Polarization as a Spiritual Problem

Polarization as a Spiritual Problem

Editor’s note: This article is the third in our newest series, “Seeking Shalom in the Midst of Polarization.” The series, in collaboration with The Colossian Forum, aims to examine the state of polarization in the U.S. and Canada and explore Christian strategies to overcome it. To read more articles in the series right now, visit TheBanner.org.

I have a sister who is two years younger than me. While we’ve been relationally close most of our lives, when we were in elementary school we would get into little sibling arguments. Mom would often encourage us to learn how to work out whatever problem we were arguing about, but on the occasions when one of us were being uncompromisingly difficult, she would jump in and say, “Stop being obstinate and work with your brother/sister.”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized my mom understood that children need to develop these skill sets: understanding their desires, being able to articulate those desires, learning how to disagree with someone, and developing the ability to resolve conflict. She also understood that being obstinate is a different thing.

It’s common for humans to have arguments because of our various perspectives. But being obstinate with other people should be rare. Unfortunately, we live in a time when being obstinate has become a norm. If someone is on the opposite side politically or ideologically, being obstinate is often justified, and trenches are dug deeper to keep the “other” away.

This scenario is often called “polarization” or “toxic polizarization.” The question we have to ask ourselves is “is polarization a problem?”

I grew up in the Pentacostal holiness Christian tradition. One thing we would hear at least once a week in the King James vernacular was, “Be Ye Holy!”

The idea was that Christians ought to be different than those who don’t follow Jesus. There should be something distinct in the way we live. It seemed every other week we would hear one of these two verses: 

“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

“Therefore, I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:1-2).

The writer in Hebrews is reminding us that there is a connection between loving our neighbors and loving God. “Every effort” is a lot of effort. It’s illuminating that one of the key themes of the book of Hebrews is the revealing of God’s gift of redemption to all of humanity for us to receive, yet the one area we are exhorted to give a lot of effort is in living in peace with everyone. “Everyone” isn’t only the people we like or agree with. “Everyone” includes those we don’t like, don’t agree with, and even our enemies.

When we consider the notion of holiness, or being “set apart,” the author also reminds us that a distinct set-apart life is connected to seeing God. What does a set-apart life look like in the 21st century in our North American context?

In Romans 12, we’re encouraged to live our lives in a way that is pleasing to God. In response to the mercy of God in our lives, we should be motivated to live differently. Paul gives us a warning to not be conformed to the way this world thinks, but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Paul wrote this letter to a church that was in the capital of the greatest empire of their day. His encouragement to be careful how to think is a warning to pay attention to how the culture of the greatest empire of their day influences how followers of Jesus think and live.

Transformational thinking leads to a transformational way of engaging with the world. As we engage in transformational thinking, our experiments of living into a life marked by the ways of the kingdom of God will help us discern what is God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.

What would it look like if we took these Scriptures seriously and applied them to our American and Canadian social contexts where polarization has become a norm?

What would it look like if Christians received the invitation to be set apart, holy people opened to the transformational thinking of the kingdom of God in experiments of peacemaking for all people, not just those we agree with or like?

I think if the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in America or Canada, he would probably copy and paste words from his first letter to the church in Corinth: “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1).

When Paul unpacks how the Corinthian Christian community was being worldly and immature, he named quarreling as one of the practices of such immaturity. In the Corinthian Christian community, they identified more with Paul and Apollos, but in America, and somewhat in Canada, we tend to identify more with our political ideology. “I am of the right” or “I am of the left,” but what if Jesus was our true identifier?

What if we recognized that we all are image bearers and we all are sinners who can’t fully see the kingdom of God clearly? What if we believed God sees the bigger picture knowing some people are planting and others are watering, but God is the Master Gardner?

When we trade in peacemaking for polarization, we cease being people who can see the bigger picture of the truth. God has given people different experiences and ways of seeing things. When we pursue peace with all people, we create opportunities to see God in new and fresh ways.

When we trade in peacemaking for polarization, we stop seeing our enemies as fellow image bearers but rather caricatures at best or the embodiment of evil at worst. That faulty vision opens the door for us to then respond to other human beings as the embodiment of evil, and as a result we become malformed in ways we can’t imagine. When we engage with human beings as image bearers, we create opportunities for God to work on us in new and fresh ways.

When we trade in peacemaking for polarization, we opt out of the family business. Jesus tells us that the children of God are to be involved in peacemaking as it is our Father’s business; we learn it through vocational apprenticeship with our big brother Jesus. When we engage in the tactics of polarization, it’s like dropping out of the family business to join a gang. No matter what the gang is called, it’s not as great as the family business.

When we trade in peacemaking for polarization, we taint our witness. Every family has identifying markers to distinguish between one family and the next. Holiness, healing, reconciliation, and peacemaking in the midst of brokenness are several of the key identifiers of God’s family described in the Scriptures. They are marks of being a set-apart, peculiar people. People need to see this kind of witness today.

Although the extreme voices of the left and the right are loud, they shouldn’t be leading the way. The “left” and the “right” are mirrors of each other, and they are tearing apart so much of the fabric of our society. When Christians join into this problematic activity, abandoning the call of pursuing peace with all humans and holiness, the next generation has a hard time seeing Jesus; they often don’t want anything to do with the kind of Jesus we’ve made into our own image.

Polarization is not only a spiritual problem, it’s a practical problem. Sometimes after a long day of work, my mom likely just wanted to kick up her feet without listening to children bicker! Yet being a wise Christian woman, she understood the spiritual importance of teaching her children skills in peacemaking and reconciliation.

Discussion Questions

  1. The author asks, “Is polarization a problem?” What do you think? And why?
  2. What are some ways you can “make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy”? 
  3. How does our ultimate allegiance to Jesus relativize our political allegiances?
  4. What do you think non-Christians think are the current identifying markers of Christians (not what you think should be the identifying markers)? Why is that?

About the Author

David M. Bailey is a public theologian and is the founder and CEO of Arrabon, a nonprofit organization based out of Richmond, Va., that cultivates Christian communities to pursue healing and reconciliation in a racially divided world. He is also co-author of the Race, Class, and the Kingdom of God study series and executive producer of the documentary 11am: Hope for America’s Most Segregated Hour and the Urban Doxology Project. He and his wife, Joy, attend East End Fellowship, where he serves on the preaching team.

X