On Not Polarizing Too Much: The Challenges of Prophetic Hospitality (Bruce Epperly)

As we near the Fourth of July holiday, a weekend in which citizens and residents of the United States of America will celebrate 234 years of independence, we also live at a time of increasing political and cultural polarization.  The political bases of the two parties have moved further and further from the center, so that less that civil statements and actions have come to the fore.  Bruce Epperly writes as a theological progressive and political liberal -- I note that both these terms are considered "unAmerican" in some circles."  Just today, I heard Jeff Sessions ask, with derision in his voice, whether Elena Kagan is a "progressive."  So, where are we as a nation when "birthers" and Tea Partiers seem to have taken hold of the imagination?  Bruce addresses some of these questions in what should prove to be one of his most provocative contributions to this blog.


On Not Polarizing Too Much:
The Challenges of Prophetic Hospitality
Bruce G. Epperly

This week’s contribution includes affirmations, concerns, and confessions in responding to the growing polarization of our political and religious worlds. I begin with a concern: I believe that there are growing movements of political and religious polarization in our national life today. I believe these movements threaten the gains we have made as a nation in terms of health care, diversity, environmental protection, and human rights. These movements are motivated by a vision of reality that clearly and dramatically separates persons and policies in terms of good and evil, black and white, in and out, and us and them. When these movements draw on religious resources, they articulate a vision of God which is defined primarily in terms of judgment, power, exclusion, and destruction, rather than love, healing, and acceptance. In a world of diverse visions of reality and lifestyles, these groups believe that God is the ultimate divider, and calls us to do likewise. I will also make a confession: Many of the members of these movements of the religious and political “right” assume that people like me are the enemy, representing something that is destructive of true Christianity and the USA’s best interests.

While we progressives and liberals can be polarizing as well, seldom do progressive and liberal Christians or political activists threaten violence, insurrection, or question the patriotism of those with whom we disagree. I cannot recall among the many progressive and liberal diatribes against President Bush (which involved more than a little impolite conversation and words of demonization) calls for his assassination, the de-legitimization of his second election to the presidency, or the overthrow of the government. I suspect this was because in spite of their occasional vitriol, progressives and liberals are inherently big picture, inclusive, and global thinkers. I have concerns in terms of the growing influence of political and religious polarizing groups, especially in the context of their attempts to become the dominant voice of the Republican Party.

The question these groups raise for me as a progressive Christian is: “Can I be both prophetic and hospitable in relationship to the groups that judge my path as demonic, wrong, and hell-bent? Can I find ways to forcefully but lovingly respond to such groups and their belief systems?” I must confess these are challenges to me personally and spiritually, especially when I hear the comments of “birthers,” Tea Party members, libertarians, and Christian militia leaders. I am often angry, and am tempted to polarize in my own thoughts. I wrestle with how can I passionately advocate for what I believe is right for our nation and the future of our world, and what is congruent with my faith as a Christian – concern for global climate change, a greater sense of community and inclusion, welcome to strangers, health care for all persons, and affirmation of the interdependence of nations – and not demonize with whom I disagree, even when such persons see my views as demonic and dangerous to Christianity and the nation. How can I balance prophetic passion and justice-seeking with healing hospitality?

In her book Plan B, Anne Lamott admits that finding a way to envisage President Bush in a new light was her primary spiritual challenge. She passionately opposed everything about his leadership and policies, domestic and foreign. But, she came to realize that her hatred and demonizing of the President was hurting her spiritual growth and was standing in the way of following Jesus. She still continued to oppose President Bush’s policies, but began to visualize him as a child of God. This began a process of spiritual transformation that changed her life.

In many ways I feel like Anne Lamott when it comes to the rising polarizing political and religious right wing. As I seek to provide prophetic hospitality, my response is both theological and spiritual. First, as a process theologian, I believe that God influences every person to greater or lesser degree. The most vitriolic “birthers” are still touched by God; that is the meaning of omnipresence. While I suspect that they are turning their back on God’s call to a wider more creative and global vision of Shalom, God is still working within their lives, seeking wholeness and community. Second, all persons, even the most radical Tea Party persons, are God’s beloved children, deserving my basic human respect, despite the political gulf between us. Third, all persons, including myself, can experience transformation and conversion. From this perspective, my own political disagreements need to be framed as provocative alternatives, rather than attacks, grounded in the hope that “opponents” may awaken to the value of contrasting positions. Fourth, in order to avoid polarization, in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr, I am called to see the falsehood in my own truth, and the potential truth in the “opponent’s” falsehood. Sometimes, this is simply the recognition that your “opponent” is motivated by fear – fear of change, fear of economic insecurity, fear of otherness, fear of the inevitable decline in the American empire, and fear of losing one’s ethnic, social, or political place in society. To me, fear is the common denominator of all these groups in their quest to deport the alien, hold onto tax money, and delegitimize an African American president. Perhaps, they shout louder because they know that their cause is ultimately lost and that they are going against the grain of history and the nature of reality in its interdependence and diversity.

Theology inspires spiritual practices. I am working at “breathing deeply,” trying preserve my spiritual center when my own anger takes center stage. Gentle breath prayers break down the walls of division and open us to new possibilities for personal and communal transformation. Second, with Mother Teresa, I seek to see Christ “in all his distressing disguises,” including shouting Tea Party members, recalcitrant lawmakers, and violent militia persons.

Finally, as I seek to be hospitable to my “opponents,” I look for the truth in their falsehood even as I passionately affirm my vision of interdependence, community support, healthy diversity, equality for all persons, and ongoing evolution. I seek to experience God moving through all our lives, gently and persistently, even my political and religious “opponents.” Whether or not, we can find common cause in this time of knee-jerk divisiveness, I hope to bring forth the best in myself and my community by living by love rather than fear, imagination rather than stagnation, and hospitality rather than isolation.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.



Cyndi Simpson said…
Thank you, Bruce, for these compelling words. The political polarization of the US is such a challenge because it is our values that are in conflict and our very perception of the world and its realities. I am deeply and personally tied to my values and view of reality - so it can be personally scary to have my views and my self discarded, devalued or derided.

It helps me to remember that those with strong but very differing views feel much the same way I do, as if not only their country but their very lives are at stake.

Out of your practice also comes the search for common ground. I think the Tea Partiers, for example, are absolutely correct in some of their ideas about what the big problems facing our world are - but they and I have radically different solutions. Nonetheless, where their is common ground, even for dialogue, there is potentially common ground for working together.

Sometimes, though, there just isn't that common ground! Then, keeping in mind that I wish to cherish their human dignity and worth in all my actions is very helpful. I can express opinions and share views in ways that are respectful and compassionate, though uncompromising and committed. I don't have to give an inch on my views or give folks who I think are powerfully wrong the least bit of credence.

But in anything I do, I must offer them their full humanity.

As I don't wish to be demonized, I will not demonize in return. It really is about the Golden Rule, after all!
Charlotte Lehmann said…
All of your readers might be interested in the process and outcome of the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly's decision to not withdraw from meeting in Phoenix, AZ in 2012. What started out as extremely polarized camps, came together to offer a general resolution that leaves room at the table for everyone and affirms the humanity of all. Check it out at: http://www.uua.org/events/generalassembly/2010/ga2010/165851.shtml
and read or watch the live streaming video, etc. of other sessions as well.
John said…

There is a saying: "kill them with kindness." Buried within that nugget is the truth of the Gospel. Unrelenting kindness gets noticed. And eventually, it wears down the opponent, and 'kills' the enemy that lies within. And thus they are reborn into friends, who, though they may still disagree with you, at least will vouch for your goodness - and in doing so underscore their own goodness.

It requires patience, mastering the art of not taking offense, and always remaining engaged, no matter the intensity of the attack. It also requires that one suspend one's ideological agenda in favor of an agenda of hospitality - I won't be nearly as disappointed if they continue to disagree with me, as I will be disappointed if they feel that I have not respected them enough to listened to what they are feeling [and thinking]. After all I know what I think (sometimes) I need to know what they think - and I will share my thoughts if they want to know.

I want them to perceive that while we disagree, even strongly disagree, we are not enemies.

Anonymous said…
As a "conservative", I do applaud the step forward and I frankly believe that the pundits and 24 hour media feed the polarization b/c it sells. The more you "hate" the enemy, the more you will "love" what I am selling and offering.

Honestly, I think you pick on the "extremes" of one side in your article. Rewind 4 years ago and you could substitute moveon.org for the Tea Party. When your "team" is out of power, the knives come out. When he is in, you tell everyone to calm down and relax. I bet Obama was the best thing for Fox and Rush. Just like the Huffington Post and Daily Kos rose to life during Bush.

As for some points.. de-legitimatizing is an old, silly game. Remember Bush and Florida? Birthers are the "revenge". Frankly, Bush and Clinton were tarred and feathered so bad from their enemies, I think both sides should be ashamed and neither can say "look how much better we were.."

All this to say.. yes, I am part of the crowd screaming "STOP SPENDING", just as I have tried to in my house. Is it fair to my children to pay the debt I created? However, I am always challenged by my "liberal" brethren to practice compassion and put others above myself. Thankfully we all serve a bigger God than ourselves that is infinitely bigger that our politics and loves to confuse our wisdom when we think we know all the answers.


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