By Nasry Angel
The most recent presidential election was one of the most divisive and polarizing in modern history. What is most concerning for many was not just the differences and shortcoming of the two candidates but the intense emotions each one kindled across the country. These two figures represented completely opposite, almost incompatible views, to the point that discourse between these two camps was completely broken. There were violent protests, shouting matches on public television, all sorts of distasteful insults and accusations that would be too many to name in an article. But had it always been this way?
Political debate is as old as politics itself. But there was a time when political differences did not lead to broken relationships. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, founding fathers and former presidents of the US, were famously opposed on a range of issues. They had significant differences that stood between them, but they maintained a lifelong friendship and political discussion up until the end of their lives. The correspondence between them illustrates the best of what political debate and discussion can bring. They truly challenged themselves to consider a different perspective and by doing so helped advance each other’s thinking. Today, people in the US seem to disagree more and more while at the same time losing the ability to dialogue. Broadly speaking, we’ve lost the ability to disagree passionately without breaking relationships. It’s nearly impossible to address central issues like immigration, foreign policy, taxes, or climate change without someone from one side labeling someone from “the other side” regressive or simple minded. This issue is more than just a socioeconomic or cultural divide. I believe there is a spiritual dimension at play here, and biblical Christianity has much to offer in helping people navigate this divide.
Challenge #1: Rise of the “Me” God
Who do you worship? Many people take this question to mean what their religion is. To worship something or someone means to put that thing at the center of our lives. To make it the object of our worship is to think, feel, decide, and act in service of attaining that thing or pleasing that person. It’s clear that the Western world has departed from worshipping the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible. In his book Counterfeit Gods, author Tim Keller argues humans are made to worship and to do so regularly. If many of us no longer worship Jesus, it is because we have sidelined him in favor of different, more tangible gods. These “lesser” gods are anything and anyone from which we derive personal meaning. They can be a career, power, money, academics, family, etc.
In departing from the “Judeo-Christian” beliefs that once underscored the moral framework of a nation, we have created a void. In an attempt to fill this void, we have become inward oriented. When we can’t find moral agreement, the moral compass points one to do what’s best for the individual. For example, “You do you” is now a popular maxim amongst college students on Boston campuses. It means when making a decision, the ultimate principle is: “Do what is most beneficial for your well-being and personal advancement.” This is the theology of self-worship and we all are challenged with it every day.
Self-worship becomes problematic for the advancement of society because as humans, we will embrace the worldview that best accommodates us. Self-denial is a prerequisite of service. Without it, our ability to serve our country, our neighbors and even our families is severely hindered. If we lose our ability to deny ourselves, we lose the ability to converse and reason. You can’t have an open mind if your ultimate goal is to serve yourself. Self-worship leads to an intolerant mind because different points of view are not welcome but instead threaten our own status quo. It’s important to check who or what the objects of our worship are, because they influence our point of view, and the collection of these make up our story or worldview. This worldview affects how we make decisions and interpret information. It is so powerful we will twist facts to fit that story. In 2004, Emory University conducted an experiment with staunch Democrats and Republicans. These people believed that their party was right, good, and true. They believed that the other party was dishonest. The researchers asked each person to evaluate information that threatened their candidate before the 2004 presidential election. They were hooked up to fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machines which scan your brain as you make decisions. The group was given statements from President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry which contradicted each other. The scans from the machine showed that people consistently denied obvious contradictions from their own candidate but then detected contradictions in the opposing candidate’s arguments.1 What this shows is that facts are powerless to change a worldview. Why? Because the story we subscribe to comes from the object of our worship, not the study of facts.
Challenge #2: Armchair Scholarship & the Facebook Encyclopedia
If it is true we embrace the narrative that best matches our experiences, then social media is the megaphone that amplifies this bias to the world. Never in human history have we had such ability to curate content, ideas, news and any other information to support our own worldviews. Social media has democratized mass communication to the point that virtually anyone can gain a mass audience in a matter of days if what they say or do happens to resonate with a broad segment of people. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video has almost three billion views on YouTube. This is what going “viral” is all about. The challenge is that just as harmless entertainment can go viral, so can bad ideas and biased thinking. In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the following statement about Facebook’s role in censuring what people consider to be “fake news”:
This is an area where I believe we must proceed very carefully though. Identifying the "truth" is complicated. While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted. An even greater volume of stories express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual. I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.2
What’s happening on Facebook is that users will use the site to get information on a candidate or issue but flag content they disagree with as fake news.
A person deeply submerged in their own story has less interest in accuracy and truth as much as relatability and validation. People first find the story that best matches them and then mold facts to support that story. Anything different is “fake news.” The result is that users constantly hurl information at “the other side” in a no-holds-barred verbal battle that is devoid of human relationship and care. As someone recently told me: “No one cares what you know until they know that you care.” Arguing in a vacuum, outside of human fellowship, will only lead to a deepening of the divide. Successful debate requires intellectual honesty. Intellectual honesty requires pursuing truth and denying oneself.
Challenge #3: Honesty is Trumped by “Authenticity”
Recently, my pastor surfaced a dichotomy between the concepts of honesty and authenticity. Quite simply, honesty is when we’re open and forthcoming regarding the “data” of our lives, like what we struggle with, what we hope for, and what we’re passionate about. Needless to say, being honest requires practicing vulnerability because you are exposing unprocessed thoughts and feelings without much filter. Christians, for example, are encouraged to be honest with God and seek his guidance on how to process this “data.” Authenticity is when you take all the data in your life and rely on yourself to come up with that interpretation. It’s when you process your feelings, desires and drives and craft an identity out of them. This is problematic because humans will interpret information based on the worldview we’ve subscribed to. Left to our own devices, we will take the data of our lives—how we feel, think, and act—and retrofit it into our worldview even if doing so may not be in our own best interest. Just think about something simple like food. Oftentimes we have to beat our body into submission to choose fruits and vegetables over the less healthy desserts or carb-laden fast foods. But some people may have never learned to deny their appetites. This might mean that rather than presenting their struggle with self-control to others, they will simply label themselves as not athletic or not active, which works to their detriment.
In the Bible, God talks about how the heart (the center of our intellect, will, and emotions) is deceitful above all things;3 people can’t really understand it. God is saying that our physiological chemistry can betray us. And if we don’t let others into our lives, then no one will be there to catch it for us. The Authenticity factor prevents us from having productive discussions because it lacks the openness to share the unfiltered “data” of our lives. By virtue of being authentic, we’ve already completed the interpretation work and then it just becomes a matter of driving a point of view forward. To have meaningful discussions, we must come to the table in an honest way, that is, with a willingness to lay out some of the unprocessed data of our lives and open the door for others to weigh in. This is how we grow and learn and build the relational framework one needs to influence others in a positive way.
The Christian Perspective: Viewing Fellowship Through the Eyes of Jesus
Jesus was honest.
In the history of the world, there has never been a more honest person than Jesus Christ. We see an example of this at perhaps the hardest time of his life. Matthew 26:36-39 says:
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.4
It was clear Jesus came to save the world and usher in the Kingdom of God. Yet, he never felt the need to take the feelings of anguish and sorrow and spin them a different way. Fellowship with his disciples and with God the Father was honest and vulnerable despite the fact that he was the Savior of the world. He didn’t interpret things for God, but consistently poured out his heart to him even to the very end in the garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus sought out truth. Since his childhood he visited synagogues to engage with scribes and doctors of the law. He continuously referred to Scripture and framed things in the context of God’s bigger plan for salvation. He never positioned himself above the Scriptures but as the fulfillment of them. He looked to God and the Scriptures for meaning and denied himself in service of God’s greater purpose and the fulfillment of Scripture. This attitude enabled him to perform the greatest act of service of all time, giving his life up on the cross for all of humanity.
Jesus shared truth and grace. John 1:17 reads, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” And he did this with people whose worldviews differed from his. For example, John 4:5-10 says:
So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”4
In this passage, we see Jesus intentionally reaching out to someone opposite to him in every sphere of life. Jews saw Samaritans as culturally and racially inferior. Why did Jesus go out of his way to meet this woman? Jesus came to seek and save the lost.5 He constantly denied himself and his comforts which enabled him to deeply love people. Because he loved God above all else, he was able to love others and engage them well. When people met Jesus, they immediately knew he cared for them, so they cared about what he knew. This is indispensable in our post-modern world where love is the only currency that carries enough weight to mean something to people in these troubled times.
Paul at the Areopagus vs. Paul & Barnabas
As Christians, we live amidst people who deeply disagree with our foundational beliefs; however, that doesn’t mean we disengage. The apostle Paul was charged with preaching the Gospel to the non-Jewish world. One of the starkest contrasts of the differences between the Gospel and these pagan beliefs surfaced in Paul’s interaction with Greeks in Athens. He was given a chance to speak at the Areopagus which was a forum of sorts for the exposition of new ideas. Paul built a narrative that presented Jesus in terms his audience could understand. His speech was free from religious lingo. While he was accused of losing his mind, he overlooked offense in service of the greater goal, communicating the Gospel to those who were to believe.
On a different occasion, we see Paul disagreeing with Barnabas:
Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.6
At their core, Paul and Barnabas were in service of the Lord, bringing the Gospel of Jesus to places that had never heard it before. That was the ultimate mission. This strong foundation meant when sharp disagreements came up, it wasn’t the end of the relationship but it was time to part ways and continue working towards the common goal. This story shows us that it’s okay to agree to disagree as long as we continue to move forward without breaking fellowship or writing other people out.
Christians Don’t Always Know the Answer
“I don’t know.”
This is a phrase that’s becoming increasingly rare in our culture. It’s as if Western culture is constantly pushing people to have a position on any issue regardless of whether they have the facts or not. You see it in politics when candidates refer to parts of the world and can’t even get the names right, much less address topics with rigor, or in beauty pageant responses that provide answers without any understanding of the issue. Void responses span any arena or social strata, yet people are unwilling to say, “I don’t know.” This cultural baggage can definitely make its way into the church. I’ve personally felt the pressure to walk into conversations with answers, or to address discussions from a “biblical perspective,” which can mean, any mature Christian should answer this question and there is only one answer. All we have to do is look back at Church history and look at events like the Spanish Inquisition—which put to death people with “heretical” beliefs—to see how this approach can lead to bad results. Self-reliance and pride is not what the Gospel is about. Seeking truth requires humility and faith to say “I don’t know, but I’d like to learn more.”
Of course, as Christians, there are things we can be open about and things that are core to our faith, such as a triune God or salvation through faith alone by grace alone. Knowing how to sort through these is essential to effectively engaging culture without feeling as if we’re compromising our faith. Broadly speaking we can classify topics into three categories:
Convictions: Topics like the Trinity, the divine nature of Jesus, and the inerrancy of Scripture are all core convictions at the center of the orthodox Christian faith. One cannot practice orthodox Christianity without them.
Persuasions: Includes topics like speaking in tongues, finances, and fasting, topics that are important to tackle but not central to a person’s conversion to Christianity.
Opinions: Includes topics like what translations of the Bible we like the most, what’s the best meeting time for a church service, how many people there should be in a community group. These are topics that Christians should openly discuss without reservations and have the freedom in Christ to decide what’s best based on individual situations.
The Western world is challenged by a surge in self-care and self-centeredness that spans all spheres of society, even in the church. “Authenticity” is the new magic bullet that gives people a way out of being challenged by others all while remaining in the shell of a self-constructed story. This story is the framework within which all facts must align, where anything else is fake news. How do we regain our founding fathers’ ability to passionately disagree without breaking fellowship? It’s about looking within and checking the object of our worship. Who are we really serving and what is our ultimate goal? For the Christian, it’s clear we must build God’s kingdom. We are to follow Jesus and engage culture with a loving heart and words that are seasoned with grace. We follow Paul in building bridges and connecting the Gospel with the world around us, not hesitating to overlook offenses. And if we must disagree, we do so and press on, regarding every brother and sister as better than ourselves. And in this journey we will be wrong many times. But having the humility to say “I don’t know” will cut across many walls wherever we go.
1 Shermer, Michael. “The Political Brain.” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-political-brain/ (accessed July 4, 2017).
2 Zuckerberg, Mark. “I want to share some thoughts on Facebook and the election.” Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10103253901916271 (accessed July 4, 2017).
3 Jeremiah 17:9
4 Matthew 26:36-39, ESV
5 John 4:5-10, ESV
6 See Luke 19:10
7 Acts 15:37-41, ESV