Recovery After a Season of Division

Today is finally election day for the 2016 United States presidential campaign. It was a long and divisive campaign, but it is just one example of the many divisions we experience. We can feel the pain of separation and conflict in many areas, including our own churches and families. So, instead of specifically addressing the election, I would like to share some thoughts John Wesley had about what he called “the catholic spirit,” (catholic meaning universal).

The quoted passages below come from Wesley’s sermon number 39 “Catholic Spirit,” which I encourage you to read in full here. (Note: all spelling and word choices come from the 1872 edition of this sermon.)

1. Acknowledge that nobody is perfect.

“‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,’… All men approve of this; but do all men practise it? Daily experience shows the contrary. Where are even the Christians who “love one another as he hath given us commandment?” How many hindrances lie in the way!”

We all think the Golden Rule is a good idea, but no one follows it all the time—not even people of faith. We should be honest about our own inability to meet this standard, and we should allow grace for others.

2. Acknowledge that nobody is right all the time.

“Although every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true (for to believe any opinion is not true, is the same thing as not to hold it); yet can no man be assured that all his own opinions, taken together, are true.”

Everything we think and believe, we hold to be true—otherwise we wouldn’t think or believe it. However, not everything we think and believe is actually true because no one is right all the time. Similar to number one, we need a measure of humility about our own rightness, and we must understand that those that disagree with us are similarly following their convictions.

3a. Release yourself from needing to prove that you’re right and they’re wrong.

“I do not mean, ‘Be of my opinion.’ You need not: I do not expect or desire it.”

While differences of opinion naturally lead to some measure of conflict, it is only exacerbated when we make our number one goal to win over the other side. What if we took Wesley’s approach, not expecting or even desiring that the “other side” be convinced that we are right? How might the presentation of our views change? How might we listen to opposing arguments differently?

3b. At the same time, don’t feel bad about believing that you’re right and they’re wrong.

“Neither do I mean, ‘I will be of your opinion.’ I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will… A catholic spirit is not… an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”

Deemphasizing the goal of convincing the “other side” that they’re wrong does not mean we must accept their view as true. It is ok to believe that there is a standard of truth, even while admitting that we don’t fully understand it or live it out. This creates a healthy balance between having confidence in what we believe and keeping an open mind.

4. Ensure that your beliefs and/or associations with like-minded groups don’t inspire hatred toward those with whom you disagree.

“But while he is steadily fixed in his religious principles in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; and while he is united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation,—his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love.”

It is ok to have strongly held beliefs. It is also ok to be a part of a group with strongly held beliefs—whether they be friends, interest groups, denominations, or political parties. The trouble comes when these beliefs, relationships, or memberships cause us to lose sight of the humanity, dignity, and/or inherent worth of the people on the “other side.”

5. Let love be your ultimate goal and guide.

“And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character: catholic love is a catholic spirit.”

This point is, admittedly, the most vague and thus hardest to apply. It can also seem underwhelming in thorny situations like believing the other side is not just wrong but dangerous. But if we look to the example of Jesus, we see that he criticized the religious leaders of his day, even condemning teaching and actions that were wrong and/or harmed vulnerable people. At the same time, he maintained a relationship and dialogue with them, and showed the ultimate measure of love by forgiving them even as they sent him to the cross.

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.” — John Wesley

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