We Don’t Achieve Christian Unity by Avoiding Polarization | Sojourners

We Don’t Achieve Christian Unity by Avoiding Polarization

Bison fighting. Credit: Unsplash/Richard Lee.

Every time “political polarization” comes up in a news cycle, my progressive Christian circles start discussing: How should churches deal with the supposed epidemic of polarization and division across the nation? In the face of deep disagreements within families and communities, what role does the church play in mediating differences?

In my view, churches often demonize polarization because they know disruption can lead to conflict and upset the status quo. For example, prior to the 2020 racial justice uprisings, some churches were hesitant to even say “Black Lives Matter” because some Christians perceived it as a polarizing issue.

But when we avoid clarity about justice because it seems “divisive,” we misunderstand the nature of Christian unity. Some churches seek to preserve an ideal of “loving” unity by avoiding conflict among their members. But what if the process of being in conflict is actually the way we faithfully live out Christian unity?

The Christian impulse to seek common ground is based on good intentions. At its idealized best, Christianity is about creating a community characterized by reconciliation and peace. But seeking “unity” in response to polarization when polarization is primarily driven by right-wing radicalization causes our imaginations of what is politically possible to shrink. There isn’t common ground to be found among human rights advocates and right-wing extremists who hold regressive positions on trans lives, systemic racism, and police violence — period. So, what can Christian communities invested in justice and reconciliation do to reframe the “polarization” conversation?

In How to Have an Enemy, Mennonite pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler wades into this conversation, writing about how Christians (should) engage with their enemies. She argues that “in Christianity we do not resolve enmity by destroying our foes or finding middle ground with them. Instead, Jesus ushers in a different system—a new way of living that changes the order of power itself.”

The church is a site of compassionate contention that aims to engage conflict to bring about Jesus’ “different system.” Instead of seeking unity in response to polarization, the Christian response should be to encourage the type of healthy conflict that characterized the early church, especially in its arguments over how to extend its ministry and community to Gentiles (Acts 15). While those conflicts could be fierce, the New Testament offers an example of differences being grounded in a common call to justice.

Paul writes in Galatians 2:9-10 that in his conversation with church leaders in Jerusalem, they agreed that Paul would continue evangelization to the Gentiles, while Peter’s ministry focused on Jews. But then Paul adds this: “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (v. 10). In other words, in the face of the “polarizing” conflict about how to welcome Gentiles into the church, different varieties of work were supported but all were driven by the common value of “remembering the poor.”

Christian unity, as Florer-Bixler also notes, isn’t a static state of peace but rather a dynamic state of change. Reconciliation isn’t a goal to be reached, but a process that prioritizes justice for the poor. Through the cultivation of safety, trust, and love, healthy conflicts can be navigated in ways that strengthen rather than destroy communities. We love our enemies by engaging in this process of unifying conflict.

In “Conflicts as Property,” sociologist Nils Christie writes for The British Journal of Criminology about holding conflict as “property” within our communities rather than surrendering issues of conflict to professionals or authorities. When Christie writes about “conflict as property,” he means that directly affected individuals and groups have a right and a need to participate directly in the resolution of conflict. Too often, he writes, conflicts are “taken away” by the legal system or “defined away” rather than being addressed at the level of the local community.

Conflict is not a failure of a community, it’s a step in the process of being a community that has the potential to strengthen relationships. Conflict is a skill. The more we practice engaging in healthy conflict with one another over things that matter, the more our communities are strengthened to engage in conflict well. Practice empowers communities to reclaim the conflicts that Christie concludes they have a right to.

Holding healthy conflict is a value in many organizing spaces and transformative justice contexts. Our comrades in other faith traditions are often better at conflict than Christians. On her Substack, Life is a Sacred Text, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes that rather than looking for a “single, immutable meaning in the text,” Jewish approaches to interpreting scripture are an “ongoing conversation” marked by healthy disagreement.

What this approach to theology might bring to the picture, specifically for Christians, is an understanding that healthy conflict makes the body of Christ — the church — visible to the world. The church claims to possess unity in “one spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12; Ephesians 4:3). But to show what such unity looks like in practice requires demonstrating how communities can be in conflict within themselves in a way that is grounded in love and promotes justice.

In radical political and Christian spaces, it’s easy to think the church’s visible unity is automatic, considering its emphasis on being a welcoming community. But despite the welcoming intentions of these spaces, unity and healthy conflict are not guaranteed.

As organizer Kelly Hayes recently noted on her podcast Movement Memos“Often, we simply trust that our shared mission and shared intentions will inform our interactions. But that kind of group cohesion is often illusory because it’s based on a collective idealization of one another, rather than an effort to truly understand one another, and cultivate expectations that we can all consent to.” This sort of idealization of unity is common in the church, too. Florer-Bixler writes about this, arguing, “It turns out this kind of unity—the kind that was achieved in ritual but not replicated in life—was a myth. We keep these myths alive because they offer the convenience of personal transformation over the difficult and costly work of excavating the deep roots that feed conflicts between enemies.”

When the church claims to have “unity” while ignoring the real conflicts and injustices that exist, its unity is not actually the unity that comes from the Holy Spirit. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is always engaged in liberation. The work of conflict in service of justice is the way the church can enact in practice — in concrete, specific ways — the liberating unity that is its inheritance in the Spirit. Building relationships and working through conflict — not by avoiding conflict but by engaging it — makes the church’s unity in the Holy Spirit visible to the world.

Instead of Christian practices being a smokescreen for a false “unity,” in a church where real disagreements over essential values exist, the common life of worshiping together, praying for each other, participating in sacraments, and materially supporting one another can be an invitation to conflict. Through these practices, members of a church or Christian community can build deep relational ties of solidarity that are not threatened by conflict.

These ties are what’s required to “hold” healthy conflict. Fundamentally, in order for conflict to be held in a community, the community must have bonds of trust. Individuals need to promote safety and respect while also affirming people’s dignity. Embracing conflict doesn’t mean that marginalized people must risk their safety to convince others that their oppression is real. Understanding power relations is necessary for keeping conflict healthy. Florer-Bixler writes, “The work for each of us is to discern the limits of difference and recognize when power turns these differences to enmity.”

Healthy conflict recognizes the reality that many people have to fight for their rights simply because of their existence. Therefore, allies must approach conflict in solidarity. In other words, allies embrace conflict because they recognize that for some people conflict is unavoidable. In response, communities must work to build spaces of safety and trust so that conflict can be embraced without fear.

In the case of the “controversial” issue of responding to police violence, embracing healthy conflict means white Christians need to engage with resources, such as this toolkit by Showing Up for Racial Justice-Faith, which aims to defund and disempower police. Relationships allow community members who see police as a source of safety to engage in real conversations about their fears and about how to prevent violence and promote safety. Healthy conflict means taking seriously people’s fears of violence and harm, while also refusing to compromise the demands of justice which require a world without police. The vulnerability required by such conflict must be grounded in relationships — and those vulnerable conversations help strengthen relationships in the community too.

It’s become a cliché to say that Christianity is a “relationship,” not a “religion.” Too often, the goal of preserving relationships within a church is used as an excuse for tiptoeing around conflict and avoiding strong but unpopular moral stands. We are told that insisting on taking positions that cause disagreement risks destroying unity and harming relationships within a congregation. But learning how to engage in healthy conflict allows us to embrace conflict as a communal value, strengthening our relationships and pushing us to “remember the poor.” This kind of conflict actually strengthens our relationships with one another.

The church’s true failure in response to polarization isn’t division but apathy. Do we care enough about our siblings in faith to disagree with them in healthy ways? Engagement is the paradigm for Christian unity. As long as we keep engaging with those we disagree with, we’re insisting that a community of love and justice is worth fighting for.