Polarization or Harmony
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
We’ve just had the national conventions of our two main political parties. While there were some inspiring moments, there were times when the speakers acted like immature kids, taunting their opponents with distorted accusations and sarcastic punch-lines. The crowd cheered in self-righteous conformity “Yeah, that’s showin’ ‘em!” Is this how a great and dignified civilization behaves? Are we still the nation of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln or have we become some kind of Saturday morning cartoon?
Polarization has a grip on this country, not only in politics, but also in religion, in our church. Instead of having a reasoned debate, we fight for 51% of the vote, winner take all. It’s a culture war, with neither side able to even comprehend the world-view of the other. I heard one commentator say that it was the greatest divide since the Civil War.
Who among us has not done this on a personal level? Who among us has not complained about other people without trying to talk to them? “Oh, there’s no use,” we say, “they won’t listen to me.” We’d rather carry around our precious indignation than risk the conflict and the possibility that we might have to look at ourselves when we actually communicate. It’s more comfortable, and self-justifying to stand at a distance and complain. At its worst, we become fixed in our opinions about people, blindly self-righteous and contemptuous. And we contribute to the destructive polarization of our world.
This danger is what our gospel for today addresses. This is a passage probably written by the early church long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, about the regulation of conflict between members of the growing faith community. A specific method is given. First, we are supposed to go and speak directly, one-on-one, with the person whom we feel has sinned against us. If that doesn’t work, bring along two or three witnesses who might help resolve the conflict. Then, if needed, take it to the whole community of faith. If that still doesn’t work, remove the destructive influence from the group before it does any more damage. According to the gospel, polarization should be a last resort after every effort has been made, not a first impulse.
These are principles of healthy communication in any group. As many of you know, when there is a conflict between members of our parish and a complaint is made to me, the first question I always ask is “have you talked directly to the other person about this?” If that has taken place and it can’t be resolved, I might come up with a small group of appropriate people to sit down and talk about it together. If necessary, I might then gather the whole ministry group that is being affected, or the Vestry. If that still doesn’t work and there is a real danger of great harm being done to the community, on rare occasions I’ve asked someone to step down from their ministry. There is also a canon that does allow for excommunication, as this gospel passage suggests, but I’ve never had to use it, thank God.
This gospel advice about healthy communication is grounded in something much deeper, in a spiritual truth of life-and-death proportions. We are one body, as St. Paul said. Jesus taught us to see that in him, we are one, just as he and the Father are one. All of creation is infused with God’s Spirit, and we are made to seek harmony with one another and with our environment. Jesus gathered collaborators with Rome and zealots, low-class prostitutes and members of the elite Pharisees, in order to model the fact that everyone and everything is bound together in God.
Because we are one body, it won’t work to go off into our corner and point the finger from a distance. There is no corner to go off into. That’s an illusion. We’re in this together. Because of this, we can’t let polarization widen the distance between us. It is spiritually unnatural; it upsets the harmony of creation, because it does violence to our unity in God, and it is the source of all sin and destruction.
This is why it is so important to do what the gospel asks of us, to deal with our conflicts directly and respectfully, as if we really are brothers and sisters in one family, bound to one another in the Spirit. This is why it is important, as the gospel asks of us, to call upon the wisdom of the group when it is needed.
One place we’ve seen this work politically is with environmental conflicts. Surprisingly, when ecologists, ranchers, energy producers, politicians, community activists, and land management professionals sit down together, they sometimes discover that they have more in common than they thought, and they find a way forward that comes out of the legitimate needs and collective wisdom of the group.
This approach is what is necessary in the immigration debate. We need to bring together the people who are concerned about the integrity of our borders and the strain on our social services together with those who actually work with immigrants and know the human cost of the terrible bind we have helped place them in, and then bring in the employers who rely on their labor. Together they might find a way forward.
This approach is what just might be beginning to happen in the polarized atmosphere of our church. The Episcopal Church is trying to shift the balance from our incessant arguing over sexuality to a renewed mission of alleviating extreme poverty. We’re redoubling our efforts to cooperate with third-world Anglicans around the Millennium Development Goals. Thankfully, this is what the bishops at the recent Lambeth Conference spent most of their time talking about.
Last weekend we practiced, on a miniature scale, what we are trying to do nationally and internationally in our church. In the Matthew 25 Conference, we gathered together amazingly diverse people of this diocese, evangelicals and social activists, and we talked about how we might more effectively alleviate poverty and suffering in the world around us. For the first time in years, I wasn’t on guard against others in the diocese. We were all there as one body, working on something we all cared deeply about. We need a lot more of this kind of thing. It is what will bring us back together, in the church and in our world.
Polarization is a luxury we can’t afford any longer. There’s been too much violence done to God’s intended harmony. The time is getting late. The world urgently needs a more united church that is doing its very best to be a healing presence in this broken world. The world urgently needs a united America, using our tremendous resources to work with other nations towards peace, health, and prosperity for all God’s children on this planet.
You and I can’t bring together a divided church or country all on our own. But we can, as the gospels asks us to, go directly to our brother or sister when we feel alienated from them and try to talk. If this fails, we can bring in 2 or 3 others who might help us shed light on the situation. We can bring together people in our family, in our parish and diocese, in our workplace, looking for wisdom to emerge out of the group.
When we do so, we not only create a practical, concrete harmony between us. We also help build spiritual harmony that ripples out into all humanity, into creation, into heaven itself. Our small, concrete situation and the vast spiritual world are one. As Jesus said, what we bind and loose here on earth is bound and loosed in heaven.
As we deeply understand this spiritual truth, we can approach our brother or sister in humility and mutual respect, listening for the voice of God in the wisdom that sometimes emerges between us. For as Jesus said, when we are gathered together, he will be there among us. We can trust in this promise. We can trust that God will show us the way forward, and that we will be given the privilege of participating in God’s reconciliation of the world.