Right now I am in the midst of rehearsals for a local production of 1776. If you have never seen the show, it is a musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Ever since I saw the movie as an eight year-old I have wanted to play the role of Benjamin Franklin, and now I have my chance! It is going to be a lot of fun.
One of the pivotal moments in the show occurs when the issue of slavery arises. The southern colonies object to Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration because it expresses criticism of slavery, and the southern delegates walk out en masse. Benjamin Franklin concludes that the clause will have to be deleted in order to regain their votes for independence. This compromise elicits an angry response from John Adams, and an equally impassioned reply by Franklin –
These men, no matter how much we disagree with them, are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about — they are proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies — and whether you like it or not they and the colonies they represent will be a part of this new country you’d hope to create! Either start learning how to get along with them or pack up and go home…
Start learning how to get along. That phrase has resonated a lot with me over the last few weeks. It seems to me that a large segment of Americans has no interest learning how to get along with each other. They are content to cloister in ideological cocoons, venturing out only long enough to hurl insults on Twitter or Facebook. There is little effort to understand those who disagree, much less to fairly represent their viewpoint. What passes for “debate” today (on talk shows, on social media feeds, in conversations) is simple invective, whether explicit or implied (as one friend said to me during an exchange, “I doubt you are racist, but…”). And there is every indication that this is only going to get much worse. It is especially troubling when professed Christians treat each other poorly.
So how do we take Benjamin Franklin’s advice? How do we get along with each other? I want to offer a few suggestions.
- For every minute you listen to or read a pundit that you agree with, listen to or read a pundit you disagree with. If you watch Fox News, then flip over to MSNBC. If you listen to Sirius Progressive, then also listen to Sirius Patriot. If you read The Daily Kos, then check out Breitbart. Try to understand the arguments the other side makes. “Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude” (1 Peter 3:8, New Living Translation).
- For every assertion you make on social media, ask a question. This is the precise opposite of how most social media works. But if you decide to ask questions as often as you make assertions – with genuine interest in what those on the other side may say – you might learn something. You might even learn you have more in common than you think, and you will certainly be less quick-tempered. “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
- For every criticism you offer of some outrage on the other side of the political spectrum, make a criticism of some outrage on your own side. Don’t pretend that it is only those you disagree with who are cruel, dishonest, or vulgar. Human depravity being what it is, there is plenty to choose from on all sides. “First take the log out of your own eye” (Matthew 7:5).
- For every argument you have with someone on the other side, do something kind for someone on the other side. I’m not opposed to genuine debate – in fact, I think a good argument is a great thing for our democracy. But I don’t think it is healthy when our only interaction with those who hold different views is in the context of the clash of ideas. This inevitably dehumanizes those on the other side, reducing them to opponents rather than seeing them as people. Robust debate is great, but loving your neighbor as yourself is better. “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13).
I am of the opinion that the great divide in our country is not between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, or progressives and traditionalists. It is between those who are interested in preserving civil society and those who are not – or in the words of Franklin, those who want to “get along” versus those who want to “pack up and go home.” If you are a believer, in these chaotic political times I hope you will renew your determination to get along with your fellow citizens, or in the language of Peter: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).