A couple of weeks ago, I participated in two church events, both significant in their own way. One was a conference which really opened my eyes and gave me a lot to think about. The second was a pastoral gathering, which seemed to make everything I learned at the conference come to life in a most uncomfortable way.
On November 3rd and 4th, I had the privilege of attending the Infuse Conference, facilitated by Mennonite Church Manitoba. Our guest speaker, Betty Pries, led us through great conversations about identity, conflict, vision, and renewal for the church. I learned a lot from the conference, but the one thing that stuck with me more than anything was her take on what might be the greatest Christian witness of our time - unity.
Betty went on to explain how polarization has become so common in our society. Social media plays a key role in allowing us to say things to, and about, each other without any face-to-face interaction. We can insult or defame each other without any real consequence.
Polarization happens when two sides choose to only ever acknowledge the positives of their own side and the negatives of the other’s. When we do this, we make the other less than us. We don’t allow room for conversation, transformation, or redemption. Other people become horrible human beings rather than human beings with opinions that we think are horrible.
Betty’s point was that polarization and division have become the cultural norm. Everybody’s doing it. We are pressured to take sides, to fight and defend against each other. Hateful, oppressive, misogynist, racist, Nazi, bigot, and all the “phobics” are common terms when describing the other. Political discourse has become so militant and divisive that it’s hard not to feel angry whenever watching the news.
That’s where Betty really challenged us. Do we just want to be like the world? Is the church not supposed to be, act, and look different? But over and over again what we see in the church is the same division and polarization that causes us to dismiss each other and count each other as less than human (or at least less than Christian). Betty said we need to be able to discuss and disagree fervently, but still see the other as children of God.
Now, this doesn’t mean that anything goes. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t speak our minds. This doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for our beliefs. But it would be such a radical witness to this world if we were to be able to share our opinions and disagree strongly, but still see each other as a unified church, working and worshipping together. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, instead of discounting each other, we committed ourselves to journey together?
Well, then came November 6th. I attended a Winnipeg-wide pastoral gathering at one of the megachurches in town. I’ve been to this group before, which consists mostly of evangelicals, but I felt it was especially important to go this time because they were presenting their strategy to confront the changing views of sexuality in our culture.
The presentation was respectful and informative. I appreciated their commitment to strengthen sexual integrity and teach those values to their children. I sensed a real desire to care for their churches and I truly believe they want the best for our society. However, I must admit that I felt uncomfortable, as my views were quite different from those being presented. I also didn’t agree that their strategy is the only way to combat shifting views on sexuality, although it was presented as the biblical plan.
But then came the hard part. We were asked to pray with each other about the things that were presented. I wasn’t even sure how to pray or if I could even agree with the prayers spoken around the table. I felt like I wanted to leave but knew that I needed to stay.
I chatted with two other friends at the gathering who felt the same way. When I asked one of them why I should keep attending, he said that we need to be there because this is the church. That’s when Betty’s lesson stood out once again, but in a new way. It’s easy for us to say we need to be united when we’re part of the majority, but what about when we’re not? What do we do when we are outnumbered and our opinion is unpopular? Will we leave, or will we stay, talking with and praying for each other in the midst of our disagreement and discomfort?
I couldn’t stop feeling upset by this gathering. That night, I decided to take a long walk, something I often do when I need to clear my head. I asked God to tell me why I felt so torn about being there. It would be so easy never to go back again, but I also believe it was important that I do. I am afraid of what the other pastors in that gathering will think if they know how I feel.
As I walked, my breath made my glasses fog up. It was difficult to see at times because my glasses were half covered. As I walked and prayed, it hit me. Maybe this was the image I was waiting for. As I thought about my glasses, my mind kept on repeating the phrase, “We are all somewhat blind.”
None of us have it all figured out. None of us have a monopoly on truth or God. As much as we hate to admit it, we may actually need each other. We need those who see differently from us to point out our blind spots, and they need us for the same reason. By listening well to each other and engaging in loving, honest dialogue, we can help our communities reach their best potential.
Or we can continue to shut each other out. We can believe that we alone see clearly and that everyone else needs to conform to us. But that’s what the world is doing. If we want to be a witness, this might be our best opportunity, by refusing to allow our polarizations to dehumanize the other. How different would that be? How radical?