Hi Logan, can you share with us some of the wisdom from your talk, “Finding unity in a culture of division”? It seems that in the United States, where I am based, the nation is becoming increasingly polarized - the divisions seem more intense, more widespread, and more antagonistic. What is a way forward for followers of Jesus? Are there opportunities here for us to share our faith?
Thanks for the introduction. I do think the issue of division is pressing today, and one that virtually everyone can connect with. It’s a great topic of conversation that opens doors for talking about the Gospel.
A poignant example of our division that comes to mind was after the tragic shooting at the country music concert in Las Vegas last fall. As terrible as the shooting was, what was further upsetting was some of the commentary that followed. Shortly after the shooting a vice president at a major media company wrote on her Facebook page that she “wasn’t even sympathetic” to the victims, because she reasoned, most country music fans are Republicans, most Republicans are against gun control, and so in a way they had it coming to them. She was, as might be imagined, fired from her job, but I think this says something deeply troubling about the state of our culture. She was the graduate of two Ivy League universities. How could someone who was the product of our finest institutions carry such hardness of heart towards those on the other side of the political aisle?
I think as followers of Jesus there is something profound and desperately needed that we can speak into this context. For a start, Christians have something to say about human dignity. With evolution seen as the only game in town, many have a sense that “what it means to be human” is that we simply find ourselves at the end of a chain of purposeless events that created our species. We might not like to put it so bluntly, but to believe in a world without God is to have a view of humanity like Voltaire’s, who saw us as “tormented atoms in a bed of mud.” But when it comes to sitting across the table from someone you deeply dislike or even someone who has hurt you, it doesn’t help you love them if you recall the fact that, at the end of the day, the person across the table is just “tormented atoms in a bed of mud.” That doesn’t conjure up the “warm fuzzies” in your heart towards them, to say the least. What atheism would say, if you’re wanting to see the dignity in your enemy, is that you need to stop thinking about what’s really true about them – instead try to focus on the dignity that society has conferred on them – don’t think about the cold hard facts.
Christianity sees humans made in the image of God, with a value worth the Son of God laying down his life for. What Christianity would say then, is that when we’re struggling to see the dignity of our enemies, our problem is not, to use a turn of phrase from Tim Keller, that we’re thinking too much about what’s real, but that we’re not thinking enough. (So much for Christianity being about turning your brain off!) . Only the Judeo-Christian worldview offers us a rational, coherent foundation for human dignity – even dignity for our enemies.
I also think Christianity offers a nuanced understanding of sin – that we’re all sinful, instead of the “sinners” being on any one side of an issue – as well as a understanding of the self that fosters humility – that we are all, in Luther’s words, simul justus et peccator, at the same time sinful yet justified, which gives us no place for boast apart from the cross of Christ.
In short, when I speak on this topic I try to convey that the Christian faith alone offers a foundation for dignity, a nuanced view of what our real problem is, and a basis for true humility. I think with how often division is featured in the news, we have so many opportunities to ask our non-believing friends and family what they think is behind that division, and whether there is a way forward – these are questions the Christian faith offers unparalleled answers to.
If we have time later this week I’d like to share an interesting conversation I had along these lines just last week, on one of our most divisive Canadian issues – relations with the First Nations community.
Hi Logan, thank you for this thoughtful answer. I hadn’t heard the Voltaire quote before, but I’ll borrow it! “Tormented atoms in a bed of mud” is quite a visceral image! How curious that atoms are tormented! And that this bundle of atoms called Voltaire used such emotional, imaginative language!
I’d be delighted to hear more about the conversation you had along these lines last week.
I’m glad to share the conversation, just as an example of how I recently found myself talking about cultural division with a non-believer, and how it provided a surprisingly natural way for talking about the Gospel.
As I mentioned above, one of the most divisive issues we wrestle with north of the border is relations with the indigenous community. Last week I was talking to non-believer who lives in a part of Canada with a large First Nations population. Over the course of our conversation it became clear she was one of a not-insignificant number of Canadians who feel certain resentment towards the indigenous community. She criticized their alcohol and drug abuse, and preemptively pushed back against the notion that she personally had anything to do with injustice they had faced in years past. She felt indigenous groups were “never satisfied” with the apologies and government assistance they received. I could sense she felt division between “us and them.”
As I thought (and prayed!) about how to respond, it came to mind to first simply lament the reality of the division itself and the injustices that originally brought it about. I reflected about how sad it was that deep injustice, like the forced removal of indigenous children from their families to be placed in “residential schools” (a practice which didn’t stop until the 1990s), had lasting, terrible consequences that we still see today. I talked about how injustice and “sin” have a way of driving a wedge between us, and she agreed heartily.
The conversation turned to what could be a way forward in this divisive situation. I wish I could say I had a solution to offer. I do not.
But I thought I’d share a story that arrested my attention a few months ago. I was reading the writing of a theologian at Yale named Miroslav Volf. Volf hails from the Balkans, a beautiful but complicated part of the world, with deep divisions of race and religion exacerbated by nearly a thousand years of cyclical violence, the latest of dating from the late 1990s. Volf argued peace could only come to his homeland through a belief in the final judgment of God. What he meant was this: at the heart of each violent outbreak was one group’s effort to “get even” for the wrongs they had suffered in years past. Each side wanted justice. But the only solution, Volf argued, would be to “insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God” – to lay down the need to exact revenge by trusting that one day God Himself, who sees all, would enact perfect justice. Volf wasn’t calling for his country to not care about justice in the meantime, but to lay down the recourse to violence in its pursuit. This, of course, would be no easy charge for family who had lost a loved one to violence in the Balkans; it would mean “absorbing the blow” of the injustice, not denying the injustice itself, but refusing to react vengefully to reach a justice of their own accord.
My friend thought the idea interesting, but asked how it would apply to the Canadian situation. It took me a moment to collect my thoughts, and I wanted to be sensitive, but I ventured this: When it comes to the indigenous community in Canada, all must agree they are a group that has suffered deep injustice (at times, unspeakable injustice). But while non-indigenous Canadians might not put it this way, I suspect some of them have a sense they’ve been treated unjustly too; my friend felt she was falsely accused for perpetrating atrocities from years past, and that she needed to speak up for herself. But this kind of self-justifying brings little good in public conversations with the indigenous community – it can feel like a further injustice, catalyzing new cycles of bitterness. In light of Volf’s comments, I wondered whether those of us who are non-indigenous might need to give up our desire to “self-justify” when we feel we’ve been wrongly attacked (whether we have been or not). Volf would say we need to “absorb the blow,” acknowledging any legitimate prejudice we have, understanding why the indigenous community might react the way it has, and leaving ultimate justice to God. It’s not to lay aside our concern for justice in our society today (and cave to a “culture of victimhood”), but it is to give up our own personal need to be seen as “in the right.”
I shared with my friend that, to do this, we’d need a strong sense of identity – we’d need to know that we already were “justified” in some way, so we didn’t need to be “justified” in the eyes of everyone else. I shared that Christianity offers that very thing, justification before God – not based on our good lives, but wholly on Jesus’ death on our behalf. He absorbed the ultimate blow for us. This message can make us into people who don’t need to have the last word, people who can be “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), as Jesus intended his followers to be.
As so often happens, our conversation was cut off, but as we parted she looked me in the eye with smile and said she really enjoyed talking. It was powerful to talk about something we both agreed really mattered – the division in our culture – and to reflect on how the start of an answer might come from a place we wouldn’t expect, from God, and the personal relationship he offers us through repentance and faith in what he has done for us on the cross.