The Complexity of Sociopolitical Issues in the Age of Polarization

In my twenty one plus years alive, I have held or considered every political position short of fascism and communism. I have considered socialism and the Tea Party, libertarianism, anarchy and everything in between. I was a convinced minarchist for a while. Essentially that is Libertarianism to an extreme. Pretty much everything except the military and police would be gone. I think I even listed that as my political view on Facebook. That was definitely a low in my political activism career. Each time I selected a political view I believed it aligned with the teachings of the Bible. I have changed my mind about pretty much every social issue too, save abortion. Though I never thought same sex marriages were Biblically viable, I have been all over the map in terms of how it should be dealt with legally. I have been pro-war and a pacifist. I have been super pro capital punishment and super anti capital punishment. As of now I hold to some form of just-war theory, leaning away from war unless very necessary and am very against capital punishment and support widespread prison reform. But then we have the issues of jurisdiction and government spending when considering who has the rights and responsibilities to send military and to reform prisons. Anyway, it is confusing and I am tired and disillusioned just thinking about it. Now we have racial reconciliation, the refugee crisis and the prevalence of mass shootings. There are genuine Christians who hold any number of positions on all of these issues. I have read an article by Trevin Wax and one by Russell Moore appealing to Christian compassion and one by Kevin DeYoung saying that we cannot let compassion blind us from the complexity of immigration and security. And these three guys are all very conservative. I haven’t even looked to see what more progressive Evangelicals are saying! (Let me at this point write that Jeb Bush’s proposal that we should only admit Christian Syrian refugees is deplorable. That is not a viable option for a Christian to hold.)

Dr. Anthony Bradley has an amazing talk (that I have watched at least three times) about how we tend to go about viewing these issues. Speaking soon after the tragedy in Ferguson, he discussed his frustration with the response by Evangelical leaders. He mentions how conservative Evangelicals sounded like conservatives and progressive Evangelicals sounded progressive and that no one said anything distinctly Christian or even appealed to the facts. I feel the same way. I feel like a social media prophet. I can tell you who is going to say what about any number of issues before they even say it. It’s kind of fun and kind of tiring at the same time. Sometimes I really just want to see Al Mohler or Voddie Bauchum post something super liberal sounding. That would be so refreshing. (If you are a Christian and want to be refreshed by Christians who do not walk the party line check out Anthony Bradley, Russell Moore, and Alan Noble.) Anyway, Bradley discusses our standard process, as Christians, for responding to social and political issues. We,

  1. Chose a specific political ideology that we feel is right.
  2. Attempt to fit said political ideology into the bible by cherry-picking bible verses, usually out of context, that seem to fit our political ideology.
  3. We feel free then to label our political ideology as “Christian” and “biblical.”
  4. We then say “the bible says,” “the gospel says” or “Jesus says” to one up those who disagree with us.
  5. We then label anyone who disagrees with us as not only wrong, but the enemy.

Once we do this we no longer see the other side as human we are free to describe them in caricatures and free to dismiss anything they say. We refuse to listen. Then we tweet our opinions and the opinions of others that they do no often even hold.

The problem is that no one political ideology has the answers for everything. Political ideologies are at best a man-made philosophy that can make sense of a few things in this fallen world and while they often appeal to universals they themselves ALWAYS fail when used as a universal. They were never meant to be. They take a three dimensional issue and reduce it to a single issue and view it from only one side, when it is usually always a complex issue with intricate moving parts and many variables. Compound with that the presuppositions of our limited experiences and the fact that each situation is different. No refugee crisis is the same. No police shooting is the same. While they have similarities and often have similar factors, they are never the same. But we try to package them all together and put a nice neat solution. This is why arguments that appeal to the “slippery slope” and ridiculous analogies, while often pointing out valid concerns, are distracting. Herman Bavinck writes about our tendency to view our theology outside the context of specific churches:

“Abstractions—universals—do not exist in reality. The tree, the human being, the science, the language, the religion, the theology are nowhere to be found. Only particular trees, human beings, sciences, languages, and religions exist. Just as a language is associated with a particular people, and science and philosophy are always pursued in a certain school and ideological context, so religion and theology can be found and nurtured only in a related community of faith.”

This is exactly what we do with our political ideologies. We must see them in the context of specific issues.

There are eight billion suffering sinners made in the image of a Holy and Triune God living on a once perfect, now fallen spherical object that is rotating, while it along with many other once perfect, now fallen rotating spherical objects, some with rings around them, revolves around a larger spherical object made of gas. There are no simple solutions.

We have a problem with police brutality AND being a police officer is a difficult job.

We have a problem with systematic racism AND fatherlessness in urban communities.

We have a problem with political correctness and free speech on college campuses AND there are legitimate issues of racism and sexual abuse.

We have legitimate issues of religious liberty in the United States AND the church in the past (and sometimes still) has acted in a hateful way towards those who identify as LGBT.

We have a tragic humanitarian crisis with the present Syrian refugee crisis AND we have a global security issue with ISIS.

Abortion is murder AND there are serious issues with our healthcare system for poorer women in America.

Islam is a violent religion BUT most of those who identify as Muslim are not violent.

America has been involved in wars they shouldn’t have AND American Vets are treated poorly.

America needs immigration reform AND working class Americans are struggling.

But we continue to fit multifaceted news stories into little boxes. And we tend to then jump to one side or the other appealing to either justice in the judicial sense of the term or justice in terms of equality. If you say anything about the nuances and complexities of any issue, you are immediately attacked by both sides. If I lament the Syrian refugee crisis, I do not care about security. If I raise concerns about security, I do not care about Syrian refugees. (Note I am not in any way attempting to somehow downplay the Refugee Crisis and I actually personally think the United States should be responsible for admitting refuges due to their involvement in creating the crisis.)

Political ideologies appeal to our desire to have a specific identity and provide our life with meaning and purpose along with our desire to have a scapegoat or a specific enemy we can blame for the problems in our world. We want someone to blame and eschew us of any responsiility. The far left and far right provide us with that opportunity. We can blame capitalism if we are a liberal or we can blame government regulations if we are a conservative. We can blame racism if we are on the left and we can blame problems with religious liberty if we are on the right. This is why socialism and libertarianism are appealing especially to younger people as they search for their identity. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes:

“The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure, is now identified with other people or groups. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum, in a way which Dostoevsky explored to unparalleled depths.

In our day as in his, many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable and even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoevsky’s Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bare the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism.”

We then want a charismatic leader that we can get behind. That is why Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are so popular. They lack any complexity or nuance. Marco Rubio or John Kasich don’t appeal. We want a political savior. Sanders and Trump, even Carson provide us with this. We can hope for change. We hope that somehow this candidate will be different. But they will not be. First of all they will be unable to implement all of their policies and let’s say for a second they were. Maybe some of the problems you deem as most important would die down slightly, but a whole new host of issues would arise. We need a different sort of leader. As Charles Colson has said, our savior is not coming on Air Force One. Only the One who has created the world and knows the nuances and complexities can fix them.

Now this does not at all mean we do not seek justice (Isaiah 1:17, Micah 6: 8)? Nope. Though we will always have the poor (John 12:8), we still seek justice. Though everything looks meaningless, there is a God who holds the world together and everything matters. This is the point of Ecclesiastes. All of our seemingly futile attempts to bring justice are meaningful and beautiful in God’s eyes. Every good or evil deed will be brought to judgement (Ecc 12:14). And as we see in Revelation, complete justice will be brought about and our efforts towards justice will last into eternity (See N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope). We must live in this tension of the overlapping kingdoms of the “already” where justice is only partially realized and the “not yet” where justice is fully established. But we are able to seek justice outside of an “us vs. them” mentality because we realize no political ideology that we may try to defend has all of the answers. We are able to see that in some situations a seemingly more conservative approach will be better and sometimes a more progressive approach will be better suited for addressing a specific problem and avoid the polarization and problems that G. K. Chesterton describes:

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.”

We will also be able to peacefully disagree and listen in humility remembering that we do not have all of the answers (again see Ecclesiastes.)


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