A Biblical Antidote to Polarization

Thoughts on how Biblical stories and our political climate intersect.

The parable of the good Samaritan by the Dutch artist Jan Wijnants, 17th century.

The United States is living in a period of extreme political and social polarization. That is clear to almost everyone. But how do we overcome it? I keep an ear open for insight.

Two newspaper columns have recently offered thoughts that ring true to my Christian view of my social responsibilities.

The first is a column by Sabrina Tavernise published in the January 28, 2017 issue of The New York Times. Titled One Country, Two Tribes, the column compares the polarization we are experiencing in America to that that has long been experienced in other countries, especially countries of the Middle East.

In the middle of her discussion came this sentence that grabbed my attention: Social psychologists like Mr. [Jonathan] Haidt say the best way to ease polarization and reduce anxiety among the nationalists is to emphasize our sameness.

Counsel from Moses

 When I read that, I thought immediately of what Moses says to Israel in Deuteronomy 6:20-25. As a literary work, Deuteronomy is presented as a sermon Moses gives just before Israel enters into Canaan after their 40-year Exodus journey through the wilderness. It is also a time when one generation is dying off and another is about to take its place.

In that context this passage gives counsel on how to address the challenge of religious education. How can parents draw their children into an appreciation of the covenant God has established with Israel? It begins:

 When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand;…. (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)

When I read this, I imagine that we are overhearing a conversation between a cocky adolescent and his father. The boy’s beginning to question the faith of his parents and to distance himself from them. It’s a normal reaction among teenagers as they seek to establish their own individual identity.

And so the son says to his father, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and statutes and the ordinances which the LORD our God has commanded you?” I italicize the word you, because this is part of the son’s distancing move. He is in effect saying to his father, “This may be your religious tradition, but I’m nor sure it’s not mine.” He is trying to set up a polarization between himself and his father.

It creates a trap for the father. If he accepts this polarization, the conversation will sink into debate and possibly bitter argument. He risks alienation with his son.

Notice, however, how Moses advises the father to respond: “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….” In effect, the father says, “Son, this is not just your mother’s and my faith. It’s also yours. You, too, are a part of the people of God. We are in this together.” Moses advises the father to use words that are inclusive of both the son and himself.

Now I find that fascinating. The father challenges the polarization not through debate and argument, but by telling the son the story of their common inheritance. True, they belong to different generations. In that sense they are not the same. But through their common inheritance, they are still a We.

But how in our American divide can we create that sense of We in a practical way? Especially if we belong, as I do, to that urban, liberal, ultra-educated side that the other side of the polarization fears and mistrusts.

Counsel from Andrés Miguel Rondón

Here I found surprising advice given by another newspaper column writer. The January 29, 2017 edition of The Washington Post published an article headlined Venezuela showed how not to fight a populist president by Andrés Miguel Rondón .

Rondón, a Venezuelan, reflects on the experience of his country under the populist president Hugo Chávez. Chávez came to power by stoking the anger of those deprived economically and socially. He remained in power by constantly fueling their anger by blaming the country’s woes on business leaders, the urban middle class, and the educated. He did all he could to eviscerate democratic opposition.

That opposition, however, was largely ineffective in reversing the political situation, Rondón charges, because they let themselves be placed in the polarization that Chávez wanted them. He needed an enemy to blame. They let themselves become that enemy.

But what caught my attention is what Rondón sees as the necessary antidote to this polarization. He writes:

…it took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa–to show that they were Venezuelans, too, that they weren’t just dour scolds but could hit baseball, tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show that they were real. And no, this is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press the pause button on the siren song of polarization.

He summarizes his advice later in the article with these succinct words: Show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those who brought him [the populist] to power.

What particularly caught my eye was his advice …show that they were Venezuelans, too…. To counteract the polarization, those the populists are rejecting need first to establish common standing with those who are rejecting them, and two, by showing genuine caring and respect for those who are hurting. Each side needs to see the other as real authentic people.

Counsel from Jesus

As I read this, my thoughts turned again to another famous Bible story, the parable of the good Samaritan.

The polarization between the Jews and the Samaritans in Jesus’ time was as severe as any polarization in our time. The shortest distance between Galilee and Jerusalem led through Samaria. But to avoid contact with the despised Samaritans, Galilean Jews would cross over the Jordan River and travel down its east bank and then cross over the river again at Jericho and take the arduous uphill road to Jerusalem. All this despite the fact that Jews and Samaritans worshipped the same God and accepted the five books of Moses as authoritative Scripture.

Jesus’ story assumes this extreme polarization. And so we are meant to be surprised when the Samaritan encounters the Jewish man robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the Jericho Road. He stops, cares for the man’s wounds, and pays for his restorative care in an inn.

The Samaritan did not overcome the polarization between him and the injured man by preaching against polarization. He overcame it by exercising compassion in reaching out to the injured, hurting man who was on the other side of the social divide.

Jesus concludes his story by saying to the lawyer who asked him: Go and do likewise. Is not Rondón saying something similar? I wonder if their combined words are not marching orders for all of us who are troubled by the polarization we see all around us.


One thought on “A Biblical Antidote to Polarization

  1. Judy Brown

    Gordon, this message  sets a path to follow.  How do we express our concern for the underdogs in our country.  (I just finished “Hillbilly Elegy.”)  It is a huge chunk of our country.  It will take some massive changes, but we need to start.  


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