Applause is not usual following sermons at the church I serve, but I received applause two weeks ago when I preached a sermon entitled, “Go as One.” We read two passages, one from I Corinthians and one from Galatians. In the Message version of the Bible, Eugene Peterson writes, “You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another…In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female…” Those were the divisions in Paul’s day. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that if those words were put into today’s context, they would read, “There can be no division into conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican, supporters of Clinton and supporters of Trump. You must learn to be considerate of one another.” Imagine a nation in which our DIFFERENCES do not DIVIDE us.
The word which describes the American landscape today is the word “polarized.” Polarization is a concept that comes from science. It involves light, radiation, or magnetism moving in different directions. Outside science, polarization refers to how people think, especially when two views emerge that drive people apart, kind of like two opposing magnets. We have allowed ourselves to be polarized. Our deep division has been made easier because of the loss of common media outlets and it has been exacerbated by social media. We make a sport of vilifying the other side. We know it’s not good for our nation. But the Bible says that this division is actually sinful.
How can we be engaged citizens, community-builders, when we are nothing but polarized? Polar opposites pull apart. Communities only work when they come together. If we focus only on our differences, those differences begin to seem more and more significant. Are there differences between the political parties, between the candidates? There absolutely are, and they’re critical in terms of the formation of policy, the appointment of judges, and setting the tone for our nation. But what we forget is that there is a vast middle ground where people can find commonality. It is in that place where dialogue and compromise and civility can take place. When we stand in the middle, eye to eye with one another, we recognize one another’s humanity. When we listen to one another’s stories, we develop empathy with those whose opinions differ. And I don’t know of anything our wounded nation needs more right now than an infusion of empathy.
Why did people clap when I preached about the possibility of unity? Because we are desperate for it, and we are desperate to know that those of us who seek common ground are not alone.
Sometimes we find allies in unusual places. As I was perusing the New York Times over breakfast one morning last week, I skimmed an interview with actress Tea Leoni, who plays the Secretary of State in CBS’ “Madam Secretary.” I’ve never watched the show, but this quote caught my attention: “I like the idea that without that polarization, without that commitment to one tribe or people or party, we can actually get things done quite beautifully and peacefully. Right now it’s beginning to feel like decent politics – and decent policy that has universal regard for individuals and other nations – is far-fetched. And it’s not.”
If you, like me, long for the chasm between us to narrow and the place of common ground to become wider and more visible, know this. You are not alone. My friend Allen Hilton has initiated a formal organization called the House United Movement, whose purpose is to bring together those people and those churches who are seeking to bridge the gaps. You can read more about its vision here: http://www.houseunitedmovement.org/
I have friends and colleagues who say that this year the rules are different. The stakes are too high, the differences between the candidates too stark, the possible results too drastic. I completely understand that point of view. My argument is that one of the reasons we find ourselves in this particular place in time (Sunday night’s debate has been called “a deeply ugly moment in American politics”…and I concur) is because we have stopped listening to one another. People do not feel heard, whether those people are white working-class men who have lost their ability to find a good job, veterans who struggle to regain a foothold in society upon their return, police officers who feel misunderstood, or people of color who do not believe the American dream exists for them in many ways. Polarization has led us to this moment. Increased polarization will not lead us out of it into a better future.
It is possible to hold our own political beliefs strongly and yet still listen to one another and create space for dialogue that is respectful and civil. Even in this election year.