Articles

The Christian’s Call in a Polarized Age: Dealing with Disagreement, Part One

05/1/20

Glenn Sunshine

American society is as polarized as any time since the Civil War. Never-Trumpers and Democrats view anyone who would consider voting for Trump as morally compromised, while hardcore Trump supporters see their opponents as hypocritical totalitarians in the making.

The response to COVID-19 similarly polarizes the population between those who support quarantine and social distancing and those who think it is an overreaction at best or incipient totalitarianism at worst. Democrats are being pushed further to the left and Republicans to the right, and both sides view the other not simply as mistaken in their ideas, but as malicious and evil.

While anyone familiar with American history knows that political nastiness is nothing new, Scripture does not give Christians permission to engage in battle that way. The Apostle Paul gives clear guidelines about how to handle disputes both inside and outside of the Church.


While anyone familiar with American history knows that political nastiness is nothing new, Scripture does not give Christians permission to engage in battle that way.


Identifying the Enemy

The first thing we need to recognize is that our opponents, political or otherwise, are not our enemies. Paul tells us that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) The enemy is thus ultimately spiritual, not physical.

People who oppose or distort the Gospel are prisoners of war (2 Tim. 2:26) suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. We should see them as needing rescue, just like any of us apart from Christ.

Every human being is made in God’s image. This is the source of human value, making all equal before God. We frequently appeal to the image of God to make a case for protecting the unborn, but we must recognize that our political leaders on both the right and the left—even President Trump and Nancy Pelosi—are also made in the image of God. Simply put, Christians cannot demonize our opponents, because to do so is to insult the God in whose image we are made.

The Nature of our Weapons

In addition to the weapons and armor for spiritual warfare described in Eph. 6, we have other weapons to help us set prisoners free. Paul tells us that these weapons have “divine power to destroy strongholds,” which Paul tells us include “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God,” and that these weapons allow us to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

To put it differently, on a human level, our fight is against the entrenched sin in people’s thinking, in culture, and in political and social institutions. We are to fight a battle of ideas, and we must do our best to keep the fight on that level. Contrary to Saul Alinsky, we cannot personalize the conflict: though we may identify people who hold the views we are challenging, we must never do so in such a way that they are presented as the enemy rather than their worldviews, ideas, or programs. We do not war against people, only ideas.


Contrary to Saul Alinsky, we cannot personalize the conflict: though we may identify people who hold the views we are challenging, we must never do so in such a way that they are presented as the enemy rather than their worldviews, ideas, or programs. We do not war against people, only ideas.


The Rules of Engagement

Once we know our enemy and our weapons, we need to know the rules of engagement. The most important of these is the Golden Rule: “whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them.” (Matt. 7:12) This is probably the most consistently violated rule of all of Scripture.

For example, we readily attribute the worst possible motives to our opponents yet are insulted when they do the same to us. If you are a political partisan on either side, remember: if attributing evil motives to you is wrong when your opponents to it, it is equally wrong when you do it. According to the Golden Rule, if you want others to give you the benefit of the doubt, you need to do the same for them.

This does not mean that we can never criticize the views of others, but we must do it rightly. We must try to understand the worldviews and ideas that motivate our opponents, recognize that these are rarely inspired by malice, and offer counterarguments by pointing out factual errors, logical fallacies, the implications of their ideas, etc.

But this raises a problem. In a world shaped by postmodernism, truth is seen as a social construct—that is, what we think to be true is shaped by society and society in turn is shaped by its vision of the truth. Truth thus becomes a means of social control, either to protect the existing order or to overturn it. Disagreement on important issues is thus an existential threat—if the other side wins, my side gets suppressed.

Perhaps that is one reason why these discussions become nasty and personalized so quickly. But as Christians we must insist that not all worldviews are equal, and we need to make that case clearly and winsomely, focusing on the ideas and not the people who hold them and insisting on protecting the rights of those who think differently.

Further, we must not accuse people of acting duplicitously or out of malice without clear and unambiguous evidence that goes beyond our partisan biases. When people claim to be acting for a specific reason, we need to take them at their word.

And we need to remember that disagreements about policy do not mean the other side has hidden motives or ill will. For example, people on both ends of the political spectrum want to help the poor and, with rare exceptions, want to protect minorities, but they disagree on the best way to do these things. Only when we recognize our common goals can we get beyond the increasingly polarized rhetoric in the culture.

Our attitude toward our opponents revealed by how we treat them is also an important element in dealing with disagreements. We turn to that in our next article.

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