In 2017, I was near the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. By “near,” I mean that I stood in the street, walked along the sidewalk and remained close to the protesters and counter-protesters. I did not participate in the protest or the counter-protest. Rather, I was a bystander.
Out of that experience and others, I began to think about polarization in the United States. In November 2017, Baptist News Global hosted “Conversations That Matter: Pastoral Leadership in a Polarized and Politicized America,” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the first of two gatherings of a diverse group of young pastors made possible by a grant to BNG from the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. About 25 ministers met for the first session to discuss the growing negativity, divisiveness and deterioration of civil discourse in the country and its challenges for preaching and pastoral ministry. The experience prompted me to start writing some of my thoughts. Those reflections grew into a book, Crossing the Lines We Draw: Faithful Responses to a Polarized America, released in April by Judson Press.
Paradoxically, during the long wait between writing the book and its publication, I wondered if my ideas about ways to engender unity in a divided culture might become unnecessary – and prayed that would be the case. I hoped people would begin to overcome their differences, find common ground and come together. If Americans – and especially religious leaders in communities across the country – were able to coalesce around some shared ideal, then my project would immediately be dated. It would be so 2017!
“How can people of faith find ways to help build unity in the present environment?”
However, as I wrote and then waited, the divisions grew wider and deeper.
During that interim period came a terrible moment that presented an opportunity to come together as a nation, to unite as humankind and to find common ground as people of faith. The moment arrived in the form of a global pandemic. Examples of people coming together flooded the news from around the world. South Korea tested almost everyone. Iceland showed how detectives could lead contact tracing. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led with empathy. Many countries quarantined a vast majority of the population.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., in a strange perversion of public health, we managed to politicize COVID-19. Wearing a face mask became a political symbol. Rather than practice social distancing, wear a mask or observe stay-at-home guidelines, many Americans argued defiantly that “It’s my body and my choice.” Sadly, today we are even more divided than when I started scribbling notes in 2017.
How can people of faith find ways to help build unity in the present environment? The first step toward crossing the lines we have drawn is faith. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
We cannot overcome our differences apart from the faith that things can be better. This is faith in the sense of belief or hope for the future. Without such faith, there is no reason, no motivation to heal our divisions. It does not really matter. Without faith, there is no reason to convince others of the efficacy of social distancing, wearing masks and suspending gatherings in groups. Without a hope for the future, there is little to motivate us even to adopt the simple preventative practice of washing our hands again and again.
Some years ago, I was talking with a person who holds a different worldview from mine. He made a political comment, and I struggled for a moment about how to respond. Should I speak the “truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) and say something in the hope it would prompt a meaningful conversation? Was that space even open to us? Had we established a level of trust in which we could have an honest conversation? Was the context appropriate? I struggled with remaining silent, yet it seemed more important in that instance to keep the option open for further conversation. Speaking the truth, even in love, can end an opportunity for dialogue.
I have learned that in any conversation where differences of opinion exist, it’s important not to pretend to have the answers. Part of addressing the polarization in our culture is to accept that we do not know everything. We can embrace the humility referenced in scripture passages such as James 4:6, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Once we accept the limitations of our knowledge, we are better able to think about the other person, even if we are convinced that they are wrong. Relationships are worth the work, so we try to see the world through another person’s eyes. Seeing with a different perspective means adopting a gracious, pastoral spirit that can cross partisan lines.
In the current climate, this means trying to imagine why people would risk their health to protest stay-at-home orders. It means trying to walk in the shoes of the minister where 38 percent of the attendees at a Bible study ended up testing positive for COVID-19. On the one hand, I want to say, “What were they thinking?” On the other hand, a spirit of empathy might lead to ideas about how to overcome differences.
What can we say in situations like this? Empathy and kind words come together with actions and experiences to help form the tapestry of our faith journey. They can enable us to be reflections of God’s love and light. And, beyond this pandemic, they can help shape what the church is to become in the future.
For Christians, the journey of faith is a lifelong experience. Regardless of whether that journey began in the church nursery or as a mature adult or somewhere in between, the process takes a lifetime. There is always room to grow in Christ and to learn something new.
“We cannot overcome our differences apart from the faith that things can be better.”
At the starting point is a quest. The quest is our preparation for reconciliation. It is the spiritual work we do before showing up at a protest or counter-protest. The time we spend praying and growing in faith prepares us for situations ahead. It helps us respond in a productive manner to people who confront us with what is clearly (to us) a misguided or baseless worldview.
When King talked about taking steps in faith, he did not mean taking one step and then stopping. Faith is a journey, and a journey is movement. It means continuing to take steps toward bringing people together.
Furthermore, we need examples of what getting along can look like. Placing the words of the late Fred Rogers in his television role as “Mr. Rogers” and his life as a devout Christian alongside comments from President Donald Trump sheds light on contrasting approaches to conflicting points of view or worldviews. Continuing to take steps forward toward meaningful conversation and constructive dialogue is hard work. But it is worth the effort.
Can we overcome the polarization that has inflicted our politics, our culture and our churches and other religious institutions?
One person, of course, cannot change the entire landscape. One person, however, can affect change in her part of the world where she interacts daily with others – friends, family, colleagues and strangers alike. Each of us makes choices. We open some doors and close others. We pick one path and avoid another. Each choice has its own implications and repercussions.
Amid the widening divisions and deepening polarization in every area of life, we can make choices that are intended to bring people together rather than push them farther away. We can be intentional and proactive. We can adopt Mr. Rogers’ simple advice to “Be kind” or the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32, NRSV).
When, with others, we start working to bring people together, we can change the world.
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