It’s not every Sunday that a journalist from the New York Times visits your church. At least not the church I serve, tucked away in rural Northwest Iowa. This happened two Sundays ago. The journalist’s name was Elizabeth (a Wheaton grad), and she was doing a piece on evangelicals in the Heartland and their political leanings as the 2020 presidential election draws closer. Elizabeth interviewed a number of church members in between worship services, and she and I managed to squeeze in a brief conversation.
Elizabeth peppered me with questions. How many of my congregation members voted for Trump in 2016, and did they do so enthusiastically or reluctantly? How might they vote in the upcoming election? What was my reaction to the Christianity Today editorial by Mark Galli that went viral?
Then the conversation turned to the topic of ideology, and the gap that often exists between people’s beliefs (especially political and racial) and the ways they actually behave in real life and treat real people. I told her this story. Recently an Anglo church member brought their Latino neighbor with them to church. Another church member, let’s call him Fred (also Anglo), came up and engaged in a genuinely kind-hearted conversation for quite a while, telling this man how happy he was to have him with us that morning. They hit it off and exchanged contact information. Later that day, Fred posted on Facebook something explicitly racist that President Trump said about immigrants and building the wall. The Latino man read the post and was confused and upset. How could Fred greet him so warmly that morning in worship, and then hours later post something so racist and hurtful?
I could tell you several more stories like this. I explained to Elizabeth, the Times journalist, that many of the people in my church and community are among the kindest, most generous and hospitable people you’ll ever meet. They go out of their way to help anyone in need. But when it comes to their ideology, there is often a major disconnect. And the hard thing is how unaware so many are of that disconnect and its impact on others.
“Why do you think that is?” Elizabeth probed. I didn’t have a good answer then, and I’m not sure I do now. It strikes me as human nature. I suspect we all do this, in some way or another. But as I’ve reflected more on that conversation, I’ve found myself less concerned with why this happens and far more interested in what produces change. What helps us close the gap between our ideology and actual behavior? How might we become more aware of the disconnect?
I’ve long believed that the answer to these questions has something to do with proximity to those who are different from us, encountering the “other” in a way that is up close and personal. But then I heard a podcast this weekend with Krista Tippett (On Being), and it took it a step further. Tippett interviewed Derek Black, the godson of David Duke and a former white-supremacist, and Matthew Stevenson, an orthodox Jew. Black and Stevenson met in college, where Black was outed and ostracized for his racist ideology. Stevenson invited Black to a Shabbat dinner, which began what would become the most unlikely of friendships.
It’s a remarkable interview. You can listen to it here. What I found so profound and compelling is the way that Black eventually saw the error of his ideology not through warfare on social media or vociferous debate but through the transformative power of friendship. Each week Black joined Stevenson and his friends for the Shabbat meal. They ate together, laughed together, simply did life together as friends. As trust was built, they had direct and honest conversations about their colliding ideologies in a posture of curiosity and empathy—listening to the other, seeking to understand. Here’s the thing: Change for Black didn’t happen overnight. It was slow and gradual and it took time. In fact, it wasn’t until nearly three years later, after this friendship began, that Black publicly disavowed the racist worldview he’d grown up with.
But it was friendship that made the difference. Genuine friendship. This is the context in which empathy grows and deep change happens. “I think it’s much harder, much harder,” says Stevenson, “to discount the person’s humanity when he’s staring you in the eyes.”
I think about the Latino man and my Anglo church member (Fred). And I wonder: what if they entered into a friendship together, characterized by curiosity and empathy? What then might change? The direction of the Incarnation is always from the abstract and universal to the concrete and particular. It’s about real human connection. Not just theory but real people with names and faces. Only then can we discover our blind spots and be open to seeing with a new perspective.
On this day when we celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his vision of the beloved community, who is God calling you to move towards?
With whom might you enter into friendship?
What if you sat aside your assumptions and fears, your judgments and misgivings, and chose to practice empathy instead?
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend,” Dr. King insisted. And might I be so bold to add this: Friendship may be the only force capable of transforming contempt into love and changing the way we see each other, and quite possibly the way we see the world.