As an American in his mid-20’s, I grew up in the midst of what we can now see as the swelling of great social polarization in my country. I remember as clear as day the moment Barack Obama was elected president. My father turned to me and said “The future of this country is ruined; you might want to consider getting out.”
While he was totally serious about his fear of where the country would be headed, I doubt he knew what would transpire in the ensuing decade. I say all of this not to preface a blog about America but to illustrate my own connection to the subject of polarization. Instead of polarization being something to study in regards to past wars and conflicts, polarization has now become a household issue. I saw my father begin to become more and more staunch in his beliefs and I saw how that began to affect me and my family.
Polarization is when disagreement disintegrates into the vilification of the other side. Polarization creates a type of tribalistic sides and thinking in society. I want to underline here that I see polarization existing beyond the realm of just our personal opinions and beliefs. It transcends from our thought life and into our entire social stratosphere.
We live in a polarized climate which creates in us a deep need to be agreed with. We have an anxiety towards the prospect that, even within the Christian world, there could be a difference of belief. Our faith is obviously an integral part of our identity. This reality mixed with polarization creates in us an inability to withhold the tension of difference. We end up taking note of those who disagree with us and categorizing them into pre-formed camps. “Oh, they’re a fundamentalist.” “That lady is one of those progressives.” We have a glaring weakness within the Body of Christ, we don’t have the bandwidth for true disagreement and unity.
Jesus prayed for us to be unified yet here we are labeling, categorizing and distancing ourselves from our literal brothers and sisters. Leaders warn the people they lead about other speakers and teachers who think differently from themselves. To be clear, I am not talking about very real wolves and sheep’s clothing (though, we may have been told that those who we disagree with are exactly that). I am not talking about predatory behavior, rebellious mavericks, oppressive actions or false teachings like Gnosticism, reincarnations or any belief that would set a race or nation as supreme. I am talking about a person you disagree with on politics and theology. A person who loves Jesus just as much as you do. Someone who serves with the same passion for their calling as you do but just thinks differently.
While I grew up in the great swelling of this polarization, I started to take notice of Christian leaders and their responses to these challenging times. The question I want to try to explore is, how do we lead during our modern era of polarization. To be honest, I feel I have seen how NOT to lead more than how to lead. When it comes to mistakes, I see being made by leaders everywhere, there are two postures that I find detrimental to our common goal of reaching the nations.
The first I want to title the ‘Jimmy Fallon Fallacy’. This is in reference to an American talk show host named Jimmy Fallon who during the 2016 presidential election chose not to use his platform to help inform the voter (as would be common in this format). Instead, he brought on the candidates and entertained his audience. He got a lot of flack for his lack of facing the issues head on like the talk show hosts of old. The ethos behind that approach is to not offend the viewers. If we do not offend, we will not lose people.
I saw very clearly the ‘Jimmy Fallon Fallacy’ aka the JFF play out in my own home church. While the world around us grew in anxiety and political disintegration, there was no mention of it from the pulpit. The ethos of that church back then and still to this day is to not offend in order to retain and grow. Their only goal was to bring as many people into their doors as they could. They avoid social issues and differences even down to sports teams. I am from the bay area in California in which we had 6 different professional sports teams within 50 miles of each other. A friend of mine used to present the church announcements and was told strictly not to mention the big win of a local sports team as to not offend the fans of the other team. (She did it anyway, the absolute legend herself.)
I can understand the root of this thinking. The attempt to be non-political (and nearly non-theological) in order to not ostracize the people, we lead can be seen as a noble attempt. I would argue that Jesus himself was and is very political and very theological. Jesus is not ‘seeker friendly’ nor does He abdicate his role in discipling his movement through the avoidance of the difficult truths of life. Jesus, when speaking about Holy Communion watched as people who had been following him walk away due to his choice of wording. He did not rush to appease the angry crowd by saying “Communion is just a symbol.” Rather He said “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Though saddened, He did not cease his telling of the truth in order to retain and grow.
The JFF method causes our witness as the Body of Christ becomes hollowed out. Grace becomes cheapened. Our unity is not unity but actually avoidance. The people we lead also then multiply this emptiness which at worst results in a disembodied and irrelevant gospel. We create a culture in which the holy work and teaching of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is minimized to flying away when we die.
In the very beginning of our mission, Loren Cunningham stresses in ‘Is that Really You God’ the importance of the “Two-handed Gospel” which is “to love people in both word and deed in order to proclaim and demonstrate the Good News of the gospel.” I take this as meaning we must be connected to the world around us, weeping with those who weep, mourning with those who mourn and feeding the actual poor and hungry. I see mercy ministries as a very political and theological act. Nothing is more outspoken than one’s actions, and just like the conception of the first refugee work Youth with a Mission (YWAM) conducted in Thailand, we must be moved to action by compassion. Our actions in mercy ministries bring a critique to this dark age. As Walter Bruggeman writes in his book ‘The Prophetic Imagination’ “Grief and mourning is the ultimate form of criticism”. In other words, we are to feel the world’s pains, grieve and mourn with those grieving and mourning, and act out of that place of compassion.
Acts of compassion tells us how broken the status quo is and why it needs to change. This is not work to be polarized on either side but the Christian witness. Seeing our very real human issues and the ongoing dehumanization of the poor and needy image bearers, we must be advocating with, at the very least, mercy ministries as the hands and feet of God.
The second posture is the trickier of the two. I am going to call it the ‘Take a Stand’ culture. This growing stance is rooted in the idea that there is a wave of opposing forces that are inherently anti-Christian who seek explicitly the destruction of Christian values and culture. In response to the siege Christianity is experiencing, the leader must ‘Take a Stand’ against this dark age using showing strength through stark statements and triumphalism. This is the area where social media, the Body of Christ and polarization can form a very unholy union. On the surface, that sounds like the heroic and correct thing to do. This is why I think it is the trickier of the two postures.
We think the way to respond to differences is to starkly contrast those we disagree with and minimize space and allowance for dialogue and disagreement. However, when we look at the founder and perfecter of our faith, we do not see a person who challenges the evil of the dark world and fight it tooth and nail with heroics and triumphalism. Jesus uses a different tactic on a far different target.
We do not see Jesus ‘Take a Stand’ against ‘this dark age’ of roman paganism. His battle was not against his version of ‘secularism’ which may have been perhaps hellenism or paganism. He did not release statements against prostitution or adultery, though those problems obviously did exist.
Jesus does, however, take a stand. He is seen time and time again standing against the religious leaders who created stumbling blocks and distance between God and his beloved people and against destructive practices and beliefs His own people exhibited.
Instead, hastily rebuking sinners, Jesus found himself between a woman caught in adultery and the men who sought to take a stand against her and offered mercy. Jesus in this case seemed very happy to be seen as compromising what they knew as Mosaic law. Instead of taking a stand against those pesky heretical Samaritans, Jesus took a stand against the xenophobic practices of His own people and offered the Samaritans living water. Instead of taking a stand against his very real enemies through violent revolution, He took a stand against the demonic power of hatred by loving his enemies through healing the centurion’s daughter and more subversively, dying for those who spilled His blood.
If we take a stand against this dark age in the form of social media posts, judgement, and the villainization of others by being self-appointed thought police we will be making a difference. But, instead of making a positive difference in our society, our strength and triumphalism will result in further polarization and the advancement of the dehumanization of God’s image. If we choose to end conversations before, they begin out of the fear of a perceived anti-Christian siege, we minimize ourselves and we further push people away into their camps.
Taking a stand is absolutely necessary and what we are called to. Our problem is that we have misappropriated our standing. We take a stand against our enemies instead of taking a stand for what will advance the Kingdom built of the self-sacrificial love of God.
Our ultimate goal is not to make clear our disagreement and disgust with some cultural hot-potato. Our goal is much more sacred and when we act this way, our goal only becomes more difficult. I think of our Church fathers and mothers who were actually persecuted, who stood before their captors and oppressors and did not deny their Christ. That type of ‘Taking a Stand’ results in our martyrdom not in our triumphalism or heroics. If we seek to take a stand, may it be on behalf of the lost, lonely and brokenhearted. May we take a stand, not against our online foe’s but against the villainizing of our brothers and sisters. Let us take a stand against polarization and the further fracturing of the Body of Christ.
As far as how to lead, maybe start with humility. May we begin with being shaped by our Lord Jesus Christ through the words of the beautiful prayer below.
Prayer of St Francis-
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.