We’re living through what seems like the most toxic presidential campaign in American history. It’s partly due to having extremely unpopular candidates. It’s partly due to the particularities of our historical moment when white Christian America has lost its political majority for the first time. It’s partly due to the addictive, toxic nature of social media. Can Christians who are passionate and outspoken about our political views voice these views without destroying our witness? How do we balance our vocation to speak truth prophetically with our vocation to build bridges pastorally? How do we give the Holy Spirit dominion over our agendas rather than buzzfeed or either political party? Here are seven ways to stay untoxic as a Christian amidst the madness.
1. Ground yourself in prayer and contemplation
My mentor Brian Zahnd constantly reiterates the importance of being contemplative instead of reactive in every aspect of our lives. This doesn’t mean avoiding conflict or being timid instead of bold. It means that instead of allowing ourselves to get riled up, we take our stances from a place of spiritual groundedness. We cannot be spiritually grounded without engaging in spiritual prayer practices that allow us to hand ourselves over to God. If we’re actually going to be untoxic Christians in our political climate, we should spend at least as much time listening to God as we spend articulating our views. A contemplative foundation creates the organic circumstances for Christlike behavior. When we act ugly towards others, it’s usually an expression of our unaddressed anxiety and spiritual baggage that needs to be dealt with through prayer.
2. Speak and share with intentionality
Impulsivity is the root of so much harm in our world. We fling out words that we haven’t really thought through. We share articles that we haven’t really read because the title is provocative. This happens because we experience our world to be like the rhetorical version of trench warfare. So we lob out haphazardly anything that demoralizes or chisels at the credibility of the other side. The assumption is that under the psychological weight of all the scandals, people on the other side will eventually give up. We live in a toxic cyber-landscape where millions of people are saying “SEE!” a dozen times a day. What would it look like to be intentional and not impulsive about what we share and say on the internet? I have pastor friends who are much more disciplined than I am who literally only write kind, thoughtful, and inspiring things on Facebook. While I think some of us are called to speak prophetically, that doesn’t give us a pass for impulsivity. Can Christians do better than constantly seeking to mortar the morale of our political opponents? Can we speak in ways that inspire curiosity and sanctification instead of always saying this is why my enemies are phenomenal idiots?
3. Remember that Satan is the accuser
The word Satan in Hebrew literally means “the accuser.” Revelation 12:10 refers to him as “the accuser of the brethren.” A world filled with accusation and cynicism is a world that has been conquered by Satan. Whenever we accuse, we are participating in the work of Satan. This doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to pretend like nothing’s wrong in our world and ignore the ugly truths that surround us. But I think it’s possible to name the truth without personally attacking specific people. I can talk about the reality of white supremacy as a cultural phenomenon without telling individual people they’re racist and that I have the clairvoyance to deconstruct everything they’re saying and see into their souls. Christianity makes the scandalous, counter-cultural claim that grace works better than scorn to help people heal from their sin. This doesn’t mean that people who are actively causing harm with their words shouldn’t be called out. But Satan rules over any environment where people have been seduced into the sick pleasure of hurling accusations back and forth.
4. Find something to honor and care about in your opponents
The most disarming thing that happens to me online is when the conservatives I argue with show me that they actually care about my life. I’ve had health issues and various struggles in my personal life that I’ve been open about. People who actually notice and care about those things have a lot more credibility with me when they give me critical feedback than the piranhas who only swoop into my timeline when I say something that contradicts their orthodoxy. Of course, it shouldn’t be about credibility anyway. As Christians, our ultimate goal is to fill the world with love, not to win political arguments. If we’re going to talk about love ideologically by saying something like “Love trumps hate” but we don’t actually practice love when we’re talking to our enemies, then we are miserable hypocrites.
5. Do not ridicule hope or love, whatever their source
One of the meanest things Sarah Palin ever said was “How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?” There are many people talking right now about how Hillary Clinton is an inspiration to their daughters by breaking the glass ceiling and being the first major party presidential nominee. I’m sure that many people will be gushing tonight about her speech and there will be many other people hate-tweeting it from both the right and the left. But maybe we can refrain from the moral duty of making sure that we piss all over any and every expression of hope and love that we don’t think is coming from the right source. Maybe we don’t have to rebuke everyone who says, “I’m crying because now my daughter knows she can be president.” Christians should never ridicule hope or love. There’s plenty of time to argue passionately about our political views, so if somebody is having a moment of personal beauty, don’t feel the need to photobomb that moment with your scorn.
6. Consider giving private feedback
I respond very differently when people write me in private to share feedback than when they say you idiot on my timeline. For whatever reason, I feel honored that people have “taken the time” to write me privately even if it takes them exactly the same amount of time to say something publicly. It shows respect, which gives you a lot more credibility if you need to say something critical. Off the record, we discover that people are actually not the hardened ideologues they present themselves to be in public. There are certainly valid reasons to respond publicly as an act of solidarity when people are causing harm with their words. But if we’re actually seeking to influence someone else, private communication is a much more effective means of doing that.
7. Budget time for real life conversations
I don’t know how bad you are about “talking” more through words you type on your phone than in real life conversation. I’m really bad. And it makes me a toxic person. When I went to the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, I didn’t have cell signal for four days and it was a tremendously healing respite for me. I really think the absence of real life conversations in our world is one of the most important sources of our toxicity. When I have real life conversations with Christians I disagree with, it’s completely awkward and completely beautiful. It’s so much harder to hate people when you see their faces right in front of you. Some of my most transformative real life conversations have happened with people who completely disagreed with me ideologically. My grandpa was a conservative Republican Texas Baptist oilman. He checked all the boxes of stereotypes that people on my team love to hate. And he was one of the best friends I’ve ever had. The conversations we had on the back roads of south Texas were some of the richest moments of my life. I need to budget more time for real life conversations like that in my life today.