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Beyond the Culture Wars

We live in a world that is divided between ideological poles: Left and right, liberal and conservative, red states and blue states. This dynamic plays out not only in popular culture, but also within the Church. Our congregations endure vicious arguments over hot button issues like gay marriage, the ministry of women and abortion – yet both sides in these debates lack a compelling and positive vision of what the Church is called to be. Both extreme liberals and extreme conservatives are more interested in ideological purity than in building up the Body of Christ and seeing real, practical changes in the way that we live as a community. If this were not so, we would spend less time on theological debates (important as these are) and much more time on outreach and service to our neighbors.

The most profound division in our society is not between left and right. Rather, it is between those who want to preserve the status quo and those who seek radical change in the way we live and see the world. Despite appearances to the contrary, both sides in the culture wars are wedded to a fearful, uncreative view of the world. While conservatives want to “go back” to an imagined golden age of prosperity, liberals have projected their own prejudices into an utopian future, in which everyone will become as enlightened as they themselves already are. Both camps of culture warriors are stuck in the same place: fighting yesterdays battles, clawing desperately to preserve their own comfort and privilege.

But there is an alternative. We do not have to pick a side in this false battle for the heart and soul of our society. Rather than getting caught up in these bipolar disputes, many of us are being called into an engagement with the real problems that confront our culture and our churches today.

This is a challenging path. It requires us to recognize how we participate in a world that values wealth and security more than the Truth. Rather than blaming others, we must confess that the ills of our culture stem in our own failure to lead lives of humility, trust and love. Looking within, we must recognize that all the world’s problems are present in microcosmwithin our own hearts. Acknowleding this, we are empowered to humbly work for change in the world, recognizing that we are all responsible. Our call for heart-change within the Church and the wider culture begins with the recognition that we ourselves must be transformed.

We know that the culture wars are not from God. These debates are fueled by a smug sense of self-righteousness and superiority more in keeping with the spirit of the Pharisees than with the Spirit of Christ. Any ideology is false that calls for others to change without first confessing our own shortcomings and need for transformation. God calls us to lives of humility, endurance and self sacrifice; and when we live in Christ, we experience love and compassion for others – not a bristling sense of superiority.

How can we move beyond the false dichotomies of red versus blue? Is there a third way that we can live into? Is there a way that seeking the truth together could become more important than winning? Opening ourselves to the living presence of God, can we receive the surprising answers that the Spirit will give us?
  • Having been very distressed by these exact things, especially this past week, I can only add a hearty and enthusiastic “Amen”. Thanks for posting this.

  • Well said.

  • You said what I tried to say a couple of days ago in another forum, but I didn’t put enough thought into it. Thank you for your eloquence.

  • Anonymous

    “These debates are fueled by a smug sense of self-righteousness and superiority more in keeping with the spirit of the Pharisees than with the Spirit of Christ.” This statement belies a gross misunderstand and mis-characterization of the Parisees (who were the precursors of Rabbinic Judiasm) and their nature, and is itself an example of the “smug sense of self-righteousness and superiority” which it decries.

  • Jesus referred to the Pharisees as hypocrits. I believe this is the point Micah is making. I personally believe Quakers have to guard against an elitist attitude which prevents them from truly listening to others. There is a tendency in everyone, not just Quakers, to listen to others critically – looking for some thing to pounce on or disagree with. Listening should be an opportunity to establish a relationship as it is only when you have a relationship that you have a chance to be heard yourself. You can’t have a community without relationships. You can say you’re part of a community but when a disagreement arises you have to mean enough to the other side for them to actually listen to you and your concerns.

  • I think the “people who want radical change and people who are complacent” can also be a false dichotomy. For me, there are moments when I’m fired up and optimistic enough to be all about personal sacrifice and radical transformation (in myself and in society). And there’s other moments when (I’m afraid) I’m becoming a comfortable and complacent middle-class consumer who only thinks about what g-d wants on Sunday morning.

    On the topic of “seeking truth together,” I think for myself it’s a daily struggle (and one I don’t remember/choose to fight every day) to remind myself of the real humanity and piece of truth of people who are on “the other side” of various questions/work. It’s just very difficult for me in my daily life not to see people who (in my view) are working for a less just world as having a piece of the truth, even though I know it’s both the right and more effective thing to do so. So I’m empathetic with people who fail to do so when it comes to church divides, which are at least as deeply personal to many people as budget policy is to me :p .

    It certainly helps me to be genuinely open to others truth when I know something about the “other side” that humanizes them. For example, there’s a state legislator who is a champion of causes I’m professionally employed to oppose and that I personally abhor. But knowing something about his personal life, which might help explain his public positions, means I can go into a room, shake his hand, and listen to him.

  • Joanne Barnhouse

    It always for me comes down to common sense and common decency. We as humans know the difference between right and wrong, and it clearly states in “the good book” if we are confused. We must strive to be more Christ-like. To put aside our own agendas and complacency. To put aside our judgements and labeling and to shy away from those who do not support us in this. It should be so simple……

  • Humility is key. It requires humility to be radically transformed by Christ. It also requires humility to believe that I can learn something from someone whose ideas are very different from my own. So these things do go well together. At church there was (he recently moved to another state) a man from whom I learned a lot spiritually. He was a career military man and generally right wing politically. We disagreed on a lot, but bonded based on a common dedication to Jesus Christ. We really miss a lot if we jump to label others, and take an oppositional posture rather than a humble, learning one to someone who thinks a lot differently than we do.