Government shutdown: conflict management or a heart for resolution?

By Peter Redmayne 28 Jan 2019

On Friday the US Congress and President Donald Trump signed off on a law allowing the US federal government to reopen for three weeks. At 35 days (closed since the 22nd December), this has been the longest shutdown in US history. The cause of the shutdown was Trump’s refusal to approve the 2019 federal budget until the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives designated funding for his Mexico border wall. Although government has temporarily re-opened, the conflict continues and it may well shut down again.

What does this deadlock tell us about US politics?

Politicians in the US ­– and in the UK too – are increasingly settling for managing conflict, instead of resolving it. Instead of seeking long-term solutions and compromise, they are becoming ideologically entrenched and unwilling to cooperate with the other party. The refusal of the Republicans and Democrats to agree on a consensus on the border wall – or other form of border security – seems symptomatic of a deeper problem. It is the deep polarisation of politics across the world and a refusal to listen to our opponents’ views.

What does the Bible say about political disputes?

Scripture is full of exhortations to seek peace with our enemies. ‘Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it’ (Ps 34:14), ‘Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy’ (Hebrews 12:14), ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’ (Romans 12:18).  We know that peace-making is important to God. But where in the Bible can we find guidance on resolving political disputes, especially ones where both sides think the other is beyond the pale? One example might be the Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15, when circumcision and keeping the Law was the dividing line in question. Some of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem had gone to Antioch to tell the Gentile believers ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’ (15:1). Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to consult the apostles and elders about the problem. How the meeting unfolded can teach us several things about how to resolve conflict.

Peter gets up to speak and boldly tells the Jewish Christians that God has shown that he accepts Gentile believers (as they are) by giving them the Holy Spirit (v. 8). This is the first step, bringing clarity by providing evidence for a side’s case. Secondly, he challenges the Jewish Christians to change: ‘Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?’ (v. 10) He says that both have been saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus. After Peter speaks, Paul and Barnabas provide further evidence of the Gentiles being saved – the signs and wonders done among them. ‘The whole assembly became silent as they listened to [them]’ (v. 12). This is the third step: to listen. Without this the evidence we present and the challenges we give will be useless – they will fall on deaf ears. Then James gets up and he teaches us about compromise. As de facto leader of the church in Jerusalem he had the support of the legalist faction and now he offers a solution: they will write to the Gentiles, limiting the restrictions on them to abstaining ‘from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood’ (v. 20). This offers a way forward: they don’t decide to manage the conflict by going their separate ways but resolve it by finding a compromise.               

What possible way forward could this offer to the deadlock over the US-Mexico wall?

Firstly, it is important for there to be clarity on both sides’ positions. Democrats (and Republicans) should question the causal link Trump draws between illegal immigration and crime. For example, a study by libertarian Think Tank Cato Institute showed that in 2015 only 899 of every 100,000 illegal immigrants in Texas had been convicted of a criminal offence, well below the average for natives of 1,797. Republicans (and Democrats) should ask why there is a reluctance to improve border security among the Democrats, given that under both Clinton and Obama they made it a priority. It is important for the debate to be open and honest. Armed with the evidence, politicians should be willing to challenge one another. But note that Peter’s challenge to the Jewish Christians is based on a common identity – we have both been saved by grace – and is thus rooted in love. In challenging our opponents, we must ‘speak the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15).

It must be done in a spirit of seeking compromise and progress. This will make it much easier for them to listen and for our evidence and challenge to get through. Only then can we hope to reach a compromise – where we change too. It is beyond our scope here to speculate on what a compromise might look like in relation to the US-Mexico wall. What is certain, though, is that an approach rooted in the lessons of Acts 15 and God’s heart for peace-making will reap dividends: we must clarify, challenge, listen and ultimately compromise.

Peter Redmayne is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. He graduated from Durham University with a BA in Modern Languages.

Image Credit: 'Impact of Government Shutdown on the Food and Beverage Industry' by James Palinsad licensed under Creative Commons

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