Yesterday afternoon I was talking with a couple of friends who both serve churches in small Midwestern towns. They are thoughtful and humble leaders in their communities and I learn something every time we catch up. This conversation turned to divisions- the ones within congregations and the larger cultural ones which isolate Christians from one another. I can’t say we figured anything out – we’re working on it! – but I found myself encouraged just to hear other clergy, in contexts quite different from my own, wondering about similar difficult things.
These days it’s rare to go very long without hearing about divisions. They come in some predictable flavors: political, regional, cultural, and so one. Some of us have experienced these divides in our own families; we’ve been pushed apart by ugly partisanship. For my part, not surprisingly, I’m interested in how racism and white supremacy have long divided American Christians.
As I listen to these conversations and commentaries, I’ve come to think that there are different types of divisions. They are not all cut from the same cloth. When we lump them together though, we end up engaging these distinct forms with the same tools. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but here are the three types of divisions I’ve observed along with the different tools we might consider engaging them with.
Let’s call the first type of division the good faith disagreement. This one shows up between Christians who’ve come to their convictions through biblical and theological reflection, rooted in particular traditions. Take for example the Christian who hears in Scripture an emphasis on individual responsibility, repentance, and salvation. In discussion with a different Christian who prioritizes biblical themes of community and solidarity, we could reasonably expect some strong disagreement. While that disagreement could lead to division, it certainly doesn’t have to. Picking up the tool of humble discussion could lead both of our hypothetical Christians to read the Bible more holistically. (Full disclosure: I’m the second person – “The Bible is written to a community!” – who’s been helped over the years by conversations with friends who remind me not to lose sight of the unique value of each individual.)
I think the second type of division results from a lack of spiritual formation. In our conversation yesterday, I shared that I get discouraged when Christians don’t seem interested in God’s gift of reconciliation across cultural hostilities and divisions. Many of us simply don’t want it. And while there might be lots of reasons for this lack of desire, one of them is certainly the lack of spiritual formation.
I’m convinced that many Christians, white Christians especially, have been discipled in congregations where there was no expectation at all for reconciliation. There was nothing strange or troubling about cultural and ideological homogeneity. These Christians bring this lack of formation with them to the difficult conversations of our day. And we can look for this lack of formation if we’re paying attention. Take, for example, the debates about immigration reform. I’ve observed the work of friends at World Relief for close to fifteen years and I’ve seen how much of the push-back they receive comes from Christians who aren’t familiar with how God commanded his people to treat the stranger and the foreigner.
Once we notice this formation gap, we can engage this type of division more intentionally. If the first type invites discussion, this second kind requires discipleship. To stick with immigration as our example, we could invite the Christian friend who is unfamiliar with the relevant biblical passages to study some of those with us. We could ask them to read a book like Welcoming the Stranger, Christians at the Border, or Detained and Deported. The key is to remember that this person hasn’t had the opportunity to understand how Scripture speaks to certain difficult issues, much less how Christians over the generations have wrestled with these things. If a lack of spiritual formation led to the division, then discipleship is the way to engage it.
The last type of division, I’ll call it entrenched ideology, is the most difficult one for me. Unlike the previous type, this person knows the Bible (and maybe a bunch of theology), but their commitments are ideological. Their allegiance to a partisan clique outweighs any commitment to the Christians outside of it. They are aware that many of their Christian kin do not share their privilege or perspective, yet their adherence to ideological orthodoxy keeps them from expressing curiosity or care for those sisters and brothers.
In here recent book about climate change, Saving Us, Katharine Hayhoe writes about the different kinds of people who aren’t actively working to cool our warming planet. Most of these, Hayhoe believes, can be convinced to join the fight by finding places where our values overlap. But there is one group, the Dismissives, whose arguments she thinks can safely be ignored. She writes, “For a Dismissive, disagreeing with the science of climate change is one of their strongest frames. It’s so integral to who they are that it renders them literally incapable of considering something they think would threaten their identity.”
It’s the identity part that makes this type of division so difficult. And while I can’t quite write this group off, I agree with Dr. Hayhoe that it requires a pretty direct response: evangelism. I don’t mean to say that these Christian ideologues aren’t actually Christian, but at some point we have to take seriously the allegiances they so publicly display. We have to believe them when they reveal the sources of their identities. When we engage this type of division, perhaps we ought to do so as evangelists, alerting our interlocutors to the good news of the God who gives each of us a new identity… and a new family.
Those are the three common divisions I’ve been noticing: good faith disagreement, lack of spiritual formation, and entrenched ideology. Discussion, discipleship, and evangelism are some of the tools that might allow us to engage more effectively. What about you? What are the types of division you’ve experienced? Have you found helpful ways to engage with those on the other side of the divide?
(Photo: Markus Spiske)