Polarization and the church: is a third way possible?

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Last week, the Pew Research Center shared their findings from a 20-year study of polarization in American politics. The short version: it’s getting worse. But polarization is not just a political phenomenon. It’s a religious one too.

Polarization is more than just disagreement with someone. It’s the tendency to view that person as your enemy, as a threat to everything you hold dear. In a Christian context, polarization manifests itself in rejecting the validity of someone else’s faith, or by saying things like, “If you accept X, then you’ve undermined the gospel, the Bible, Christianity, etc.”

We don’t have to look far to find those who’ve been impacted by this kind of polarization, whose humanity has been reduced to an abstract “other” so we can more easily marginalize and dismiss them.

Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. The question is, can we have our differences and still find a way to live together?

Al Mohler has said quite forcefully there can be no “third way”—at least not when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. And as he pointed out, Tony Jones has said pretty much the same thing from the left. In response, Zach Hoag has written a couple of posts (here and here) defending the idea of a third way.

Some have said the third way is at best a temporary stopping point on the way to something else. (See, for example, this thoughtful post from Justin Hanvey.) The idea of a third way—making room for people on both sides in your church—sounds good in theory. But what do you do, for example, when a same-sex couple asks you to officiate their wedding? What do you do when you finally have to choose one side over the other?

Is a third way about allowing for time for discernment and reflection together—with the assumption that the clock is ticking and we’ll have to come to some kind of resolution eventually? Or is it a commitment to live in community even if we never come to agreement? Is that even possible?

I don’t have good answers to these questions. I’m still wrestling. I have some doubts about the viability of a third way, partly because I like things to be black and white.

The truth is, I always have…

—//—

I’ve never been good at negotiating a third way, regardless of which side of the ideological spectrum I sat on. In my college days, I was one of the more conservative kids on a conservative evangelical campus. I would argue loud and long with my comparatively more “liberal” friends. Politics, women’s ordination, homosexuality. You name it, we argued it.

What I didn’t realize until years later was they were modeling a third way in how they responded. They never rejected me as a person. They never questioned the validity of my faith, even though I’m quite sure they found some of my views (and how I expressed them) repugnant.

Even when my arguments crossed the line from debate to personal attack, even when I demonstrated precisely zero interest in what they had to say (which was often), even when they got so frustrated with me they had to get up from the table—we always came back together the next day. They always welcomed me back to the table. We didn’t soft-pedal our disagreements. But we found a way to live together in the midst of them—which was almost entirely to their credit and not mine.

Since then, many of my views have shifted—not least because of the influence of those who refused to write me off. I don’t care much for the term “liberal” because I think for some it carries a certain stereotype of someone who says the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed (if they say it at all), and that’s not me. Nevertheless, I’m definitely on the more “progressive” side of things than I was in college.

But I’ve brought all my old polarizing tendencies with me. I’m still a fundamentalist at heart. (Yes, progressives can be fundamentalists too.) I still have a tendency to view those I disagree with as enemies. As “other.” And this kind of polarization is an inherently dehumanizing force.

—//—

Whatever the merits and limitations of a third way, if it’s just about being superficially nice, then it’s not worth the effort. As Benjamin Moberg notes, civility and respect are important, but eradicating injustice matters more. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a threat to the church, not by a long shot. But some may pose a genuine threat—to the church and to those who seek shelter within its walls. There are some whose very notion of the way of Jesus seems diametrically opposed to the man himself…

Those who insist on shutting certain people out.

Those who make exclusion a badge of orthodoxy.

Those who harbor abusers and blame their victims.

Those who cannot see the dignity and worth—or faith—of those who are different from them.

The third way, as I understand it, isn’t about trying to please everybody. If you don’t want to sit in the same pew as people who are different from you, then the third way is not for you.

If the thought of receiving communion from a priest who is gay makes you cringe, the third way may not be your thing. If you cannot share the peace of Christ with those who don’t share your views on same-sex marriage, then you may have to find another way. “Fundamentalism won’t fly,” as Zach Hoag writes. “Movement will be required on both sides.” That is, movement toward each other as fellow image bearers and, yes, as fellow Christians.

That’s because the third way is about affirming the genuine faith of [insert your favorite scapegoat here]. When you can do this, what you’re really affirming is that you and they are part of the same family. You are bound to them, and they are bound to you.

That may be as far as the third way can take us. But even that might be enough to blunt the worst effects of polarization on the church.

—//—

The third way that Zach and others have proposed is not a solution to all our problems. But I don’t think it’s meant to be. Like I wrote near the beginning of this post, the limitations of a third way become evident the moment a church is asked to bless a same-sex marriage or hire a female priest or take any other action that forces it to favor one side over the other.

As long as we have to take sides from time to time, let’s be honest. If we claim Jesus as our example, can we find any case in the gospels where he didn’t cast his lot with the disenfranchised? Where he didn’t favor those who were marginalized or excluded over those who were in power?

Choices have to be made. What makes the third way compelling is not the avoidance of choice but the refusal to be enemies in the midst of making that choice. Others may choose to see us as their enemy, and we can’t help that. But we don’t have to return the favor. We can offer a hand to anyone who’s willing to walk with us, even as we wrestle with our differences, as we try to discern together where the Spirit is taking us.

The third way is the stubborn refusal to put ideology ahead of people or theology ahead of love.

Polarization wants to convince that ideas matter more than people. The third way doesn’t mean ideas don’t matter. It’s means we don’t forget that people always come first.

Related Post: People of the third way

Photo by 55Lancey69 on Flickr

4 thoughts on “Polarization and the church: is a third way possible?

  1. Reblogged this on Everyday Religion and commented:
    A great read, for conservatives and liberals alike. It is possible to affirm the validity of one’s faith in a way that shows them love without accepting all their beliefs.
    Polarization is real and is rampant and hurts people, but thankfully there is a third way, a middle way.

  2. An excellent essay. I have spent much of my life trying to find some sort of third way, and I fervently hope we’ll see more of it in mainstream Christianity in the coming years.
    I think part of the key to the third way is found in something you wrote above: “If we claim Jesus as our example, can we find any case in the gospels where he didn’t cast his lot with the disenfranchised? Where he didn’t favor those who were marginalized or excluded over those who were in power?”
    I think the response is more complex than that: Jesus associated with tax collectors and healed the slave of a Roman Centurion–both the tax collectors and the centurion would have been considered oppressors by many of the people who followed him. But, viewed from another angle, we can see that both the tax collectors and the centurion would have been hated and ostracized by most of the people who surrounded them every day. Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? Part of Jesus’ gift was to realize that most of us feel like the oppressed some of the time. The school bully may go home to a broken and abusive family life. The person in power may be surrounded by loneliness and isolation. Following Him requires us to see the pain and hurt that affects everyone and to see everyone we meet–regardless of what category we would like to place them in–as children of God, loved by God, made in the image of God. When we stop seeing people as categories and start seeing them as people, we can begin that process of constructive dialogue essential to the third way.

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