In August, I started a series on four big challenges facing the church in the West, and then launched into what I thought would be a two- or three-part series on the fourth challenge I identified: polarization and fragmentation in society. To my surprise, that series has expanded considerably. (See here, here, here, and here.) Those of you who subscribe to my column may be ready to move on from this subject, and I do plan to get to other topics soon. Still, I hope the series has prompted some good reflection on what we can do to fight back against—not merely bemoan—the state of our societal discourse today.
In the previous column, I offered two suggestions for the church in fighting fragmentation:
- Expand our understanding of “worldliness” to encompass words and actions that increase polarization and fragmentation.
- Maintain prophetic distance in our political involvement.
Today, I offer another suggestion for the church. We need to remind ourselves constantly what kind of battle we are in. Our battle is not against flesh-and-blood. It takes place on a spiritual plane.
Us vs. Them
In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff claim that one of the three “Great Untruths” wreaking havoc in certain segments of society today is the untruth of “Us vs. Them,” summed up as life is a battle between good people and evil people. The authors demonstrate how this view affects our political discourse, whether it’s by shutting down free speech on some college campuses or by casting every person as either friend or foe, good or evil.
When the “Us versus Them” untruth pervades a culture, we lose the ability to have an honest and charitable disagreement. To assume the best of your opponent, or to admit that their intentions are admirable even if you believe their position to be wrong, is to flirt with compromise. Nothing but total disavowal of people personally will keep the enemy from gaining a foothold.
Interestingly, demonizing others has become commonplace in a respectable secular society that has largely abandoned its belief in actual demons. When everyone is expected to enter the public square only after shedding (or at least compartmentalizing) their supernatural beliefs and religious convictions, the result is an atmosphere that can see no higher court than the one in Washington, no greater enemy than the flesh-and-blood person on the other side of the political aisle, and no greater cause than the scorched-earth policy of winners and losers.
This dualistic, quasi-Manichean approach to the world leads to dehumanization. We hold people in contempt for being what Alan Jacobs calls “the repugnant cultural other.” Only when the enemies are labeled, ridiculed, and ruthlessly squashed can we rest from the battle.
How Can a Line-Drawing Church Fight Fragmentation?
The church can provide the antidote for this kind of fragmentation and can fight back against the “us vs. them” myth. I realize how crazy this must sound to the secular observer. Don’t Christianity’s warfare metaphors just exacerbate the problem? Isn’t Christianity exclusivist when it comes to salvation, delineating clearly between who is “in” and who is “out”?
These are good questions, especially when one considers the history of religious persecution (perpetrated by Christians or among Christians). It’s true that when you read the Bible, you find powerful lines of demarcation between the people of God and everyone else.
To counteract the “us vs. them” tendency, today’s revisionists often dismiss traditional Christians for “drawing lines” of “who’s in and who’s out,” but the New Testament records the concerns of the apostles to establish clear boundaries. We see the apostles lifting up true teaching and opposing false teaching. It was Jesus, not some fiery fundamentalist from 50 years ago, who gave us two paths and pointed us to the narrow way.
On the surface, then, the dichotomy between “saved” and “unsaved” seems to contribute to the “Us vs. Them” untruth. If Christians see themselves as good while everyone else is evil, then yes, Christianity inflames the impulse at the heart of societal breakdown. But a closer reading of the New Testament counteracts the “us vs. them” untruth.
Nature of Dogma
First, Christianity’s truth claims are self-consciously exclusive, while many of the claims made by more secular-minded people are not. To put it as Chesterton would: there are two kinds of people in the world—those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it. Seen in this light, the “us vs. them” mentality does not spring up from “dogmatists” who oppose “open-minded people.” There’s dogma wherever you turn; the only questions are what is the dogma that drives you and how does that dogma lead you to live?
Every belief is in some way exclusive. Beliefs contradict each other, dogmas disagree, and there are mutually exclusive beliefs that cannot be simultaneously true. The question is what do we do when we differ with other people, not how can we all agree? It’s not whether you believe in dogmas or not, but what dogmas you believe that matter most in public life.
Battle in the Church
That brings me to a second point, what Christian doctrine teaches about the nature of salvation and the battle envisioned in the church. Yes, the Bible makes dogmatic claims about the nature of this world, the nature of hope, and the nature of salvation. But the picture is generally not one that casts people as “saved” vs. “unsaved,” as if these groups are in perpetual battle. The saved are saved on behalf of or for the unsaved. The dichotomy has a missionary orientation to it. It’s not monastic, but missionary.
The New Testament authors generally reserve their strongest “us vs. them” words for Christians who have strayed from the truth. Paul’s harsh rhetoric isn’t directed toward those outside the church, but to those who infiltrate the church and twist or revise key gospel truths. The threats are internalized to the church, not externalized as weapons toward those outside.
Battle in the Heart
Third, even more intriguing, the New Testament authors further internalize the battle metaphors by using “spiritual warfare” language for internal threats to our holiness. Peter wrote to Christians who were facing threats, social ostracism, and persecution, and yet his counsel to them was to avoid the sinful passions that “wage war against your soul.” The battle gets internalized.
Battle in the Heavens
Finally, when Paul told the Ephesian church to “put on the full armor of God,” he described a struggle “not against flesh and blood” but against “the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens.” This means we’re on a spiritual battlefield, and we are to resist evil and struggle against spiritual forces, but our enemy is not our flesh-and-blood neighbor.
People in the other political party may be misguided, may be dishonest, may hold to principles or positions that are morally appalling, yet they are still not the enemy to which Paul refers. As Russell Moore has said, we rage against the Reptile, not against his prey. And even if you decide that your political opponent must be, in some sense, your enemy, then you are bound by the command of Jesus to love your neighbor and your enemy.
Grace that Shatters ‘Us vs. Them’
If we are to stand out in a society that falls for the “us vs. them” myth, we cannot interact with people as if they are fully good or evil. Biblical theology marvelously complicates our view of humanity. God’s holiness levels all of our conceptions of “goodness,” so that no one is totally “good” by his definition. God’s common grace also restrains evil in the world, so that no one is as bad as they might be under other circumstances.
God’s saving grace then knocks down any pedestal of superiority that would have us look down on the neighbor with whom we disagree. Looking up to God for salvation makes it impossible to look down on others.
If we are right about anything, it’s because we have received God’s grace, not because we are morally or intellectually superior. Salvation is a gift, not of works, so that no one can boast. A boastful Christian who envisions his responsibility as taking a stand against the horde of evil people on the other side of the aisle has betrayed the gospel of grace. For the church to stand out in a fragmented world, we must reorient our view of the “battle” the way Paul would have us see. And we must humbly submit to Christ’s command to pray for our enemies, to love anyone who would harm us or hurt us.