How To Defuse Politics (Before It Turns Violent)

21 January 2021

5.7 MINS

We all hoped 2021 would somehow turn a corner on the insanity of 2020, but recent events at the US Capitol have proved otherwise.

The unprecedented storming of the Capitol building by US citizens — by hardcore Trump supporters — has shocked not just America, but the world.

How did this assault on democracy take place in one of the foremost democracies in human history? We expect such events in failed states, not in stable republics.

Much of the blame is rightly pointed at the inflammatory words of Donald Trump. Without his incitement and support, the mob would not have stormed the Capitol.

And yet.

As many commentators have pointed out, US society was already a powder-keg, even before Trump. The political divisions and polarisations have been building for decades. The powder-keg was ready to go off, even as Trump lit the fuse.

While Australia is not nearly as polarised and divided as the US, Christians here still have a role to play to help defuse and stabilise our society.

So how do we Christians — people who worship the Prince of Peace — help defuse such tense political situations before they explode into violence? How do we as individual Christians and churches help deescalate political tension?

Here are some ways we can do that:

1) Put Scripture Above Politics

We enter dangerous territory when we allow secular ideologies — whether political or otherwise — to shape our reading of Scripture. Whether it’s Critical Theory or QAnon Conspiracy Theories (let alone unproven statements about stolen elections), reading Scripture through these lens leads to a distortion of Scripture.

And when Scripture takes a backseat to these ideologies, bad things can happen. We become unmoored from what Scripture says, and open ourselves up to half-truths, delusions, and outright lies.

If left unchecked, we can start seeing the world through the lens of these ideologies, rather than through the lens of Scripture. To the point where even political violence is excusable, whether of the ‘Antifa’ type, or the (even worse) insurrectionist type.

But if we let Scripture shape our view of reality, it radically changes the way we engage with earthly politics:

  • Our new identity in Christ means that we’re citizens first and foremost not of an earthly country, but a heavenly one (cf. Col 3:1-4, Phil 3:20).

  • This leads to a new politics, serving a heavenly King first and foremost, rather than any earthly politician (cf. Mark 12:13-17).

  • Which leads to new motivations for political engagement: the service of our neighbour, rather than grasping power for ourselves and our ‘side’ (cf. Mark 10:45, Gal 6:10).

  • And we’re driven by a new hope: not an earthly utopia that we need to bring in through violence, by a new heavens and new earth that will be ushered by the King Himself (cf. Rev 21:1-4)

Putting Scripture above politics transforms our political engagement, limiting it such that political violence becomes unthinkable. (Of course, there may be extreme situations where limited political violence is acceptable, such as Boenhoffer’s plot to kill Hitler, or uprisings against barbaric communist regimes. But even these are chastened by a Biblical view of politics.)

2) Don’t Assume The Worst Of Your Political Opponents

Instead, judge people fairly, and generously.

Political division escalates towards political violence when we assume the worst of our political opponents. The people that stormed the Capitol had lost all respect for those who opposed Trump.

And on the flip side, the favour is more than returned: Prominent journalists are increasingly equating evangelicals in general as those who want to usher in a ‘Handmaid’s Tale‘-esque theocracy.

This further escalates and divides. And if left unchecked, it will result in the oppression of political opponents by those with the power to do it, potentially leading to more political violence.

3) Recognise The Other’s Full Humanity

Not assuming the worst of our political opponents is merely the first step in defusing politics. But we mustn’t stop there. We need to end with a full recognition of the other person’s humanity, seeing them as people made in the image of God, for whom Christ died (cf. Gen 1:26-27, 1 Tim 1:15).

As author Alan Jacobs points out,

[Political polarisation] is a profoundly unhealthy situation… it prevents us from recognizing others as our neighbors — even when they are quite literally our neighbors. If I’m consumed by this belief that that person over there is both Other and Repugnant, I may never discover that my favorite television program is also his favorite television program; that we like some of the same books, though not for precisely the same reasons; that we both know what it’s like to nurse a loved one through a long illness.
~ Alan Jacobs, How To Think — A Guide For the Perplexed (Profile Books, 2017), p. 27. Emphasis added.

4) Build Bridges: Don’t Burn Them

Burning our bridges with people who disagree with us, and whom we view as repugnant, is all too easy. After all, why build a bridge with someone who believes nonsense? Or who is suspicious – even hostile – toward us? There’s nothing easier than to attack them on social media.

Of course, if we do this, we only entrench the division. We escalate, adding more fuel to the powder keg.

But if instead, we love our enemies (Matt 5:44), by building bridges with them, not only will this help deescalate tension, but we may be pleasantly surprised. We may find that our opponents are open to reason, and even to a relationship. We may find an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings, and help make peace.

Of course, not all our opponents will appreciate our bridge-building. But we can guarantee escalation if we keep burning bridges, rather than building them.

5) Be Wary Of ‘Scarecrows’

Understand what the other person really believes (not a distortion of it).

Coming to understand the other side’s point of view — their actual point of view, not a caricature or ‘straw man’ distortion — is a crucial step in helping defuse political tension. So often, our suspicion of the other side is fuelled by a misunderstanding of what they believe. It’s always easier to attack a straw-man version of a belief than the real thing (especially if a such a straw-man is repugnant to our ears).

But if we take steps to understand the other person, we’re moving in a direction of de-escalation. And as author Alan Jacobs argues, one of the best ways to understand the other side’s views is as follows:

One of the classic ways to [overcome hate towards those we deem ‘Repugnant Cultural Others’] is to seek out the best – the smartest, most sensible, most fair-minded – representatives of the positions you disagree with.’
~ Alan Jacobs, How To Think — A Guide For the Perplexed (Profile Books, 2017), p. 76

In other words, find articulate people from the other side of the political divide, and ask them their views.

6) Get Out of Your Echo Chamber

We now know how dangerous echo chambers can be.

When you only listen to your side, and their interpretation of reality, your view of the other is at high risk of being skewed. You’re more likely to believe the worst about those who oppose you, rather than see them as God’s image-bearers. You’re more likely to live with a consistent sense of outrage at them, rather than a desire to love people.

But we need to remember that while Scripture is infallible, people are not. And this includes people in our echo chambers. They can distort the truth as much as anyone.

Sadly, social media is designed to place us into echo chambers, and keep us there. We’re starved of alternative political viewpoints. We become blinded to what people who think differently politically really believe. To be fair, social media didn’t start the polarisation we’re seeing: but it certainly fuels it.

One of the best ways to get out of your echo chamber is to first admit you’re in one. Once you realise this, you can then take steps to remove yourself. Seek out perspectives from the other side. If you’re a staunch reader of The Guardian or New Internationalist, take time to read the Weekend Australian’s Inquirer section (and vice versa). Find people at church who think differently to you. Be sure to take time to listen and understand (point 5) the other’s perspective.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Our democracies are increasingly fragile in large part because of political polarisation. Neighbours, families, and sadly even some churches are dividing along political lines.

But God’s people can be the salt and light that bring much-needed peace to these tense situations. By doing the above steps, we can help de-escalate our communities.

If we don’t take the initiative — in obedience to the Prince of Peace, no less — then our secular neighbours are unlikely to do it, either.

And the current news cycle shows us where such political division can lead to.


Originally published at
Photo by Michele Orallo on Unsplash.

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