As a child of the Depression, my mother developed two guiding principles that on the surface might seem at odds with each other. She lived her entire life in fear of not having enough resources. And yet she valued sharing what she had with anyone who had need.
These are the two impulses currently at war with each other in the American Christian church. We want to extend the love of Christ, but we are fearful of losing our place and privilege.
This dilemma assumes a zero-sum game, even among those of us who know intellectually that giving recognition to others doesn’t have to take away our own identity. And yet we fear inside that’s exactly what will happen. Granting rights to others might take away some rights from us.
A recent social media meme took aim at this: “Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.”
Another way to see this is to ask what is your starting position in viewing the nature of the world around you. Do you begin from a vantage of scarcity or abundance? Do you begin with a basis of fear or curiosity? Do you see the world as a dark and dangerous place or as a wonderful and exciting place?
How you answer these questions will have something to do with your own life experiences that have shaped you from birth. As a child of the Depression, my mother knew what it was to have nothing, and she did not want to be caught in that situation ever again. As a child of God, she knew the joy of sharing freely, and she did not want to lose that blessing. But at various times, one or the other of these experiences took precedence. That’s human nature.
Research shows that one of the fundamental differences between conservatives and liberals resides in brain structure. We are wired to see the world through different lenses and to instinctively react to perceived threats in different ways. But no doubt these evolutionary impulses get shaped and refined by our life experiences, our education and our family and friends, our churches. And sometimes we nurse these inherent biases by the types of media we consume in large doses.
There is danger in getting trapped on one side of the brain impulse or the other. Always seeing the world as a scary place will cause you to live in constant fear. Always seeing the world as an innocent place can get you killed.
After recently writing a piece about the biblical witness on welcoming immigrants, I received emails from a number of churchgoing folks who said national security must trump welcoming strangers. “Surely you lock the doors to your house at night,” one correspondent said. “You wouldn’t leave your door open for anyone to come in.”
While that is indeed true, neither would I issue a blanket decree that no one could enter my house for four months while I got my guest-vetting process in order. Does it have to be that extreme? Is there no middle ground for appropriate security mixed with welcome?
In his fantastic book The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin demonstrates how great leaders have the unique ability to hold opposing ideas in tension and find a third way through choices that to the average person appear to offer only two paths.
The key concept he teaches is called “integrative thinking.” Here’s his definition: “The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”
Looking back, this is one of the lessons I learned from my mother, although she may never have known what to call it.
When Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, it is not a call to make everyone agree with my position or yours. Peacemaking never happens on the extreme edges of ideology. The call to peacemaking is, instead, a call to integrative thinking, acknowledging two contrasting ideas and finding between them the good of the whole.
The greatest gift followers of Christ could give the church and the world right now is the demonstration of how to hold two competing ideas in tension without breaking. We don’t have a good track record on this, however. So now’s our chance to do something different. Remember, it’s not pie.