It seems as if every modern discussion on a social issue ends in polarization.
Laws recently passed in the Alabama and Missouri legislatures have basically outlawed all abortions except when the mother’s life is at serious risk. This has resulted in escalating the debate between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” groups.
Similarly, regarding LGBTQ issues, the United Methodist Church held a General Conference earlier this year resulting in upholding a traditionalist stance that denied same-sex marriage and forbade the ordination of homosexuals. This has widened the divide between conservatives and progressives within the denomination.
A painful phenomenon takes place in such polarization.
Father Richard Rohr, in his book “The Universal Christ,” has described it as “scapegoating,” which is the fruit of extremism. When we view the other side as misguided, we imagine shortcomings about them that may or may not be true. This serves to make us feel better about ourselves, giving us the illusion that we have a corner on the truth. Unfortunately, when we exaggerate the faults of others, we blind ourselves to our own faults.
Is it possible to hold strong views while at the same time avoiding the trap of scapegoating?
If we’re going to cross the no-man’s land of divisive rhetoric, then it will come only when we dare to have an open, non-defensive conversation with the other side.
The prophet Micah wrote, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV) This remarkable verse lists three criteria that can spur a conversation regarding any hot-button topic.
• Do justice — Are people being treated fairly and equally? Are human rights being violated? Are those whose rights are being violated given an impartial hearing?
• Love kindness — Are people being listened to and understood? Are people being treated with respect? Are people allowed to share their thoughts, concerns, feelings, life experiences?
• Walk humbly — Can people admit there could be more to the story than what they believe? Are they able to listen with an open mind to views other than their own?
The temptation is to answer these questions from your own stance, then prove the other side wrong. Both anti-abortion and abortion-rights advocates, conservatives and progressives, will wonder why the other side doesn’t arrive at the same responses.
Is it too idealistic to think that people from opposing sides might temporarily suspend their judgments? That they might try to understand why their opponents arrive at different conclusions? Maybe that would throw a small wrench into the demonization cycle.
To do this takes honesty and humility. The reality is that none of us can have the final word on a complex topic. Life itself is complex, with gray the predominant color, while our eyes most easily perceive black and white. We are incapable of taking in the whole picture accurately. When we’re honest with ourselves, we may discover that, in the words of Father Rohr, “there is no completely pure place to stand” (p. 150).
Being able to find that shared common ground of impurity may be the beginning of bridging our gaps.
We will still have conflicting views. Maybe, though, it will be an informed conflict. Maybe we won’t scapegoat as much. Maybe we’ll become aware of the humanity of our opponent. Maybe we’ll discover some flaws in our own assumptions. And perhaps we may even find areas where we can join in the healing process.
We don’t necessarily need agreement. Honesty and humility, though, are non-negotiable.