Thank God for Polarization

In each election season, my earnest, hand-wringing Christian colleagues always want to tell people that Jesus is “neither a Democrat nor a Republican.” Jesus transcends politics, and Christians should not try to recruit him to support their own partisan positions. This is true in some ways, but it is also toxic rhetoric.

In far more rancorous, polarized times than these, imagine clergy saying these things:

Jesus is neither for nor against women’s suffrage.
Jesus is neither for nor against segregation.
Jesus is neither for nor against child labor.

All of them are true. These are not things Jesus ever talked about. But are they issues that are irrelevant to the gospel? Earnest, sincere, Bible-believing Christians came down on both sides of these issues. Were all of their positions of equal moral value? Were some of them wrong? What would be a “fair and balanced” way to talk about these issues and Christian faith?

There are people—jerks, mostly—who say things like, “You can’t be a Christian and a Democrat.” I have not actually heard someone say that one can’t be a Christian and a Republican, but I’ll go ahead and assert that there are probably some out there who believe the same. I think most thinking people would agree that Christians might hold a variety of political beliefs and come from a variety of backgrounds. This is why I think it can be condescending to remind people that Jesus is not the property of any political party. While the statement is true, its language can take some of the most important issues for theological argument off the table, and it can turn questions like “how can we best reduce poverty and do justice?” into matters of mere personal preference.

I do not honestly see how pastors who promote this view of politics can take offense when people treat their own religion the same way—as mere tribal loyalty, a private matter of preference, something that shouldn’t be talked about in polite company or among friends. 

Okay, here are my qualifying statements: First, I understand that for some of us, striving for harmony is a strength, and part of this is a personality issue. Harmony is not my strength: I would rather have an argument with a true believer who disagrees with me than share small talk with someone who wants to brush our differences under the rug.

Second, I know Christians can disagree: I have known some very faithful, kind-hearted people who are the polar opposite of me on the political spectrum, and I have known some jerks who are closer to me theologically and politically than I care for them to be. People are all over the map, and loving them can be a challenge.

Finally, I also know that yes, people can get so wrapped up in political rhetoric that they demonize their opponents.

But folks who argued for nonviolent resistance during the struggle for civil rights talked about loving their enemies too much to let them get away with oppression. When I point this out, people say “yes, but that was a different situation.” Exactly: The oppression of our day depends upon us romanticizing the past, thinking that such radical expressions of faith belong to another era for more important issues.

Jesus promised his followers that those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness would be filled, and that peacemakers would be called Children of God. But he also said that such righteousness-seeking and Jesus-following would result in persecution. Are we a-political pastors training a church to be so fearful of conflict that it will fold at the first sign of criticism? How can we expect our members to be bold about their faith if their leaders are experts at equivocation? How do we model engaging and wrestling with political conflict?

Sure, I recognize that people on the opposite side of the political spectrum could make the same arguments. I should point out that many of them are, and from the leftward-leaning side there is largely the sound of crickets and passing traffic. But I am glad that there are more and more voices resisting the slow political drift of the church. The default conflict-avoiding position of the church is necessarily conservative: “Don’t move too fast!” is what many clergy, both white and black, told Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s the natural reaction of people who want to resist change of any kind: delay, distract, deny.

Thank God someone got polarized. Everyone in the middle was fine with injustice.