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Progressive Voices of Faith: Empathy Across the Political Divide

In the United States, much of the conversation around faith is dominated by conservative voices, voices that often argue for policies that restrict the rights of people in our communities. Through Progressive Voices of Faith, Pacific School of Religion (PSR) seeks to amplify the faith-based perspectives of progressives on politically and culturally relevant issues. 

Ahead of the 2024 presidential election, political polarization is at an all-time high around issues that directly impact our communities, including LGBTQ+ rights, racism, and immigration. This can create tension for people of faith: how do you show empathy and love for your neighbor when they hold views you see as materially harmful? In this edition of Progressive Voices of Faith, the PSR community shares their views on communicating across the political divide during a politically charged moment.  

Two-thirds of respondents said they had friends, family, or community members who hold political views they find harmful, and 87% said they were ‘very worried’ about the current political climate in the U.S.

Many viewed the Trump campaign and its supporters as the leading culprits in fueling division between Americans. “Trump supporters in and outside of state and federal government are prepared to do anything to help him gain presidential power,” said campus pastor Rev. Kamal Hassan 

Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence, director of PSR’s Doctor of Ministry program, worried about the impact of these tactics beyond the next four years: “I’m in the camp that thinks the threat to democracy here is real. Trained especially as a historian, I have no rose-colored glasses for humanity. Horrible groupthink happens all the time, and it is clear that conservative elements in our country are scared they’re losing the demographic majority, making a great many willing to undertake authoritarian measures to seize power.” 

Others were even more worried about the widening divide between progressives over the Israel-Hamas war. Alumnx Kimbrough Leslie (MDiv ‘75) said, “Biden has alienated younger voters, Arabs, Muslims, and progressives like me. He cannot afford to lose votes by supporting Israel’s [actions] in Gaza when the alternative is Donald Trump.” 

One staff member agreed, saying the “situation in Israel/Gaza is custom-made to split the Democratic party. My 21-year-old daughter (who is transgender and thus has SO MUCH to lose if the bigots win in November) is categorically refusing to vote for Biden because ‘he is guilty of genocide’ by virtue of supporting Netanyahu. Her one vote probably won’t make a difference [in Ohio] but she isn’t alone in her generation in being stridently principled about this.” 

PSR faculty member Dr. Leonard McMahon also has close family members with very different political views: “I’m the progressive in my family of African Americans who generally hold religiously motivated socially conservative views.” He said he maintains his relationships with family by “[listening] with the understanding that theirs is only one interpretation of Christianity and that they have no real power to shape my interpretation except what I give them.”  

For fellow faculty member Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake, it’s simple: “I do not allow people with harmful views to get close to me. Trying to move a progressive agenda forward takes all my time. I will not dissipate it by trying to foster understanding with reactionary people.” 

Alumnx Rev. Adrienne Thorne (MDiv ‘08) has the added responsibility as she leads her congregation at the historic Riverside Church in NYC, where she’s senior pastor. She shared, “Folks have different priorities from me. As a faith leader, there is pressure to say or not say the things folks expect.” She focuses on creating dialogue to foster understanding: “I invite guest speakers and preachers. We focus our Bible studies and book club on tough topics that give us time to chew on things for longer periods of time. I ask a lot of questions and listen for the answers and what’s underneath to ask better questions. Honestly,” she continued, “it’s difficult to have these conversations, but I believe in Christian community, and lean heavily on clergy colleagues for wisdom and guidance.” 

Christian faith plays a foundational role in most of the community’s approach to these relationships. One staff member pointed out, “Because so many people who hold harmful political views are also Christian, I think it is helpful to use faith as a common ground and a place from which to have these conversations.” 

Fellow staff member Michelle Estrellado shared the sentiment of many, saying, “Central to Christianity is the commandment to love one another as ourselves, even amidst differences of opinion or belief. This foundational teaching underscores the importance of empathy, compassion, and understanding in our interactions with others, regardless of their political affiliations.” 

Alumnx Jeffery Spencer (MDiv ‘87) agreed, saying, “Remembering that at the core of every person (and everything in creation) is a center of divine love makes is much easier for me to find the patience to listen openly and find that common ground.” 

Staff member Murry Evans reminds us that Christian faith asks that we model humility and grace: “We need to recognize our own fallibility and the complexity of political issues, and approach discussions with humility, openness to learning, and a willingness to admit when we’re wrong. Overall, Christian faith should serve as a powerful motivator for building bridges, promoting understanding, and working towards a more just and compassionate society, even in the midst of political chaos and differences.” 

The community shared many passages from religious texts that guide them, including:  

Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”  

Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  

Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, [a] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  

And, of course, Mark 12:31, “…’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 

However, one student said there were limits to bridge-building when people’s lives are at stake, offering a quote from James Baldwin, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” 

PSR’s president, David Vasquez-Levy, closed by outlining how PSR seeks to live our mission by creating programs, curriculum, and events that speak to this fraught moment:  

Our faith and conviction should absolutely inform the way we seek to shape our communities. However, when views, particularly religious views, dehumanize others, Christians must stand up. Over the last few years, we’ve seen true harm come from hateful political rhetoric spread not just by politicians but by religious leaders focused on a toxic, white supremacist view of the world: a vision of the world where women, people of color, migrants, and LGBTQ+ people are viewed as a threat.  

That’s why progressive Christian faith communities like ours have a special responsibility to act visibly, publicly, and demonstrably in support of those who are harmed by Christian Nationalism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and other ideas that harm our human community. At PSR, our courses and public events are taking on this task head-on. We are committed to both deploring speech and actions that dehumanize and seek to turn back the clock on the progress we have made toward equality while we also strive to treat all of God’s children with empathy and grace, challenging ourselves and others to work collaboratively to create a world where all can thrive. 

 

Resources from the community 

Books 

Talking Across the Divide: How to Communicate with People You Disagree with and Maybe Even Change the World — Justin Lee 

Jesus and the Disinherited — Howard Thurman 

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism — Tim Alberta 

What LIES Between Us Journal & Guide: Fostering First Steps Toward Racial Healing — Lucretia Carter Berry 

Race and Theology — Elaine A. Robinson 

Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity — Ronald J. Sider  

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion — Jonathan Haidt 

Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture — Christopher Watkin 

Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World — Katharine Hayhoe 

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine — Ilan Papé;  

The Hundred Years War on Palestine — Rashid Khalidi 

 

Other Resources 

Podcast: Change Happens Now from the Ignite Institute @ PSR 

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ten Commandments of Nonviolence   

Organization: The People’s Supper  

Podcast: Honestly with Bari Weiss 

Video: 7 Ways to Beat Trump from Robert Reich 

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