It’s the first week of September, and along with the start of another school year comes the realization that winter will soon be upon us. But in Manitoba, the sights and sounds of our provincial elections also fill the air.
I voted today, and as pessimistic as I am about any incoming government in our province, I believe that voting is one way to make a positive contribution to our communities. As I tried to figure out which candidate I should vote for in my riding, I made the mistake of tuning in to the party leaders debate. Let’s just say that I didn’t think any candidate helped their cause with what they had to say.
It feels like the smell of the election season has grown even more sour in the last few years. And if there’s one word that we could use to describe our Canadian and international political climate, I think it would be “polarizing.”
Polarization basically means division, but it’s the kind of division that leads us to choose sides that are perceived to be so contradictory to each other that there’s no middle ground. When we choose sides, we run the risk of vilifying those who are opposite to us. Once we do that, it becomes very easy to justify a combative and even violent posture.
In politics we have the spectrum of conservative and liberal. There’s always been a divide, but it seems like we have lumped in many other factors to help make this spectrum more divisive. If you call yourself conservative, you also run the risk of being labelled pro-wall, pro-guns, pro-white supremacy. If you identify yourself as being more liberal, you can be perceived as pro-choice, pro-socialism, and pro-taxes.
The problem with extreme polarization is that we inevitably have to label people. We need to know who is on our side so that we can separate those who are different from us. We call them the “other” because it helps reinforce that we are “right.” Once we know who the other is, we can fight them, or at least defend our side.
This isn’t only true in politics, but in many other circles as well. We have found ways to cause division in every sector of life, separating ourselves from those who are different from us. Sports teams, music styles, hobbies, social classes, ethnicities and traditions, and of course, faith.
You’d think that if there’s one place where this kind of polarization and division wouldn’t exist, it would be the Church. But when it comes to beliefs and values, Christians can be the most polarizing of the bunch. When people who claim to be Christians don’t look, talk, or act like we do, we very quickly stereotype them into the “less than Christian” or “not truly Christian” category. When people are on the opposite ends of faith issues than us, be it women in ministry, sexuality, mission, war and violence, or worship styles, we label them as “other” whether we realize it or not.
Once we have the “other” in sight, it becomes very difficult to work and worship together. So we fight with each other and break apart, removing ourselves from those whom we deem to be unfaithful. And as soon as another polarizing issue appears, we repeat the cycle all over again.
But here’s the thing about polarization. Every spectrum has two ends, or two vantage points from which to look. The more divisive we make an issue, the harder it is to see from from the other person’s point of view. And as soon as we start to label those on the other side as the “other,” we need to also realize that they are doing the same to us. To them, we are their “other.”
It’s a very uncomfortable experience when you are labelled as the “other.” It’s also a painful experience when that labelling is done to a group in which you are a minority. I’ve been in many Christian circles where I know the people I’m talking with don’t believe that I’m a “real” Christian because of my views on certain topics. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for people who have experienced that their whole life.
Polarization and labeling has no other result but division. Either people join our side or we consider them “out.” We become each other’s enemies and fight (often over social media) to try to bring people to our side, or we demean and demoralize them when that is no longer a possibility.
The thing about Jesus is that He never pushed people into the ends of spectrums. He never pigeon-holed them into a certain stereotype. Instead, He met each person where they were at for who they were. He saw each person as a human created in God’s image and worthy of respect. He approached and cared for those people that society ignored - the sick, lepers, tax collectors, women, Gentiles, and Samaritans - and treated them with love.
Jesus also instructed His followers to do the most radical thing in the age of polarization - to use the same kind of love that Jesus showed when it comes to the “other.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” - Matthew 5:43-45a
It seems so commonplace these days to show love and favour to those who are like us but to hate our enemies. Even if we wrap it in the veil of “standing up for what we believe in,” refusing to love those who are different from us reinforces the division among us. But we are only one half of the divide. Whenever we label someone as the “other,” we become our other’s “other.” This realization has given me pause. There must be a better way forward. That way is the way of Jesus.
What if we chose to love our enemies when it comes to politics, faith, society, or anything else. What if we chose to see them first as human beings created in God’s image, meeting them where they’re at, listening to them, praying for them, and working together with them. What if we tore down the walls of division while seeing each other as brothers and sisters rather than just the “other.” Not only will our posture, language, and outlook change, but we will begin to reverse the polarization that we have created, learning to move forward together in our diversity while trying to find a better way forward.
Love like Jesus loves us. Yes, even our enemies. Yes, even the “other.”