Addicted to the big blow-up

I’ve written before about what I call the “Congress-ification of the church,” that is, the way in which church debates/fights/arguments take on an all-or-nothing, with-us-or-against-us, to-hell-with-shades-of-grey tone. Two recent events have made me think about this anew.

This week, World Vision USA announced that it had changed its hiring policies such that people in same-sex marriages were no longer excluded from employment. Then, two days later, it reversed itself after significant pressure from its supporters.

A few weeks back, Nashotah House seminary invited the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church to preach. Nashotah House has students from both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). ACNA representatives threw a fit. One resigned from the board. Various statements and denunciations were quickly issued. Nashotah House dean Edward Salmon—who until this point was always seen as a conservative—justified the decision by explaining he wanted to the presiding bishop to learn from how students from different churches coexisted at Nashotah. But he, too, had to back down a bit: the Presiding Bishop will still visit but the service will be Evensong, not a Eucharist. (Edward Salmon became for me the Thad Cochran of the Episcopal Church—the man who was a staunch conservative until he woke up and found out he wasn’t.)

Whatever you think about these particular issues, I think they reveal something deeply depressing about the nature of debate in the Christian world. Here are a couple that come to mind:

  • All our energy and firepower gets concentrated on a single issue: in this case, it has to do with homosexuality. It becomes a with-us-or-against-us attitude. There is no recognition of the Biblical truth that our identities are constituted by multiple forms of belonging and that we are created differently. Instead, diversity is forbidden.
  • Speed. It boggles the mind that in just two days the opponents of World Vision’s move could have prayerfully considered the reasoning behind the initial decision and settled on a response. We no longer seem capable of approaching issues with our default set to recognize complexity.
  • Extraordinary polemic. All of a sudden, all our firepower gets concentrated on one particular organization or institution and it becomes impossible to see how it fits into a grander scheme of things, that is the grander scheme of the life of the church, the glory of God as revealed in our lives, and the good news of Jesus Christ. I won’t link to any of this sanctimonious polemic but you can find it about both issues with some pretty easy Googling.
  • Prides in an unwillingness to listen. There is no thought that we might have something new to learn from a different situation. Instead, we approach a situation with our pre-existing blinders and whatever doesn’t fit through gets immediately filtered out. Irenicism is a dead letter.
  • Money talks. It always does, in the church or not. I am not privy to any behind-the-scenes conversation in either of these situations but it does seem that those who have the money and influence were the ones who ended up controlling the outcome.

But perhaps the most depressing thing is the way we have become addicted to the big blow-up. Every little while something like this comes along for which we are all expected to have an opinion ready to be expressed in a tweet/Facebook status update/blog post (including me). Our tempers get ginned up, we all vent a while, and then we move on to the next big thing. Does anyone remember anymore the contretemps about the Presiding Bishop’s sermon in Venezuela which produced my initial post about the Congress-ification of the church? No, we’re too busy fighting about something else. Reasoned discourse which stretches over a lengthy period of time as we make sense of what is going on no longer takes place.

Perhaps, you could say, such a venting is cathartic. But I don’t think so. These periodic blow-ups do real damage to the hard work of building the relationships that are the fabric of the body of Christ. They become individual instances that together make up a larger pattern of broken relationships and an inability to deal with difference. But doing so is, as I have argued, at the core of the Gospel.

It is no secret to say that the rise of the Tea Party, combined with Twitter, cable news, and the influence of money has corroded and degraded American politics in recent years. I want to be part of a church that shows the world a different way of dealing with disagreement. With each new blow-up, however, I worry that such a church is increasingly slipping out of our grasp.


6 thoughts on “Addicted to the big blow-up

  1. To my way of thinking, the underlying problem is the 24-hour news cycle. Everybody now reacts instantly to things occurring everywhere in the world – things which in past ages would probably not even have ever been noticed, let alone freaked out over.

    This stuff is just the flotsam and jetsam of living – it’s the detritus of events that once ended up circling the drain, but now has come into everybody’s consciousness. This way of living ends up making us all incredibly shallow, because we’re paying attention to the nonsense instead of to the substance.

    I’ve found that the thing to do is simply stop paying attention to it; it’s an actual discipline. Twitter and Facebook are by definition about “trending” – and we all think we’re going to miss something incredibly important if we aren’t in the middle of it all. And there is something to be said for the “democratization” of debate; it’s really wonderful that regular people can be involved in some of the big-issue discussion. In fact, a lot of the time “regular people” are more insightful than the pundits.

    But the truth is: things that are important will stick around – and most of the rest of the stuff will just disappear. That’s the way it’s always been – but now we know what happened at Lambeth (say) instantly, instead of in a few months or – you know – never.

    1. Jesse Zink

      Barbara: you say a lot of important things here. Life has sped up for all of us, in church and not.

      I do think we all need to do a better job of discerning what is significant and what is not and putting our energy where it matters. But I sense we’re not doing a terrific job of that right now.

      1. The trick, actually, is to look at other things. Don’t watch TV; there’s nothing on (really!). They have to talk about something on TV – so they talk about nothing.

        Read books; get interested in something in particular (reading history is especially helpful, I find, for the “big picture” perspective); learn a skill. Learning is “the only thing which the mind can never exhaust.”

        Things that take time – and are about “process” – allow you to a) pay little if any attention to “what’s happening now,” b) engross you in something that’s really interesting, and c) add to your knowledge and skill level.

        Really: it’s very possible to just look away. The world will still be here tomorrow….

  2. CS

    You compared Bp. Salmon to Thad Cochran, “the man who was a staunch conservative until he woke up and found out he wasn’t.”

    In the case of both the GOP and the Episcopal Church, the spectrum as a whole has shifted. Within the GOP, people who espoused certain positions used to be seen as staunch conservatives, but today would be called RINO’s, even though the position itself is unchanged. In TEC, within my lifetime, Bp. Salmon has gone from being considered middle-of-the-road (or possibly very slightly to the right of center) to being considered far right, although his positions hadn’t changed. (He’s never been a polemicist or a wild-eyed conservative; he’s the consummate gentleman, and always treats everyone with consideration and respect, regardless of any differences between them.) Now, however, he’s seen as the TEC equivalent of a RINO.

    So, on the one hand, I sort of think the “staunch conservative until he woke up and found he wasn’t” is fair, because the definition of “conservative” changed on him, and also because he did literally wake up one morning to find that certain people who, the day before, had praised him and claimed him as one of them had pivoted overnight and repudiated him. On the other hand, I sort of think it isn’t because he’s never really defined himself as a conservative; he sort of became one by default when the spectrum as a whole shifted leftward.

    I particularly appreciated your mention of “pride in an unwillingness to listen… no thought that we might have something new to learn… we approach a situation with our pre-existing blinders and whatever doesn’t fit through gets immediately filtered out…” More than anything else, I’ve been appalled by the way people have refused even to have a conversation with Bp. Salmon. (To be clear, I’ve been appalled by other things, as well — the nastiness and mean-spiritedness on display have been deeply distressing to me.) I’ve come to the conclusion that people don’t want to have that conversation because it’s simply too risky; (1) they might wind convinced, which would mean they’d then become the target of the nastiness they’ve been dishing out; or (2) even if not convinced to change their minds, they might find that they understand the situation better and so are no longer angry, and they’ve invested too much in their anger — in seeing themselves as the aggrieved, mistreated, discriminated-against party — to let it go so easily. So instead they act like little children, saying, in effect, ‘I don’t like what you did, so I’m going to take my toys and go home!’

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