We live in an age of sharp division. According to the Pew Research Center, an “overwhelming majority” of Americans (86%) believe the country is more politically divided than it has ever been before. These political and ideological differences aren’t merely a matter of red or blue states; these same sharp divisions exist within many families, potentially alienating parents from children, sisters from brothers. When we disagree with those we love about some of our most closely held beliefs, must keeping the peace always mean keeping quiet?
I faced this conundrum at a recent gathering with my extended family. I felt I was doing fairly well. I was speaking up, respectfully, when confronted with beliefs I perceived to be one-sided. I was intentionally avoiding heated conversation while still carefully voicing what I believed was right.
Then I overheard a family member make an overt connection between “God’s plan” and a political party—a statement with which I strongly disagreed. I wasn’t directly part of the conversation, so I didn’t want to awkwardly insert myself into the situation. But I felt a strong desire to express a different viewpoint. What should I do?
If “keeping the peace” means never rocking the boat in order to avoid family disagreements, then I’m against it. In fact, it is my faith that often prompts me to not stay silent in these situations. It’s my commitment to faith-in-action that nudges me to graciously speak up in the hope that everyone involved will be challenged by an honest exchange of ideas. This commitment can be hard to sustain; hardest, perhaps, with those we love the most. For many of us, controversy is the last thing we want to stir up in our families.
Familial relationships are complicated. They often encompass differing opinions on faith, politics, lifestyle, education, parenting, and so on—opinions that hit at the heart of who we are in the world. Perhaps this is why many of us tacitly agree to steer clear of hot-button topics in favor of keeping the peace. We may feel we have to ensure conversations are all surface and little substance or run the risk of creating a seismic rift through the foundation of our relationships.
I’ve come to believe that keeping the peace doesn’t mean what we tend to think it means. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9), yet he also spoke of sharp family division that can be caused by faith in him (Matt. 10:34–39). For his early followers and for us, following Jesus may be the very catalyst of family conflict. Clearly the peacemaking Jesus spoke of is more expansive and nuanced than merely the avoidance of conflict.
Scripture tells us that the “peace of God … transcends all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). In John 14:27, Jesus makes this distinction: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives. His peace isn’t our peace—it isn’t measured by our standards.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), we get a clear picture of the upside-down nature of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated. The “blessed” are not only those who are peacemakers, but also those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, and seeking justice. In Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, Richard Rohr says that Jesus’ teachings present this kingdom as a “new image of reality that challenges conventional wisdom” in part because “the outcast is in the head-start position.”
Necessarily then, Jesus’ peace isn’t comfortable—and it certainly doesn’t mean simply maintaining our comfort zone. At times our work to live out the values of God’s kingdom may not feel all that peaceful. The values of Jesus’ kingdom frequently ask us to sacrifice our comfortable status quo in favor of putting our faith into action in real, tangible ways.
Conventional wisdom tells us to avoid (at all costs!) familial discussions about religion and politics. Yet our faith may in fact lead us directly into disagreement with relatives and other close members of our community. It shouldn’t surprise us; Jesus himself spoke about disciples leaving everything to follow him—including their own families (Mark 10:29–30). Unlike those early disciples, many of us often resist allowing that level of discomfort to creep into our relationships.
This resistance is understandable, of course, for Scripture also consistently speaks to the importance of maintaining healthy relationships. In Matthew 15:4, for example, Jesus reiterates the Old Testament command for children to honor their parents. Psalms and Proverbs are replete with familial instruction; the Epistles echo much of this as well. I’m not suggesting that we simply get on our proverbial soapboxes and speak our minds, regardless of the relational cost.
In Micah 6:8, God requires his followers to enact justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him. These principles pose crucial questions for when we face controversial discussions within our families: If we don’t act on behalf of the vulnerable or speak out about injustice, are we being true to our faith? Likewise, if our speech lacks mercy and humility, are we falling short of our call?
The delicate line
Divine peace is both available to us, and required of us—which is what makes these sorts of situations so tricky. We must decide where and when our peacekeeping choices are the truest expression of our call to do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility.
In the opening example of a family gathering in which I was dialoguing with relatives and respectfully discussing opposing viewpoints, I needed to decide if I should intervene in a particular conversation to share my point of view. In that case, I ultimately decided to keep quiet. I chose to walk away from that conversation because I wasn’t sure how to approach the issue without damaging relationships.
Yet, in my experience, there are times when gently speaking up and disagreeing with the status quo of one’s family is actually the best way to truly “keep the peace”—to humbly reflect God’s heart and his values to your loved ones. I’m not talking about loud arguments that ruin Thanksgiving, but rather ongoing conversations around the exact topics conventional etiquette tells us to avoid (politics and religion), carried on with gentleness, humility, and with an eye toward prioritizing healthy relationships.
And this is where the whole endeavor hangs: on relationship. In their book Resident Aliens, authors Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon provide an example from the civil rights era. They describe how, at a meeting in a Southern city, a white citizens’ group formed to resist school desegregation. This group held a meeting “to discuss tactics for fighting the racial integration of the schools.” A local pastor arrived at the meeting; he spoke up, “in deliberate, grave tones,” calling his congregation to task. While all those present could hear him, he addressed himself specifically to his church members who were present, pointing out their call to love and seek the good of all people.
When he was done, he left. His congregation took his words to heart and, eventually, most of his church members left the meeting as well. Hauerwaus and Willimon observe: “Here was a pastor, an ordinary person, who had labored for decades doing ordinary things like baptisms and messages among ordinary people, for the privilege of being a witness on one night in August.”
This story exemplifies the delicate line we must walk with people we love when it comes to living out kingdom values and keeping the peace. This pastor didn’t only address himself to those with whom he had a relationship (there were many others at the meeting), but he knew his words would have the most impact on those whose lives he had participated in for years and years. He knew he couldn’t stay silent on such a crucial issue of kingdom values; he knew he must defy expected social norms. Yet when he spoke, he did so from a posture of love and care for all: including those whose rights he was advocating for and those in his congregation who were clearly getting it wrong.
Finding your voice
When we face our own “town hall” moments of tension with people we love, finding our voice can be challenging. The temptation to sidestep everything controversial is strong. I’ve found that taking small steps is the best way to move toward finding one’s voice. We don’t start by giving a compelling speech like the pastor at the desegregation meeting. Instead, we might make a brief observation or offer a simple question that serves to let someone know that there are other ways of thinking about an issue.
When I notice someone I love making a statement with which I disagree, I’ll often kindly say something like, “Well, I think about this a little differently.” The conversation may end there—which is fine—but if the person wants to pursue the conversation, he or she knows I’m happy to engage further. When it doesn’t feel like it’s the right time to delve deeper into a tough topic, it’s helpful to make an invitation to talk more at a later date. Asking a few questions is also a humble and effective approach; it helps reduce defensive tension, and it allows us to better understand why others believe and behave as they do.
Although I’ve long been passionate about theology and ministry, I’ve only recently begun the practice of finding my voice—of discerning when and how to put my faith into action in conversations with my family and close community. It seems daunting at the beginning, but I am confident that as we listen and respond to prompting from the Spirit, we can discern both how to keep real peace and bring about honest discussion that can lead to growth and change.
Alexis James Waggoner, MDiv, is a theologian, adjunct professor, minister of adult education at her church, and a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve. Her organization, The Acropolis Project, provides theological resources for communities of faith.