I’m currently reading James Davison Hunter’s insightful book on Christianity and culture, To Change the World, in which he describes well how much of our interaction in culture is a form of politics. His analysis of Christianity and culture only deepens the discomfort I described in previous post about being a “moderate” in a culture full of polarizations (while Hunter writes from an American context, I think his words are relevant beyond America, particularly in the realm of evangelical Christianity):
Most people think that what matters is the ideological direction of one’s politics. Are you conservative? Are you liberal? These differences occupy most of our attention and argument. What is never challenged is the proclivity to think of the Christian faith and its engagement with the culture around it in political terms. This proclivity today has been both ubiquitous and unquestioned for a long time. Precisely because our culture is always most powerful when it is most taken for granted, it brings into relief just how powerful a force politicization is in our time. For all, the public has been conflated with the political. Despite their wide ideological and theological differences, then, Christians have been assimilated to the deeper movements of our culture in remarkably similar ways.”
Unquestioned, a culture of polarizations (“politicization” as Hunter puts it) is one in which it is nearly impossible to find unity or common ground amidst our differences. And a big part of the reason is something else I’ve observed among Christians in our polarizing debates - everyone thinks they are the victim. Hunter describes this as the “narrative of injury” or “ressentiment” - each party has “a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged.” One sees this in Christians’ debates over homosexuality and gay marriage. Conservatives rally around their culturally unpopular opinion on traditional marriage and sexuality as they “suffer” for the Truth of Scripture. Liberals, likewise, unite to oppose judgemental attitudes as they “suffer” for unity while excluded by Conservatives. The opposing sides share in what Hunter pinpoints as a rooted “sense of entitlement.” He elaborates,
The entitlement may be to greater respect, greater influence, or perhaps a better lot in life and it may draw from the past or the present; it may be privilege once enjoyed or the belief that present virtue now warrants it. In the end, these benefits have been withheld or taken away or there is a perceived threat that they will be taken away by those now in positions of powers...The sense of injury is key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity.
Not only do we ostracize and exclude one another in our diversity of Christian faith and practice, we now feel justified in our position, victimized by the perceived power others. What we don’t realize, however, is that we aren’t victims of each other. The irony amidst diversity is that Christians together are captives to this culture of polarizations.
These observations, while bleak in description, actually give me hope. We don’t need to be blind to the politics of our culture. And we don’t have to accept our often self-imposed victimization. It may sound simplistic, but this is a case where a collective self-awareness on such themes could go a long way in developing and sustaining an alternative experience of unity. And again, such a way would be good news for world full of division.