May  2017 16
America: Stop Arguing Like Divorcing Churches

We Americans are talking about each other as if we want a divorce.

Marriage counselors, and anyone who has been in a marriage counselor’s office, knows the difference between the rhetoric and body postures of a couple trying to work things out and a couple headed for a breakup.

If there is not basic respect, an element of kindness, mutual vulnerability, hope, love, or compassion evident in how a couple is talking and sitting with each other, it is not hard to predict in which direction the marriage is headed.

Advocates of and trainers for civil conversation say the hardest work is staying in the room—staying to do the difficult work of finding a workable solution on matters of deep disagreement.

Staying in the room. What a concept.

Well, it is one thing for marriage partners or church leaders to talk in a way that seems to be heading for a church’s divorce. It is quite another thing for a nation’s leaders to foster the language of divorce, but that is exactly what I think our leaders (to say nothing of zillions of social media-distributed blogs and articles), on nearly all sides, are doing.

What is the end point toward which the players in our national partisan divide are leading us? I fear we are misusing church divorce language on the national stage. The effect could be dire.

In the history of the Christian church, especially in those places and eras where there was either thin or no separation between church and state, the strategies the nation or the church could use to deal with dissent and deep disagreement were forced conversion, expulsion/excommunication, extermination, schism, silencing, or councils.

(Councils have a checkered, uneven, ambiguous history in the Christian churches, so I’m going to leave that complex entity off the table in this discussion.)

It would be hard to dispute that the outward and visible expression of “the Body of Christ” has been broken frequently and persistently.

With hundreds of denominations and communions worldwide, with multiple churches claiming to be the one true Church, with tens of thousands of independent congregations, and with numerous churches severely challenged to agree on what to think or how to show God’s love, Christian churches don’t have an admirable track record for how to deal with deep conflict.

Today in Western nations, we can still point to schism, silencing, and excommunication being employed as active strategies. Go back less than a century and just within the history of some Christians’ treatments of Native Americans, and we need to confess also to using extermination and forced conversions.

When it comes to how to fight AND stay together, while there are oodles of lesser known local stories of Christians doing hard marriage work, those stories are not well-known.

What we Christians are known for is getting into a fight, picking up our bats and balls, and finding a different park—or forcing a dissenting group out to find or build their own park.

But a nation should not talk or act like a divorcing church. A nation is based in a different covenant and bound together by different rules, for different reasons, than a church.

The consequences of national leaders speaking in divorce language are far more dangerous than when religious leaders use that language. If a church splits or expels a member, there are options—lots of them. Not so in a nation.

In today’s U.S., there are many variations of the “America, love it or leave it!” punch thrown during the Vietnam War.

Then, it was the elders and social traditionalists jabbing at war protestors. If one affirms an inclusive, diverse, civil rights-rich portrayal of what America should be, then it is not unusual to hear and read about the people who need to be disempowered… but then what?

If one affirms a Western, Euro-centric version of the “real America,” then it is not unusual to read and hear about all the perspectives and persons who need to be silenced…and then what?

Each individual American wants to love MY version of America… but what happens with the sides that do not?

The electoral college votes were sufficient to elect The Strong Man, we seek settlements in court, and we like “our president” using executive orders.

These realities make sense, in this way: we don’t know how to argue like people who either know how to or who want to stay in a marriage.

In order for legislators to do their work, they must converse, argue, negotiate, deal, and compromise. That is messy marriage work.

Blaming the other side, looking to the courts to settle battles (and, of course, battling over who then sits in the judgment seats), and putting one’s preferred Strong Wo/man in place to rule “correctly” and punish other positions leads to divorce. And what would an American divorce look like in 2017?

In the U.S., we in churches have divorced many, many times. The nation, on the other hand, formally divorced once.

My hope for the nation is that we would stop acting like divorcing churches. If we do not, I fear the toxic cocktail of forced conversion, expulsion/excommunication, extermination, schism, and silencing we are mixing for ourselves.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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