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Betsy Kneepkens: Ask questions to help break through our growing incivility this Thanksgiving

Nov 6, 2019

One of my favorite holidays is Thanksgiving. For me, few things are more satisfying than spending a whole day in gratitude. OK, eating some of my favorite foods all day certainly doesn’t hurt the cause, either.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t find the pause to give thanks a good idea. From a purely Christian perspective, Christmas and Easter hold deep spiritual meaning but can be a bit stressful with the secular influence. As much as I try to be committed to the purpose of Easter and Christmas, I find myself stumbling into the trappings of the worldly ways. Other than Black Friday morning, which I avoid, Thanksgiving appears to remain free from the bindings of materialism.

For years, each Thanksgiving looked like every other Thanksgiving. We tried to start the day with Mass, a celebration of Thanksgiving, and then quickly moved on to potato sausage in freshly baked buns slathered in butter. We began heating the turkey after breakfast, and, to reduce stress, I often made some of the side dishes the day before. We played games, we watched football, and we laughed at the same family stories over and over again.

We typically have our Kneepkens clan, and on occasion, a host of other extended family members or friends. In the old days, the most significant conflict was who would sleep where, since at times we had more guests than we had beds. With a little seniority put in place, the sleeping arrangements were resolved rather quickly.

I continue to love Thanksgiving, but it is a bit different now. Too often, conversations have moved from funny and delightful to political and, at times, biting. The divisions in the nation are jumping into our personal and social relationships. As my husband said, “When you now gather with others, you kind of feel like you are walking on eggshells. Like if you say something, it more often or not offends someone in the group.”

In the past, I invited folks we love dearly and then looked forward to the joyful experience of exchanging life stories. Yet unbeknownst to me, these same loved ones now often enough come with opposing political and theological perspectives that they feel need to be proclaimed around the dinner table. Instead of moments of cheery conversation, I have created a laboratory of incivility, a sure-fire way to destroy what historically would be a delightful holiday experience. The times have changed, and Thanksgiving is particular evidence.

Through conversations with others, I am confident my experience with the holidays is repeating itself in other homes throughout the country. Some people suggest that you shouldn’t invite family members who have the potential to create disruptions because they have the potential to spoil the day. I have heard others suggest you invite and then uninvite when conversations escalate to verbal wars. Others, on the other hand, have suggested that a list be made which covers topics that are undiscussable at the Thanksgiving table. Essentially, if someone wants to bring up an “undiscussable,” others should not respond.

Maybe these ideas have merit based on the degree of difficulty these conversations may cause relationships. However, as Christians, it might be wise to think of the whole matter differently. Perhaps we should ask ourselves: Are we missing an opportunity to be disciples and share the good news with others? I say this because political topics are almost always now theological subjects. And as Catholics, we are called to propose the truth to others even when it is difficult.

Christ did that his whole adult life, and how he did it may help our conversations bear fruit. Furthermore, I would think our proposals of truth are necessary for our call to be disciples, as long as we deliver the message in respect and love and with confidence and always, always remain calm. I have found that when speaking truth directly to the face of someone who disagrees with you, they shut you out. When you suggest a different way to look at something, the one who disagrees ignores you.

So what I try to do now is to propose concepts in the form of a question. By asking a person about an idea, I have found, you engage your listener in critical thinking. When you ask about matters that our Creator has already written on our heart, asking a question can unveil for the listener something they already know. Asking questions, and a willingness to listen to the answer, creates civility while helping your loved one to more easily have the truth rediscovered from within.

I have tried this approach on several occasions. I have had some positive results. The method worked well for Christ, so I am not so surprised that it has worked for me. When questions come down to be a direct matter of faith, my question is as simple as, “Who do you think Jesus is?” From the answer to that question, so many other questions can follow.

The Thanksgiving holiday is still a marvelous holiday. As Catholics, this particular time of year is a great way to invite those in who are increasingly testy to be around. When we look at these challenging conversations, and we see the potential to bring someone to Christ, there is no better time than those holiday meals.

There was another person in history, the Master of all Truth, who used the art of asking questions to bring his message to others. So when you struggle with loved ones, don’t avoid them this holiday season, and invite them in. I hope your home is filled with those who disagree with you this Thanksgiving season so you can “ask them” into being closer to Christ.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.