A few years back I had two separate events occur in the same month that started an inner storm in me. First, I had a parishioner, dear to me and dear to others, decide to leave. The circumstances around her departure have left me scratching my head ever since.
She kindly shared with me, “Dan, I don’t feel safe in this church knowing there are Liberals who believe so differently than me. I just can’t relax and be myself.” I desperately tried to communicate safety and that there was space for her, but it wasn’t enough.
Fast forward a few weeks. A couple came to me with the same intense stress, yet this time it was from the opposite angle. “Dan, we’re not sure we’ll ever feel settled here amongst people who hold such conservative positions. We need a church that takes sides on these types of oppressive beliefs.” I tried to persuade them that our church was more of a 50/50 mix of conservatives and progressives. They made it clear they’d be looking for a truly progressive church.
I grieved that both of these parties could not dwell in the mix.
The Push to Purify
To this day there is a push-and-pull in the church to ‘purify,’ to become a progressive church or a conservative church. I’ve been haunted by the question, “Can progressive Christians and conservative Christians dwell in Christian community together?”
Do we really desire to be mixed up together?
Recently this picture of Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush warmly embracing made its rounds and illustrated how the culture war has violently malformed the church.
I found the picture deeply moving to my pastoral heart. What saddened me was the visceral responses the picture elicited in both progressive and conservative Christians.
Rather than being received as a picture of beauty in our ugly political landscape, it was received with anger.
I heard many conservatives detest how Bush could embrace a “baby killer.” I heard progressives abhor how Clinton hugged a “warmonger.” I don’t lose much sleep over what shenanigans occur on Capitol Hill, but it’s the social scaffolding of the local church that is of apocalyptic importance to me.
This undertow of political hatred has surged into the church.
Can Clinton types and Bush types dwell in local Christian community together?
Based on the largest study of US political attitudes ever undertaken by the Pew Research Center, a social force is aggressively ordering us into “political siloing”—the tendency to interact mostly with politically like-minded people. 60% of people say that it’s “important to live in a place where most people share my political views.” Similarly, 73% of conservatives say most of their friends share their worldview, while 69% of progressives say the same. Partisan animosity has increased substantially.
The Pew Report exposed that in the 1960s, neither Republicans nor Democrats were particularly troubled by the idea of their children marrying someone of the other party. Today, however, 60% of Republicans and 70% of Democrats (give or take 5%) would be very unhappy with their children marrying someone from the other party.
We are being shaped by the political climate of our day, and it is unraveling our ability to dwell in Christian community with each other.
But does it bother us?
Attack ads, ad hominem arguments, and excessive claims about the other party’s impact on America’s future have become staple elements of political campaigns and media coverage. All this division might be expected in the circus of politics, but my hunch is that the church is mimicking this circus of animosity and division.
Our churches have capitulated to “political siloing.”
There is a violent pull dragging us to opposite poles to align ourselves passionately with a camp and, equally passionately, against a camp.
The Psychology of Polarization
Psychologist Carl Jung (indirectly) gives us insight into the psychology of the polarization waging war on the church. Part of Jung’s study on human development involved whether human beings could integrate opposite poles in their lives.
Early in our childhood development we are often unable to self identify with more than one pole.
I experienced this with my own son when he was three. I would look him in the eye and say, “I love you so much buddy,” and he would respond, “I ONLY love momma. I don’t love you. I just love momma.” After putting my heart back together, I would gently respond, “You can love us both,” and he would respond, “I can only love momma.” This went on for nine months, but eventually a couple neurons somewhere in his cute little head fused together to permit him to say I love you to both of us.
Carl Jung explains that this phenomenon can continue through adulthood, causing us to relate primarily in either/or categories.
I’m convinced our adult civilization is regressing emotionally.
We slide back to childhood when we particularly dislike something about a people group (progressives or conservatives) and deem it necessary to find ways to accumulate a burning mound of facts about why we should hate “them.” Polarization is not a result of intellectual enlightenment or informed thinking; it is a result of emotional regression.
To sign up for Jesus and join his movement is to take on the mature work of integrating differing poles rather than regressing into either/or categories.
The Polarization-Busting Movement
First-century Christian communities were formed in the midst of visceral polarities not completely unlike ours. However, the first-century world was aggressively ordered by hatreds. When a Jew called a Gentile “uncircumcised,” they spat it. It was a name of profound contempt. If a Jewish person married a Gentile, the Gentile parents held a symbolic funeral service for their child. Gentiles regarded Jews as subhuman, and vice versa. In all of human history there had never been so much animosity, disgust, and violence between two social groups of people.
But, in the first century there emerged a group of people who were invited to transcend their ideological differences.
Blame it on Jesus for starting a polarization-busting movement. Make no mistake, Jesus inhabited a polarized culture of Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians, Zealots (all political parties, by the way), but he refused to play by their rank-and-file games.
Jesus sits with the progressive: the Jameses and Johns who are zealous to see God’s kingdom restored and justice rendered to marginalized, impoverished, oppressed, and occupied people. Jesus also sits and shares meals with the Matthews—Matthew was a tax collector who had cozied up to the Romans and was a part of the occupying powers—those some might consider greedy neocons.
When Jesus gathered the first core of disciples, there was an intentional disruption of the poles. If it were not for Jesus holding the space at the center, James and John would loathe Matthew and his ilk; they’d all naturally slide into the cultural ditch of mutual hatred for one another.
Only One Option
Christian community is inherently a love-filled project of living into the tensions our differences create. It is not an either/or space of choosing to fellowship exclusively along the lines of our political affinities. Christian community started out as a space where the polarities were being woven together by the powerful thread of Christ’s love; it was a place of staying in the tension rather than political siloing.
Yet here we are in the 21st century, a time when dwelling in the mash-up of a progressive and conservative Christian community induces a gag reflex for many.
We no longer embrace the normalcy of disagreeing with one another in community. We are disgusted with one another, painting each other as subhuman, monstrous, and idiotic. Jesus has strong words for these guttural feelings we have towards each other that spill out of our mouths or are given even more zing by our computer keyboards:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ but I tell you that anyone who is angry with another is no better than a murderer. Again, anyone who says about a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the judgment of God. – Matthew 5:21-22 (with omissions)
These are intense words, but Jesus, “the Prince of Peace,” is focusing us on the smallest seeds of verbal violence.
Don’t be so proud of the fact you haven’t killed anybody. Saying of someone, “Raca,” is akin to calling someone a fool, an uninformed idiot, or a/an ____ (insert your preferred pejorative label). We kill, we bludgeon, we slice, and we slit with our words.
How can we hope to dwell in Christian community if we become completely comfortable tossing verbal grenades at each other from our political silos? There is a lot of Raca-ing we let ourselves get away with.
We need a resistance movement that refuses “siloing” and embraces the alternative way modeled in the early Jesus communities.
This has been something I’ve been prototyping in my own church planting work. In my next post, I’d like to offer how I’ve been shaped by the Navajo Nation’s Peace Circle and what it offers the mature work of dwelling beyond polarization in local Christian community. I’d also like to posit five signposts for cultivating a Christian community that makes space for the Clinton and Bush in every community to learn to love one another under the Lordship of Jesus. I’ll see you there.