Thank God for Polarization, Part 4: What Unity Means

Human beings are political animals, and politics pervades all we do.

Imagine that you take a large group on a picnic: Who decides where you go? Who will bring what kind of food? Will there be entertainment for the little kids? What time will you do it and whose schedules will you accommodate? These are all political questions: figuring out how you organize power and resources to do something as a group.

We only notice that it’s “politics” when we don’t like certain things and we start asking uncomfortable questions about relationships. Why did you pick this place? Who put you in charge? Why didn’t you think about the vegans and the people with peanut allergies? Why did you ask the Throckmortons to bring drinks when you know they aren’t reliable? This is the last time I go on a picnic with you—you’re a bad leader!

We don’t notice that a picnic is political when everything goes smoothly. You just exercise leadership, and nobody complains that you’re an autocratic dictator. But because we live in a democracy, we all expect to have a say, and we pay attention to and expect good leadership on everything in a picnic, from the selection of paper or cloth napkins to the weather. And if you leave the potato salad in the sun, and half the group gets food poisoning, someone may attribute it to your leadership and character flaws.

(Is there a traumatic youth ministry story that lies behind this extended metaphor? I’m not telling!)

The word “politics” comes from the Greek word for city: polis. Everything that human beings do as groups involves politics. We organize effort and resources, time and money, to accomplish certain goals together. Naturally, our religion has some bearing on politics, and vice versa. Quite a bit of the first five books of the Bible is about politics, and you can tell the author(s) are a bit cynical about our political and religious character. Moses leads slaves out of Egypt, they grumble against him, and God steps in again and again. Apparently living together as human beings just naturally creates conflict.

While it’s natural for there to be conflict in human politics, polarization happens when a conflict pushes people to take a more extreme view than they might express otherwise. The word “polarize” comes from polos, which means axis or sky. It’s an interesting metaphor: Our conflict pushes us to the poles, to the ends of the earth. It expresses the feeling that we might be able to find common ground, but something within the conflict prevents us from acknowledging what that is. While our actual beliefs and values may be nuanced and complex, the way we debate forces us into either/or thinking.

Of course, at least once a month, I participate in the Lord’s Supper, and at this picnic I pray over the bread and wine, “Make us one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.” (Even this aspirational unity is not shared by all Biblical authors). And, for a time, Essenes and Zealots and Sadducees and Pharisees come together again around Christ in their brokenness, united by his brokenness.