In America today, we are struggling with heavy divides across identity boundaries. In his enlightening Atlantic article entitled “Breaking Faith,” Peter Beinart argues America’s secularization hasn’t led to an end of the culture wars, but rather they are taking a nastier turn, centering on race and politics as the primary battleground. He found regular church attendance connected with an increase in tolerance for other ethnicities and Muslims, as well as a general hope that the political system works (though, unfortunately, increased church attendance is also connected with disdain for LGBTQ people, which isn’t good even if you hold a traditional view of sexuality like I do). He shows that more secularized people tend to favor the populist candidates: Bernie on the left and Trump on the right. Trump did best with conservative voters who don’t go to church (even if they identified as evangelical), while Bernie did best with liberal voters who don’t go to church. Regular church goers who leaned liberal tended to vote for Hillary, while Ted Cruz appeared to be the favorite candidate of regular conservative church goers. In essence, we are seeing some of the effects of a more secularized nation unfold before us, and it isn’t all pretty. More and more, identity markers like nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, socio-economic status, political affiliation, geographic location, etc., are viewed as uncrossable chasms. We are fracturing along these differences, and there is uncertainty as to whether we can move forward.
As a Christian, I believe there are several gifts that my faith offers when it comes to our present challenge. God has given us language and convictions that can showcase a healthy way to embrace diversity, reach out to others who are different, and promote a sense of harmony and cooperation even if we don’t agree on everything. After all, what group can you find in our world that is more diverse than the church, containing followers of Jesus in every country, who speak many different languages, and have a God-given passion to share God's love with every tribe, tongue, and nation?
Reconciliation is a repeated point of emphasis for Paul in his letters. It is the restoration of a harmonious relationship between people, a removal of tension and grievances. Paul teaches that when we trust in Christ’s good work for us, we are united with God and united with other believers by the Holy Spirit. Paul writes that the cross of Jesus has torn down the hostility and ethnic tensions he saw in the church of his day. “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of the commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. […] So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” (Ephesians 2:14-16, 18). There is a lot to this passage that could be unpacked, but one of the core convictions is that in a mysterious way, Christ’s death on the cross does away with any pride or ethnocentrism we might cling to, so that no matter our background, the Spirit who unites us is more foundational to our identity than any other component of it. In light of biblical teaching, Christians are commanded to be united with other Christians and to reach across boundary lines in friendship. The church should showcase God’s reconciling love, which leads us to be reconciled with each other. You should expect to find very different people together in church. We haven’t lived up to that call perfectly throughout our history, but there are some beautiful examples both in our past and in practice today.
The Image of God
Yet even for those who are not Christians, Christianity has another unifying conviction in that we all share a common humanity. I recently benefitted from reading former president of Fuller Theological Seminary Richard Mouw’s book Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground. He articulates well his experience of finding commonalities in surprising places and with surprising people:
I have regularly experienced a profound sense—in reading a non-Christian philosopher, in engaging in debates on questions of public policy, in debating theological topics with persons of other Christian traditions—that I am standing together on a patch of common ground with someone whose views on serious matters are quite different from my own. The historian David Cannadine recently published an insightful apologia for the importance of holding on to the idea of human solidarity in spite of the attention given these days to human differences—religious, national, racial, ethnic, gender, lifestyle, and the like. I especially like the subtitle chosen for his book: Humanity beyond Our Differences. It is that ‘beyond’ or ‘beneath’ that I often experience. It is important, though, to assess that experience in the light of careful theological exploration. What explains the experience of standing on a patch of common ground? (p. 17)
Mouw goes on to devote a whole chapter to the image of God as a concept that explains the commonness he has experienced. My next sentence is cliche, but it’s important because we’re losing the ability to believe in a shared humanity in American culture. I believe that all of us at our root are people, made in the image of God, holding some of the same hopes, dreams, fears, talents, and weaknesses in our hearts. Believing in a common humanity doesn’t make identity differences go away, but it does give us a framework to point toward a deeper, unifying reality each and every one of us shares. I understand the image of God to mean that each human being is specially loved by God, reflects something of God’s character and power, and is intended to serve as a mediator between God and the rest of creation. So even if you’re on the outside of my particular religious, ethnic, or fill-in-the-blank-here boundary marker, however important it is, that does not negate your humanity, nor does it mean you aren’t worthy of love and respect. No matter who you are, I can connect with you with and learn from you, whether a Muslim chef, an atheist philosopher, a lesbian waitress, a Chinese accountant, etc. Identity differences do not erase our shared humanity. Worldviews with no sense of love or appreciation of the humanity for those who disagree with them further chaos rather than cooperation.
As a last example, I follow Mouw in how he uses the biblical examples of Babel and Pentecost as two different approaches we can have to diversity.
Babel represents one kind of multiculturalism. Babel is an extreme picture of an irreducible diversity, of the loss of common patterns of understanding; Babel confuses, divides, and erects barriers. Pentecost, in contrast, represents a very different kind of multiculturalism. The Pentecostal experience does not eliminate the diversity of tongues, but it provides us with the ability to communicate across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Pentecost heals, unites, and promotes understanding. From this perspective, the fundamental question about cultural diversity today is this one: Are we going to think about this diversity against the backdrop of Babel or against the backdrop of Pentecost? (137)
I see a lot of the Babel mindset in America today. More and more, the voices who hold a narrow view of humanity are growing louder and louder and are pushing us apart, whether in the White House, in the media, in the religious community, or in protest movements. There is only space for my black experience. There is only space for my conservative politics. There is only space for my liberal beliefs. We could go on. All of these are worthy of exploration, some even of being championed, but if there is no reconciling conviction, no appreciation and respect of a shared humanity, then I am afraid such an approach fails to be fully Christian. Heck, I don’t even think it ends up being truly American, since according to the Declaration of Independence we’re supposed to hold that all people are made equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.
How Can We Build a Bridge?
My own community of Tanner is wonderfully diverse. Some numbers I’ve seen for our local K-12 school is that we are 27% African American, 29% Latino, 39% White, 5% other. What would it look like for my church and for me personally to work toward building bridges and incorporating the gifts of diversity into our lives? I am convinced that it starts with kindness, a willingness to listen and engage, and friendships with people who are different from ourselves. From the place of friendship, a whole lot of things have been birthed: partnerships between churches of different ethnicities, interfaith conversations, community forums, political action, mutual learning, changed lives, and so on. But friendship is necessary for any of this to come from a genuine place and can simply be an end in itself.
There’s a whole lot more that could be said and explored. But as a matter of a starting place for my tribe, the church, I’d like to say that we have the language, mission, and spiritual power that could model a diversity our country desperately needs to see right now. Let’s reclaim Jesus’ push for reconciling people to God and to each other. Let’s reclaim a healthy appreciation of the image of God and the grace of God at work in all people, not just Christians. And let’s reject any conception of diversity that has a divisive, Babel mindset, instead embracing the surprising and challenging truth of the tongues of Pentecost: The God who reconciles us and the humanity we all share is more central to our identity than the markers and narratives we use to push ourselves apart. So how can I be a friend to someone different from me today?