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Opinion

How to survive Thanksgiving dinner conversations in a politically explosive year

A roasted Thanksgiving turkey in Concord, N.H.

A roasted Thanksgiving turkey in Concord, N.H. Credit: AP / Matthew Mead

When I have led many workshops for preachers and public policy advocates about how to preach about divisive topics, many have said they planned to use the advice during an even more frightening occasion: Thanksgiving dinner with their brother-in-law.

Unless your family has a strict rule that bars religion and politics from the table, you may be dreading this gathering.

This has been a particularly ugly presidential election. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and most of the Republican presidential candidates mined the deep currents of anger and grievance that run through our nation, and we ended up with nominees that dismayed many Americans.

So, how can you make it through a holiday meal without saying something you regret?

Listen before you speak. Few of us pay attention very long to anyone who wants our attention without giving it. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. of the Riverside Church in Manhattan, who died earlier this year,  said that “You should try to listen to your opponents carefully enough that you can state their position to their satisfaction.”

Let people know you heard them. I am more likely to remain civil if somebody first tells me, “I hear what you are saying, but I see things differently.”

Confess your own ambivalence and confusion. Try to never condemn something without first locating it in your own life. Rather than tell others that you think they are wrong, tell them how you realized that you were wrong yourself.

It is far better to admit that you have struggled with bias yourself than to call your in-law a bigot. If you held your nose as you cast your ballot or were tempted, as I was, to vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson — even when he could not name a single foreign leader he respects – or to write in Jed Barlett (“The West Wing”) for president, say so.

Use humor, particularly if you are the butt of the joke. Be careful, though, about tales that your family may see as ridiculing members of your clan. In discussing immigration, I often tell audiences that I suspect my grandfather slipped across the border, even though no visas were required until a decade later. If I joked about this among my siblings or cousins, though, they might not appreciate the humor.

Don’t demand that others agree with you. As Unitarian Universalist Rev. Paul Johnson notes, most people are far more willing to hear him out if he does not expect agreement — or suggest that something is wrong with them if they disagree.

Speak for yourself. It is far more effective and far less offensive to say, “My experience has been different,” rather than “You don’t know what you are talking about.” Even relatives who think you have lived a really strange life are not likely to become indignant about it.

Last, but not least, remember that God loves those who are wrong, including that relative who drives you crazy. At the Riverside Church,  Coffin also liked to remind us that “God can ride the lame horse and carve the rotten wood.”

God even loves the likes of you and me.

Thomas W. Goodhue is a United Methodist clergyman who recently retired as leader of the Long Island Council of Churches. He is writing a book on how to get along with your neighbors in a multi-faith world.

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