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.

 

A “turn out the base” church?

For all the billions of dollars and all of the negative TV advertisements that dominated the conduct of the recent American election, it’s not clear that any of it made much difference. TV advertisements are supposed to change people’s minds. But it’s becoming clear that the election just past was not about changing people’s minds: it was about getting people who already agree with you to vote.

That, at least, seems to be the most common explanation for Obama’s victory. His campaign “micro-targeted” people they thought would be sympathetic to them, worked aggressively to ensure they were registered, and then watched as the votes rolled in.

For anyone who has ever been part of an organization in the midst of disagreement and argument, this is a seductive prospect: I don’t need to win this argument because people already really agree with me; I just need to get them to stand up and be counted. The focus shifts from changing people’s minds to drumming up support among those who already agree. Changing minds and winning the argument is challenging work. Believing that everyone already agrees with you and all you have to do is turn them out is not.

The results of this line of thinking are clear for all to see: for instance, the half-serious calls for some states in the U.S. to secede. To which some Obama voters have responded, “Go ahead!” There is little thought that perhaps this is an opportunity here to engage in conversation, change minds, and move forward together.

What’s worrisome is when this same dynamic creeps into the church. People on all sides of theological arguments appear to believe that engaging in conversation with folks on other sides of the argument isn’t really necessary anymore. Instead, we focus on creating churches full of people who already agree with us and who can be reliably counted on to support us in our side of the argument.

The thing is, when we do this, we’re not really being the church. Just this evening at evening prayer, the New Testament reading (in the Church of England Common Worship lectionary) was from Matthew 5: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (vv. 23-24) That is, find the person you disagree with and work on reconciliation.

The church is the community of the baptized. The trouble is, there are no political prerequisites for baptism. (Grace doesn’t work well with prerequisites.) That means that by its very nature belonging to the church is going to bring us into contact with people who are different than us and whom we need to engage in conversation because we believe that we have something to learn from them and that our individual knowledge of God is insufficient.

I am sure that political strategists are already at work building a computer program that is even better than the Obama campaign’s was and that future elections will revolve more and more around turning out the base and less and less around engaging in conversation about the future.

I just hope the church doesn’t end up like that too.