Polarization and the Way of Jesus

Ask pastors and church leaders what their greatest concerns are in these latter days, and one of the words that will float to the top is “polarization.”

There’s little doubt that our society has become more polarized, more afflicted by extremes, less attuned to compromise and middle ground. And the church has followed suit, as it often does, sometimes even leading the way. The political partisanship and the culture clash of left versus right has permeated our congregations and denominations.

Any follower of Jesus worth their salt and light who wants to address polarization is faced with two conflicting beliefs.

On the one hand, we believe that Jesus came to heal divisions, to bring peace between people. Unity is one of our loftiest goals, a unity of the Spirit grounded in Jesus, a unity which does not erase diversity but celebrates it. Jesus “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” so that he might “create in himself one new humanity…thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).

On the other hand, we believe that following Jesus sometimes provokes hostility, even revealing divisions. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks his stunned disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:51-53).

What does the division-healing, division-revealing Spirit of Jesus have to say to us today in our polarized world? Let me suggest one overarching thought that then needs some explanation.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

Let’s step back even further. In case we Jesus-followers need to be reminded of this fact, no human person is ultimately our enemy. “Our struggle is not against blood and flesh,” and “we do not wage war as the world does” with its “fleshly weapons” (Eph 6:12; 2 Cor 10:3-4).

This is Jesus’ Nonviolence 101. Humans may participate with the “spiritual forces of evil” in this world, and if so they need to be resisted, but ultimate they are not our enemy. God’s desire is for their redemption, and our redemption is bound up with theirs.

When it comes to how we treat individuals, then, we treat them as Jesus did: with compassion.

Here’s a striking contrast in the Gospels. Jesus speaks harsh, public words denouncing a group of people: woes to the rich oppressors, condemnations of unjust religious leaders (Luke 6:24-25; Matt 23). Yet he still shares meals with these people (Luke 7:36-50), and when he engages with individuals from among those groups he does so with deep compassion for them (John 3:1-15). Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit, after all.

However, don’t miss this fact: Jesus does not shy away from speaking strong words against powerful oppressors, even individually. In fact, all his teaching and his healings, his whole way of life, was a subversion of the values of those powerful oppressors. And this brought division in his wake. Ultimately, it led to his crucifixion by the powers that be.

Jesus was a polarizing figure. Yet he was driven by compassion toward all, a devoted love for God expressed in compassionate love for neighbour.

Jesus’ love for all, though, had an important corollary: a strong sense of justice.

Jesus’ compassion for the powerless, impoverished crowds drove him to heal freely, to teach freely about God’s role-reversing reign of justice come near (Matt 9:35-36). The love of God compelled him to follow in the footsteps of the Prophets: denouncing injustice and oppression, pronouncing God’s judgment on unjust oppressors, and proclaiming God’s good news to the poor and liberation for the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21).

The love of God drove Jesus to walk in solidarity with the poor, the enslaved, oppressed and conquered peoples, right to the symbolic heart of that oppression: a Roman cross.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

As Christians today we look at polarization and see it as the opposite of peace. Ultimately, yes. There will be no polarization in God’s peaceable kingdom.

However, the path of peace can sometimes run through polarization, because, as Jesus’ life and death remind us, there is no peace without justice. And confronting injustice to create true peace will bring division. It will. Jesus has told us so. Jesus’ life and death has proved it to be so.

Don’t misunderstand me, or worse, Jesus. We can create division by being “jerks for Jesus.” That’s not what Jesus is talking about. That’s not the way of Jesus.

James Tissot, The Sermon of the Beatitudes

But when we patiently, persistently, compassionately seek first God’s reign and God’s justice, we will encounter hostility. Jesus doesn’t call us to a persecution complex, seeing persecution behind every opposition. But make no mistake: those who “hunger and thirst for justice” will be “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:6, 10).

Divisions will be revealed, sometimes gaping chasms of difference in values and goals and ways and means. These divisions will cut across family lines, as Jesus directly says, so we should not be surprised when they sometimes slice through our churches.

And when this happens, we cannot soft-pedal God’s desire for justice in order to create an artificial peace.

We Mennonites are especially prone to this, because in our veneration of peace we often strive to avoid conflict. Or we look for a middle-way compromise between two extremes, mistakenly calling this a “third way.” Thoughtful, empathetic compromise is certainly an important tool for simply getting along with each other in a diverse community. But neither Jesus nor Paul nor any other Apostle advocates for a middle-way compromise when injustice or oppression is on the table.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

To be more biblically precise, death is our enemy. Our sins of harm that create forms of death for others and our world, all the ways we cause harm or hinder well-being through our thoughts and words and actions, or inaction. Our systems and cultures of death that perpetuate these harms on a larger scale: economic inequity, corporate greed, militarism, colonialism, misogyny, racism, and more.

Death, we’re told, is the ultimate enemy, the “last enemy to be destroyed,” thrown deep into the fiery chasm from whence it came (1 Cor 15:26; Rev 20:14). Death is the enemy that Jesus relentlessly pursued in every healing, every teaching, every interaction with a death-struck person, right through his own death into resurrection life.

And this is our calling as followers of Jesus. This is what it means to be united in the Spirit of Christ, being one in the body of Christ, centred on Jesus. Christian unity is not a unity that merely tries to keep a group of people together regardless of what they value and how they live. Christian unity is being united in walking in the loving, life-giving way of Jesus by the living, life-giving Spirit of Jesus.

All are welcome in this family of God, yes and amen! But this means people who cannot fully welcome the ones our world doesn’t welcome—the impoverished, the marginalized, those most vulnerable to harm, those perpetually oppressed by the powers that be—people who cannot fully welcome these our world calls “least” and “last” can never be fully welcome themselves until they can do so.

When we are complicit in injustice and oppression, complicit in sins of harm and systems of death, Jesus calls us to repentance. And when we repent, when we turn from our death-dealing ways of harm and embrace God’s life-giving ways of compassion and justice, Jesus assures us of God’s forgiveness.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

I am as concerned as any church leader about polarization in our churches and in our society. But polarization itself is not the enemy anymore than flesh-and-blood people on the other side of our divides are the enemy.

I long for churches to be united in the Spirit of Christ to follow the way of Christ, being the body of Christ in the world, seeking first God’s justice-bringing, life-generating reign on earth. May we have wisdom to discern how best to speak and act to bring about this true unity in Christ, and the courage to do so—even if the path to that unity first reveals some deep divisions among us.

Reframing Unity

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2).

It’s an appeal for unity that sounds tailor-made for polarized congregations today. Churches are divided over LGBTQ+ inclusion, COVID precautions, rights and freedoms, penal substitution, critical race theory… It feels like too many things to name.

When we hear this appeal to “be of the same mind,” we probably think this means being in agreement about a set of beliefs or having the same positions on the important issues of the day. For many of us, this is what unity in the church looks like: it’s when everyone fully agrees on crucial doctrines or pressing social issues.

When there is disunity, then (meaning divisive disagreement on positions or beliefs), the typical appeal is for each side to listen to the other, to understand the other’s point of view, even to seek a compromise position or “middle way” (sometimes mistakenly labeled a “third way”—more on this later). In this understanding, both sides need to give a little if there’s going to be unity.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with listening to others and trying hard to understand their point of view. In fact, that’s crucial to living well with each other in any community. That’s also how we learn and grow.

But I’d like to suggest a different way of understanding unity, a reframing of unity that is better rooted in Paul’s language of being “of the same mind.”

Because here’s the thing: Paul never calls on divided congregations to come to a middle-ground compromise. Even more, Paul’s language of “being of the same mind” is not about “thinking the same way about doctrine or issues.” Rather, it’s about having a particular kind of “mind”: the “mind of Christ.”

The “one mind” we are to be “in accord” with is the “mind”—the way of thinking and living, the way of being—which Jesus displayed. “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus,” Paul says (Phil 2:5)—and then goes on to describe what this “mind of Christ” is.

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that divests ourselves of our individual power and privilege for the good of others, just as Jesus “emptied himself” of his divine status and prerogatives in becoming human for our liberation (2:5-7).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that enters into the life and suffering of the most disempowered and underprivileged, just as Jesus “took on the form of a slave” and even died a slave’s death, a conquered and oppressed people’s death—“death on a cross” (2:7-8).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that does all this to bring about a divine reversal, where those who have experienced oppression by the powers of our age enter with Jesus into his resurrection life and glorious exaltation (2:9-11).

Titian, Christ and the Good Thief

This is the “same mind,” the “one mind” which Paul has called the Philippians to be “in accord” with (2:2). This is the mind which Paul himself strives to enter into, living in Christ’s sufferings in order to enter Christ’s resurrection life (3:7-14). And this is the “same mind” which Paul urges mature Christians to hold—“and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15).

There’s no compromise sought here, no middle way between two apparently uncompromising positions. It’s a genuine “third way,” an alternative to two contrasting perspectives, and Paul expects full buy-in to this third-way “mind of Christ.”

Christian unity, then, is not about agreement with a Confession of Faith. It’s not about agreement with a set of positions on social issues. Confessions of faith are useful as theological guides, and it can at times be vital for us to take a particular stance on a significant issue in our world. But Christian unity isn’t found in our strong agreement with a set of doctrines or positions.

Being “united in Christ” is about our shared commitment to walk together in the way of Jesus, his liberating way of love. We are united in Christ when we commit together to hold our power lightly in our interactions with each other, to walk in humility and patience, kindness and compassion, with those who are different from us, especially with those who hold less power or privilege than we do. We are united in Christ when we commit together to pay attention to the marginalized and disempowered among us and around us, to walk in solidarity with these considered “last,” “least,” or “lost” in society toward justice and peace and flourishing life. This is “the Spirit of Christ” in which we are united, the Spirit who shapes us individually and collectively into the image of Jesus Christ.

Rather than asking two opposing “sides” in a congregation to get together and find a compromise position for the sake of unity, we’d be much better off with the whole congregation asking a few pointed questions:

  • What power and privilege do we hold—do I hold—within this congregation, within this community, this society?
  • How can we—and I myself—hold that power and privilege lightly as we walk with each other in humility, patience, kindness, and compassion, especially with those who are different from us?
  • Who are the genuinely disempowered and underprivileged, those who have historically or regularly been most vulnerable to actual physical and mental and spiritual harm, among us in this congregation and around us in this community?
  • How can we—and I—give up our power and privilege in order to empower these disempowered among us and around us, in order to walk in solidarity with them—knowing we will suffer with them, knowing we will be changed in the process—in order to bring about greater justice and more flourishing life for them and ultimately for all of us together?

When this is our shared stance, our shared way of thinking and living, our shared way of being—our “one mind”—then we can truly say we have discovered “unity in Christ.” May we, like Paul, “press on to make this our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own” (Phil 3:12).


Edited since originally posted. For some thoughts on parallels in other Pauline letters, including thoughts on how diversity works within this unity, see my comment below.