Conflict is opportunity, my friend says optimistically.
I want to believe him. I’m not sure that I do. But if he is correct, then 2020 will present ample opportunity because you could cut the conflict with a knife. And if he is right then the local church exists for such a time as this.
Everywhere you look—newsfeeds, social media, political debates, water cooler conversations, your average church small group—there is conflict, debate, disagreement, division. This is not a revelation. It’s life. So the question the church must seriously consider is not merely how will you choose to vote in 2020? but, how will you choose to engage in 2020?
I’m curious if the local church has the ability to transcend the weary cliches of “us vs. them” and present a better way than what we see continually unfolding in the public square.
Here is my crazy, God-sized, Kingdom dream for the church in 2020: What would it look like to be a kind of peculiar people who could thrive while disagreeing?
Scripture challenges the church to be dual citizens of heaven and earth at the same time (Phil 3:20, Eph 2:19). This is not easy. Many prefer to prioritize one over the other. For example, some prefer to stay out of political discussions altogether and dream of a future when Christ returns and all shall be well. The extremes of this are found in separatist movements. Others demand utopia now and thus place their hope in the outcome of the upcoming election. The religion of politics grows by the day, and this is evidenced in the extremes of both parties. As followers of Jesus, he taught us to be citizens of heaven and earth. Not citizens of Heaven or earth. This isn’t easy. It’s complicated.
Consider the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. Have you ever noticed the way he thoroughly integrates heaven and earth in the prayer?
For example, raise your head up to the sky and slowly move downward as you say each line of the Lord’s prayer. When you get to the phrase “on earth as it is in Heaven,” your head should be at the horizon line and beginning its descent to the ground. At the conclusion, raise your head all the way back up as you proclaim, “Yours is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen!”
This physical exercise is the best reminder of my day that I am called to be spiritually ambidextrous—a citizen of heaven and earth simultaneously. When some of our ancestors looked at the horizon (Latin root word, ora, meaning prayer), it reminded them that the Kingdom, heaven, and earth intersect. So what exactly does this mean for this election year? It means a great deal, actually.
Draw a line from left to right. We will call this line “Positions.” On the far left is the liberal end, and on the far right is the conservative (insert whatever terms you prefer to distinguish political positions).
With this simple line (horizontal axis) you are able to chart where you land on any given issue. Immigration, education, gun control, tax reform…they can all be charted. Positions matter. The meaning of a democracy is that the people have the power to determine how their positions will be formulated into concrete policies that make a real difference. (At least, this is how it is supposed to work).
Jesus’ prayer taught us that being citizens of earth matters. Therefore, the problem today is not that we have positions; the problem is that the positional axis is the dominant—even exclusive—way we determine whether or not we can have unity with someone.
For many, unity along a positional line is the only thing that matters when it comes to whether or not you are loved, accepted, and feel a sense of belonging among family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. More often than not, we choose who we will include at our tables based on whether or not they agree with our positions. Society seeks unity along the positional lines of the horizontal spectrum. We are segmented, tribal, divided, and hostile. Seeking unity along positional lines alone is not working. And the local church is often a reflection of the wider culture.
Intuitively, we are hungry for a third way, a creative way, a better way. Humbly, I submit that the organization most equipped (yet often the least willing) to model out this way is the local church. Yes, the local church. I still believe this can be true.
The prayer of Jesus places demands on us. Remember we begin the Lord’s prayer looking up. This is the posture of grace, curiosity, and humility. It is a totally humanizing posture toward the other, regardless of positions. Jesus’s prayer teaches us to always honor the imago Dei in another.
For those who consider themselves to be “in Christ,” seeking unity exclusively along the positional line is inadequate. We are also called into a vertical axis of being. So if the horizontal axis is based on “Positions,” then the vertical axis is based on ‘“Posture.” Consider the following image.
Choose an issue that is emotionally galvanizing for you: (healthcare, abortion, gun control, etc.). Now imagine sitting across the table from someone you know with whom you vehemently disagree on their position on the issue.
As they speak you are looking into their eyes. Perhaps you cannot believe they can hold these positions with conviction and still consider themselves a follower of Jesus. But here is the thing. Before they take a breath—giving you a chance to interrupt them with your position—consider this possibility:
How you hold a position is as important as the position you hold.
This is really hard. Why? Because your amygdala (an almond-shaped bundle of 10 million neurons deep inside your brain) is passionate about that position. And that position you hold matters immensely. To constrain your amygdala in order to humanize the person across the table takes immense discipline (not to mention brain-energy in the form of glucose you’d prefer to conserve for other important matters that may arise throughout the day).
I believe this is work the local church should be modeling. Why? Because we (the local church) claim to be animated by the power of the Holy Spirit and not merely our own willpower. This is one of the very reasons Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell the Church.
Human strength is limited. We grow weary, get frustrated, and shake the dust off our feet when others disagree. And when we are weary, and operating in our own willpower, it is easy (human, even) to demonize other people. But God’s strength is limitless. And if God lives inside our being, as Scripture tells us (Rom 8), then we have access to a power that can enable us to model a different way for the purpose of bearing witness to the Lordship of Jesus for the sake of the world.
This is what I mean when I say Jesus’ prayer makes demands of us. The Lord’s prayer should never be reduced to a sentimental, memorizable poem we say with our kids before bedtime. Through prayer, Jesus taught us a revolutionary, integrative way to be human.
As citizens of earth, your positions matter. But dignifying the human across the aisle does too. To do this marks us as citizens of Heaven as well. This is why the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are so vitally important. Through his work, we find a contemporary example of seeking change while doing the hard work of enemy-love.
So place any of the current issues you can imagine on the spectrum above. But remember to also categorize the posture with which you hold the position and not merely the horizontal position you hold. In this way, it is easier to discern whether or not you are interested in following Jesus this political year.
In conclusion, here are three simple practices that can help us better become citizens of heaven and earth at the same time:
As a citizen of earth: pick at least one issue and become competent about all sides of that issue. Despite being overwhelmed by the amounts of information we daily receive, do not allow apathy to set in. Positions matter. You’ll know you’ve become competent in an issue once you can to argue for the position you disagree with.
As a citizen of heaven: choose to humbly engage environments with people you do not agree with. Being among people with whom you do not politically identify will help you gauge your emotional health. Listen to your body as you engage them in conversation. If disgust comes over you and inhibits your ability to love them as an image-bearer of God, take note of that, and give it to God as an offering of intercession. Refuse to dehumanize the sacred mystery in every person you come into contact with.
Discipline yourself to speak less and listen more. I sometimes imagine a cloud over my head that is displaying my word count in any given conversation. It would be embarrassing for my word count to be noticeably larger than the clouds over everyone else’s heads. You cannot grow in curiosity within increasing your willingness to listen (Jas 1:19). Consider the invitation that you do not have to share your opinion all the time! Love begins with listening. Jesus modeled this way for us time and again.
Dear church, dare to be peculiar this year. Let’s model a more humanizing path for society to see. And let’s attempt to live into a God-sized, Kingdom dream for the year 2020: to be a kind of people who could thrive while disagreeing.
And every time you make a sign of the cross or pray the Lord’s prayer, remember your ambidextrous call as both a citizen of earth and a citizen of heaven.