With the arrival of Palm Sunday, we are now ready to commemorate the final week in the life of the historical Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth experienced firsthand – and dramatically to say the least — the religious and political polarization in Jerusalem around the year 30 CE. The enthusiastic crowd of Palm Sunday joyfully shouting “Hosanna!” and the mob on Good Friday yelling “Crucify him!”
In Another Voice, last week , I stressed the optimism brought by the Resurrection and our trust in Christ. Many readers appreciated that. I remain optimistic.
Nevertheless, I am also a realist. These days, polarization is my big concern. We see it in countries like Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. As an American expat, I am concerned especially about my native United States, where polarization is sharper and stronger than at the time of the nineteenth century “Civil War,” or as one of my cousins in Virginia still calls it “The War of Northern Aggression.”
Polarization is often based on toxic ideologies and twisted thinking. It is just as pernicious and nasty today as it was back then, when Jesus was the victim.
The historical Jesus was a bridge builder: between people and between people and God. He was not into building walls. His virtues were compassion, forgiveness, and healing. In Ephesians 2:14, we read “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,”
Our contemporary challenge is to emulate Jesus and tear down today’s walls of hostility. That is hard work. Polarization is easier. If I disagree with someone it is easy for me to self righteously condemn the other as stupid, ignorant, or just plain evil.
Polarization gives short-term pleasure but its lasting impact is deadly. Our contemporary religious and political polarization is a social virus. We find it in progressives and conservatives, in Republicans and Democrats, in Christians, Jews, and Muslims, in Protestants and Catholics, and in believers and non-believers. When polarization is promoted, death and destruction are sure to follow. Divided houses self-destruct, eventually.
The characteristics of polarization are clear. Polarization absolutizes one’s preferred values. It says “my position is always the correct position,” and it relies on the approval of an in-group (“my side”) to guide one’s thinking. Polarization says one should never question his or own position because uncertainty is a mark of weakness and sin. People who ask questions are dangerous. Polarization encourages selective reasoning: always and only looking for evidence that supports ones own position and denigrates the position of opponents. Polarization presumes that one’s opponents are always motivated by bad faith, and it suggests that many opponents are truly evil people.
Polarization is a virus that infects our conceptual system as well and gradually destroys our ability to respect and collaborate with others. The symptoms appear all around us. In discussions about Christianity, for example, I still hear people talking about “Catholics” and “non-Catholics.” This defective vision destroys Christian unity and promotes the presumed superiority of one group over the other. It is similar to the defective and polarizing viewpoint of those who see society as composed of “whites” and “non-whites.” Many see it in the policy of Christian leaders who strongly advocate and lobby for “religious freedom and human equality”…..except when it means protecting the freedom and equality of LGBTQ Americans. Are they less human?
Polarizing leaders learned long ago that labeling people eases the transition to public denigration and destruction of the other. The Nazis used the word “vermin” to describe the Jews. In the Rwandan Civil War, the Hutus called the Tutsis “cockroaches.” In the American Civil War, Southern slaveowners called their slaves “animals.” Once people are conveniently labeled as “not really people but animals,” the walls go up, people cheer, and xenophobic violence becomes a necessary and acceptable form of political and public behavior.
In our shared humanity we encounter the signs and presence of the Divine. That is truly remarkable. Once again, the Easter message….. If we lose sight of this we are on a suicidal journey.
Walls, whether, for example, along the Mexican U.S.A. border or along the Israeli West Bank, promote arrogance, antagonism, and often lead to death.
I still recall the words of President Ronald Reagan, in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, when he proclaimed “Tear down this wall!” Today there are many walls that should be dismantled ….
We need to dismantle, as well, certain attitudes, in our national discourse, that prevent a rational conversation about immigration. There is a kind of toxic moralism these days, that tries to sabotage any ability to have a rational and pragmatic conversation about comprehensive immigration reform. Building walls is the agenda. And so terribly shortsighted.
It is tempting, of course, to make a straightforward “us versus them” enemies list when it comes to who’s to blame for polarization. In fact, few of us are blameless. The very impulse to create an enemies list is part of the problem.
Some of us are more inclined to polarizing habits than others. Some who foster polarization are more aware of what they are doing than others. And some people are quite content promoting self-affirming polarization. When that happens, we either forget or ignore who our neighbor is.
In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus asks which of the three – the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan – acted as a neighbor to the robbed man, the lawyer answered: “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said we should love our neighbor as ourself. We can’t love people we’re unwilling to listen to. The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century, called Jesus “the only completely valid, completely convincing experience Western mankind ever had with the active love of goodness as the inspiring principle of all actions.”