It is clearly evident that we are living in polarized and polarizing times. Christians in America find themselves facing several converging issues at once: the fray of an election season, ongoing conversations about the need for racial justice, all while continuing to navigate a pandemic. What are disciples of Jesus to do in the face of polarization and contention? How does the Kingdom of God shape the way we live in such a context?
In the face of such questions, Pastor Tim Ghali has been reflecting on what he calls a “nuanced kind of Christianity.” One of the first steps in developing nuance is recognizing the false binaries we’re often forced into. Tim is becoming more aware of these both personally and as a pastor. He says, “I feel like Jesus always wants to tell us something that’s different than what’s coming through these binary agendas that filter through our news feeds and radio and television.” Such binaries push us to pick a side and choose our allegiance, but as Christians, we are a part, first and foremost, of the Kingdom of God, which transcends all other world campaigns and platforms. Jesus invites us to “choose the way of the Kingdom of God,” and then work out the practical implications of that in our context.
Seeking the Kingdom first may not always result in Christians holding the same political positions or agreeing on the same policies, but it does provide a space of unity in the midst of divisive times. It also ensures that as disciples of Jesus, our true allegiance remains with Him, above, before, and beyond anything else.
Keeping our eyes focused on the Kingdom of God also helps us be aware of ways we can set up idols. Tim explains, “In the midst of this ongoing pandemic, I’m paying attention to the COVID-19 vaccination trials. But there are moments I have to catch myself and ask, ‘Am I praying more for the vaccination than I am for the will of God to be at work in our lives?’”
Tim says he doesn’t want to set up yet another false binary with such questions, but emphasizes that we must be self-aware that even the good things we’re concerned about or pursuing can easily become idols. He says, “The office of the presidency could become an idol. Hating the President could become an idol. Vaccinations could become an idol. This thing that many of us want so badly—for our lives to return to normal—could easily become an idol. We need such things—but only to a degree, for when they start having a disproportionate control on us, they can become idolatrous. I think discipleship in the way of Jesus helps us to confront and dismantle those idols, and put true worship where it should be in terms of a way of life.”
Another important discipleship practice that helps us resist false binaries involves how we listen to others who differ from us. “The loudest voices keep pushing us to the poles,” Tim says, “but there is a lot of space in the middle. But in the face of the diversity of views we may find in the middle ground, our brains feel the need to categorize everything, so we’re susceptible to overgeneralize.” Tim says that all too often, when we hear someone share about their views on a potentially contentious issue, “we try to label them as quickly as we can: ‘Is this person one of us?’ ‘Is this person against me?’ ‘Does this person get it?’” In the process, we don’t actually take the time to carefully hear what the other person is saying.
He explains, “Someone may hear me say something that reminds them of something they heard on NPR, which they hate. So now they hate what I’m saying, even though by the time I’ve finished speaking, I haven’t said anything close to what they think they heard. There is a deceptive thing going on there, where I have misheard you, even unintentionally, and now I have villainized you, and at the end of it, we’ve burned good ground between us for nothing.” The frustration and anger of such situations might leave both parties wondering why to bother with a second conversation.
Over the years, Tim has avoided trying to convince people to think the way he does. Instead, he’s trying to encourage the sort of nuance that allows people to engage with each other in a meaningful, fruitful way. He says, “I want to invite people to figure out how to share their vision of the world in a noncombative, honest way and then take a breath and receive the nuanced view that someone else is giving.”
When he finds himself caught in the middle of difficult conversations about the issues facing us today, Tim seeks the Spirit to resist feeling dismayed and find hope. He says, “It’s in the middle of it all where we can make needed progress, find some healing, maybe even down the road experience shalom and reconciliation.”
Diana Gruver (MA, Gordon-Conwell) writes about discipleship and spiritual formation in the every day. She is the author of Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints who Struggled with Depression and Doubt. You can find her online at www.dianagruver.com or on Facebook or Twitter. Diana originally published this work with the Vere Institute (Oct 2014 – May 2021), which was founded to empower Christians to integrate their faith into everyday life. The Vere Institute’s legacy lives on through our Vere Library.