It happens from time to time—often unexpectedly. I call it “The Phil Situation.” You’re at a neighborhood Labor Day barbeque, or a company Holiday party, or a family reunion with distant kin from Enid you didn’t know you had—when, all at once, Phil sidles up to you.
Phil the Pill from Apartment A12. Phil the accountant from Purchasing. Second Uncle Phil from Enid.
Drink in hand, Phil offers a random, unsolicited comment about antifa anarchists inciting violence in Portland, or how “blue lives” sadly do not seem to matter in this country anymore, or how public mask mandates are a grave threat to our 14th Amendment liberties.
You’d rather be stranded on the Mir Space Station than be baited into an unwelcome conversation with Phil over politics. “Be polite,” you tell yourself. “Just enjoy the potato salad and pig roast and let it go.”
But then it happens.
“You know,” says Phil, “this whole COVID conspiracy will completely vanish on November 4th.”
And suddenly, it’s on. You throw politeness to the wind. You engage Phil. Please return your seat backs to their full, upright and locked position, Phil. This ride’s about to get bumpy.
Only two hours later, after every talking-point on every controversy has been convincingly articulated, and every line clearly drawn in the sand, and each of you has been surgically pigeonholed by the other, you find yourself walking away from Phil more bloodied and beaten than you had expected, yet even more convinced that Phil couldn’t be more patently blind to the truth.
Phil gets around, especially in an election year. But not every “Phil Situation” needs to dissolve into a verbal MMA cage fight. Here’s what I’ve learned, often the hard way, about how to find common ground in our conversations with others about divisive issues:
1. Exclude political leaders and political parties from your conversations: Naming political leaders, or identifying your political party of preference, only reveals your tribal loyalties—which team you’re playing for, and which team you’re trying to defeat. Dividing ourselves into tribes only benefits tribal leaders and scapegoats the opposition.
Phil loves to talk about party leaders. Why? Because any leader or ideology that derives its power from its opposite requires an opponent. It must constantly provoke and pull the opponent into the arena for a fight. It will almost always seek to win that fight at all costs, because a partisan political fight is almost always a zero-sum game where there are only winners and losers. Note to self: Phil. Will. Not. Lose.
Instead of talking about political leaders and partisan affiliations with Phil, reframe your conversations around the values you share with him—the ultimate values of your faith or country that transcend proximate ideological allegiances: love of family, love of neighbor, love for creation, justice, civic duty, sacrifice, etc. Yes, this will likely be hard work. Still, what values do you have in common with Phil? Talk about them. Such conversations, absent a focus on claiming victory, lead to greater mutuality and more creative, collaborative approaches to working together for the common good.
2. Emphasize shared problems over individual differences: The work of politics is to solve the problems of the “polis,” not to exacerbate the differences among the citizens living within it. In our current political environment, we often prefer “right thinking” (orthodoxy) over “right living” (orthopraxis), until our sense of rightness devolves into an intractable self-righteous smugness that blinds us to our shared problems. Phil, like you, believes he stands on the right side of the issues. But in the end, you’re both standing inside the same constellation of social problems.
For example, Phil has strong opinions on healthcare. Currently, 27 million Americans have lost their employer-based healthcare due to job loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a conversation with Phil about healthcare, you might say, “I’m not here to debate with you about “big government,” or the merits or shortcomings of universal healthcare. Instead, what would either of us do if we became one of those 27 million people who, in the middle of the greatest health crisis of our generation, lost access to affordable healthcare? Where would we turn if we got sick?”
By emphasizing our shared problems, we can walk in each other’s shoes and foster a politics of compassion as the antidote to a politics of contempt that exploits our differences and turns Phil into our enemy.
3. Don’t compare the best in yourself with the worst in others: One of our problems is that we think in terms of binary categories: right/wrong, left/right, Coke/Pepsi conservative/progressive, Ford/Chevy, elitist/redneck. Most of us simply don’t have or take the time to really get to know Phil. But we have a handy little device at our disposal that helps us determine how to deal with every Phil we encounter: stereotypes. Stereotypes save us a lot of time and energy.
Jesus, teaching about the Volvo-driving elitist Pharisee who compared himself to the redneck tax man in a pick-up, said, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself” (Luke 18:14, MSG).
To be honest, I like a good stereotype as much as the next guy. But the late theologian, Walter Wink, was right: “When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny that they have that of God within them which still makes transformation possible. We play God... We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God.”
4. Bend toward difference or you will succumb to indifference. The opposite of compassion is not hatred. If, to have compassion, as the ancients believed, is to feel something so deeply in your gut that you’re moved to respond with concern and love, then the opposite of compassion is to feel nothing at all—and so to not be moved at all. The Greek philosophers had a word for this: “apatheia.” Apathy is the isolated, unfeeling, uncaring response to others.
How long can you stay at the table with Phil? The political theologian, Luke Bretherton, defines politics as “a dance between conflict and conciliation” as we negotiate our common life together. But most of us live in a fight or flight mode that either compels us to flee from conflict or to fight the impulse toward conciliation. Sometimes we even turn flight into a form of fight—what, in Matthew 5:22, Jesus called “raca,” which the NRSV benignly translates as “insult.” The word “raca” is an obscure Aramaic term of abuse that’s not simply an insult, but a way of saying, “I am done with you.” It refers to the act of pushing ourselves self away from the table, shaking the crumbs from our laps, and walking away. In essence, it says, “You’re worthless to me, and I have no need of you in my life.”
How long can you bend toward difference and stay at the table with Phil? The length and width of our table determines the depth and breadth of our compassion.
5. Conversion is necessary and inevitable: There are moments when, in our conversations with Phil, we realize that we don’t share the same convictions, hold the same values, or see the issues similarly. So we immediately look for the eject button. In that moment, ask yourself: Can I outlast my discomfort with difference?”
Some of my closest friends are those from whom I sought initially to distance myself—often out of misunderstanding or a judgmentalism that turned out to be misguided. But when you can bend toward people as they are, not as you wish they were; when you can live your life as you are, not as others wish you would be, then you can finally take off that heavy armor of God, lay your weapons down, and create the conditions that make for peace.
If you can talk peacefully with Phil long enough, you will be converted—not to his side, but to God’s. As the Catholic missionary, Vincent J. Donovan, writes, “Do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before.”
Phil the Pill, Phil from Purchasing, second Uncle Phil from Enid—pull up a chair. The table’s long and wide enough. Let’s talk.
Mark Feldmeir is the author of A House Divided: Engaging the Issues through the Politics of Compassion and senior pastor at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. He previously led United Methodist congregations in San Diego and Orange County, California. Mark has served on the adjunct faculty at Claremont School of Theology, lectured at various conferences throughout the country on topics ranging from preaching, leadership, and pop culture, and is the author of three previous books.