I’m sure you’re aware that the first debate between Donald Trump Hillary Clinton is tomorrow night. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. Actually, it’s not the debate itself I’m not looking forward to, I will probably either find a bar or a friend’s house to watch it at, or if I’m not feeling very social, I’ll listen to it on the radio. What I’m not looking forward to is all of the post-debate analysis, both the ‘professional’ analysis by the media, and the responses by folks on Facebook and Twitter and the proverbial water cooler conversations over the next few days. I’m not looking forward to it because in this election season and with these two candidates, more so than any other election in my lifetime, the negativity and vitriol have been overwhelming. Both sides share the blame here: both candidates, and their supporters, have said things and used language that has virtually guaranteed that there can be no civil exchange of ideas, no reasonable discussion, no conversation about this election unless you’re on the same side. In fact, some of the most upsetting conversations I’ve had this election cycle have been with people who share my views. I’m astonished at how ready they are to paint the other side in broad, negative strokes, how dismissive they are of what I know are real concerns and fears held by millions of Americans. One study by VitalSmarts, an organization that studies how people behave and function in the workplace, found that nine out of ten potential voters said the 2016 elections are more polarizing and controversial than the 2012 elections, and 81% said they avoid political discussions are all costs (see footnote). They also found that one in three of us have been attacked, insulted, or called names for sharing our opinions about this election; one in four have had a political discussion permanently damage a relationship.
The researchers at VitalSmarts wondered what it would take to talk politics without losing friends. Are there reliable ways to both express our views and keep relationships? They started by asking people to describe the voters who support a candidate they oppose. The most common adjectives they used were (in order): angry, uneducated, ignorant, uninformed, racist, white, narrow, and blind. Small wonder these discussions turn into fights! Next, they invited people to participate in an online experiment. They asked 3,500 people about their political opinions, then asked them to watch one of two versions of a video of someone advocating a strong political position opposite of their own - for example, those who said they were in favor of immediate deportation of illegal immigrants watched a 60 second video of someone describing why they thought such a policy would be both immoral and damaging to the economy. In one version of the video, the actor used four simple skills to talk about their position; in the second version, the actor spoke in absolutes and villainized the other point of view. They then asked those who had watched the videos to judge how diplomatic, likable, knowledgeable, and persuasive this person appeared, as well as how willing they would be to continue this conversation.
The results are astonishing. When the actors used the four simple skills, they were:
-five times more likely to be seen as diplomatic
-four times more likely to be seen as likable
-three times more likely to be seen as knowledgeable
-140% more persuasive
-140% more likely to stay in dialogue with others
-180% more likely to maintain relationships with others.
When the same actors didn’t use the four skills, observers labeled them as “abrasive,” “unlikeable,” and “ignorant.”
What were those four simple skills? The first is to the “focus on learning.” Frame your conversation as a chance to learn from each other, not to change each other’s minds. Simply being curious about another’s position is sufficient motivation to engage. For example, “I know what I think about immigration, but I’m curious about why you feel so differently. Would you be open to sharing your position with me?” I actually tried this a few weeks ago with my dad, before reading about this study. We have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum since the late ’80's and more conversations over the years than I can count have ended in yelling and stomping around. It took some effort on my part to not argue or even comment on what he was saying about why he is supporting who he is supporting this year, but in exchange for that effort, I got a deeper sense of where he’s coming from and what his concerns are. Plus, we didn’t have another loud fight.
I haven’t really tried the other three skills, but they sound pretty good to me. The second skill is “Ask for permission” to talk about the sensitive topic. That may sound like, “I’m not wanting a debate, and I’m not trying to change your mind. I just want to understand. I see this issue very differently. Would it be okay if I explained my perspective?” Third is “Show respect.” Others will not engage with you if they on’t feel you respect them. Over-communicate your respect for the other person and his or her opinion: “I value you and your perspective. I want to hear from you. I don’t assume I’m right.” Finally, “Focus on common ground.” Look for areas of agreement rather than disagreement. If or when the conversations takes a more dramatic turn, look for the great principle governing bother opinions and you’ll likely find a mutual purpose behind your convictions. Say things like: “I want to find the goals we share, and then look at the issue with those goals in mind.”
I suspect these skills might not only help us bridge the chasm of politics these days, but they may well help us in other areas of our lives, other situations where opinions vary and emotions run strong. VitalSmarts calls these skills simple; the skills may be simple, but I know that remembering to use them can be hard. In the heat of the moment, our back is up a bit and we speak without considering too carefully the impact of our words. Our spouse is late home for dinner and we light into them for being rude and inconsiderate. A friend makes a comment about the behavior of children in public which we hear as a criticism of our own kids, and we take offense. Or we are faced with the latest news, a suspected terrorist attack, another report of police using lethal force, the latest remarks made by a politician, I’m sure you have your own list. Before we have thought through the consequences, we spout off about it to our friends, to our co-workers, on Facebook or other social media. Predictably enough, our comments are misconstrued or heard through someone else’s filter, and without intending to, we’ve given offense. I sometimes wonder if the better thing to do, for ourselves, for our relationships, for the sake of community, wouldn’t be to say a lot less.
Jeremiah has gotten to that point in first reading this morning. For most of the book, thirty chapters, Jeremiah has spoken up. To anyone who would listen, even to people who didn’t want to listen, Jeremiah talks and talks and talks. He says he speaks for God, and maybe that’s the case, but after awhile, the people don’t really care. According to Jeremiah, nothing that anyone in Israel, from the king to the priests to the merchants to the shopkeepers to the farmers right on down to the poor, nothing anyone has done has been right in the sight of God. God chose Israel as the nation favored among nations, and in response, Israel failed to do anything that God asked in return. Israel worships the wrong gods in the wrong places in the wrong ways with the wrong prayers and the wrong offerings. The people lie, they connive, they cheat, they steal, they do evil after evil after evil, generation after generation. And you know what? God’s sick of it. Even now, Jeremiah proclaims, God is plotting Israel’s destruction. God is sending pestilence, storms, earthquakes. God is even raising up armies of Israel’s enemies to overthrow them. When God is finished with them, it will be like Israel never existed. The country will cease to be, the people will be scattered like sheep. In a generation or two, no one will even remember the name of its mighty capital Jerusalem and Israel itself will be a vague memory, a rumor.
I’m guessing that for most of Jeremiah’s life, people ignored him the same way we ignore those pamphlet wielding street prophets proclaiming “The end is near!” today. It’s not that we don’t think there are things wrong with the world, ways God is calling us to do better. It’s just we’re on our way to Wegmans, or the kids have to be picked up from soccer, or we’ve got to get to work, or we’re worried about the declining health of our parents. Plus, they look and sound kind of crazy, not the sort of people it would be fun to get to know or to have dinner with. So we do our best to ignore them, we cross to other side of the street, try not to make eye contact.
People did that to Jeremiah, too, until one day one his prophecies starts to come true. The Babylonian army, a huge contingent of well-armed soldiers, sweeps down out of the north and lays siege to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a fortress, a walled city built high up on a hill, easy to defend. In the early days of the siege, there’s still hope that the Babylonians will get tired and pack up and go home - armies have given up before. But as the months wear on, people remember that Jeremiah said this was going to happen, Jeremiah said that God was raising up the nations against them. Then they start to listen to Jeremiah a little closer. Jeremiah tells them that God is going to give Jerusalem into the hand of the king of Babylon and he will take it. Not even the King of Israel will escape, he and all the rest of the people will be taken to Babylon. Israel will cease to be. Resistance is futile. What the nation should do now, Jeremiah says, is give up, cut their loses, surrender to the Babylonians, beg for mercy.
Proclaiming that the end is near during peace time makes you kind of a lunatic, but proclaiming that surrender is the only option when the enemy is at the gates makes you a traitor. You can’t have someone shouting those things on street corners, it scares people, undermines their confidence. The king has Jeremiah arrested and confined to one of the inner courtyards of the palace where at least his ravings won’t be heard by the people. The king asks Jeremiah what was he thinking, proclaiming that the Babylonians are going to win? In response, Jeremiah finally stops talking and does something. His cousin is having some financial trouble, and in order to pay his debts, he wants to sell a field he owns in Anathoth, Jeremiah’s hometown. In such cases, the option to buy the land goes to relatives first, so at the least the property stays in the family. The option to buy the land falls to Jeremiah. Now, remember, the Babylonians have Jerusalem surrounded and Jeremiah himself is imprisoned. He can’t go check out the land, he’s got to buy it sight unseen. And, he’s spent the last decade proclaiming that Israel is going to be overthrown and the people hauled off into exile. This is hardly the time to be buying real estate. But that is exactly what Jeremiah does, in a very public transaction completed right there in the king’s court in front of the king’s guards and advisors. He has the deed sealed up in a jar, the ancient world’s equivalent of a safe deposit box. And then he says: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
None of this reverses the earlier prophecy of Israel’s destruction. Jeremiah knows the Babylonians are going to win, they’re going to destroy Jerusalem, haul the people off in exile. But Jeremiah knows that’s not going to be the final word, he knows that God will restore Israel, God will bring them back from exile to their homeland. He buys the field in Anathoth to express his hope, to proclaim his faith in God’s power to redeem even the worst things that life brings. Jeremiah somehow knows that words won’t proclaim that message as powerfully as action. Jeremiah proclaims his faith in God, proclaims his reliance on God and God’s promises in a concrete way.
There are opportunities in our lives to have constructive conversations about difficult issues. Remembering to listen more than we speak, to really make an effort to understand where others are coming from, can help us remain connected and build community and work together to bring about the kingdom. There are other times in our lives when it is probably more appropriate for us to talk less and express ourselves through action. Feel strongly about this election? Cast your vote in November. Concerned about poverty? Work in our community garden or volunteer at the food shelf to make life better for those in need in the Hilton Parma community. May God grant us the wisdom and presence of mind to know what to say and how to listen to our friends, neighbors, and colleagues. May God grant us the strength to act in ways that express our beliefs and values. May we do our part to build up God’s kingdom in our world today.
*Information about the VitalSmarts study is from this website: https://www.vitalsmarts.com/press/2016/09/how-to-disagree-with-your-friends-about-politics-and-keep-them-too-new-research-shows-your-delivery-matters-more-than-your-position/ Accessed 9/24/2016.