Finding healing and peace in a polarized political climate
The election season in the United States was long and divisive. As a new president is inauguated, many sense a lingering polarization of the populace. Public discourse and our social media feeds are filled with strong opinions from professional and amateur pundits.
These feelings of division are not unique to politics, however. United Methodists in the U.S. and across the globe know the pain of conflict within their nations, churches, families, friend groups, and sometimes within themselves.
The Bible teaches that God created us to live in community and that Jesus came to reconcile us to God and one another.
To help us move through division toward community, we asked a United Methodist pastor, the Rev. W. Craig Gilliam, for techniques and tips about how to begin a process of healing and find peace. Gilliam is an expert on conflict transformation in the church. He serves as Coordinator of Congregational Services for JustPeace, Director for the Center for Pastoral Excellence for the Louisiana Annual Conference, and is the author of Where Wild Things Grow, a book of poetry that “invites us to grapple with the relationships between and among people and things.”
The divisions we sense around us and experience in our personal lives makes many uneasy, or what some counselors call anxious.
“We are living in an extremely anxious culture,” Gilliam reports.
When we are anxious, we tend to rely on emotional reactions rather than reasoned responses. You probably see this in your social media feed and in heated exchanges between those who disagree.
In our anxiety, Gilliam reports, “We do each other harm in ways we didn't even know we had the capacity to do, or in ways we're not even aware we're doing it.”
One unhealthy way we cope with our anxiety is to retreat to safe places by finding people with whom we agree and limiting our connection to others. We unfriend people on Facebook, limit our phone calls with that one uncle, and avoid certain people at church.
Living in these “safe spaces,” however, allows us to fool ourselves.
“When I cut off from another,” Gilliam notes, “I begin to create narratives about them.” Those stories often include what we believe about ourselves and God.
The false narrative usually goes something like this: They are bad. We are good. God is on our side and not on theirs.
This, of course, is not true. The Bible tells us that all of us are created in God’s image, are loved by God, and have God’s grace available to us.
To work past a conflict, we need to find ways to reconnect. Where we once moved away, we must now move toward.
“If I'm interacting with that other, if I'm sitting down looking at them eye-to-eye, if I'm listening to their stories,” Gilliam says, “that very interaction helps make space for the alternative narratives and for the correction in the narrative I'm telling myself about the other.”
Our diverse United Methodist churches provide wonderful opportunities for connection. Worship, Sunday School, choir, committee meetings, and the sacrament of Holy Communion bring us into contact with one another, and reinforce the true narrative that we are all children of God.
Participating in selfless acts of service is another great way to reconnect with others. Volunteering with your church or a local non-profit, “takes you out of yourself. It really puts you in a context of giving to others with no reward, just to do it because it's the kind, Christian thing to do,” Gilliam reports. “I think that's very healing.”
Limit television and news input
Limiting your exposure to the media is another way of resisting false narratives and anxiety. Those outlets can be “like a hose that is pumping anxiety into our homes,” Gilliam says.
Now is a great time to audit your news consumption. While we want to remain informed, we might consider limiting alerts on our smartphones and computers, and how much time we spend watching our favorite news channel.
Remember, God is in control
In a culture that appears so divided, we may be tempted to put our hope on winning an election, an argument, a position. While governments and other organizations hold a great deal of power in our lives, God is ultimately in control. Going to church, reading the Bible, and spending time in other activities that re-center us are helpful.
Go for a hike. Attend a concert. Get lost in a good book. “Find those rhythms that bring you back to your better self,” Gilliam advises.
Hit the gym
When stress and anxiety are high, many of us turn to junk food. Others stop exercising. Return to eating well. Join an exercise class. “Go to the doctor to get help starting a new lifestyle,” Gilliam suggests.
God created us as complete beings. Body, mind, and spirit are all connected.
“Extremes are Easy”
Where one ends,
the other begins.
Extremes are easy. It’s
the middle that’s the puzzle. Midsummer—
the middle way,
shades of gray,
in-between two notes,
in the pause,
in the silent space between two waves,
in the breath between breaths,
in that sacred in-between space,
everything is possible.
poem by w. craig gilliam
Spend time with friends
Gilliam suggests, “Be with those friends that when you're around them you're just a better person.” Spend good, quality time with people you love.
Listen for the invitation
If you continue to struggle, consider asking yourself, “What is the invitation here? How is God calling me to grow?”
Spend some time discerning what God may be trying to show you through this season, what you might do differently in the future, and ways you might get involved to make a difference.
Take your time
“Reconciliation is a journey. It is not a one-time act,” Gilliam cautions. Our pace will differ from others. We cannot force it.
“There’s nothing worse than rushing something that’s not ripe yet,” he continues, “and not heeding when the time is right.”
Sometimes, we may need to accept that a relationship will never be reconciled. One of the more difficult tasks is to “honor their choice not to forgive,” Gilliam says, “and not allow it to embitter us.”
Stay in love with God
Finally, Gilliam reminds us of Bishop Rueben Job’s summary of John Wesley's General Rules: “Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God.” When we do that, we can overcome the conflict and grow from the experience.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on November 9, 2016 as “Moving on after Election Day: Tips for finding healing and peace.” The content has been edited.