By Mark A. Taylor
Wisconsin state Sen. Lena Taylor offered a thoughtful evaluation of why riots erupted in Milwaukee August 13, after a policeman shot an armed black man running from a traffic stop. There’s much to consider in her perspective, but today I’m posting about a problem even bigger than America’s racial divide.
At the end of Taylor’s interview, the host asked her this: “So as a leader in this community, what is your message now to the people living in Milwaukee who are experiencing this unrest, this anger, this expression of frustration that is in many cases taking a destructive form?”
Frankly, I was taken aback by Taylor’s answer. “We need love in our community,” she said, “and we need people to love on each other and to come and help to rebuild in the community.”
Time will tell whether enough love pervades in Milwaukee to bring together people separated by longstanding suspicion and fear. But—and here’s what I really want to write about today—most of us in America stand similarly isolated, suspicious of others whose outlook or opinions are different from our own. And what’s true in the culture at large is equally evident among Christians.
This happens, as Jennifer Johnson said at the NACC a few weeks ago, because we talk only “to people who think exactly like we do . . . in every area of life whether we’re talking about politics, religion, or parenting.”
Tech and digital media expert Shelly Palmer described this phenomenon as dwelling in echo chambers, places “where like-minded people keep reinforcing each other’s world views. MSNBC is a left-leaning echo chamber. Fox News is a right-leaning echo chamber,” he explained. “You can name hundreds of examples yourself.”
Indeed, even in Christian churches, we can identify examples. Ben Cachiaras described the problem on the same NACC panel where Johnson spoke: “God-fearing, smart, honest, Bible-trusting, Jesus-fearing people are reading the same [Bible] text and coming up with different understandings about how to obey it,” he said.
And too often, those who agree on one understanding huddle together, reinforcing their conclusions with each other and lobbing criticism, sometimes even personal attacks, at those whose understandings differ.
Among Christian churches today, we find congregations with women elders and others where women are not allowed to lead a Bible discussion with men (or even teenage boys). Leaders at both extremes feel they’re honoring God with their policies.
And that’s just one example. Among us there is disagreement about a host of questions: What causes poverty and how do we eliminate it? What’s the most Christian response to immigrants—legal or otherwise? What should elders do? How should Christians feel about and care for the environment? How did God create the world, and how long did it take him? What will happen before, during, and after Christ returns to earth?
And in any local congregation, issues admittedly more trivial can still be equally as divisive: How should we decorate our platform and light our worship auditorium? What should we serve at the church coffee bar? How should worship leaders and ministers dress? When should we meet?
With these and dozens of other questions, most of us know others who agree with our answers. But too few of us sit quietly and listen to those who don’t see things the way we do.
“We must be intentional about reaching across some of those divides and having some of those conversations and letting them be messy,” Johnson said at the NACC.
“My plea is for us not to take our ball and go home every time someone disagrees with us on something we think is important,” Cachiaras added.
Each of them was reflecting the truth in a centuries-old exhortation. “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” the apostle Paul wrote. “ Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
Maybe the state senator from Milwaukee has read Paul’s words. “We need love,” she said. Maybe we, too, need to ponder Paul’s words anew.
In these times of confrontation, accusation, and separation, surely Christians can show a better way, especially as we serve with each other in spite of our own differences and disagreements.