The past year, like every year in Christian history, has seen significant amounts of Christian conflict. Consider the vitriol that spewed from the mouths of liberal and conservative Christians alike after multiple landmark Supreme Court decisions. Liberal Christians called (some) well-intentioned and conflicted conservative Christians homophobes. Conservative Christians called (some) rigorously intellectual and spiritually convicted liberal Christians heretics. Supporters or detractors of certain issues received names like racist, bigot, or heathen. Shortly before these tumultuous summer months, another Christian publicly called me a “servant of Satan” for my views on sexuality and equality.
I recently finished my orientation at Duke Divinity School. We spent a few days getting to know one another, and I noticed something about my new colleagues. So many of them are not like me. Now, I expected there to be people not like me in matters of race, income level, age, sexual orientation, and all those demographics you fill out in surveys. However, I was not anticipating the wide range of viewpoints from a conservative Southern Baptist to the most liberal Episcopalian.
I realized that a great temptation for any of us is to house ourselves in theological, ethical, or political echo chambers. When we do that, all the people we know think the same thing — or we do not talk with people about our disagreements. The consequence of narrowing your relationships in this way is that you start to treat viewpoints that are different from yours as simply that: viewpoints. We forget that behind those viewpoints — no matter how wrong, unhelpful, or even detestable we think them to be — are people.
Behind every opinion is a human being.
Earlier this summer, Rachel Held Evans wrote an article for CNN that sparked much of the summer outrage. Afterward, she wrote about the response to her article that I could sum up in the title: “You don’t hate me. You hate my brand.” People do not actually hate Rachel, but they hate the “RHE” who posts all of these viewpoints that make them angry. People forgot that Rachel is a person, not some ephemeral ideological spirit bouncing around the Internet.
The conflicts that feed into the widening schism between a “liberal” and “conservative” Christianity operate on the tacit assumption that some sort of intellectual gods are in supernatural war with each other. This monolithic liberal Force is fighting the conservative Dark Side or vice-versa. The problem with that idea is that it is not true. People are in conflict with people, and they are failing to recognize each other’s humanity.
There are racists in the church. There are homophobes in the church. I do think that the things certain Christians preach and teach are wrong, unhelpful, and often detestable. However, it is a struggle every day to realize that I cannot belittle people with whom I disagree to a viewpoint. When we dehumanize each other in our conflict, we are subverting the Gospel that conservative and liberal Christians alike are trying to protect and promote.
Do you think people want to join in on a Kingdom where people call each other names?
Do you think people want to take part in a Kingdom where people cannot talk over dinner about anything that matters?
Do you think people want to enter a Kingdom not of righteousness but interpersonal hatred?
I think we need to be able to name the systems, beliefs, and institutions that oppress and belittle people. I think we need to call out attitudes and perspectives that are contrary to the Gospel in each other. I think that we need to “speak the truth in love” as my Baptist friends like to say so often. I think we need to highlight problems of discrimination, hate, and exclusion within the Kingdom of God.
We need to do all those things with the goal being reconciliation and not shame. We are not fighting a holy war; we are trying to build the Kingdom of God. We are not soldiers in some grand cosmic conflict; we are brothers and sisters who need to see the divine spark in each other. No one is going to convince anyone by calling them names, shaming them, or otherwise making them feel like an awful person. That goes both ways.
So, we need to stop making people into viewpoints. We need to stop crowning people as ideological demigods. We need to stop hubristically battling in a phony cosmic war. We need to stop fighting and start reconciling. I know that it is easy to say and hard to do. I know that it sounds hopelessly naive. However, if it is not even the goal and the spirit of our disagreements, we have truly missed the point.