How to live the presence of Christ in a divided culture.
We’re living in angry times. Wherever we go, whether church, school, city hall or Capitol Hill; whatever we watch, whether cable television, Facebook or local theater; and however we do things, whether by email or Twitter, in person or in a meeting—in it all, our culture is rife with vitriol and conflict. And when the news of yet another mass shooting hits the airwaves, we shake our heads in disbelief. The hate in our culture is appalling. And everybody, it seems, is caught up in warding off yet another enemy.
Something has gone wrong in our society and we don’t know what to do about it.
Meanwhile, the church doesn’t appear much different. Every time, for instance, the current president implements a new policy or appoints a new Supreme Court judge, Christians go at each other on social media. Christian families don’t talk to each other for weeks as the anger seethes. The recent United Methodist Church General Conference vote on its sexuality policy left its church members deeply divided and wagging their fingers at each other.
Routinely, when a major controversy presents itself to a church, Christians wait to see what the church leadership does, and then leave or stay based on whether they agree. Sadly, Christians appear to be caught up in the same antagonism and disgust for one another that are evident elsewhere in our culture. We have become known for our own enemy making.
After I had finished my presentation at a recent conference, a man told me that he had been a pastor for 12 years and that he was now ready to quit.
“It’s one thing after another, conflict after conflict. I don’t know how to lead anymore,” he said. “They want me to give the right answers, but when I don’t tell them what they want to hear, they run to another church that will. And the reality is that no one outside of the church cares. Our fights, our opinions, our squabbles over our inside-church debates just don’t matter. But I don’t know how to lead a church out of this. What am I supposed to do?”
How is it that Christians have come to this place? How is it that we have failed to be a people of reconciliation and renewal in the face of all this tumult? How can Christians respond in the face of this failure to be the presence of God’s love, reconciliation and healing in a world torn by strife and ugly conflict? And how can we keep our integrity and love for justice in the process?
Imagine the amazing witness we’d have at this most prescient moment if we were known by the way we reconcile with, love and restore one another. Imagine the impact if we became Christ’s reconciling presence in the world.
The Enemy-Making Machine
At the root of the problem, I suggest, is a process by which the church is caught up in the world’s enemy-making machine. In my upcoming book The Church of Us vs. Them, I describe this process. It starts with a good conviction that Christians have discerned in their own lives. The conviction is then extracted from daily discipleship and is turned into a marker that signifies you’re a part of the group that has experienced this conviction.
This marker then becomes a banner or a cause that rallies people together as a tribe against those who disagree with the banner. Soon this banner defines our identity. Violence, coercion and hate stir up around the banner to galvanize the church of us versus them.
Let’s take for example the conviction against Christians drinking alcohol.
In the culture of alcoholism at the beginning of the last century, many Christians were convicted by the Holy Spirit that drinking alcohol was injurious to their Christian life. For some church groups, whether one drank alcohol became a marker that indicated whether they were serious Christians. Some Christians started marching for blue laws that would outlaw buying alcohol on Sundays. Teetotalism became a banner to be waved, a cause to be pursued that united this group of Christians.
But there were other Christians who discerned differently. In some cases, the teetolalist Christians disassociated from them, stigmatizing them as reckless Christians who didn’t care about alcoholism or Jesus. Strangely, they began to see them as enemies. The first group’s identity became shaped by this commitment against alcohol; it was a sign of being a good Christian. Some of these Christians even felt vindicated when a Christian fell victim to the plight of alcoholism.
Of course, this example from the temperance movements of days gone by has few followers today. Today the issues are sexuality, racism and national politics. Yet it serves to illustrate what can happen when a good moral conviction is extracted from our actual discipleship and is caught up in the enemy-making machine. Our conviction turns into a banner to be waved. We are aligned against other Christians who we see as enemies. We’re now more focused on fighting for our cause than being with God and living out his presence in our lives and with others. Violence, coercion and hate ensue. Everything we are called to as Christians somehow is lost.
The enemy-making machine is not of God.
It typifies the world. It runs on antagonism. It thwarts God from working among us for healing, forgiveness and transformation. The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians that division like this, with its strife and jealousy, are signs of living in the flesh, not the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:3). Wherever the Spirit of the Lord is present, however, “there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). There is freedom from the chains of antagonism that bind us. There is an openness to what he is doing. For the glory of the Lord is revealed here in this space of his presence (2 Cor. 3:18). But wherever there is enemy making, we are living by the flesh, not by the Spirit, not in his presence. It is a sign that the “principalities and powers” are at work among us (Eph. 6:12).
Beyond Enemy Making
I remember meeting with a man I’ll call George, who once accused me of ecoterrorism. In a sermon I had used an illustration about buying a car with the requirement that it get at least 40 miles per gallon. He accused me of pushing an ecology creation-care theology on the congregation. He alleged that I was provoking fear and imposing an agenda on the church.
I seriously believed I had no such agenda. We met two times and had no agreement. We had a third meeting with an additional person listening and observing (following Matt. 18:15–20). About an hour into the meeting, George suddenly blurted out, “I have no voice in this congregation! I’m never heard. I’m the only Republican in this whole community, and I am marginalized.”
I was stunned—and I realized he was right. Immediately I acknowledged the truth of his statement. I confessed my complicity in this cultural problem and committed to making space for his voice. Our disagreement had, in fact, little to do with the creation-care ecotheology. It had more to do with an ongoing deep-seated antagonism in our congregation against conservative voices that manifested itself in his relationship with me and others. As a result, our community had marginalized his voice.
Once the issue was exposed and addressed, with forgiveness granted, a path was made for restoration. Much healing came from that. Our church learned about being an open, learning community that included others in the name of Jesus Christ.
None of this could have happened, however, if George and I had stayed locked in conflict. Likewise, I am convinced God cannot work in our churches and through our churches in the world until we unwind the antagonisms of the enemy-making machine and open space for the Spirit to take residence among us. God is love. He will not coerce. He works through his presence by the Spirit. When we are locked into strife, violence and coercion, we stifle God’s presence. Can we make space by sitting, listening, sensing the Spirit, confessing sin, refusing the urge to win and allowing God—by his forgiveness in Christ and his presence—to dismantle the enemy-making machine?
The Example We All Must Follow
Jesus provides us a model for this kind of leadership in John 8:2–11.
A woman caught in adultery is placed before the mob. They have made her into an object, “the enemy,” and so they ask Jesus a question about her as if she were not even present, not even a human being. They ask whether this woman should be stoned as “in the law Moses commanded” (v. 5). A belief system—“the law,” a set of convictions given by God to be concretely lived out in the covenantal life of Israel’s community—had become a banner to get behind. Instead of it being a sign of new life for the world, it was used to pit one group of people against another, to define who is in and who is out. It had become a banner in which the Pharisees found their identity and felt good about themselves. There’s some self-vindication at work here as they declare that the woman had failed while they were holy and kept the law.
Jesus is asked to enter smack-dab into the middle and take a side.
Strikingly, Jesus is silent. He stoops down to write on the ground. It is stunning how often he refuses to enter into the violence of his culture on their terms.
And so we, too, must become present to the conflicts of our churches, and then those in the world, while quietly refusing to enter on the terms given by the world. We come unanxiously, willing to take on the insults ourselves, listen and make space for people to become present to one another.
Jesus then suggests, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). He is saying provocatively, “OK, obviously you are righteous and perfect enough to stand in judgment against her—which is contradictory itself. So by all means, go ahead and stone her.”
It is the tactic of the master. In agreeing with the Pharisees, Jesus exposes the underlying contradictions at work in the way they use the banner. They can see themselves. They can see her as a person. The antagonism is broken and the violence flitters away as one by one the accusers disperse. The woman is left in the presence of Jesus, cleared of all the strife and violence and anger.
Likewise, as Christians and leaders of our churches, we must patiently, humbly enter the antagonisms of our day. We must listen and make space for the Spirit to expose bad motivations, reveal contradictions and uncover the banners that are driving us further apart. We must become agents that clear space for the living presence of God to do his convicting, healing work among us.
Once the striving and antagonism has dissipated, Jesus asks, “Woman, where are your accusers?” (v. 10, my paraphrase). They were all gone. A space had been made for Jesus to work. He pronounces to the woman, “You are forgiven. You are free. Now go in the way of righteousness, and choose sin no more. Work out in community what it means to become whole in the power of the Spirit” (v. 11, my paraphrase). True healing could begin. A new faithfulness was now possible. Indeed, this was only possible for the woman after she had been freed from the enemy-making machine.
In the same way, Christians are called to be the agents of Christ’s presence among the resentments of our day. Let us clear space for the antagonisms to be unwound, the flames of violence and hate to be doused, so that Christ can work his healing and restoring of the world. We must begin in the church first and then move into the world.
This Is Our Challenge
The array of conflicts we face is daunting. There is so much at stake in the struggles over racism, immigration, sexuality, gender, abortion and various socioeconomic inequities of our society. Christians and church leaders are tempted to get caught up in every one.
But what if we took the way of Jesus?
For instance, in the current-day abortion conflict, what if (as one who is pro-life) I held off stoking the flames of enemy making against those who are pro-choice? What if instead I worked to bring people together on both sides of the issue around a table in my neighborhood? Let us say we ate together, listened to one another and met a woman who was pregnant and in need. Amidst tragedy and brokenness, what if we discussed how God is at work in the flourishing and blessing of this new birth and indeed all births? Maybe, in listening, praying and loving, we might hear how God is at work by his Spirit redeeming the process of making new families through adoption. We might see anew how each baby is an act of God to make life flourish.
It’s daunting. But what if we all step outside our identities that are driven by various banner-making causes for a moment? Couldn’t a whole new world be revealed afresh, where God is working to bless all pregnancies in and through his people?
None of this can happen as long as we’re locked in antagonism.
This is our challenge in the struggles that lie before us. We who lead churches amidst the conflictual violence of our day must follow Jesus into these places of restoration and healing. We must resist the temptation to enter the violence of the world on the terms of the enemy-making machine. We must release control, make space for God and trust him to work through his presence in us. We must tend to his forgiving and healing Spirit at work amidst the tumult. Then we can become the reconciling presence of God in Christ in the world.
Parts of this article were taken from The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom From a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies (Brazos Press, July 2019). David Fitch is B.R. Linder Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary in Chicago.
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