Most of us gravitate to people who are a lot like us. It’s easy. It’s natural. To a point, it’s even super helpful. Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without my cadre of mommy friends. To have people to talk to about night feedings and preschool and baby carriers, all while being free to admit that you haven’t showered since Sunday and that you totally counted Cheetos as a vegetable at lunchtime because they are made of corn is absolutely essential. We all need people who just get us, who we can go to to talk UCLA sports or Jane Austen novels or molecular gastronomy or whatever our thing is.
But danger lurks when we begin to form friendships only or even primarily with people just like us. Those who hold the same opinions, like the same things, have the same hobbies. It becomes even more tempting in a politically fraught climate to ally ourselves with those on our side, be that the side of the Democrats or the Republicans, the Independents, the We-Will-Move-to-Canada-if-Trump-is-Elected folks, or the Bernie-is-the-Antichrist people.
It’s a dangerous game to put people into camps, into tribes, and then to begin to define ourselves solely by who or what we are against.
The political climate in our country is hostile at best, and then last week Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died. Arguably the most staunch conservative on the Court, his death immediately threw social media into a tizzy. Those who leaned left posted variations on the theme “Ding, dong, the witch is dead,” while those who leaned right wrung their hands about what would happen if President Obama managed to fill Justice Scalia’s spot with someone of his choosing. Already hot and often hateful political rhetoric threatened to turn positively nuclear.
The really ironic thing about the vitriol on both sides was that Justice Scalia, for all his strong conservatism, staunch opinions, and determined Catholicism–or perhaps because of these very things–was a model for the middle way of friendship. One of his closest friends? Liberal Lioness and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Their friendship has been chronicled widely (including in a 2015 opera dedicated to their camaraderie, as well in as multiple news sources). They shopped for souvenirs together. They spent every New Year’s Eve together. Even their spouses were close friends. It’s something straight out of a West Wing episode.
Why? According to Justice Scalia, “What’s not to like? Except her views on the law, of course.”
Friendship with those whose opinions, politics, beliefs, or lifestyles differ from ours can be difficult. Yet it is these very friendships that can help us see things in a new light, open within us a new generosity of spirit, or show us a new side of God’s grace.
Interestingly enough, making friendships with those who are different than we are commonly serves to strengthen our core beliefs, not weaken them. One fascinating experiment among staunchly pro-life and pro-choice advocates in Boston bears this out. Often we fear to draw close to the “other” because they might threaten who we are, but in extending a hand in friendship, we can actually become more of ourselves.
I remember meeting a friend once to tell him I was headed into the ministry. I knew he believed that women shouldn’t be ordained, but I had heard God’s call and was going. Still, I treasured and didn’t want to lose his friendship.
I spilled the beans over coffee, letting him know I was headed to seminary that fall. He looked at me quizzically.
“Weren’t you going to be an English professor?”
“I was,” I said. “My professors are a little bit puzzled, too.”
“Huh,” he mulled this over for a minute. “You know I don’t believe women should be ordained,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“And I don’t support that. I just can’t support it.” He paused and looked into his coffee, swirling it around his mug. “But I support you.”
I knew he wouldn’t be in the wings at my ordination, but I had kept my friend.
In Jesus’ day it was the Pharisees who liked to put people into categories. Righteous vs. sinners. Holy vs. unclean.Us vs. them. Men over women. Jews over Gentiles. Yet Jesus was always reaching across those lines. Eating with the tax collectors, chatting with Samaritans, healing women, listening to the demon-possessed. He refused to answer political questions about where to worship, who would be first in the kingdom, or (often) even who had sent him. For Jesus there was no us and them. There was simply Jesus, sent to live among the people of the world by the God who loved the whole world. No exceptions. No exclusions.
As the political rhetoric reaches a fever pitch in the days ahead, let us not retreat to our corners, lash out, or get ourselves into a tizzy. Let us instead follow Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg’s lead and share meals, open our homes, and reach across to the other side. Let’s refuse to wear a label, and refuse to ask others about their own.
And let’s pray. For healing in our country, in our friendships, and in our own hearts. For them–whoever your them are–and for us. After all, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted in Life Together, “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”
By God’s grace maybe, just maybe, we might find a friend.