I attend a small group every other Sunday night at my pastor’s house. The group has a wide variety of people in attendance, mostly younger but some older people, a few pastors, a couple people who do not attend church much anymore, a few liberals, some conservatives, and some independents who could not care less where they fall on the spectrum. Some of us attend so that we can speak our mind in a way that we can’t anywhere else, while others of us attend just to listen and hear opinions different from our own. The group was formed with the intention of proving that a group of Christians, despite difference in opinion on many areas, can come together, be civil, learn from each other, and grow together.

Before every group, we go around the room and recite our creed and the guideline for discussion. We repeat these words so we remember the intention of the group and don’t get off track from what we gather to do. While most of the guideline are really good and worth writing about, one part sticks out to me in particular, and it is a phrase that has greatly influenced my thinking over the past few months. The line says “We will extend the benefit of the virtue to everyone in the group.” Many people have heard the phrase “benefit of the doubt” but this was wholly new to me – the “benefit of the virtue.”

This means that whenever people in the group are talking, I start with the assumption that they are speaking from a place of virtue. I am to believe with all my heart that they are not attempting to hurt anyone with their words, despite if those words actually hurt. If anything is spoken that I disagree with, I am to make an honest effort to see their intention and their position with a heart of grace. I must embrace their opinion with full humility, accepting that their view may in fact be more on target than mine is.

To extend the benefit of the virtue to someone else is a seemingly foreign concept in today’s society. One need to only scroll through Facebook or Twitter for a few minutes before finding two people, sometimes complete strangers to the other, writing terrible things about the other person online. This recent election cycle has brought out some of the worst in people – vicious character attacks on certain candidates with callous and sometimes equally as vicious defenses of those candidates. Social media is a nasty place sometimes.

I have seen this firsthand. Despite my hope for a Bernie Sanders presidency, I do realize that at least part of the “Bernie Bro” narrative is very real and unsettling. Many bad things have been said to people who were simply stating their opinion, one that did not align with the beliefs of those responding. This is incredibly sad and it’s embarrassing to see. But this does not just happen from one side – many followers of other candidates, and even those in important positions in media, have engaged in slander and spread lies about those they disagree with. This is happening all over social media and most, if not all, of us who engage in these discussions contribute to the hostility. This is partly due to the nature of politics, but it seems to be incredibly prominent this cycle.

It is okay to be angry with the way things are right now. It is good to demand change when systems are broken. It is completely fine to point out flaws in the positions of certain candidates and to call for truth when lies are clearly being shared. All of these aspects are necessary in order to grow as a community and heal some these wounds that plague our cities. But we are missing one important thing.

Before any conversation can begin, whether in person or on social media, we must start by giving the other person the benefit of the virtue. We must be willing to understand where they are coming from and accept that they have a legitimate stance. We must assume that they have done their homework and have just arrived at a different conclusion than we have. We must choose to not see their words as attacks, but instead see the person speaking and trust that they are trying to speak out of love.

Some people might just be attacking. Some might have horrible intentions. Approach them the same way, with the benefit of the virtue, then disengage when it is clear that the conversation will only be destructive. Let us choose our words carefully, especially on the internet, because emotion and human connection are not clear when they are written in 12 point font on a page. Respond in grace and love to all. And if that doesn’t work, block them – it is better to remove ourselves from destructive conversations than to continue in them. Sometimes the best way we can extend the benefit of the virtue is to not engage with someone at all.

None of us are always right. We are always only working out our own problems, and we all have a ton of problems. We are made of the same dust and will eventually return to the same dust. We are going to have to live in eternity with some of these people. We should probably start practicing loving them now – it’s going to make it a lot less awkward later on. Start by extending them the benefit of the virtue and who knows… maybe they will extend it back to you.