Changing the subject at the Thanksgiving table

Family gatherings are odd times for political debate

I understand the impulse to get into political arguments with family members since my political arguments with my dad growing up were not only elemental to the intimacy we shared, but also to how I differentiated from him and individuated myself, too. We had a lot of political disagreement growing up, and suffice it to say, along with the rest of the country, we are more polarized and entrenched than we’ve ever been. I’ve written about this problem a lot, so I won’t rehash my thoughts here, but feel free to browse yourself; here’s one post that’s particularly relevant.

Nevertheless, my temptation might be to revert to my high school self and talk about the last quarter of politics. I could bring up the Kavanaugh hearings, I could bring up Saudi Arabia and Yemen, we could talk about climate change denial, or the success of the opposition party in the November election. There is no shortage of interesting things to discuss. And there will be no shortage of outrage that will follow those often-heated discussions.

I know I’m not alone in this because I periodically spot check this. And as it turns out, a lot of my friends are dreading the possibility of eating dinner with their racist uncle. It is existentially distressing to many of us that we might be related to people that are so blatantly hateful! So I want to talk about that problem and how we can get past it.

We are incredibly polarized politically

I want to start by saying that people believe the things they believe largely because of the environment they are raised in and because of the media they consume. I’m not trivializing or relativizing morality here, nor am I in anyway suggesting that “both sides” are equally bad or equally good (or even that they are only two sides), but in order to begin to empathize with others, can we at least acknowledge that our politics are often the products of our environments?

Furthermore, Fox News and MSNBC are so transparently partisan that it’s hard to not feel like we need to talk a side. The country is deeply polarized and this Thanksgiving I think will expose that. If the latest election is any indication, this polarization is happening is across race and gender lines (the GOP’s representation in the House actually became whiter and more male, whereas the Democrats elected their most diverse representatives ever). It’s also happening among generations too. I’m not sure if we know this yet, for sure, but it appears like younger Christians are not aligning themselves as much with the GOP as older ones; a friend of mine suggested that there is a “Christian exit,” so to speak. So, once again, this generational gap will be more present that ever this Thursday.

We don’t have to deepen trenches

But we don’t have to deepen our trenches this year. What I’m suggested to you is not to diminish the importance of the existential and moral issues we face today. I’m not saying that politics is merely as abstract matter. It’s a real thing and these issues really matter. They affect our lives and the passion beyond that is due largely in part to their importance.

I would like, personally, to get to a place where I can teach people to follow Jesus in a radical way, fit with political and economic implications, without just increasing the polarization. In fact, that is a goal of Circle of Hope this year. We think we can radically follow Jesus beyond what we termed unsatisfactory political options, but without compromise the Gospel or finding some banal, low-resolution middle ground. No, the way forward will still be narrow, but the yoke of Jesus might be easy, and his burden light. In other words, there may be some paradoxes.

Regressing back to high school

Nevertheless, coming to that common ground in order to listen to and influence one another probably won’t happen at Thanksgiving. It’s hard to do it with family. There is a lot of history and tension built up, there are tons of emotions. I know it’s hard for me not to regress to my younger self around my family. It’s so easy to just act out like I did when I was seventeen.

It’s funny, because when I visit my parents’ house, I end up watching TV until 2 a.m. or something like that—just like a weekend during high school. But the funny thing is, I would never do that at home and I dread the thought. Maybe we should exercise caution around our heated political discussions with our aunt because we might just be expressing another internal conflict just on a separate battleground.

For me, that was a main reason I got into all those political arguments with my dad. I wanted to distinguish myself as an individual, but I also wanted to collect honor too. It is a tricky thing to do in a patriarchal honor/shame system. You don’t gain honor by insulting, in this case by arguing, with the patriarch. The argument itself is an affront to his authority. I never understood this cultural dynamic then, and quite frankly, don’t submit to it now and do not think it is of God, but it is helpful in understanding our dynamic. It’s about politics, but it’s also not. It’s a both/and.

Changing the subject doesn’t mean diminishing importance

Here’s the thing, I’m not trying to explain away real issues. I’m not trying to just psychologize our politics. Nor am I excusing what I find to be evil and reprehensible political beliefs that exist today in our society. Those issues matter. And honestly, we can find time to discuss them quietly, sometimes loudly. But we know Thanksgiving has enough drama. Engaging in political theater over the holiday might just lead to more pain and sorrow, even more hopelessness.

So without dismissing the value of political discourse, here’s another idea: change the subject. And I don’t mean talk about football and the weather (although, isn’t it funny, those two issues could lead to majorly political subjects!), I mean talk about your life in other ways. Talk about your community. Talk about prayer. Offer comfort to your family by sharing another one of your interests. Talk about other ways God is working in you. Maybe even get vulnerable and self-disclose. Maybe you don’t subtweet your family during the meal. Heck, maybe even tell your people what you are thankful for and what you hope for in coming months. Honestly, I think some of that stuff might get at deeper things that make a political discussion seem a bit more superficial, or at least easier to have without vulnerability.

I’m not ready to dematerialize the importance of peace and justice nor am I interested in muting your prophetic voice. But there are many things that are important, too. And maybe some things that aren’t as contentious. Who knows? Maybe it’ll win you enough ground so you can have a productive discussion later on.

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