(Note: The names and locations in this article have been fictionalized because the story is true.)

Three churches in Lincoln, Nebraska, were planning a screening of the documentary film Bad Faith: Christian Nationalism’s Unholy War on Democracy. This film unmasks Christian Nationalism as a form of White Supremacy that threatens democratic values like equality and freedom of religion.

The largest of the three sponsoring churches is led by a brilliant and compassionate pastor named Gabriel, who offered to host the event.

However, a furor erupted in Gabriel’s church over what some saw as the “partisan” nature of the film’s trailer (congregants had not yet seen the actual film!). Several families decided to leave the church; others vowed to hold their tithes ransom. Self-identified Democrats and Republicans in the congregation were furious with him. What’s worse, most were talking about him and not to him.

Gabriel, a husband and father of two bi-racial children, was not sure his job would survive the screening. So he had to back out of hosting the film and cancel his church’s sponsorship. He decided that they would spend the time set aside for the screening a different way: talking, as a congregation, about how to be open to different ideas, disagree, and remain in community with one another.

Gabriel is a wise pastor, and he is trying to do right by his people. We all need places to go where we are challenged, not just affirmed. We need to practice being present and at peace with others who share different views. Spiritual and community leaders must protect the spaces where that can happen — now more than ever, as healthy debate and civil disagreement seem nearly extinct.

How we talk to one another – and even before that, how we see and approach one another — matters greatly. Each assumption we make, each hard line we draw, and each word we say is a thread that becomes part of the fabric of democracy. If we come with rigidity in our hearts and acid in our words, the thread will fray and break — all the way from the social hall to the halls of Congress.

Humility is a stance well known by those seeking deeper spiritual attunement. But humility is not a saints’ accomplishment; it is an everyday skill, and a necessary building block for relationships with difficult others. We can apply humility in terms of ourselves (“I do not know everything”) and others (“They may have something to teach me”) as we approach a difficult conversation.

Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that a riot is the language of the unheard. The same might be said for riotous, unhinged, or rigid speech. Those who do not feel heard shout louder. Therefore, listening is key. Listening is more than being quiet when someone else speaks; it is letting their words have an impact. Some ways to listen better are to intuit the needs and longings behind another’s words and to imagine what might influence the other’s position.

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