By Tim Harvey
One of the occupational hazards of pastoral ministry is that people occasionally try to trap you on controversial issues. To be fair, sometimes people trust you and simply want to learn more. But not always.
So when Bill (not his real name) said, “Are you really OK injecting aborted baby parts into your arm?” I knew that even though we would continue talking, our conversation had effectively ended.
My biggest challenge in that moment was managing my own response. While I disagree with Bill’s opinion on Covid-19 vaccines, what frustrated me the most was his opinion of me. As I measured my own declining credibility in his facial expression and tone of voice, I could feel my own fight or flight response rising. How would I respond?
It is tempting to view someone like Bill as a right-wing conspiracy theorist to be mocked or cancelled for the views he’s come to hold. But such a response misses the point. Bill is not a bad guy; he’s quite talented, runs a successful small business, and enjoys staying up to date on the issues of the day. He can speak in depth on any number of topics, political and otherwise.
What makes conversations like these difficult is that Bill gets his news from one place on the political spectrum. He has constructed an echo chamber that not only confirms what he already suspects, it also tells him how he should interpret differing viewpoints. Because the trusted voices in his echo chamber tell him that the mainstream media is both fundamentally dishonest and dangerous to our country, any attempt of mine to offer a differing view of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines—no matter how carefully researched—becomes not a counterpoint to be discussed but a heresy to be defeated. People who think differently than he become enemies.
The thing is, on a certain level I understand where Bill is coming from. Christian theology teaches us that we are “aliens and strangers” in this world. One doesn’t need to live on the theological or political right to understand that praying “your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven” means that the kingdoms we see aren’t the ones we’re hoping for.
Humans, regardless of our spiritual or political beliefs, are ultra-social animals whose need to be a valued member of our tribe is more important than being right. Each of us—not just the Bills of the world—belong to a tribe that offers value and meaning to our lives. But membership in a tribe comes with great pressure to conform to the values of the tribe. This pressure to conform makes it difficult to hear, let alone engage with, contrary viewpoints. Whether we ascribe this to millions of years of evolutionary development or to our fallen sin nature, leaving one tribe for another requires nothing less miraculous than Christian conversion.
So how can I respond?
I can mourn.
I can mourn what might be the loss of a friendship I’ve come to value, one where I had assumed those feelings were mutual. I can mourn the fact that someone I admire on so many levels no longer seems to admire me nor respect my opinion. I can mourn the fact that being members of the same congregation does not mean we belong to the same tribe.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us, “Blessed are those who mourn.” As a pastor, I’ve learned a thing or two about mourning. I’ve heard doctors say to families, “we did all we could.” I’ve sat with a family when the funeral director closed the casket for the last time. Mourning comes with the territory. But I never considered I’d one day mourn the loss of respect and trust from a friend whose political perspective convinced him that I am not to be taken seriously.
My mourning makes it difficult to hear the second half of Jesus’ beatitude: “for they will be comforted.” Honestly, I think it would be easier to lash out at Bill—or at least forward him a few articles. It would lessen the weight of the cross I’m bearing these days. For now, my main task is to accept that Bill and I live in different echo chambers. A different set of voices shapes my world. I need to find the comfort that comes to those who mourn before I do anything else.
Tim Harvey has served as pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Virginia, since 2015. He and his wife Lynette have been married for 28 years and have three young adult children and one son-in-law.
Tim has written extensively for various Church of the Brethren publications, including magazine articles, worship resources, Bible Study and other devotional materials. When he is not in his office, Tim enjoys woodworking and half-marathon running.
Related work on Foreshadow:
Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Interview, 2021)