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Polarisation Takes Two (a reflection on ‘Keeping it Light’)

‘Keeping it Light’ puts two people together who would normally disagree. And shows how the Bible can help us all listen to each other.

As part of its 200 year anniversary, Bible Society Australia ran the first of ‘a short series of videos showing that it is possible to have a light discussion on the heaviest topics’. The idea was that the Bible promotes open discussion about every topic under the sun, and encourages us to listen to those we disagree with.

The video attempts to practice what many conservative Christians have been preaching: what one article in 2011 called ‘respectful, nuanced public conversation,’ taking it as a given that Christians already demonstrate ‘nothing but care and respect towards gay friends’. We believe we are already practicing love, and so we say, ‘It’s time for a more thoughtful and open conversation.’

But if the video did indeed model civil discussion, it did not engender civil discussion. In fact, more outrage ensued.

And hot on its heels came Christian reactions like this, this, and this, bemoaning ‘the culture’ as the source of trouble.

The thing is, polarisation takes two.

We might think that the opposite of outrage is civil discussion, or that civil discussion is the antidote to outrage. Yet that is not what we see in this case. Rather than defusing polarisation, this attempt at civil discussion added fuel to the outrage fire.

Why? Because as much as we might want to have a civil discussion, the public conversation has moved on, in much the same way that you can no longer hope to gain a hearing with, ‘Let’s have a civil discussion about the pros and cons of slavery.’ (Scott Higgins explains further…)

In this respect the Keeping It Light video is more than just a once-off misfire, because it represents a conventional stance for our Christian communities: the expectation that we can simply put forward our convictions if we are polite or casual enough about it. (That’s civil, isn’t it? Gentle and gracious, even?)

But we are discovering that the statements we make and the positions we take come in a context, and there is more to consider than just our own intentions. We may be tone-deaf to how we come across, and inadvertently contribute to the polarisation. (See Lance Lawton’s excellent reflection on this…)

We have spent our time and energy in articulating and maintaining our particular position on marriage, all the while failing to increase our ‘love capital’ in relation to gay communities. And we wonder why no one seems to care about our much vaunted civil discussion.

Everyone should be slow to speak and quick to listen, cites the Bible Society’s introduction to the video, but which of our Christian communities have made a habit of that? Time and again for us it has been the blithe self-righteousness and the finger-pointing. We are quick to speak, slow to listen, and we are not learning from our own failures.

It is a classic case of planks and specks. It is astonishing to me, if indeed things are so dire, that we are so blasé about our own part, so ready to assume the moral high ground. Today our behaviour proclaims that we not are the champions of civil society and public discourse we tell ourselves we are.

It’s plain that we’re at an impasse here, but our grave concern should be for the long-term gospel implications of our communities persisting in this stalemate. Insisting on our own freedom to oppose same-sex marriage and the rationality of doing so cannot be a viable missiological position.

Yet most paid Christian ministers, myself included, have scarcely even begun to imagine a way out, a way in which our Christian communities might break the polarization deadlock and actually begin to be seen as giving witness to the true, the beautiful and the good in the midst of our neighbourhoods.

What will it take for us to change tack?

Categories: Politics Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

2 replies

  1. Interesting piece Arthur. In my view we’re in a time that especially due to the church’s moral apostasy and inability to self-govern for the most vulnerable we’re in a position like Bonhoeffer was the German Evangelical Church-German Christians apostasising. So he said we have to take the view from below, of those, like the Jews, under oppression. After that his view was the church needed to be very humble, and go back to the self-disciplining and discipling and preparation for witness, of the pre-Constantinian church. But he wasn’t saying to never speak, but speak in relation to pastoral authenticity, show and tell, not from a position of authority. Charles Taylor also talks of an ‘ethics of authenticity, not authority. Bonhoeffer looked froward to a day when, having learnt to be disciples, we might once again speak a powerful word of authenticity. Its no quick-fix, very long-term. Taylor says after many years, even decades, people will realise that they can’t blame the church for everything, for all our faults. Then, we’ll need to not say, we told you so, but work in solidarity with to pick up the pieces.

    1. Thanks for these thoughts, Gordon. At this point what I’m trying to unpack for myself is the nature of the church’s apostasy – which in my view is something to be more clearly discerned at the level of economic behaviour than (say) sexual behaviour or theological affirmation. The idolatrous drag on our allegiance is no longer centred on the state, but on more amorphous powers of more recent origin associated with capitalism. I have been learning a great deal from Jonathan Cornford, and I’m very interested in the many conversations and experiments – within conservative evangelical circles too – revolving around what we might call a more communitarian vision.

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