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.