Peacemakers Not Partisans: A New Paradigm for Social Engagement

It’s risky to write about making peace at a time when so many volatile issues divide us. It’s risky because some of you will think I’m selling out or defecting to the dark side, while others might intentionally misrepresent what I am about to say. (I’ve already taken heat for promoting mutual respect within my limited sphere on Facebook!) Nevertheless, I’m hoping that most of you will read fairly, openly, and astutely enough so that, in the end, I will at least have introduced a new option into the mix, and maybe even started a movement toward understanding and innovation.

As I see it, the biggest problem we face in the United States these days is not any of the individual issues that divide us, but the fact that we have become utterly and almost irreconcilably polarized. Everybody recognizes our condition, of course, but I have yet to see anyone do anything about it. After each calamity that makes the news we’re told that we “need to dialogue” or “tone down the divisive rhetoric.” But the dialogue never takes place, and after a few days we return to our respective corners and begin deriding each other once again. Combatants on both sides post clever memes that affirm their own indignation while caricaturing their foes as either elitists or Neanderthals. No one is willing to acknowledge the concerns of their opponents or even hear them out long enough to know what they really think and believe. Instead, we’re all “singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying hurray for our side,” to quote a sixties song.[1]

It’s gotten to the point that the two sides have abandoned all respect for each other. My friends on the right have been listening so long to divisive media that they use the word “liberal” as if it were a swear word connoting a kind of vermin bent on destroying the country. My friends on the left have been so assured of the righteousness of their own cause that they have not been willing to acknowledge the valid concerns of those on the right. We revel in demonizing each other, and feel justified in doing so. We seize on the evil actions of extremists on “the other side” just so that we can despise them all the more. To put it bluntly – we love to hate. To that extent we’ve been totally deceived and, for those who identify as Christians, led astray from our calling as followers of Jesus.

New Prescription, New Paradigm

That’s why, in spite of the risk of being misunderstood and misrepresented, I would like to propose a new paradigm: that we shift from being partisans to peacemakers. We have been advocating for our own views long and hard enough – and there is certainly a place for that – but what we should be doing at this point is ratcheting down the animosity, affirming the humanity of those who disagree with us, and opening up to the possibility that most of our opponents hold their views in good faith. We might even allow that there may be some value in their positions.

So that is my prescription. That is what I mean by suggesting we move from being partisans to peacemakers. It means we stop assuming the worst about others just because they think differently from us or because some sharp-tongued celebrity has convinced us to do so. It means acknowledging our opponents’ concerns and interests even when we disagree. It means letting our guard down long enough to get beyond the stereotypes and find out what regular people on the other side really believe. And it means introducing our ideas into the mix too, once we’ve established a modicum of rapport. If we fail to do these things then we are relating only to a caricature of the other, neither engaging their genuine concerns nor gaining a hearing for ourselves.

To put that in Christian terms, it means we start following the New Testament lead of seeking unity as far as possible. After all, Jesus didn’t say “blessed are the snide and sarcastic,” “blessed are those who threaten violence,” or “blessed are the self-assured proponents of their own moral superiority.” He said “blessed are the meek;” “blessed are those who endure (rather than dish out) abuse,” and “blessed are the peacemakers.”

In other words – and this is a key point – being a peacemaker means more than merely advocating for peace and other benevolent values. If that’s all we do then we’re not really building peace, we’re just acting like partisans promoting our own vision. Being a peacemaker means actually working toward peace with the other side.

On a societal level that requires the same skills and actions as in interpersonal relationships. No matter how right we think we are, we can’t push our own ideas while minimizing or ignoring the ideas of those we’re engaged with. Making peace means attempting to build harmony with our opponents by listening and genuinely trying to understand, helping them feel respected, and then talking about how our views differ. Conveying the impression that our ideas alone are valuable, as both sides normally do, does not heal or help anything.

What I’m Not Saying

No doubt some of you are freaking out by now, thinking that this is the worst possible time to advise making peace or even lending credence to the enemy. “Things have gotten really bad,” you want to scream. “There’s too much at stake not to fight!” And I agree that there is a lot at stake, and that things have gotten bad. It may even be too late for us to recover. But I don’t think we would have reached such a desperate condition in the first place if both sides had been doing what I’m suggesting here.

So before a full-on conflagration erupts, I’m making a last-minute appeal. If we’re going to fight anything then let’s fight to listen and hear with open minds, both because it’s the right thing to do and because it may gain us a hearing in return. Let’s fight to understand rather than insult, to acknowledge our opponents’ worth rather than write off entire swaths of our fellow citizens. And let’s fight on the same side against the opportunistic voices that pit us against each other for their own profit or political advantage.

Be assured that I am not advising we surrender our values, or turn a blind eye to bigotry, violence, or injustice. Nor am I saying we abandon our ethical principles or even our policy preferences. I’m saying we start trying to work with each other in a civil manner, while taking our differences into account all along. That is the new paradigm. It’s not about giving up our ideals but about changing our attitude, approach, and methodology.

And for my Christian friends, a question. We claim allegiance to a leader who taught us to do good to those that mistreat us, who gave up a position of power to take on the role of a servant and then die on a cross.[2] We believe in a God who created us with free will and the corollary expectation that we would be persuaded by reason and love rather than coercion. How can we purport to follow that type of God yet be so consumed with our own agenda that we don’t respect, listen to, or acknowledge the concerns of others?

I think I know the answer. It’s because we’ve been swept up in the spirit of the age. But it’s a bad spirit. And if we insist on lining up against each other we will not only lose out on input from half the population now, but may lose everything in the end. As the apostle Paul warned the feuding factions in Galatia, “if you bite and devour one another, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”[3]

Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Hartsdale Seventh-day Adventist Church in Westchester County, New York, and a member of the Metro NY Adventist Forum. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.

Image Credit: FreeImages.com / Davide Guglielmo

Notes & References:

[1] Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”

[3] Galatians 5:15

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8225
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There are many gems of wisdom in the above article. I’ve picked out my favorites here:

I haven’t much to add to the above, but I believe that there is “that of God in every man” and until we treat every single person as if this is true, then we remain “stained” by the way of the world.

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Yes.
When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar…” He did not set Cesar up as a moral statesman worthy of loyalty and respect; but the social gospel that has become fashionable has us think that Christians are supposed to heal all ills, both social and political. We absorb the attitudes that have taken over our country. We each have ideas as to how that came about; and who are “bad” guys, and who are “moral” ones. Who could possibly argue with feeding the poor, and opening up our homes and hearts to those who who have ended up on our shores… .

There is another perspective I would put forth. It is our Christian, not only duty, but should be our characteristic, to assume the personality of the “good Samaritan”; however, Jesus did not come to lead a moral or social; or even a religious revolution. He came to turn our attention to the “soon coming” of God’s kingdom. It would be coming, not through a political revolution (to the consternation of even His followers), but through one heart at a time. He never imagined that people’s hearts could be turned simply by education or political power - actual not through any earthly power. His faithful were urged to enter their closest and pray.

Before someone objects to the idea of disengagement from the social problems we currently have, I’m not saying that. On a personal level, as we meet people face-to-face, we have that Christian unction to be accepting, helpful and loving to any and all - but the issues are not as simple as we like to think, as we attack those with opposite political or social views.

One of my frustrations comes from overly polite drivers I sometimes have to drive behind. I like to let other drivers into traffic in front of me, as I’m able; but I do get frustrated when I have to, unexpectedly, slam on my breaks because the guy in front of me insists on being more thoughtful about people coming in front of him, than those behind him.

We have a responsibility to address issues, as Christians and just citizens, as we are confronted by all kinds of ills and needs; but we also have the responsibility to keep our own families and neighbours safe and well. This is why there are safeguards to ensure that those, who enter our neighbourhoods, are there without being a social, political or health threat to our fellow travellers without us being called insensitive or unchristian.

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In the article on 11 September 2017 by Steven Siciliano “Peacemakers Not Partisans: A New Paradigm for Social Engagement”:
“Be assured that I am not advising we surrender our values, or turn a blind eye to bigotry, violence, or injustice. Nor am I saying we abandon our ethical principles or even our policy preferences. I’m saying we start trying to work with each other in a civil manner, while taking our differences into account all along. That is the new paradigm. It’s not about giving up our ideals but about changing our attitude, approach, and methodology"
Steve your words were published on September 11, sixteen years after this country was attacked by persons who had no respect for “civil discourse”, our “values”, or our “methodology” of expression. I agree with your call for civility as we work to settle our differences, Regretfully, civility is not a top priority in our church or in conducting government business.
The root of many contentious relationships is a presupposition that the other side neither understands nor cares about the feelings or opinions of the other party, probably due to previous experiences. As a consequence, they are belligerent, determined to strike first in the anticipated battle for emotional power. The best strategy for Christians is to ignore signs of aggression and express empathy for their position. Showing understanding is not the same as agreement. Demonstrating that you understand their position, as well as the reasons they have come to their conclusions, allows you to proceed without the emotional baggage that complicates reaching agreement. It also places the focus on the issue, rather than the two parties, so you can work together to arrive at a mutually satisfactory conclusion.
Respect for ourselves and to those who might disagree with us is critical to civility. In practice, this means giving other people the opportunity to state their opinions and recognizing that there may be points on which you can agree. Do not presume you know their positions, as you may be incorrect based upon your own prejudices and stereotypes. Listen to what they have to say, recognizing that you do not have to agree to be courteous and respectful. The reality of negotiations is that both parties need the sense and belief that their needs are met in an agreement; otherwise, there will be no agreement. Simply stated, if I don’t get enough of what I want, I will walk away; if you don’t get enough of what you want, you will walk. On a superficial level, all agreements seem to be either black or white, yes or no, on or off. Sometimes our church leaders mimic our Washington leaders in their responses. They find themselves in this position today and are deadlocked – the result is that no one wins and everyone loses.

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Excellent article, I hope Adventist media takes it to heart. One disagreement however:
“Nor am I saying we abandon our ethical principles or even our policy preferences. I’m saying we start trying to work with each other in a civil manner, while taking our differences into account all along. That is the new paradigm. It’s not about giving up our ideals but about changing our attitude, approach, and methodology.”

People need to be willing to change their policy preferences. Too often those are not based upon well developed logic and planning but emotional factors which tend to make them appear as if they are more like ethical principles. One never really sees the other sides viewpoint if they cling to their policy preferences or if they allow their emotions to override logic. reasoned debate has been a major casualty today. Yelling at Neo Nazi’s may have an emotional high or some symbolic meaning but it is never going to change their views. Time, logic, friendship will change peoples closest held beliefs, That should be the goal of the Christian Peacemaker.

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And that is why we sat on the sidelines during the rise of Nazi Germany.
And that is why we sat on the sidelines of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950-60’s
And that is why we sat on the sidelines in the debate about global warming.

…And that is why we are being shhh’d again by well-meaning pastors as we watch our democracy being dismantled.

What Christ actually said. with prophetic perspective, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."

Or as stated eloquently by more contemporary theologian, Martin Niemöller, Protestant pastor and outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, who wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


Inserted edit to comply with the one post rule.

I appreciate your intent in this article but we are talking about the heart of the gospel message as expressed in contemporary society. The relevancy of the SDA church indeed must be found in creating spiritual communities that support one an other. At the same time, relevancy is also defined for standing up for the exploited and oppressed and speaking truth to power. They two together are the gospel. Adventism will never succeed if we espouse dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinners where politics are prohibited in order to perserve cohesion.

The issue I am addressing that Seventh-Day Adventists had both organizational infrastructure and members who were complicit with the rise of Nazi Germany.

I would suggest reading these two articles:

Fatal Flirting: The Nazi State and the Seventh-day Adventist Church
http://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1042&context=jams

And this much older volume of Spectrum on Church and Politics

Edit 2. I never referenced the neo-nazis. I referenced our institutional muted response to Nazi Germany, civil rights movement, and global warming. Only posted academic articles about the SDA church & Nazi Germany, when you suggest something like, “those people over there” allowed Hitler to rise to power. My point was that in Nazi Germany Hitler rose to power and the atrocities occurred, in part, because of the silence of most Christian churches, including the SDA church. There comes a point where tolerance is complicity.

So, the spirit of reading with an open mind asks that you not make assumptions about what I wrote here.

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Good clarification, Ron. What I had in mind but did not stipulate here is that we do not have to abandon our preferences BEFORE we engage, as if that were a prerequisite to engagement. Most certainly, we would modify, adapt, and innovate once we began to talk and build trust with others. And for those who are afraid to let their guard down, it is important to state that compromise and movement towards creative policy solutions would come from both sides not just “our side,” whichever that may be.

I tried as best as I could in this article to promote the work of toning down the animosity, showing respect towards our opponents, and nurturing understanding without giving the impression that we should either condone evil or be silent. In fact, I believe that building bridges with those who see things differently from us is one of the best ways to avoid pushing either side to the extremes. I’m not much of historian but I believe that a prime reason the German people after WWI were susceptible to Hitler’s rhetoric is precisely because they felt they had been given a raw deal at the Treaty of Versailles.

Be that as it may, I would like to state explicitly that while I do work as a pastor and therefore felt it was the appropriate way to identify myself in the bio, I did not write this piece from the point of view of my role as pastor but as an individual observer. I most certainly did not write it as a representative or spokesperson of the church, or expect to levy authority on anyone because of my position. Neither of those ideas ever entered my mind.

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Yes, I think our outlooks on this topic overlap quite a bit. Thanks.

One can’t help wondering whom the author considers the “enemy” to be.

Meat of the article.
“In other words—and this is a key point—being a peacemaker means more than merely advocating for peace and other benevolent values. If that’s all we do, then we are not really building peace; we are just acting like partisans promoting our own vision. Being a peacemaker means actually working toward peace with the other side. On a societal level, that requires the same skills and actions as in interpersonal relationships. No matter how right we think we are, we cannot push our own ideas while minimizing or ignoring the ideas of those we are engaged with. Making peace means attempting to build harmony with our opponents by listening and genuinely trying to understand, helping them feel respected and then talking about how our views differ. Conveying the impression that our ideas alone are valuable, as both sides normally do, does not heal or help anything.”

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Peter, I register your concern, and the values that underlie it. I too believe that the gospel of the kingdom is much more than just individuals getting saved and going to heaven. Rather, it is the declaration that the long-awaited reign of righteousness, justice, and goodness had already arrived in the Person of Christ, and will one day spread throughout the earth. I’m not disputing that. The point of my article, however, was to find a way for those with such concerns to be able to communicate their viewpoint more effectively to those with other concerns, and vice-versa. The way we’re doing things now is not working. Our adversarial approach just keeps pushing the two sides further apart and into more extreme positions.

And speaking of extremes let me address the specific issue you raised. Though some may see things differently from me – in fact, many of my friends do – I fully believe that the neo-Nazi ideology that you referenced, though shocking and abhorrent, is a marginalized and minority point of view. After Charlottesville, people from every point on the political spectrum condemned the overt racism that was on display there. And given if those who promote social justice fail to acknowledge that near universal outcry and suggest instead that everyone on the right is a racist then not only have we all lost a chance to work together on a common problem, but that lack of affirmation can only further incense and alienate fellow citizens who already believe that “liberals” neither understand nor respect them!

So again, I am certainly not trying to say that we should remain silent or turn a blind eye to injustice or any other evil and unchristian behavior – as perceived by either side. Not at all. As I said in the article, “It’s not about giving up our ideals but about changing our attitude, approach, and methodology.”

I hope that helps to clarify what I am saying, and what I’m not saying; especially in regard to the Christian ethos of justice and equality.

Thanks for reading with an open mind.

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I’m glad you’re wondering! That means I wrote the piece in a balanced manner that affirms the value of both groups and calls them both into account.

As far as my use of the word “enemy” goes, I used it to represent how each side seems to feel about the other. I didn’t intend to suggest that I consider either group my enemy.

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In reading this post by Mark, I am puzzled about what the writer is inferring. I have tried to point out the problems of division in everything I write, and while understanding both sides, I come across this inference that somehow one side will lead us to a holocaust. If we are fair either side could do so. When we do not acknowledge this, we assume the role of a prophet that we haven’t been given. The US today has no idea of what lack of freedom is like. We have learned to distrust our news sources and to believe propaganda–as some try to rewrite history or stir up our anger, and we are vulnerable enough to believe them and give up thinking and viewing the whole picture. This reminds me of Adventism’s anti-Catholic rhetoric. Whether elements of it will come true or not, I don’t know, but I cannot take that stand. When Christ came the first time, it was not as his people expected and had been taught. I don’t think it will be any different the second time. The same goes for politics. I don’t know of the government or any one else coming for any group and to assume so is divisive. To compare anything today with Germany is to trivialize the holocaust. Six million Jews cannot be compared with anything today. It’s blasphemy to make such a claim.

Thanks for these reflections Steve. I agree with your appeal, which should temper all of our words. At the same time, I am worried that if the real cause of our polarization is that we “love to hate” as you say, then striving to listen or to be civil across disagreements might not be the most effective peacemaking strategy. One of the publications I follow (and recently wrote an article for) is The American Conservative. One of AC’s regular contributors who I pay attention to is Rod Dreher. Dreher this week posted a dark assessment of our predicament. It is well worth reading and raises troubling questions about just how far efforts at rational, civil discourse across differences can take us in an age of irrational, uncivil tribalism.

Ron, thanks for taking time to read and weigh in on my piece. I just read the article you referenced and, as I see it, Dreher describes the same situation that I did but in more lurid detail, and with the backing of a study. I could argue, therefore, that he not only corroborates my diagnosis but provides inadvertent support for my prescription too. Dreher acknowledges the same condition as I but then resigns himself to sitting back and expecting the worst. And that’s an artsy way to end an article, but it doesn’t help anything. I would even go so far as to say that a sentiment like that merely fuels our collective sense of negativity and futility.

So as you might expect, I am not yet ready to go that way. I believe that more people will respond to reason than he and the study may suggest. (I haven’t read the study carefully.) At minimum I think that in the conversations we have among ourselves we should try to listen and understand rather than just hurl missiles at each other. If, as the study says on page 7, our current “picture is one of people who emphasize Partisan attachments over ideological principle,” then that may be all the more reason to deflate the spirit of partisanship.