Jun 11th, Addressing Polarization in Society, with Rev. Tyler McQuilkin
A Part of the Series:
Our Scripture today comes from the book of Romans chapter 12, verses one through nine. And the apostle Paul writes, I appeal to you, Therefore, brothers and sisters on the basis of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you, not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to ought to think but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body, we have many members, and not all the members have the same function. So we who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually, we are members, one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. prophesy in proportion to faith, ministry and ministering the teacher in teaching the encourager and encouragement, the giver in sincerity, the leader in diligence, the compassionate and cheerfulness.
About six years ago, my wife Lonnie and I made a trip to Norway. lonnis dad is Norwegian and was living there at the time. And my grandfather also grew up in Norway, so we thought it would be a fun time to plan a trip to visit her dad and our relatives in Norway. We ran what we went around to the small fishing village my grandfather grew up in during World War Two. We went to museums and learned about Norway’s long history. And we were able to hike through some of the some of the fjords there. Well, we made some great memories on this trip.
One of the most memorable parts for me, was a long dinner conversation we had with some new friends. Lonnie, his uncle ran a ski camp bed and breakfast and a small restaurant in a small town called hair and the first night we visited Lonnie his uncle inherent. He planned a dinner with a couple of his restaurant staff. Along with me and Lonnie, the other two people at the table were a pizza chef named Casiano, who was born in Italy, but raised in Brazil. And then a waiter named Frederick, who is Swedish.
This was in the summer of 2017, when politics in the US was regularly regularly in the news and people from all over the world were observing the US political landscape. So during our conversation, Lonnie and I were eventually asked about politics in our country. As the conversation turned toward politics, we soon learned the views of both Cassiano and Frederick. Now, growing up in Sweden, a socialist country. It wasn’t a surprise to us that Frederick was a strong socialist and leaned pretty far left politically. And then on the other side, Cassiano was a strong conservative and spoke strongly against liberal politics. When their different political identities were shared, I immediately began to tense up because I was so concerned about where the conversation would lead from there. Lonnie, and I mostly just listened as the two of them talked. And to my surprise, we ended up talking about politics and religion and so many contemporary issues over the next several hours, all while staying completely tame and cordial to one another.
Never once was a voice raised. Now, I continue to reflect back on that dinner conversation, and wonder if a similar conversation could become our norm in the US today. Now, both Frederick and Casiano held strongly to their beliefs, they would poke holes in the other’s arguments.
They both also did a wonderful job receiving criticism from the other one, and listening to the others perspective. As I look at our society today, I am continually worried about the polarization happening in the world, and especially in our country. The author Wendell Berry writes, we remain polarized and the longer we remain, so the greater the distance between the polls and he continues. This I think is because at the polls, some people recognize themselves as accusers and consumers and the other as senator, so long as these categorical differences are maintained the polarization at any time and under whatever circumstances can only be as extreme as possible. Now, I don’t think the solution to polarization is conformity to one mode of thinking. That sounds like a far fetched goal that would inevitably lead to abuse of power and coercion to get a uniform way of thinking and acting in the world. As Wendell Berry says, We easily form groups where we accuse others as sinners, making ourselves clear of all sin that we may have. We say we are right, and that they are the sinners who are wrong. So instead of conformity, maybe a solution to polarization is putting an end to pointing and, and accusing, and actually turning toward listening to each other, and seeking understanding for why the other group thinks the way they do.
The apostle Paul was a missionary who worked with churches, all throughout what we know today as Asia Minor and modern Europe. Part of his ministry involved writing letters to churches around the Mediterranean, which often included words of encouragement to these churches, and their faith, showing them where they had been wrong and missed the mark as the church. And then often, he had long sections talking about what God has done for us in Christ.
The letter to the Romans follows a similar structure. He begins the letter, writing about the guilt of humanity, because all have sinned and turned from God to their own ways. He then continues with a long section on being justified by faith through the faithfulness of God in Christ. And because of this faithfulness of God, and living a life of faith, the apostle closes this letter to the church in Rome, addressing what life should look like, because of their faith in what God has done in Christ. And this is where our text is found in Romans.
This section on a new life in Christ calls the church to a life of unity, where we work toward peace with one another, both within the church, and outside of the church in the greater society. The apostle Paul calls the church in Rome to discern the will of God, and to do what is good and acceptable.
He calls them to humility, so that way, they do not think of themselves too highly. And he calls them to live as one body in Christ. If the church lives into this call to live as one body, the results should be a life of unity with one another. But as one scholar notes, Unity should not be reduced to sheer conformity. In our Scripture today, Paul goes on to use the metaphor of the body, acknowledging that the body is comprised of so many different parts and functions.
He writes in verse five, and six that we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually, we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. Paul’s use of the body metaphor to the Christian community, makes it clear that diversity and difference is something that should be celebrated and welcomed.
Diversity of thought and appearance is a necessity to the body of Christ. So when we think of working toward unity in the church, we have to remember this doesn’t mean group conformity with a single theology or mode of thinking. Instead, unity in the church means that we acknowledge our diversity of thought, and work toward being united despite our differences.
Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome around 2000 years ago. And although the issues they were dealing with at the time, are much different than what we are dealing with today in the 21st century. The message he writes to Rome, about working toward unity is something we as the church and also our society, as a whole should continue to work toward.
We don’t have to look very far to see the ways in which our society is becoming more and more polarized. All you have to do is go online and read the comment section on either someone’s social media post or an article to see the hate and divide vision that is so rampant from all parts of the political and I would add theological spectrum. Ever since the internet became such an essential part of our world, it has become easy to separate ourselves from others because we can hide behind are comments that we either anonymously, anonymously post, or at the very least, we post with our names attached to the comments, but without any sort of face to face contact to see the effects our words have on others. And I have become especially concerned when I see the church’s participation in this polarization, when it is called to work toward unity, and be the body of Christ.
Now, I do want to be clear that ending polarization does not mean uniformity. We might see big problems with other people’s politics and theology. But that doesn’t mean we should distance ourselves from them as easily as we do today. Especially in the church, I think we should be one of the first places in which diverse views are welcomed and where dialogue can take place.
But instead, the church in the US has just become another place where we form in groups and out groups, complaining that the other side is wrong. We say they’re the problem. And they’re the ones who need to change in order to be part of the community.
In the words of pastor and theologian Craig Barnes, he says, there’s so much talk about God’s politics, or God’s principles for successful living, or God’s plan for the family, or God’s Will about the war. And he continues, it’s always striking how much God’s ideology will always look like our own. And maybe that’s just because it’s ourselves written in capital letters.
So when we think about striving for unity, rather than continuing on this path of polarization and destruction, we first have to acknowledge that no one has all the answers to the world’s issues. We also need to realize that different perspectives are not going away, they’re always going to exist. The solution to these different perspectives is not to withdraw from them into our own groups that simply become echo chambers that confirm our views, that our views are right and their views are wrong.
Instead, we need to move toward the group that we disagree with, and actually take a moment to sit down and ask questions, and learn why their life experiences have made them believe the things they believe and vote the way they vote.
Ending polarization means that we work toward mutual understanding and conversation with each other, so that despite our differences, we can work together. It doesn’t necessarily mean we will have agreement in society and in the church, but it would add a human element and connection to the people on the other side that is currently lacking.
I was recently with an old mentor of mine last week, who asked me about my time in seminary now that I’ve been graduated for a little over a year. He asked me what classes were worthwhile and which ones were more of a box to check that I didn’t find as useful for serving in ministry.
I was quick to say that one of the most worthwhile parts of seminary for me was continuing to discuss discuss class lectures, discussions and readings with friends outside of the classroom, where we weren’t being graded. This allowed me to ask questions that I was maybe too afraid to ask. And also to push back on comments more than I would to my peers in class. I especially did this with one friend who I regularly regularly spent time with. As we continued having these discussions and also through a book group we did in the summer, it became clear that my friend Sawyer and I were quite different theologically.
We would often spend time debating and arguing over theology. And sometimes the topics we were discussing were minor issues that did not have too much significance. But other times, the topics we were discussing had extremely large implications for ministry, and how we should go about living as Christians in the world.
As we had these conversations, Sawyer said something that I think more of us need to hear and live by. He said that if we can’t hug at the end of one of our conversation shins on these theological and social issues, then we really messed up and need to reconcile. As Paul writes in our text today, don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. For as in one body, we have many members, and not all members have the same function. So we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.
If polarization in our society and in the church are going to heal. Paul’s words to the church in Rome are so helpful to remind us that we should be humble with our ideas and convictions, and avoid being too certain. We also need to remember that the church in all its forms, denominations and divisions, is called to be the body of Christ. That points to Christ’s ministry in the world.
Christ’s life was one full of striving toward unity in the midst of diversity. There was a great division during His earthly ministry between the Jews and the Gentiles. And yet he ministered to both groups. He would often call the Pharisees and scribes out for their certainty. But he also called them in toward a new way of life by following him. And in the same way, Jesus and later the apostle Paul, ministered to the other side, the Gentiles and called them to life in Christ.
That dinner, Lonnie and I shared with the socialists Frederick, and the strong conservative Casiano was, I think, what the kingdom of God looks like. questions were asked, opinions were respected and heard, and everyone left the meal peacefully. No one left with their mind changed. But I think we all left with a greater understanding of each other’s beliefs, and the experiences that led them to those beliefs.
So as we continue to work and exist in this complicated world, let us as the church live into this call to be the body of Christ that works toward unity and reconciliation.