Six Graphs and Six New Year Reflections : The Call and Challenge of Re-Presenting Jesus
Graph 1 — The two main political parties in America exhibit near equal distain for each other. Extreme partisanship amplifies this polarization even further.
It’s worth spending time considering these data. Only 8% of Republicans believe Democrats are honest and 11% of Democrats return the favor. Those shockingly low numbers then seem generous compared to the extreme elements of each party where the perception of honesty drops to one percent.
These data (and graphs below) come from a mixture of national surveys, interviews and focus groups led by a partnership between an organization called More in Common and the polling company YouGov. More in Common’s “mission is to understand the forces driving us apart, to find common ground and help to bring people together to tackle our shared challenges.”
Although levels of distain may be roughly equal, Christian representation in the two extremes are highly unequal. At one extreme, Christians make up 23% of Progressive Activists. At the other extreme, Christians make up 87% of Devoted Conservatives. When the data are restricted to Protestant respondents, the disparity in representation remains: 13% vs 56%.
Graphs 2 and 3 — Such distain fosters a sense of “enemies” formed by understandings largely imagined and centered around falsehoods. Take the teaching of history, for example. According to Democrats, only 38% of Republicans believe Rosa Parks and MLK should be taught as examples of Americans who fought for equality. The true percentage is 93%. According to Republicans, only 45% of Democrats believe that students should learn how the Declaration of Independence and Constitution advanced freedom and equality. The true percentage is 92%.
Graph 4 — Then the more media news people consume, the larger the overall perception gap.
Graph 5 — Yet not all media outlets are the same with respect to the perception gap.
Graph 6 — Thankfully, there’s a glimmer of hope. If you you can de-emphasize political party, areas of common understandings emerge.
The Way Forward
In 2014, a man at Stirling Station in Perth, Australia accidentally tripped and became trapped in between a train and the platform. As the man struggled to free himself, CCTV footage captured the phenomenal moment where fellow commuters banded together to push the train to one side, eventually helping the man to free his leg. It was a powerful picture of people working together to rescue a trapped person through a love of neighbor focused with purpose and amplified by unity.
Now imagine a church willing to rescue a trapped, polarized, nation through exemplifying a Christ-like love of neighbor. Exchanging a partisan-defined and culture war-oriented “biblical worldview” for a Sermon-on-the-mount-directed inner nature (e.g., blessed are the meek). Pushing back against a polarizing spirit by a fruit of the spirit-directed walk in life. Faithful to scripture’s call to “be in one accord” as we are “completely humble and gentle; patient, bearing with one another in love. Making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Six Points of Reflection As We Start a New Year
- We must recognize that we all bear some measure of culpability for the current, unholy, state of America. I’m reminded what the Christian writer G.K. Chesterton once responded when asked by the London Times: “What’s Wrong with the World?” Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton
- We must recognize the shortcomings in our understandings — that where we “stand depends upon where you sit” — and then commit to become part of the solution rather than the problem. When people isolate within their tribes (the big sort) and are blind to their biases, uninterested in other people’s stories, and ensorcelled by their historical and cultural narratives, they no longer “see” their culpability for this epidemic of polarization. And if you can’t “see” it, you don’t think any action is needed. A great example is a friend’s Facebook post where he posts a picture of Lincoln with the words “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Although a Christian, he has built a career fostering polarizing division through attacking the MSM, the Democrats, and those outside of the conservative narrative.
- It’s worth repeating the preceding step as we won’t move forward without first reckoning with our innate blindness and then committing to change. Walter Lippman once famously said: “for the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define and then see.” We subconsciously pick and choose our facts so that “what is alien will be rejected, what is different will fall upon unseeing eyes…more often without knowing it, we are impressed by those facts which fit our philosophy.” Translation: we’re hard-wired to live in tribal echo chambers and unless we purposefully and actively challenge them, polarization R us.
- Christ followers must 100% embrace a “ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18)” or they fail. It’s simply our gospel calling, our vocation, according to the apostle Paul. It must encompass and define everything we do — at all times, irrespective of persons, tribe or party. Just having moments of reconciliation misses the mark. There are no justifiable exceptions. Political polarization cancels this calling of reconciliation and is, as such, flat out sin. And the fact that America is currently highly polarized, given its large percentage of Christians, means that the church has flat-out failed. We have to be clear about this. Highly polarized Christians are simply not following the teachings and example of Christ.
- We must actively oppose America’s culture wars. The fruit of this war — fear, outrage, fighting and division — are called out in Galatian 5 as “works of the flesh.” These attributes of polarization oppose Christ’s mission of reconciliation. And “those who live like this,” according to the apostle Paul, “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
- We must then privilege the fruit of the spirit — the mark of a Christian, the evidence of Christ within us, which is the hope for the world.