We live in a world of heightened division. Terror attacks across the globe highlight the polarization, but we sense the brokenness in our everyday lives also. United Methodists around the world know the pain of conflict within our nations, churches, families, friend groups, and sometimes within ourselves.
The Bible teaches that God created us to live in community and that Jesus came to reconcile us to God and one another. Right now, however, we don't appear to be a doing a very good job of coming together.
To help us process the division and become better agents of peace and 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 make us uneasy, or what some counselors call anxious.
“We are living in an extremely anxious culture,” Gilliam reports, where 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 we create 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. Rather than retreating to a safe space surrounded by those with whom we agree, we must move toward the disagreement. We must be willing to listen to those we are tempted to label as ‘other.’”
“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 those we might find difficult, reinforcing 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.”
Service opportunities and social activism can also be means of meeting those of another culture, faith, or nationality.
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.
Audit your news consumption. While we want to remain informed, consider limiting news alerts on your smartphone, and the time spent watching your favorite news channel. If your social media feeds are a source of anxiety, limit time spent with those also.
Remember, God is in control
In a divided culture, we may be tempted to put our hope on winning an argument, position, or election. 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.
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. The content has been edited.