Sometime around 2015, I started to notice a new genre of article starting to pop up, with more appearing every year—the “How to talk to your family about politics at Thanksgiving” article. Haven’t seen them? Just Google that phrase, and you’ll find dozens.
Many of these articles are guides to sharing viewpoints politely and correcting misinformation gently. Others are more aggressive in tone, giving advice on confronting family members on their voting habits.
All of these articles assume a level of dis-ease and tension fundamentally at odds with the spirit of a holiday called “Thanksgiving.”
Why do we need guides to talk about politics at Thanksgiving? Is it possible to put the politics aside long enough for one meal? Apparently not.
In 2018, it seems no statement can be apolitical. Even the attempt to avoid politics will be seen as a political act.
It’s no surprise that politics takes up so much of our time and energy. In many cases, we literally are debating matters of life and death. Moreover, being a Christian does not mean we have to draw away from the political arena. Christianity has never been apolitical.
The problem is when our political identity becomes our most important identity, the one all other identities must conform to and be understood through—Christian identity included.
A body divided by political sides
The hyper-partisan spirit of our age extends to Christians as strongly as anyone else.
A recent survey conducted by Lifeway research examined this phenomenon. Of the approximately 1,000 respondents, more agreed with the statement “I prefer to attend a church where people share my political view” (46 percent) than disagreed (42 percent).
The numbers become sadder when evaluating people’s actual practices. Even though 42 percent of respondents claimed they did not prefer to attend a church where most share their political beliefs, only 19 percent of respondents believed a significant portion of their congregation differed from them politically.
I bring up this survey to point out the degree to which political identity has begun to supersede Christian identity. For most of us, whether the people sitting in the pews typically vote Republican or Democrat is a serious prerequisite for our ability to join a particular body of believers.
What is it about politics in America that so successfully places claims on our identities? I suspect it has to do with the apocalyptic tone American politics increasingly has taken. Our two major political parties seek loyalty by warning of the dire consequences of the other side attaining power, such as the other side will flood our cities with people not like us and the other side will take away our civil rights.
In short, both political parties rely on fear—sometimes founded, sometimes not—to drive us to action.
Give thanks to the Lord always in the midst of politics
Christians are not called to turn a blind eye to the very real suffering and evil surrounding us. At the same time, we are forbidden from living in the kind of fear in which our political culture seeks to keep us.
Giving thanks to God is one of the Bible’s most frequent commands, so much so that “Psalms of Thanksgiving” is an entire genre of psalmody.
Interestingly, many of these psalms are written to give thanks to God in the midst of particular suffering. Psalm 41 is among my favorite of these.
Threat and oppression weigh heavily on the psalmist’s mind:
My enemies say of me in malice,
“When will he die and his name perish?”
When one of them comes to see me,
he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander;
then he goes out and spreads it around.
And yet, despite being a victim of hate and harassment, the psalmist praises God, who will not allow injustice to have the final word: “I know that you are pleased with me, for my enemy does not triumph over me … praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting.”
Even the psalm’s opening words show conviction that God ultimately assures justice: “Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the Lord delivers them in times of trouble.”
Psalms never commands us—nor does the Bible—to turn a blind eye to suffering or pretend situations are other than they are. Quite the opposite is true.
The psalms constantly do remind us that suffering does not negate the goodness of God, who ultimately will be victorious. We suffer, we fear, and we also live under the protection of a God who works all things together for good, even when we can’t see that process.
That’s why I think it’s so important—in a context like ours—that during the rush from Halloween to Christmas, we pause to consider Thanksgiving. Giving thanks both for what we have and for the nature of the God we serve is an act of rebellion against a larger political climate that survives on our feelings of fear and insecurity.
Continue to seek good for all, resist evil when it rises, and stop to recognize the constant presence of a good and powerful God.
Give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good; the goodness of the Lord endures forever.
Give thanks, indeed.
Jake Raabe is a student at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is also a co-founder of Patristica Press, a Waco-based publishing house.