A Bridge Far Enough?


You’ve heard the old saying: The hard thing about being a bridge is that you get walked on from both ends. As someone who spends roughly half of my time in the conservative world and half in the liberal (theologically and politically speaking), I suppose I qualify as a kind of bridge person. Unfortunately, my experience confirms the old saying, and I have a few boot marks on my backside to prove it.

The fact is, I don’t feel very qualified to write this article. I’m assuming the best person for the job should be well accepted and respected on both sides of the bridge. He or she should feel successful in communicating with both liberals and conservatives, feel comfortable in both red and blue states, be liked by both Hannity and Colmes. Sadly, the more I communicate with one side of the bridge, the more I feel suspect by the other. As a result, I’ve been invited to stay out of a state of one color, and in spite of my above-average imagination, I can’t imagine possibly connecting with Colmes and Geraldo without infuriating Hannity and O’Reilly, or vice versa.

So, if I’m a bridge, I’m a rickety one, a "plan B," I suppose. My basic qualification to write this article is my belief that we as followers of Christ should at least try to talk to everybody we can—and to do so, as the Apostle Peter said, with "gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). I don’t agree with the tone of the conservative author who offers advice on how to talk to a liberal "if you must," suggesting that it’s an odious task that one must do while pinching her nose. Nor do I agree with any liberal mirror image who sees all conservatives as equally stinky conversation partners. I have been given no exemption card regarding 1 Corinthians 13, and my calling as a Christian requires me, in the words of Paul, to "become all things to all people."

To those under the law I became like one under the law...so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law...so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel... - 1 Corinthians 9:20-23

By the way—people often quote that Pauline phrase about becoming all things to all people preceded by you can’t. But Paul’s assertion was that he must, for the sake of the gospel, no matter how difficult the task was (and it was difficult—resulting in at least one riot in his lifetime!). Paul had what he called "the ministry of reconciliation," and he saw himself as a peace ambassador for Christ.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.... All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. - 2 Corinthians 5:14-20

He was called to enter various cultures—Jewish cultures, Gentile cultures—and invite people to be reconciled to God and to one another. Of course, nobody can be everything to everybody at the same time, but you can, Paul implied, cross the bridge on the right side and enter a person’s world without judgment, and then go to the left side of the bridge and enter that person’s world without judgment as well.

If that weren’t hard enough, my hunch is that there are actually four bridges we have to deal with in our hyper-polarized world today.

1. The Religious Right and the Secular Left. On the one side we have people for whom the good news of Jesus and the policies of George W. Bush are bonded with super glue. On the other side we have people who believe that all religion is superstitious mush and wish we would just dispense with the whole business once and for all and trust science and government instead.

2. The Religious Right and the Religious Left. More and more supposedly "secular Left" folk are coming out of the closet as people of faith. For them, being anti-war is more important than being anti-abortion for religious reasons, and for them, some form of recognition for homosexual couples is a moral issue based in faith. They want to argue these issues not only on the basis of politics and sociology, but also on the basis of the Bible and theology.

3. The Secular Right and the Religious Left. I suspect that hiding behind some religious conservatives are some secular conservatives who are manipulating their religious colleagues for a secular, cynical, ideological conservatism. These are the people who have (in the worst sense of the word) a relativist-postmodern conservative ideology, best articulated in Ron Suskind’s article "Without a Doubt," published in The New York Times Magazine last October. These conservative ideologues are happy for religious conservatives to win support for their policies, but in the end it’s ideology, not theology, that guides them. Ironically, they have less in common theologically with those they have the most in common with ideologically, and vice versa.

4. The Secular Right and the Secular Left. In spite of the widespread assumption that religion is the new politics, there still are secular forces on both sides for whom a thoughtful Christian (or generically spiritual) voice is seen as stupid for actually believing in such unscientific and impractical things as God, hope, forgiveness, sacrifice, and prayer.

So, for starters, if we want to be communication bridge people, we need to realize that there aren’t just two kinds of people out there, or one kind of polarization. Becoming all things to all people doesn’t simply mean becoming two things to two kinds of people.

IF THERE IS a rising purple peoplehood out there—people who don’t want to be defined as red or blue, but have elements of both, and for whom faith speaks to both abortion and war, both sexuality and ecology, both family values and fair, respectful treatment for gay people—then we will need to learn new ways of communication. Again, readily confessing that I’m no expert or example, here are a few hunches I have about those new ways of communication—based on the maxim of one of my mentors, who says, "We must teach what Jesus taught in the manner that Jesus taught it."

1. We must stop answering questions that are framed badly. When Jesus was asked a trick question by representatives of a conservative religio-political party of his day, he didn’t fall for the trap (Luke 20). Rather, he showed how the question was based on false assumptions and used the trick question as an opportunity to expose those false assumptions and instruct the questioners.

2. We must start raising new questions and issues that need to be raised. When Jesus was being tested in another politico-religious interview, he refused to answer the question of whether taxes should be paid to Caesar or not (Matthew 22:17-21). In fact, he cleverly deconstructed and neutered the question and instead pushed another question to the surface: Were those asking the question willing to render to God what is God’s?

3. We must answer questions with questions. Some opponents asked Jesus a trick question for which there was no good answer; rather than falling into their trap, he said he would answer their question if they answered a similarly difficult question (Luke 20:1-8).

4. We must go cleverly deeper. In Jesus’ day, there was plenty of debate over divorce, with clear "liberal" and "conservative" polarities. Jesus went to a deeper level of discourse by dealing with the issue of motives: Were men seeking legal divorces to indulge their lustful desires, trading in their old wife on a sexy younger model—but doing so according to the rules (Matthew 19:3-9)? He exposed the lustful intentions of their hearts on the deeper level rather than merely taking a position on the surface level. Paul did something similar on the controversial question of eating meat sacrificed to idols in his day: It’s the motive that is more important than the policy, he said (Romans 14).

Similarly, when a woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus and he was asked what should be done to her, he refused to take the "orthodox" conservative line—nor did he take the opposite "liberal" line. Instead, he diverted attention from the woman’s situation entirely, first by writing in the dust and then by shifting attention to the sinfulness of the stone-carrying religious leaders. He cleverly shifted the focus from their game to God’s wiser and higher perspective (John 8:1-11).

5. We must agree with people whenever we can. Survey the gospels and notice how often Jesus said, "You have answered wisely" (for example, see John 4:17 and Luke 10:28). Similarly, we must agree with both conservatives and liberals whenever we can. Conservatives are right, for example, when they affirm the importance of good business in lifting people from poverty. Liberals are also right when they affirm the role of government in not trusting business to always behave well. Conservatives are right that personal sexual integrity really matters; liberals are right when they say there is more to morality than personal sexual integrity.

6. We must speak through action, not just words. When Jesus sought to confront people for their hypocrisy and misplaced priorities, he didn’t argue; instead, he healed a man on the Sabbath. This created a stir that made his point more than any number of well-reasoned arguments could have. So, what we do for those suffering in Darfur may speak more eloquently than anything we say about domestic issues; how we treat our critics privately may speak more loudly to them than what we say in public.

7. We must tell stories. While dining at the house of a Pharisee, Jesus was honored by a woman of ill repute (Luke 7:36-50). When the host and guests began judging him for his failure to adequately judge her, Jesus told a story about economics, debt, and forgiveness. The story abducted the imagination of the critics and transported them to a new vantage point.

Now these approaches didn’t help Jesus be well-liked by the counterparts of Limbaugh and Carville in his day. In fact, they heated up the hot water he was in even more, and ultimately he was rejected by both polarities. But Jesus’ ways of responding to the religio-political debates of his day did something more powerful and important than making Jesus popular: They got both sides thinking, and they assured that God’s higher perspective was given a place in debates that generally missed the point.

In fact, Jesus’ rhetorical strategies made Jesus something far more valuable than a bridge between "left and right." They showed him to be a bridge by which both left and right could come to God, and to God’s truth. That, I hope, can be our higher calling today in these divisive, polarized times. May God help us.

Brian McLaren was founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland, and author, most recently, of The Last Word and the Word After That, when this article appeared.

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