The Answer to Polarization

Polarization is on full display in American society. At the national level, we see the Democratic and Republican parties increasingly unwilling to work with one another on legislation, as opposing the other party becomes more important and compromise becomes a dirty word. Even in our local churches, pandemic measures such as masks and vaccines have similarly created division. People have a tendency to attribute the worst motives of the those they disagree with, whether that’s claiming that opposition to abortion is really about a desire to control women, or that teaching about racism is intended to make people feel guilty for being white.

Even our views on the truth of basic facts can be affected by polarization, with a significant fraction of Republicans believing that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, while outside those circles the consensus is that Joe Biden legitimately won.

There has been much discussion on the causes of polarization, and in particular on the role of social media platforms in creating and exacerbating polarization. Feature documentaries such as The Social Dilemma have explored this topic. Some of the problems with polarization are clear to everyone involved. Without an ability to have reasonable dialog, we just end up yelling at each other instead of making forward progress. However, I think that Scripture sheds light on even deeper issues, especially in the hearts of Christian believers.

As Christians, we ought to recognize the dangers that come with polarization. We should take the time to examine its effects on our witness, our own thinking, and our own hearts. Fortunately, as I hope to describe here, Scripture also gives us the principles we need to respond to polarization. Its teaching is often difficult, but also points to a much needed new way forward. In this post, I will point out some biblical principles that govern how we are to interact with others, particularly those we disagree with. Then I will discuss some of the implications of those principles in how we interact with others.

Biblical Principles

When considering how we are to interact with those we disagree with, let’s consider more generally how we are to interact with others. We know that we are commanded to love our neighbors. When Jesus was asked who our neighbors are, he told the story of the Good Samaritan. Although Samaritans were a group despised by the Jews, the Samaritan was the only person in the story who showed mercy.

But sometimes those who disagree with us don’t actually seem like that Samaritan who showed mercy. They don’t necessarily respect our thoughts or perspectives. They may promote injustice. They seem more like enemies.

What if they are truly enemies? Jesus had this to say (Matthew 5:38-48, ESV):

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And though we sometimes think of this teaching as a new revelation Jesus brought, it has antecedents in the Old Testament. It was lived out by David when he spared the life of his enemy Saul, trusting that revenge was God’s and not his own (1 Samuel 24 and 26). And Proverbs 25:21-22 (ESV) is remarkably similar teaching to that of Jesus: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”

A key observation about Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5 is that he assumes the enemy is evil. The example of someone “forcing you to go one mile” is likely a reference to Roman oppression of Jews. In this case he’s presupposing that those he is teaching are in the right, and their enemy is in the wrong. But amazingly, this does not change his teaching. The response to cruelty must be kindness. We are commanded to love and pray for our enemies.

Of course, people we have disagreements with are not always “enemies.” But if we are called to such a high standard of love even for enemies, how can it be lower for anyone else?

Another radical implication of this teaching is whose responsibility it is to deal with disagreement, polarization, and tribalism. As believers, the responsibility is ours. It doesn’t matter if we think the other side is wrong in any particular debate. It doesn’t matter if they actually are. We are responsible for ourselves, and to be fully obedient to Christ we must love our enemies even if they hate us.

I’ve noticed a tendency to point out that an important aspect of showing love is telling someone the truth. If we do not tell them about their sin, or confront injustice they support, are we truly loving them? However, if that is all we focus on, we miss out on much of the biblical wisdom on what showing love really looks like.

Consider 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ESV), which uses the same Greek word for love (agape) as Jesus applies to our enemies in Matthew 5:44:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

This is quite a difficult standard to hold for love toward those we see as enemies! I imagine we all know how easy it is to get irritable or resentful at those who disagree with us, especially if they attack us or our beliefs. What God is asking from us is a genuine change of heart, not just excusing our attitudes as loving because we want people to see our perspective.

Of course, this does not mean that we shouldn’t speak out against wrongdoing and injustice. We have many examples throughout Scripture of prophets, and of Christ himself, doing just that. It doesn’t mean that we should just sing “Kumbaya” and pretend like we agree with each other. Even in love, we’ll still have disagreements. But we need to be speaking out in love rather than in hatred or fear of those we disagree with, or we are actually sinning.

So how do we get there? This doesn’t come naturally to us. But consider the wisdom from James 1:19-20 (ESV): “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

This goes very much against the grain of our outrage culture. While there is an appropriate time for anger at injustice, are we quick to listen to where others are coming from first? When we engage with those we disagree with, are we actually concerned about understanding them, or just thinking about how to argue for our own positions? As James points out, our anger usually just provokes more anger, rather than growth in righteousness. Listening to someone is often the first step to loving them, and the first step to get over the envy and arrogance that Paul warns us against in 1 Corinthians. If we are too fearful and suspicious of those we disagree with, we are unlikely to develop the true love that Christ calls us to.

Paul also offers a helpful reminder in Ephesians 6:12 (ESV): “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Our ultimate battle is not against those we disagree with. It’s not against the “other side,” whoever that may be. It’s against the powers of evil. Obviously human sinfulness has a major impact on how both we and those we disagree with think about things. But this is common to the human condition, and people are often deceived. Our battle should be against the deception and the spiritual forces behind it, not against the people who are deceived.

As we can see, the Bible gives us much wisdom and instruction regarding how we are to treat those we disagree with. But it doesn’t stop there. The Bible also instructs us on how to think about ourselves and those we agree with.

To start, we are more responsible for judging our own faults than those of others. As Matthew 7:3-5 (ESV) says,

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Of course, among believers, we can and should help each other identify faults that need to be confessed to God and repented of. As Proverbs 27:17 (ESV) says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” In practice, this is going to be more effective if we do this within our own “tribe” of people we tend to agree with.

So we need more love and less fear towards those we disagree with, and more willingness to recognize sin in ourselves and in those we tend to agree with.

Where These Principles Are Useful

In many contexts, I have observed that some Christians tend to overlook serious errors among those they identify themselves with. We are too prone to “tribal” thinking, seeing some people as enemies, and the enemies of those enemies as our friends. Then, we may start to excuse the errors of those we have identified as “friends.” This can lead to identifying more closely with a political or social group than with Christ, and embracing the beliefs and attitudes of that group even when they conflict with Christian teaching.

Theologically, this kind of tribal thinking is one of the “noetic effects of sin,” in other words, the effect of sin on our ability even to think. Secular psychologists echo this truth in recognizing it as a human cognitive bias, though they don’t have the same framework to tie it to sinfulness. As believers, we should learn to recognize the ways our sinful nature is at play in how we think about politics and other matters. When this tribal thinking takes the place of reliance on Christ, it even becomes idolatry.

I’ve seen instances of these dangers in Christians affiliating with each major political party in the United States. For example, the Democratic party often emphasizes a notion of “bodily autonomy” that sees no problem with premarital sex and abortion. They also focus on concern for the marginalized and oppressed. Many Christians, recognizing the latter fact, align themselves with the Democratic Party. But this alignment sometimes goes beyond concern for the poor and oppressed. It can lead to changed beliefs not just about public policy surrounding sexual ethics, but beliefs about sexual ethics themselves. I think this is one part of why many in my generation are compromising on premarital sex, the “male and female” nature of God’s design for marriage, and even abortion.

But lest we think that this is just a problem with the Democratic party, I have also noticed serious compromises in recent years from associating with the Republican party. Late in my childhood, as I was beginning to understand politics, Bill Clinton was impeached. Christians in my life insisted that he had serious problems with moral character, both in marital infidelity and in lying about it. As they told it, sexual ethics and honesty were both critically important for a leader to have. Something changed between then and 2016. A video of the Republican nominee surfaced where he bragged about sexual assault. This didn’t seem to deter conservative evangelicals from voting for him. Initially, I thought this was simply a matter of prioritizing certain issues like abortion, and therefore believing that Trump was the better of two bad options. However, in seeing people’s attitudes, surprisingly often this seemed not to be the case. People seemed to actually really like his presidency, rather than bemoaning that this was who the Republicans nominated. Before Twitter suspended his account, I often saw cases where he lied about his past positions. I saw shockingly little concern over this dishonesty from many corners of Christianity. It seems that suddenly the wisdom of looking for leaders of character took a back seat to party alignment, in a way that extends beyond a pragmatic decision to vote for a certain candidate. This is another example of polarization muddling people’s thinking. And it is an example of idolatry of a particular politician and party instead of trust in Jesus Christ.

A similar dynamic often happens in conversations about sexuality and Christianity. People see the LGBT community and conservative Christianity as at war with each other. This perception seems to have strengthened after Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. Some Christians have reacted strongly not just against political movements, but against people who experience same-sex attraction or those who use certain words like “gay” or “bisexual” to describe themselves. For example, some insist we should focus on even involuntary desire as sin when it comes to same-sex attraction, but remain mostly silent against widespread acceptance of the opposite view when applied to opposite-sex attraction. Or they let debates over the word “gay” or poorly-defined notions of “identity” get in the way of having a more meaningful discussion about what we actually experience and believe. At times, some people seem incapable of understanding what those of us associated with groups like Spiritual Friendship actually believe. For example, I’ve had to respond to slanderous claims by Rosaria Butterfield. Some have acted to remove friends of mine from positions of leadership or employment due to their experiences of same-sex attraction, despite the fact that those friends were publicly defending the view that sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sinful. In doing so, they have allowed fear and/or hatred of LGBT people to infect their attitudes even towards their brothers and sisters in Christ who share their theological beliefs.

But the danger of polarization is not limited to this group. Many of my fellow believers who find themselves attracted to the same sex react against this insensitivity by identifying strongly with the LGBT community, including its secular elements. While I think there can be helpful ways to acknowledge what we have in common, there are also serious dangers. Many of these dangers stem from seeing LGBT people as “our tribe” more so than our fellow believers. For example, in an effort to overcome shame, many of us want to figure out what aspects of our experience are actually good gifts from God rather than results of the Fall. But rather than practicing careful discernment, it is too easy to try to bless as much as we can of LGBT culture and experience. At the same time, we disregard the wisdom and appropriate caution from our fellow believers who don’t share our experience of sexuality. This can lead us to bless things that are actually sins we should put to death. And while I and others on Spiritual Friendship have repeatedly argued that using words like “gay” widely understood by our culture can be useful in some contexts, there are also real dangers with letting secular thinking about “identity” play a bigger role in our thinking than Christian reflection about our calling and status as those washed by the blood of Christ. If our thinking about our own identity is too tied to our sexual feelings, it can lead our hearts astray, especially when combined with a desire to distance ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ. And I’ve seen this kind of thing lead to people abandoning orthodox doctrine on sexual ethics, and in some cases the faith entirely, far too often.

A key problem with polarization that I’ve seen in all of the above cases is that polarization tends to lead to more polarization. When Christians who lean Republican see Christians who lean Democrat becoming more lax on abortion or sexual ethics, that reinforces their belief that the Democrats are evil and anti-Christian. When Christians who lean Democrat see Christians who overlook Donald Trump’s character issues, it reinforces their belief that support for Republicans is hypocritical and not based on love of neighbor. When those of us attracted to our own sex see Christians who want us to be second class citizens in the Body of Christ, we want to run in the other direction, even into error. When Christians who think we’re compromising too much see people becoming more lax towards sin or being resentful of other Christians, it makes them want to react against us more strongly. The tribe identity grows, and hatred towards the other group grows stronger.

Rather than letting error and idolatry take over either our own hearts or those of others, let’s follow the biblical wisdom I outlined above.

The answer to polarization is not more polarization. It’s not convincing people of the problems with the “other side.” It’s not even getting people to respect our own perspective. The answer to polarization is radical obedience to Jesus’s command to love even our enemies.

Do I always do this perfectly? Not at all. As I imagine is the case with pretty much everyone reading this, my attitudes towards those I disagree with are often still a struggle with sin in my life. It requires constant repentance and the help of the Holy Spirit to avoid hateful or fearful attitudes in my heart towards those who attack me and my friends.

But as the Holy Spirit has increasingly enabled me to learn to love my enemies, I’ve seen more and more wisdom in the teaching of Jesus. If I resent the person I have a disagreement with, that makes me naturally focus on how I can prove them wrong and myself right. If I have a sense of love for them, it’s much easier to recognize when they’re actually in the right about something. This helps me develop clearer judgment and increased wisdom. It makes it easier to see my own errors or those of my “tribe.” In other words, it helps me start to undo the effects of polarization in a more comprehensive way than you might think at first.

So let’s consider how to apply these biblical principles together. When we have a disagreement, start by examining our own hearts. Do we love them with a 1 Corinthians 13 sort of love? Then follow the principles of being quick to listen and slow to speak, looking for areas where ourselves or those we identify with are hypocritical or otherwise getting things wrong. As we do this, we are pursuing faithfulness to Christ rather than a particular tribe. Let’s work together to implement God’s answer to polarization, in reliance on the Holy Spirit. Only then can we heal the problems in our society and our own hearts.

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