With all due respect to Christmastime, right now is “the most wonderful time of the year!” Leaves have exploded into a menagerie of yellow, orange, and red foliage lining our neighborhoods. Cool, crisp mornings give way to majestic, azure skies before surrendering to dazzling pink and purple sunsets. The signs of this beautiful season are everywhere: football, jack-o-lanterns, homecomings and apple cider. Another sign of this time of the year are the incessant political ads. I think I’ve seen the faces of JD Vance and Tim Ryan more than I’ve seen my wife’s lately.
Every day we are reminded of how polarized the political climate in our community has become. Television ads, yard signs, and social media posts put everyone’s political opinions out for all to see. Shouting matches often break out at school board and city council meetings. On the one hand, politics do matter. They determine how much money we take home, our involvement in world affairs, the quality of our infrastructure, and a myriad of other important issues. On the other hand, today’s polarization has helped reduce many of these complex issues into generalized and simplified rhetoric often more interested in attacking opponents than putting forth a coherent platform.
To be sure, there are real political differences in our country. Should abortion be legal? How does the country handle illegal immigration? How does the country respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? How does the country combat climate change? People will have different responses to these kinds of questions depending on their political leanings. This has always been the case, but what seems to have changed is that now those who have different opinions are dismissed as incompetent (at best) or outright traitors (at worst). Those who are pro-choice are called baby killers, and those in favor of tightening international borders are labeled Nazis. Trump’s an idiot. Biden’s senile. Republicans are fascists. Democrats are socialists. On and on the labeling and name-calling goes.
What has always made America great is its diversity – que up Lee Greenwood: the lakes of Minnesota, the hills of Tennessee and all the rest. Think about this, from right here in Delaware we are 30 minutes from the heart of one of the largest urban centers in the country, and 15 minutes from the middle-of-nowhere Radnor (apologies to all the fine folks there), Imagine the incredibly different life experiences those who grow up in Columbus have from those who grow up in Radnor – with only one hour’s drive separating them! Race, socioeconomics, hometown, religion, education, birth order, and probably even how tall or short we are all influence the way we think about things.
I have come to believe that the most needed spiritual discipline of the 21st century is empathy. Empathy is the ability to see where someone else is coming from. Empathy is the antidote to polarization. Instead of labeling and dismissing those who think (or vote) differently, empathy forces us to ask why someone thinks or votes the way they do. Empathy forces us to come to terms with the fact that those who are different than us are almost never monsters or evil or Nazis or really … much different than us at all. Turns out, most of them want the same things we do.
Empathy is at the heart of the Christian faith. Philippians describes Jesus as “not considering equality with God something to cling to” so “he gave up his divine privileges” and “took the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). Jesus had divine empathy with humans. God became human to be able to empathize with them – with us. Hebrews 4:15 says that he “understands our weakness,” which is another way of saying he gets us. As the political ads invade this most beautiful time of the year, don’t allow them to hijack your ability to empathize with those who may see the world differently. Instead of dismissing them as incompetent or labeling them as enemies, stop and consider how they are created in the image of God just like you and try considering why they think the way they do. Just maybe, they might be a little bit right about a few things.