and help him to understand where I am coming from.
Thanksgiving is coming up. It could be another year where we struggle to keep conversation going about baseball and the weather, or a year where we can actually try to build a relationship. What is your advice?
Whose terrible idea was it to have presidential elections just two weeks before Thanksgiving? As if family dynamics aren’t tough enough to navigate, let’s throw in a completely polarizing and emotionally charged election and see if we can make someone’s head explode before we even bring out the pumpkin pie!
I think we’re all feeling a little worn and nervous as we move toward our family gatherings this week. The United States has just been through a deeply divisive campaign season and a stunning election. We are all still reeling from Brexit in England. The whole world feels rife with gaps. Everyone seems to be shouting at each other across the chasm, trying so hard to connect but hearing only our own echo bouncing back in the emptiness.
What now? How do we move forward? How in the world are we going to get through Thanksgiving dinner, let alone the next four years?
So let’s begin with the evangelicals, 81% of whom, according to polls, voted for Mr. Trump.
There are, to be sure, those among them who are thrilled with the outcome, and while there are certainly those among them who voted for him because of the racist and hateful things he said, I think most of them voted in spite of those things I think even among those who voted for Mr. Trump – particularly those who consider themselves dedicated Christians– there is a certain amount of trepidation: a desperation to believe that they made the best choice in a difficult situation; a tamped-down fear that maybe they didn’t.
And the simplest way to respond to uncomfortable internal tension is to gloss over it with simplified truth, to apply clichés over the whole thing like lacquer:
God is on his throne.
Jesus is in control.
God works everything out for the good of those who love him.
You should know that this kind of response is not specific to the election. It is the default speech pattern of the evangelical world. Evangelicals have been saying this crap since evangelicalism was a thing.
The reason you found me by typing “how to talk to an Evangelical” into Google is that the original premise of my blog was dismantling the clichés I grew up hearing and believing and repeating in the evangelical tradition. At the crisis point of my own faith, when my world was falling apart, the old standby phrases no longer seemed robust enough to handle all the complexities of my own life.
If you feel far away from God, guess who moved?
God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.
Love the sinner, hate the sin.
So I began trying to sort it out, one phrase at a time. (I called the blog How to Talk Evangelical.)
Five years later, I’m still sorting it out, still trying to reimagine the way that I speak about and write about and understand my faith. But it’s no picnic to go into the deep places of your own fear and weakness, into your complicated broken heart.
It’s easier to pull a bite-sized truth nugget than to say I don’t know.
It’s easier to say God is on his throne than to admit it also matters who is in the Oval Office, who is wielding that executive power. To admit that we believe in God’s goodness and we are deeply afraid.
I think there’s a very good chance that your evangelical relatives are not saying these sweeping, exclusive-sounding things to alienate you. Very likely, it hasn’t even occurred to them that a Jew or Muslim or atheist might be made to feel disrespected and unloved and unsafe by this proclamation that you should “find your safety in Jesus.”
I think they are just doing what evangelicals do. I think they are trying to stop up the constant, water-dripping of their own complex fears by sticking a cliché in the faucet and ignoring the problem.
So let’s talk about how to do Thanksgiving.
I know you’re feeling disrespected and unseen by your relative’s Facebook comment, and you can certainly start by voicing that in a gentle way. (I know you don’t mean it this way, but when you say things like “We can find our security in Jesus,” I feel like you don’t see or acknowledge those of us who are not Christians.) Or you could chalk it up to evangelical-speak and let it go.
You will likely arrive at the Thanksgiving table still feeling fearful about the political landscape. I will too. And I know that when we’re afraid, the most natural thing in the world is to express it. To sink into a collective, disbelieving panic.
When confronted with others who are not feeling that same panic, there is an almost evangelical (ha!) fervor to help them understand how serious this situation is, to try to open their eyes to the horrors you see.
I know you will need to continue to process your anxiety and sadness and disbelief about the president elect. I will too. I’m not suggesting that you “get over it” or that any of this lament is unwarranted. But I do think that you are going to have to find other people and places to do that processing work with besides Thanksgiving with your evangelical relatives. If you really want to connect with them, to find a commonality (which, from your letter, it sounds to me like you do), then you’re going to have to start somewhere else.
You can’t start the conversation with fear. You’re going to have to start with Jesus.
I know you’re Jewish and that Jesus is not really your thing. But you don’t have to believe he is God to acknowledge that there is something extraordinarily powerful about the way Jesus saw those people others ignored. The way he moved along the margins of society. The way he condemned the smug religious leaders and practiced powerful nonviolent resistance to the empire and offered such radical grace to everyone he saw.
Start there with your relatives.
Start not at the source of your fear or theirs, but rather at the source of their hope.
Say, I am not a Christian and I probably won’t ever be one, but I appreciate and respect that your God loves the marginalized. And then, tell them the stories from the margins.
Tell them the story of your grandparents. Talk about the fear and the injustice because that is an essential part of the story…but don’t forget about the beauty. Don’t forget about the practitioners of hope and love. Where are they in that story? What did they do? How did they do it?
You mentioned being connected to the immigrant community. Tell those stories. Name your immigrant friends if you can. If you can’t tell their names, then describe them – their faces, their laughter. Their anxious hands clasped. Their arms, welcoming.
Tell the stories of how much they had to go through to get here; talk about those tented, tumultuous refugee camps where so many will spend their entire lives. Talk about how only one half of 1% of refugees find asylum in a new country. And then, if you can, tell the good stories too: the ones about the aid workers; the stories of the communities of welcome. Tell the stories of those who have loved immigrants and refugees well…and who have found their own lives charged by the courage of these people. (After all, we are no one’s saviors here; we are only ever each other’s family.)
Tell the beautiful parts of these stories not to tie up the terror with an opulent, optimistic bow. Tell the beautiful parts because they happen too.
Tell the good parts because fear isolates and divides. We cannot know what the future will be like, and to speculate only invites a nameless kind of dread to the table. But stories offer us a way back into the narrative. They help to kindle a radical kind of empathy in our hearts. They shatter the clichés; they transcend both anxiety and avoidance, grounding us in the details of sight and sound, smell and touch and taste.
Fear paralyzes us. Stories mobilize us. And God knows, we need to be mobilized right now. Every one of us needs to find our path into the margins. Every one of us needs a way to practice concrete, radical love at a time when narcissism and racism and unkindness seem to be running rampant.
And perhaps that’s where we find connection–not in the barbed political ideologies that cut and divide, but in standing next to one another at a refugee donation center, folding towels. In serving a meal or standing still at a vigil or teaching English.
Gratitude properly practiced expands into action. Whether you are grateful this year for a God in whom you can find safety, or simply for the small consolation of checks and balances, I’d encourage you to let that conversation open up into a brainstorm of small daily acts that can make the world a little safer, a little more kind.
It is Thanksgiving, and the world is broken and beautiful. How do we respond to all we’ve been given? Start a list together. Imagine your way toward hope, and then feast not on the fear but on the possibility.
Eat together, and be filled to the brim with love.
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