Thursday, April 8, 2010

Transcending Polarization

...he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
Mark 6:34b

I don't think politics has anything to do with left, right and center, but about doing right by people.
Paul Wellstone, the late, great Senator from Minnesota

A good friend of mine (on his way to studying at Duke Divinity School) passed along a link to Mark Chaves, a sociology and religion professor at Duke. In a recent column, he reported on a survey of leaders of three American denominations who labeled their congregations "liberal," "conservative," or "moderate." Here are the results in bar graph form:

The graph shows that "liberal" congregations have dug their theological heels into the sand, while their "conservative" counterparts have made gains into moderate country. This seems to parallel the general creep towards political conservativism in the United States, as the most recent Gallup poll unveiled.

Chaves examines the results under the lens of single-issue politics like abortion and LGBT rights that political parties (not to mention the media and business interests) have used to fire up their respective bases. Perhaps, he reasons, the overwhelming focus on "polarizing" issues like these have moved congregations one way or another, even though their theological make-up is much more than these labels imply. And, perhaps, homosexuality alone is wiping out a theological middle-ground. Chaves concludes:

In American politics, increased polarization has been a top-down rather than a bottom-up affair. It has been driven by political parties’ increasingly large differences on hot-button issues rather than by people’s changing views on those issues. Something similar may have occurred in American religion.

This reveals why a systems approach to theo-political worldview and practice is so vital. We must come to an understanding of the complex ways that the larger systems that we find ourselves in tell competing stories. Families, political systems, media outlets and faith communities shape us from the top-down. Republican and Democratic leaders focus on certain issues to sway the public. They set the political agenda...and the mainstream media, including cable outlets like Fox and MSNBC seem to "take the bait" and narrate the political and economic conversation along these lines. Indeed, this was Karl Rove's masterful strategy with abortion and gay marriage during the Bush elections.

Pastors, too, frame issues for impact and control. Note the hangover the American Church continues to endure after decades of "the Battle Over the Bible" which polarized denominations and created new ones. Christians were basically forced to choose whether the Word of God was an "inerrant" encyclopedia of timeless truths and universal principles or a collection of stories and letters, mostly "mythical" but useful for moral teaching (in this matrix, Fuller Seminary's "infallibility" is a moderate position, seen as "liberal" to conservatives and "conservative" to liberals).

From the very origin of the United States, we've lived in a political experiment characterized by only two choices. At first, we Americans were either Federalist or Anti-Federalist (for or against the more centralized government created by the new Constitution in 1789) and this parlayed into the Two-Party system that we know today, dominated by the classic American tension between Jeffersonian "individual rights" and Hamiltonian "community good" (this tale was delightfully told by Neal Gabler a decade ago, comparing these forces to the court leaders that eventually tore up the 3-Peat Lakers: Kobe vs. Shaq). In addition, Christian Fundamentalism has, for the past century, magnified an "either-or" version of Christianity. Pick a package, but you've only got two choices: fundamentalism or liberalism. This ongoing rhetoric, from the pulpit and from a variety of media outlets, "purified" two distinct options that have pigeonholed the American public. And Chaves is certainly on to something important about the effect of homosexuality on the radar of liberal ("open and accepting"), conservative, or "fundamentalist" ("the Bible clearly says..."), and moderate, or perhaps "Evangelical" or "mainstream" ("love the sinner but hate the sin"), congregations. It is an issue that undoubtedly serves as a litmus test, separating the sheep from the goats.

EasyYolk finds it quite difficult to pick a label: "conservative" or "liberal." In fact, we feel the loneliness and isolation that comes with rejecting both. Truth longs for a third-way to transcend the false options that have been handed to us from leaders who have an agenda for things to stay just the way they are (any proposed third-way means that a decrease in votes and money for them). And "moderate" just tends to be a watered down combination of the two packages (we're still stuck with the same tired stances on any given issue).

We see a chipping away of this "red-state/blue-state" divide (both theologically and politically) as a primary vocation of EasyYolk. This will take many complex conversations on a range of issues and concepts, refusing to confine our conversation partners (and the conversation itself) by slapping labels on them and taking on the challenge of living a genuine third-way before the watching world. This will take a variety of multi-disciplinary tools and practices that chop, chisel, countour, shape and sand down the rigged polarization that everyone in powerful positions says is "normal" but we intuitively see as boring, dehumanizing and downright counterfeit. But powerful agendas are not the only thing pressing us into the default narrative of American theology and politics. We must denounce the apathy, attention-deficit and cynacism that stagnate so many of our lives in this culture. Didn't Jesus' life and death set us free from this enslavement of polarization? Indeed, but we must actively and creatively participate with God's redemption of the world, just as the Apostle beckoned that small Philippian Christian colony on the edge of the Roman Empire: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling."
In his book The Great Derangement, Matt Taibbi chronicles the post-9/11 trend of millions of Americans who have moved to the far fringes of both directions of the political spectrum, "tuning out" the political rhetoric and power-games:

But they weren't tuning out in order to protest their powerlessness more effectively; they were tuning in to competing version of purely escapist lunacy.

A few pages later, Taibbi laments:

For the really sad part is that nobody from my neighborhood is offering them shit, apart from a depressing selection of greed fantasies and a kind of slick, smug nihilism with which to pass the time.

Writing even before the onslaught of this year's Tea Party Movement, Taibbi warns us of the dire circumstances of an apathetic, escapist citizenry as the powers-that-be (political establishment + mainstream media + corporations) continue to frame all the issues and lock America into a counterfeit competition of platforms. We desire to represent a movement that offers the frustrated and angered masses something ripe and nourishing to work for a more life-giving systems.

God, may we be a part of the kind of people who are "as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves" in an establishment world of ravenous wolves.

--Theological Autopilot

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