Countering Polarization with Prayer

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As the old trope goes, one should not discuss religion or politics in polite company. I do both on a daily basis. This is not by accident.

I live in Alexandria, Va., which is an old port town turned suburb to Washington, D.C. I moved here from Iowa after attending Dordt College because I thought political life was one of those square inches I had heard about, one avenue through which Christians were called to bring shalom. I stayed because I found a job that helps move forward the conversation about faith in public life and a congregation engaged in a similar conversation. Both are constant reminders that not everyone thinks the way I do about religion or politics.

I work for Georgetown University, a Catholic and Jesuit institution that welcomes people from a diverse range of faith and cultural backgrounds. In my office, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, we’re particularly concerned with understanding how people of all faiths impact the world on issues ranging from religious freedom and global development to terrorism and literature. This kind of diversity requires intentionality and effort at all levels, from remembering not to serve ham sandwiches at lunch events, to running a blog series on Native American religious freedom claims or supporting faculty work on Catholicism and globalization. We have to model the kind of challenging cross-cultural, interfaith engagement we want to see in other educational and government institutions.

I am a member of Washington, DC Christian Reformed Church, a congregation turning 75 this year where I’m privileged to serve as a deacon. We’re a somewhat heterogeneous congregation: folks with deep CRC roots, people who found us because our building was down the street, single adults, young families, retirees, Republicans, Democrats, scientists, lawyers, writers, carpenters . . . and so on. In a city that’s political no matter what administration is in power, we have to find ways to be the church together even when our politics might push us apart. Our worship must make space to lament brokenness and seek restoration without resorting to partisan assumptions about the best way of doing so. Instead of prescriptions from the pulpit, we get biblical exegesis that challenges us to wrestle with questions of practical action. We have to demonstrate that being part of God’s diverse and unified family is our primary identity, not our political allegiances.

In both my work and my church I’ve seen the toll increasing polarization is taking on lives and social bonds. Righteous anger at blatant injustice and ungodliness can morph into mere outrage, a cheap adrenaline high damaging to both yourself and others. Fighting the urge to reduce others to inhuman monsters—or defend yourself against those would condemn you as such—saps time and energy; not everyone can choose the remedy of disconnection. Meanwhile, solutions seem ever farther out of reach as participants hunker down, turning the space between them into a scorched no-man’s-land. While nothing is new under the sun, we do seem to be in a particularly embittered moment.

As a Classis Hackensack delegate. I found Synod 2018 a truly refreshing example of a family trying to acknowledge differences without letting them hinder God’s kingdom work. Our discussions certainly highlighted points of disagreement, and we have not resolved lingering questions of identity and purpose. Nonetheless, delegates—called from all corners of the CRCNA—embraced the call to dialogue in good faith and find solutions to the challenging questions before them. Synod even featured a mealtime moment reminiscent of the Christian hospitality so eloquently described by Karen Swallow Prior.

I am certain that God used our frequent times of worship and prayer to mold us for synod’s work. As we continue to seek reconciliation as a denomination, those practices and postures will be crucial in engendering in us the grace and humility required to build bridges where polarization has burned them down. Continual reminders that it’s not all about us gently (and sometimes forcefully) nudge us to consider the image Dei of those it would be easier to demonize. They also fortify us for the challenging work ahead. Contending with the polarization wracking our political and spiritual lives is not something we can do alone, nor do we have to.

About the Author

Amy Vander Vliet is communications manager for Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Office of the Vice President for Global Engagement. She is a member of Washington, DC CRC.

See comments (1)


Thanks for the great article, Amy.  Indeed, "we do seem to be at a particularly embittered moment."