How to Be a Reconciling Presence in a Vitriolic World (Part 1)

(Editor’s Note: this is the first in a two-part article by David Fitch on being a reconciling presence in a vitriolic world. Part 2 will run next week.)

Famously, back in 2015, the Indiana State legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and it set off a firestorm.

Christian businesses, it was now argued, could legally refuse goods and services to customers if their religious conscience was offended. Conservative Christian lobbyist Advance America advocated for the bill because “Christian bakers, florists, and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!

An Indianapolis television station newsperson rushed to the streets to get reactions. She ended up interviewing the owner of a small local pizzeria named Memories Pizzeria. She asked the owner, Crystal O’Connor, whether she would cater a gay wedding. Crystal reluctantly admitted that same-sex marriage was against her Christian convictions. The pizzeria probably would not cater to a gay wedding if they were asked. In a matter of hours, the pizzeria’s Yelp review page blew up with degrading insults and dehumanizing slurs. Lewd pictures of naked men appeared on their Facebook page along with threats to rob and burn down the restaurant. In a matter of days, the pizza parlor announced it was going to shut down because of the hardships this incident had put on their business.

Soon thereafter a GoFundMe page was started by conservative Christian supporter, and more 29,000 people donated close to a million dollars in less than a week to the Memories Pizza—more money than the pizza place had generated in revenue throughout its entire existence! In less than a week, one little pizza parlor had become the eye of a furious hurricane of anger and antagonism.

Notable in all this is that no gay or lesbian couple actually ordered pizzas for their wedding reception. In fact, it is rare that any couple—gay, lesbian, straight, bi—would ever think of take-out pizza as the preferred meal for a wedding reception. And so the Memories Pizza Parlor became, in essence, an absurd and empty symbol toward which could be aimed the vitriol of a cultural battle on sexuality. The taking down of a little pizza joint in the name of equal rights for gays, or the supporting of its survival at any cost for the cause of a Christian culture, had become a source of ideological enjoyment. It did not matter whether such activity, in fact, had any real impact or relevance on the lives of gay people.

Also notable is, amidst all the Christians getting caught up in this frenzy, no churches (that we know of) actually discussed how they could engage the gay and lesbian people among them who were thinking through what it might mean to be married or not married. Were there any actual face-to-face engagements, actual discernments in people’s lives, any discerning of hurt, abuse, or marginalization? Any opening up of space among the actual struggles of people’s lives where God can heal? I suggest not. More likely, people on both sides walked away, calling it a day, having made their point. Evidently, it was enough for everyone to experience some self-gratifying enjoyment over either (almost) closing down the pizza joint or knowing they had helped it make more money in one week than it had made in its entire history.

In all these ways. Memories Pizzeria is a metaphor for understanding how antagonisms work in our culture, both in and outside the church. In the book The Church of Us vs. Them, I call these dynamics the “enemy-making machine.” As culture shifts around us, and Christians get presented with conflicts, we get caught up in this enemy-making machine. We react either defensively or with the hopes of trying to stay relevant to the culture. In the process we take sides. We get sucked into the angry swirl of the this machine via Facebook, cable news, and political gatherings. We get caught in one Memories Pizza episode after another. In the process, we lose our ability actually to listen, be present, and discern what is happening in these challenges and struggles. And we lose our witness to the Kingdom and to what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ to heal and reconcile the world.

The Enemy-Making Machine

The “enemy-making machine” is my label for how antagonisms work in a society that lives in autonomy from God. Using observations taken from the field of “critique of ideology” (or “critical theory”), I’ve noticed several repeatable patterns to how antagonisms work in our culture and even in our churches. There are several elements to it that can help us ask the right questions, diagnose what is happening, and resist entering into the enemy-making machine. I contend if we can resist its temptation, we can open space for the presence of the living God to unwind the antagonism and make way for grace, forgiveness, and healing. We can open space for the presence of the living God to unwind the antagonism and make way for grace, forgiveness, and healing Click To Tweet

The Banner

First, there is the “banner.” A banner happens when a belief gets extracted from the practice of everyday life and becomes an identity marker. It becomes a cause around which people gather against those people who don’t believe in this banner. It could be a distinctive that a group of Christians discerned that was powerful at the time, but then, years later, becomes a rallying cry to define who we are over against those who are not like us.

Take, for example, the discernment in the 1920s by holiness churches not to drink alcohol amid the raging alcoholism that was destroying families at that time. This discernment (or belief) at this time was good and bore much fruit in the lives of people. But years later, it was extracted from the everyday discipleship of people’s lives and became a banner that said “we are the people who don’t drink, over against those Christians who do drink.” This banner of teetotalism became a marker of “Us vs. Them.” It defined “Us” as different and separate from those other Christians who were not serious about holiness. It was a cause to rally around.

Strikingly, however, years later it has become a legalistic mantra that is empty of any import in our everyday lives. Any church teetotalism policies have become a symbol of what we stood for. Most ordained pastors just ignore it with a wink, and those who do follow the demand not to drink alcohol do it out of legalism, not out of any real discernment for how it affects their daily lives in Christ. This is the way banners work. They lose their meaning for everyday life and become an identity marker useful in defining us against them. In the field of critical theory, these banners are called “empty-signifiers” for this very reason.

Today the church has many banners operating among our churches: The Inerrant Bible! Eternal Conscious Torment! A Christian Nation! Not Affirming/Affirming Same-Sex Sexuality! As I try to show in The Church of Us vs. Them, in each case we have lost touch with what these banners mean in terms of everyday discipleship. They have become banners for many evangelicals in order to take sides. Can we discern when a belief is functioning as a banner as opposed to doing any work in our discipleship? Can we ask people real questions as to how this belief functions to shape how we live in our day-to-day lives? Have you ever talked to anyone that believes or does not believe this belief?

An Enemy

A second aspect of the enemy-making machine is the production of an “enemy.” Just as the Nazis needed “the Jew” to blame the German problems on, every banner needs an enemy to rally a people against. This enemy-making machine depersonalizes a person who isn’t like us, distances them from us, and turns them into an enemy. It enables leaders to gather a people against a cause. Many wonder if the gay or lesbian person, or the Republican or socialist, has taken on this role for Christian groups. It is how ideology works. It is the enemy-making machine. When someone is caricaturing ‘an enemy,’ can we ask that person (or even our own selves), “Have you met and talked with a person like this? Have you ever actually met someone who does these things you accuse them of?”

One’s Identity

A third aspect of the enemy-making machine is that one’s very identity gets swept up in the cause of being against this enemy. This is what poststructuralism has called the shaping of “subjectivity.” It is real. We become so identified by the cause and winning at all costs that almost any attempt to discuss rationally the issues is a lost cause. Nothing can disrupt us from our allegiance. In this exact way, when Donald Trump says, “I can stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters,” he is taking note of how the enemy-making machine works. If your very identity is at stake, you will believe anything blindly to hold it in place. If your very identity is at stake, you will believe anything blindly to hold it in place. Click To Tweet

Sadly, then, when someone is caught in the midst of this enemy-making machine, we notice a perverse enjoyment when the other side suffers pain or defeat. We experience glee at the other side’s demise. This is a tell-tale sign of the enemy-making machine at work. And yet this is so against what Jesus calls us to: loving our enemies. It reveals how far the enemy-making machine can take us from being the church of Jesus Christ, his reconciling presence in the world. When we notice this happening, can we gently ask questions or make observations that help us see that this behavior so contradictory to our calling as Christians?

Jesus gives us practices to counter the enemy-making machine, and we’ll examine those in Part Two of this article.

[Parts of this article were taken from The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies (Brazos Press, 2019).]


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