We live in a time of deep political, economic, religious, social, racial, and generational polarization. It’s hard to agree on truth, let alone find traction to move forward. Yet, the church has an important role to play. We know the power of community to heal. So, how do we use Christian resources to transcend what Arthur Brooks calls the “culture of contempt?”
Throughout the process of writing my upcoming book, Forging a New Path: Moving the Church Forward in a Post-Pandemic World (Market Square, May 2022), I have spoken with many church leaders who worry that the Global Methodist Church splitting from the United Methodist Church will rupture an already fragmented institution. They have expressed concern that the polarization we’re experiencing today will remain unresolved, and even worsen, as we navigate the unknown future. But I don’t believe that this needs to be true. We are stewards of the Gospel of the Kin(g)dom of God. We are bearers of the vision of beloved community.
In this week’s blog, I’ll share three ways to activate the power of community to heal. These practices include reframing, motivational interviewing, and the Platinum Rule. Taken together, these practices foster productive and respectful conversations, open the door for understanding, and renew love.
First, let’s look more closely at the culture of contempt. One of the fatal flaws of dealing with polarization is to buy into the false dichotomy it promotes.
Reframe the “Culture of Contempt”
In the culture of contempt, differences are framed as fatal, but differences are healthy, even Biblical. Diversity is an essential element woven into creation, recognized by Paul, and acknowledged in the last days. Differences as fatal deepens distrust of the other and encourages a gleeful sense of superiority over others. This too is not Biblical. We are all made in the image of God. And we are all sinners. In other words, we share the highs and lows of being human. No one is inherently better or worse than another. The culture of contempt fuels an ever-ready sense of outrage, draining our hope and energies before we even get to the issues that ought to cause real outrage. This prevents us from addressing deeper issues like human trafficking, homelessness, hunger, poverty, and hierarchies based on color, money, or privilege.
The first step to cultivate the power of community to heal is to reframe differences as healthy, vital, and natural. With this step, you reduce anxiety and create a framework for workability. Next, let’s look at how to bring the power of community to heal through curiosity and conversation.
Adopt motivational interviewing
The second step to resolve polarization, transcend the culture of contempt, and activate the power of community to heal comes from Rev. Derek Kubilus. He suggests an innovative way to address the particular impacts of conspiracy theorists in the church. “Debate only drives it deeper,” he cautions. “Ridicule only exacerbates the problem.” To address these challenges, Derek suggests using a form of engagement called “motivational interviewing,” in which a person asks three questions of another person:
- Why do you believe what you believe?
- What led you to these ideas?
- What makes these ideas so convincing for you?
For conversations like this to work, he says it’s necessary to “create a safe space where folks can feel free to interrogate their [own] beliefs under an umbrella of trust, transparency, and vulnerability.” That means approaching each other with openness and curiosity. Spiritual community can create just this sort of safe space. “While arguing and debating another’s point of view drive us deeper into our trenches, sharing stories can bring sunlight to our wounds.” While Derek suggests this process for de-escalating and re-integrating conspiracy theorists in the life of the church, I think motivational interviewing can work for any kind of polarization. Rather than demonize or dehumanize the other, it deepens a sense of belonging by creating connection.
In order to forge a new path through polarization and move the church forward in a post-pandemic world, it’s time to reclaim the art of talking and listening to each other. Spiritual community, deeply founded in the love and grace of God, provides the necessary framework for this kind of risky, vulnerable conversation. Next, to sustain us in community-building, take the third step of practicing the Platinum Rule.
Practice the Platinum Rule
Jesus counsels us through the Golden Rule to treat others in the way we ourselves would like to be treated. The Platinum Rule builds on the Golden Rule and takes it one step further. The Platinum Rule suggests that we honor the dignity of those who are different, sometimes very different, from us, by treating them the way they want to be treated. For instance, my friend Cherisa wants to be referred to as Black, while David prefers the term African American. Nyx prefers the personal pronoun “they” instead of “he” or “she.” My husband Jerry prefers to be identified as Hispanic, not Latino, and certainly not Latinx. While adapting to others’ preferences is not always comfortable, especially if you don’t understand why the changes are necessary, drawing closer to differences works better than retreating.
How do you keep all this straight? When in doubt, ask! Applying the Platinum Rule requires getting to know people in your community, asking questions, and finding out how they want to be treated.
The Platinum Rule not only applies to those with different beliefs, backgrounds or lifestyles than us, it applies to people whose personalities differ as well. Instead of rolling your eyes at the person who analyzes every risk, or insists on making friends with every stranger, or takes command to get things moving, or refuses to take the next step until every person has been heard—let go of judgment. Instead, honor their behavior as an expression of their unique humanity.
Practicing the Platinum Rule isn’t always easy. It requires a hidden superpower: the ability to be a non-anxious presence. Everyone feels anxiety to some degree about certain things. But noticing your own tendency to be anxious helps you not project that on other people. This superpower is exceedingly useful for disciples and apostles of Jesus, people who care about Jesus’ dream: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The Power of Community to Heal
I’ve shared with you three practices to activate the power of community to heal. As you employ them, your vision of others changes. The temptation to gossip will be replaced by the desire to get to know people anew. You will look for opportunities to heal relationships instead of avoid conflict, or to address issues instead of letting them fester. Your defenses will fall as you seek to find your identity in Christ and in Christian community, rather than an artificial sense of outrage.
Imagine church as a community where people can share the depths of their lives without fear of gossip or rejection. Where the values of honesty, vulnerability, celebration, and accountability hold sway. And where we know that God speaks to us and invites our response.
Adapted and excerpted from Rebekah’s upcoming book, Forging a New Path: Moving the Church Forward in a Post-Pandemic World, 2022.
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