Sunday, September 21, 2014
Three Polarities to be Eschewed
But, by my lights, it doesn't happen very often. The more imminent threat to our social and political discourse, whether in the secular or the ecclesiastical arena, or in the territory where the two overlap, is the tendency of too many to set up camp on one end of a contentious polarity and then go about demonizing those who inhabit the other end. The truth may only rarely, and by accident, be precisely in the middle. But it is almost never completely at either end.
Particularly in recent years, this tendency seems to be on overdrive. We tear our hair out over legislative gridlock at national and state levels, but we need look no further than district lines to see where the problem lies. Whichever party controls a state legislature in a year when the tens column turns is able to draw the map to preserve its own hegemony. Both parties do it; there are no clean hands here. The result is that districts tilt heavily in one direction or the other. You have to be an extremist--that is, inhabit one end of the various political polarities--to get elected in most places. So we end up with legislatures, and a Congress, full of hyper-partisan ideologues who are constantly looking for ways to shore up their position in the next election, controlled by fear of what would happen if they lost power. In the meantime, nothing gets done.
The church I serve, the Episcopal Church, has been rent asunder by polarization and the concomitant spirit of fear over the last decade and longer. Most on the conservative end have decamped to other ecclesiastical domains, most of them to the newly-formed Anglican Church in North America. A great many of them still love to trash-talk TEC, however, instead of really moving on. Self-proclaimed progressives control the enterprise now, and there are scarcely enough in the "loyal opposition" (and that, indeed, we are) to make a noise loud enough to get anyone's attention. (There is some solace in powerlessness, but that's another blog post.) Interestingly, though, even while securely in the driver's seat, my "progressive" friends often seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to ferret out crypto-traditionalists and others who might seek to undermine their hard-won gains. There's a lot of fear ... though I'm not sure exactly what of. The polarization is abetted on both ends.
Polarization is no doubt effective in rallying the troops, but it obscures the truth. There are three polarization narratives out there (among many more, I'm sure) that strike me as particularly problematic:
This polarity pits those who look for a Muslim behind anybody who looks vaguely Arab or South Asian and a jihadists terrorist behind every Muslim, against those whose only hermeneutic of Islam is of a peace-loving "Abrahamic" faith. (It is from the latter group that the label "Islamophobia" comes from, directed toward the former group.) At the first end, the scaremongering is frightfully inaccurate and unhelpful, and leads to such things as the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, which the shooter mistakenly identified with Islam. There is overwhelming incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of Muslims living in American have no sympathy whatever with acts of politically or religiously-motivated violence against anyone anywhere.
That said, it is naive and dishonest to deny that groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS (or ISIL, depending on how you like to translate Arabic) locate their identity and mission squarely and solely in the teaching and practice of Islam. One can argue that they distort and misconstrue Islam, as many Muslims indeed so argue. But they are not generic terrorists, they are Islamic terrorists. In a society where freedom of thought and expression are valued, it should not be off limits to criticize not only violent acts, but also the avowed motivation of those who commit violent acts--in this case, Islam. Fear mongering and ethnically-based prejudice are reprehensible. I have a small list of Facebook friends who are very close to being blocked for such behavior. But calling into question this or that aspect of Islam is not, necessarily in and of itself, either "hate speech" or bigotry. One need not be either a despiser of Islam or a champion of Islam. Those are not the only options.
This polarity pits those who advocate for inclusion of homosexual behavior and homosexual relationships within the range of "normal" against those who understand sexuality and marriage as innately configured to procreation and the raising of children by their biological parents in a stable family. The activities of Westboro (so-called) Baptist (so-called) Church are only too well-known, and their now-deceased leader, Fred Phelps, was larger than life. To suggest that God "hates" anyone, particularly a whole category of people who share a certain sort of sexual inclination, is absurd and disgusting on its face. Such attitudes need to be condemned loudly and unambiguously. Phelps and all who think and act like him are an embarrassment to all who profess and call themselves Christians.
Equally disturbing, however, is the attempt by some on the "progressive" side to, by rhetorical fiat, eliminate all the territory between their position and that of Westboro Baptist. It's an elegant strategy, really. Stake out the moral high ground by casting (quite successfully, it appears) a narrative that it's all a justice issue on a par with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and, voila!, anyone who opposes you in any way is automatically a bigot on a par with Bull Connor at the controls of a firehose. Anyone not full-throatedly in support of "marriage equality" is consigned to outer darkness next to those who made Rosa Parks sit in the back of the bus. It's a deft polemical maneuver, and the extent of its success is, frankly, chilling.
It is also complete foolishness. There are any number of rational and defensible positions short of the pole of fully re-defining marriage to include same-sex relationships and still light years away from anything Fred Phelps would have recognized. To not see this is to be willfully obtuse. The ease with which the labels "bigot" and "homophobe" get thrown around and seem to stick should alarm anyone with a sense of decency, let along charity.
In an attempt to put an edge on the disintegration of Christendom, I have been won't to allude to the statement of the now-retiring Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, to the effect that he expects that he will die peacefully in bed, his successor (now known!) will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square ... all before there is another societal seismic shift, and the Church is restored to a position of leavening influence.
One does not need to scan social media for very long before finding evidence that allegedly points to the "persecution" of Christians--not in the ISIS-controlled parts of the Levant, but right in the heartland of the United States. Valedictorians are forbidden from mentioning Jesus in their speeches, college football teams are prohibited from emblazoning their helmets with crosses in memory of a teammate who died, the evangelical campus ministry Inter-Varsity is "de-recognized" at both public and private universities because they require student leaders of their chapters to actually profess Christian faith, atheist groups sue to have "In God we trust" removed from our national currency ... and the list could go on. Others, usually Christians themselves, off a rejoinder, saying, in effect, "This is not persecution, you wimps! You're just whining because Christianity is no longer privileged like it once was, and now you have to compete in the marketplace of ideas along with everyone else."
Both of these voices are missing something, I fear, in their enthusiasm to make their points. Compared to their brothers and sisters in China and Sudan, to say nothing of Iraq and Syria, American Christians have yet to suffer even a whiff of true persecution. Inconvenience? Yes. About a third of the time, I'm in a hotel room on a Saturday night. In virtually every place, at the breakfast buffet the next morning, I see parents with their children in athletic uniforms, on their way to competitions scheduled for Sunday morning. My heart breaks a little every time I see this. But my achy-breaky heart is nowhere near a persecuted heart. To say otherwise would be to dishonor the Christian children beheaded by Islamic terrorists.
But ... which way is the arc of history presently bending? If I were a betting man, my money would be on Cardinal George. I'm only two years younger than his successor, so that gives me a bit of pause. From time to time, still, I lay my hands on teenagers in the sacramental rite of Confirmation. In good traditional fashion, I then give them a token symbolic slap on the face, and remind them, when I can, that this is a sign that the vows to which they have just committed themselves are increasingly likely to get them into trouble before they're my age. I don't think I'm wrong, and I pray for them in advance of that moment, that they will be strong.
If we can resist the allure of these three polarities, at least, we stand a better chance, I think, both as a society and as a church, of knowing the truth, and finding it liberating.