The increasing divisiveness of our politics has been thrown into sharp relief this election season. Aside from the constant mudslinging of politicians, it seems so difficult now for people of different political stripes to have real, meaningful conversations with each other, whether in public or private.
This is part of a worldwide trend abetted by social media, which makes it easier for us to read news we agree with, maintain social networks with like-minded people and feed off each other’s opinions. While the midterm election results we now see were not unexpected, they have surely caused some of us who hoped for something different to question anew how our fellow citizens could have voted the way they did.
Even as we try to come to terms with this, I would like to offer some hope in the words of prominent British rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who, in an intriguing interview for the On Being project, points out that God is found in places we would never expect. “When Moses, at the burning bush, says to God, ‘Who are you?’ God says to him three words: ‘Hayah asher hayah.’ Those words are mistranslated in English as ‘I am that which I am.’ But in Hebrew, it means ‘I will be who or how or where I will be,’ meaning, don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you.”
Rabbi Sacks uses this to make the point that we can find God even in those with religious convictions different from ours.
Would God also surprise us by letting us find God in those on the other end of the political spectrum who promote values that we find reprehensible? I am not saying that we should give up our convictions to make a superficial kind of peace. Some things are plainly wrong, like extrajudicial killings (EJKs). But simply writing off their proponents is not the answer. As we pick up the pieces after these elections and move forward into an uncertain future, perhaps one thing that can help us to heal as a society is what Pope Francis in a 2017 TED Talk calls a “revolution of tenderness.”
Tenderness, he said, is “to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future.”
What if we really tried to listen to the other? To discover the fears that lie behind their actions—and in so doing discover our own?
This is a kind of listening that does not come naturally, but requires intention. A while ago, I took a course in spiritual accompaniment, and was surprised to find that the key to helping the other—and this is probably also true in therapy, counseling, etc.—is being able to put aside one’s own concerns, assumptions and judgments, and truly listen to the other.
Doing so is a graced experience. You may not agree with what they say, but listening unlocks a well of compassion that allows you to see the other as a blessed, broken person with genuine desires and worries, just like you. So much of the violence in our political discourse, and in our national policies, stems from fear. This cannot be changed through criticism that backs people into a corner, but only through a love that tries to understand those fears and address them together.
Addressing them also requires that we actually live out our political ideals—a route still open to us even if there are fewer voices left in the Senate to proclaim them. An example of this is how Mother Teresa was so influential in decreasing abortions, not just by waving angry signs saying “Abortion is Murder,” but actually saying, “If you don’t want your baby, give it to me.”
Likewise, there have been churches and nongovernment organizations who have responded to the crises of drugs and EJKs not just by speaking out, but also by rehabilitating drug addicts. They are examples of integrity that those on either side of the political divide can aspire to.
As the dust from the elections settles, the new batch of politicians coming into power would do well to heed the Pope’s call for tenderness. As he pointed out, “There is a saying in Argentina: ‘Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach.’ You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility and tenderness. Through humility and concrete love, on the other hand, power becomes a service, a force for good.”
May we all use what power we have with humility and tenderness.