Book excerpt: One small step

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

As I’ve studied the polarization problem and its negative impact on both ourselves and our society, I’ve begun asking myself these questions: 

  • How do we engage people who disagree with us, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? 
  • How can we be part of the solution and avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grows ever more partisan and angry?

I’ve decided one of the first small steps I can personally take is to examine my relationship with social media. As I’ve begun doing so, I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion: I need to pay much more conscientious attention to what I post, share and “like” on sites like Facebook and Twitter. 

If there’s one thing many conservatives and progressives agree on, it’s that social media have played a huge role in keeping the culture wars going. In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center (link HERE), 55 percent of adult social media users said they felt “worn out” by how many combative political posts and discussions they see on these platforms. 

Seven in 10 respondents also said they found it “stressful and frustrating” to communicate on social media with people they disagree with about politics. The sense of exhaustion and frustration held true across political parties, according to the report. 

Several culprits contribute to social media’s role in dividing us. Algorithms that create “echo chamber” bubbles of one-sided information and opinions. Viral spread of false or misleading information in “fake news” stories with click-bait headlines. Political “discussions” that amount to little more than judgmental blaming and shaming, name-calling, insults, character assassination and demonization of opponents. Endless memes promoting hateful and inflammatory messages.

The worst part? I have to admit I’ve been part of the problem from time to time. Too often in recent years, I’ve found myself getting sucked into social media fights – even with people I ordinarily like – over politics and contentious “hot-button” ideological issues.

Whenever a Facebook skirmish erupts – whether the trigger is a Supreme Court decision, a political candidate’s suitability for office, or a crisis playing out on the news – my first instinct is to try and stay out of the fray. 

Alas, I tend to have strong opinions about a lot of issues (imagine that!) and sooner or later, someone will post a meme that I just can’t seem to resist sharing against my better judgment. Okay, I know it’s a bit snarky. Maybe a bit judgmental or even mean. But it’s SO clever. Then, of course, someone on “the other side” will beg to differ with my assessment of the meme’s cleverness, and before I know it, I’m bogged down in another argument.

One evening, I realized I had just spent the better part of a whole day arguing with total strangers on a Christian Facebook page over this question: “Is it racist to make jokes about lutefisklefse and jello at Lutheran potlucks?” (No, I’m afraid I’m not making this up.) I further realized it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened.

So what can I start doing differently?

I’m not ready to go “off the grid” when it comes to social media. With family and friends scattered over two continents, I would not be able to stay connected so well without Facebook. This has been especially true during the current pandemic. 

However, I can take some constructive steps to avoid getting lured into flame wars and to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem when it comes to divisive social media behavior.

  • I can fact-check articles I want to share before posting them. I personally see nothing wrong with sharing thoughtful, well-researched articles about issues I care about. But I have a responsibility to double-check these for accuracy. Some good sites for fact-checking my sources include Snopes.com (link HERE), FactCheck.org (link HERE) and PolitiFact (link HERE).
  • I can respect people who don’t agree with me. I’ve learned it’s best to resist lecturing people on their lack of personal integrity or intelligence, even if I think what they’ve shared is just plain wrong. I can’t remember ever changing anyone’s mind about an issue because I sufficiently shamed them. If a Facebook friend posts an inaccurate or misleading article, meme or video, I can skip the snark and simply respond with a link to a Snopes.com article debunking the item in question. 
  • I can practice selective attention. If I don’t agree with someone’s post, I always have the option to keep on scrolling and not respond at all. (What a thought!) 
  • I can set my own standards of behavior for my own posts. When the vitriol starts, I’ve begun deleting comments from people who choose not to respect others, and even blocking some of the worst offenders. I have blocked or “snoozed” both conservative and progressive Facebook friends who insist on insulting my other Facebook friends.
  • I can be aware of what I enable. What am I encouraging others to post by hitting the “like” button? Am I inadvertently rewarding name-calling, character assassination or polarizing comments? 
  • I can resist “click bait.” Sometimes I can tell from the headline that an article is pure negative spin. (Watch Politician A school Politician B on life in the real world.) Given the fact that clicks generate ad revenue, do I really need to contribute one more click to that scurrilous article? 
  • I can avoid using memes to convey complex ideas. One of the problems that keeps us all from resolving issues appropriately is our modern emphasis on brevity. It is nearly impossible to give an issue the depth it deserves when our communication is limited to 15-second sound bites, 280-character tweets, bumper sticker and t-shirt slogans – and all those endless memes.
  • I can reduce mindless surfing. If I go online with a specific purpose in mind – to check emails, research a blog article or catch up with the latest updates from Facebook friends – and limit my time on social media, I’m less likely to absent-mindedly click on headlines like Did Michelle File for Divorce over Barack’s Pregnant Mistress?

Finally, I can use Facebook for its original purpose – to help me keep up with family and friends. How are all my nieces and nephews and dozens of cousins doing? Who’s getting married? Who just had a baby? Which friend got a promotion at work or went on a fabulous vacation? Who just went to the emergency room and needs prayers?

Or I can share cute photos of my adorable pets. I’m happy to report I have never had anyone threaten to block or “snooze” me because I posted too many photos of these little guys. 

Fortunately, my Facebook friends love Olaf DaVinci and Champaign Le Chat as much as my camera and I do.

Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? (If you live outside the U.S., is there similar polarization going on your country?) How do we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Are we part of the problem?

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and discusses what might be an appropriate Christian response. To read my first two excerpts, link HERE and HERE. For an overview of the book, link HERE.

Those of us who identify as Christians are in no position to judge secular society when it comes to polarization. We often stand justifiably accused of stirring the pot ourselves — and not in a good way. 

Granted, it’s irritating to hear atheists refer to our God as “your Sky Fairy.” But realistically, how many atheists have been brought to Christ through exchanges like this one, which appear all too frequently on social media sites?

Atheist: Your “god” is imaginary.

Christian: Your mind is of a reprobate. 

Atheist: I suspect even you know your own criminal religion is a joke. 

Christian: In the name of Christ, you are condemned. Make no mistake about it, with your beliefs you will positively burn.

And we’re not sparring solely with atheists. Here are just some of the things I’ve heard Christians say about other Christians in recent years:

That church is nothing more than a glorified country club. Their minister preaches heresy so as to avoid offending the rich people who support the congregation financially. … It would be nice if the folks at that church spent more time actually reading their Bibles and less time thumping on them. Maybe then they wouldn’t be so bigoted toward anyone who is different from them. … That church doesn’t preach the gospel. It offers entertainment. … You need to stay away from that church. Those people are not real Christians. … I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that church is the Great Harlot mentioned in the Book of Revelation.

A couple years ago, I joined an invitation-only Facebook group made up of people from a denomination that shall remain mercifully nameless — and felt like I’d entered the Twilight Zone. From the “About This Group” description, it was clear the administrator envisioned this discussion group as an outreach and evangelism tool. However, several conversation threads consisted of little more than name-calling and expletives NOT deleted. You are the anti-Christ and Were you born that stupid or do you have to practice? were just two of the lovelier sentiments expressed by commenters. F-bombs dropped on people left and right. Whenever someone responded to the nastier threads with the observation that we could all use a bit more civility, they were met with the kind of hostility one might expect if they’d suggested we all start cooking and eating puppies. 

Progressive and conservative Christians regularly maul and skewer each other on Web sites such as Patheos, both in the articles themselves and in the comments sections that follow: 

“Progressive Christian” is an oxymoron. … The Christian Right is neither. … Anyone who would vote for [a Democrat, a Republican, fill in the blank] has no right to call themselves a Christian.

Though I suppose nothing should shock me in the current political climate, I must admit I’ve been more than a little taken aback as I encounter these flame wars between Christians on the various social media sites. Even more disturbing is the fact that some of the ugliest vitriol has come from seminary students and members of the clergy.

As with the Culture Wars in our larger secular society, staying off social media does not necessarily keep us out of the line of fire. 

Pastors or congregation members who bring up moral issues ranging from abortion and gun violence to racism, immigration and economic justice are accused of “getting too political.” If we don’t believe this, we can go to a service where the gospel message is Matthew 25, Isaiah 1:17, or the Beatitudes and see how long it takes for someone to say, “Let’s not bring partisan politics into church.” Got a stopwatch? 

The Worship Wars transcend denominational boundaries. For years now, Christians of all stripes have been locked in an unyielding struggle over whether a congregation’s worship and music style should be traditional or contemporary: 

Okay Boomers, if you want to attract young people to your congregation, you need to lose the geezer music. … When I attended a contemporary service recently, I felt like I was in a bar rather than a church. … I do not want to see drums in the sanctuary!

Of course, one could argue that bickering among church people is nothing new. It’s been going on at least since New Testament times, judging from 1 Corinthians 1:11-13: 

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

In the Middle Ages, some Christians burned other Christians at the stake or subjected them to imprisonment, starvation, thumbscrews or the rack for alleged “heresy.” Depending on where one lived and which denomination’s leaders had power, one could face these forms of execution or torture for being a Catholic, a Lutheran, a Calvinist, an Anabaptist or just about any other sect in existence at the time.

While we no longer burn people alive in the 21st Century, we continue to divide ourselves and judge each other relentlessly. One reason we have literally hundreds of Christian denominations lies in our inability to agree on much of anything. The various sects and denominations offer contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (Sprinkling or immersion? Infant or older?) to communion (Wine or grape juice? Open or closed?) to how one gets “saved” (Baptism or personal decision?). Whether our brand of Christianity is conservative or progressive, some of us are very quick to label those who disagree with our interpretation of the truth: Heretic! Apostate! Satanic!

I have to admit I’ve been guilty of waxing snarky about other Christians myself at times. One day in Sunday School class, someone asked the group, “Do you think [well-known person] is really a Christian?” I replied with the proverbial wink-and-nudge, “By their fruits we shall know them,” and was gratified when several people laughed. I probably should have deposited a $20 fine in Rachel Held Evans’ Jar of Contention for that one. (For more about the Jar of Contention, link HERE.) I also have to admit several less-than-charitable thoughts came to mind as I wrote this blog post about divisive behavior among Christians. 

But in the end, this all leaves me feeling more sadness than anything else. Name-calling, flaming, trolling and other rude behavior stop genuine discussion in its tracks. Lashing out with insults toward those who disagree with us only gives others an excuse to discount us and dismiss our message. For those of us who claim to be people of faith, spewing hurtful and gratuitous snark gives people ammunition to call us hypocrites and declare they want nothing to do with either us or our religion. 

Yes, I get that church is a hospital for sinners and Christians need to attend precisely because we are less than perfect. In fact, most of us, myself included, tend to need forgiveness of the seventy-times-seven variety. But there has been a lot of talk in our congregations in recent years about the increasing numbers of young people who identify as “none” when asked their religion. If we were an unchurched young person and came across the behavior described here, would we want to come to church?

I’m certainly not suggesting we must all paste fake smiles on our faces and agree with everyone about everything in the name of civility. I’ve witnessed lots of sincere and intelligent Christians taking opposing stands on various hot-button issues and backing up their positions by pointing to relevant Biblical passages. Perfectly honest people can honestly differ. But to say that people who disagree with our own interpretation of the truth aren’t “real Christians” simply doesn’t strike me as helpful. 

Christians could show love for our neighbors by offering the secular world an example of how to disagree without being disagreeable. We need to start now.

Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? How do Christians avoid becoming part of the problem? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on the article itself. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Is it really that bad?

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and discusses an appropriate Christian response. To read my first excerpt, link HERE. For an overview of the book, link HERE.

Hidden Tribes, a report published by the organization More in Common, says roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population belongs to a group the authors call “the Exhausted Majority.” Although members of this group have many political and ideological differences, according to the report, they share fatigue with the relentless back-and-forth arguments between our nation’s warring factions.

If we feel exhausted by the polarization ripping our society apart, I suspect one reason is the sheer pervasiveness of the Culture Wars. 

I realize this divisive bickering has been percolating for decades, but something seems to have changed. At first the polarization centered around a handful of specific hot-button issues – abortion, civil rights, whether the U.S. should involve itself in various wars. In recent years, however, our “Red” or “Blue” identity has become the yardstick against which all choices big or small are measured, even those seemingly irrelevant to the identity in question. Each issue, each choice, no matter how trivial, has become a way of signifying our tribal affiliation. What do we put on our plates – bacon or tofu? What kind of vehicle do we drive – a RAM pickup truck or a Prius? Which cable news network do we watch – FOX or MSNBC?

People from every possible categorical grouping get pitted against each other: young vs. old; male vs. female; people of color vs. white folks; rich vs. poor; LGBTQ+ vs. cis-gendered heterosexual; disabled vs. able-bodied; rural vs. urban; native-born vs. immigrant; socialist vs. capitalist, Democrat vs. Republican, college-educated vs. high school graduate; meat-eater vs. vegetarian; obese vs. skinny; Christian vs. atheist. Besides abortion and civil rights, we fight over guns, the environment, food, clothes, animal rights, health care, education, immigration, economics, trade policy, voting rights, standards of attractiveness, the role of government, how to address poverty, church/state separation, and on and on and on.

When we read online news articles and blog posts, we’ve come to expect the comments sections that follow will overflow with trash-talk of both political stripes: I’m going to say this real slowly so you un-ed-i-cated redneck Repukelicans can understand it. … I can see why you vote Dumbocrat – it’s easier than working. … I can’t even understand what you’re trying to say, it’s so stupid. 

Even on my favorite Facebook gardening page, the administrator feels the need to post a set of guidelines reminding readers to be civil. “No foul language, bullying, etc.,” she warns. “Mind your manners, please!!!!!” By way of explanation, she says, “You wouldn’t believe how crazy people are nowadays and unfortunately need to be told these things.”So what could people possibly find to argue about on a gardening page? Oh, that’s right. Should we have neatly manicured lawns or let the dandelions and white clover grow to attract bees? Should our flower beds feature native plants or the latest trendy hybrid blooms? Can we use pesticides and lawn fertilizers or should we let nature take care of itself?

Some of us have tried limiting our time on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to avoid the inevitable insults and name-calling. However, prying ourselves away from our television sets and computer screens doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. The Culture Wars have infiltrated every nook and cranny of our lives, and we can’t seem to escape the bickering, no matter where we go or what we do. 

If we live in a so-called “purple swing district” during an election year, the audio/visual pollution of negative political ads won’t be limited to our Facebook news feeds or our favorite TV shows, but will leap at us from billboards and the sides of city buses while we walk down the street. As election day approaches, we can expect to be harassed by at least a dozen campaign robocalls by lunch hour: Would you vote for Candidate X if you knew she has horns and a tail??

Driving home from exercise class, my husband and I pass by politically conservative demonstrators standing outside the Planned Parenthood clinic with their picket signs (God is pro-life) and liberal/progressive protesters gathering outside our Republican Congressional representative’s office (Keep your laws off my body!). As we stroll through the parking lot at the grocery store, we notice several cars with bumper stickers that proclaim the owner’s tribal allegiance: Suck it up! We survived your president. You’ll survive ours. … Turn left at next election. In the doctor’s office waiting room, we encounter people wearing in-your-face t-shirts: I may be DEPLORABLE but at least I’m not LIBERAL. … Trump’s second term: Prison. Some of the bumper stickers, buttons, t-shirts and picket signs seem deliberately provocative:  P.E.T.A.: People Eating Tasty Animals.Doing my best to piss off the Christian Right.

While shopping (earlier and earlier each year, it seems) we’re subject to the “Happy Holidays!” vs. “Merry Christmas!” battle. Trying to lose weight? Welcome to the fat-shaming vs. fat acceptance controversy. Want to relax in front of the TV and watch a football game? First we must get through the national anthem – are those players standing or kneeling for The Star Spangled Banner? And if we stay awake long enough, we have late-night comedy show hosts encouraging us to ridicule anyone who disagrees with us, so we can all go to bed feeling smug, self-righteous and angry.

From morning till night, day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out, the Culture Wars have become the white noise in the background of our daily lives. Drip-drip-drip. Rat-a-tat-tat. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. No wonder we’re exhausted!

One would think the Reds and Blues might declare at least a temporary truce during our current pandemic crisis. We might try to be positive and do our part to support each other through an experience that has been rough on all of us. We might realize that spewing hate will only create more anxiety and fear. 

Alas, no such luck. The media simply can’t resist using sensational headlines to grab eyeballs and generate clicks, nor can our elected officials thwart their powerful desire to co-opt the issue for political gain. Our respective tribes cannot stop sparring over whether or how long to shelter at home, the trade-off between rescuing the economy and saving lives, and who should get scarce personal protective equipment and ventilators first. Facebook and Twitter meme wars rage. Blame and finger-pointing abound. Insults and name-calling continue to flourish everywhere.

Common sense would dictate that one should not be able to predict how people will answer medical questions based on our political affiliations. Nevertheless, one can pretty much guess whether we’re Democrats or Republicans by how seriously we take the pandemic and how soon we think restrictions should be lifted so our lives can return to normal. “Red and blue America aren’t experiencing the same pandemic,” laments Caroline Mimbs Nyce, senior associate editor of The Atlantic (link HERE). “The pandemic, and America’s response, is being swallowed up by the country’s culture wars.” Meanwhile, social distancing (or not) has morphed into a political act, “a way to signal which side you’re on.”

Even some Christians have begun quarreling. To go to church or not to go to church? ’Tis the question. Should we prove our faith in God’s protection by packing sanctuaries in spite of the pandemic? Or should we demonstrate love for our neighbors by staying home and “attending” church remotely?

If there was ever a time when we need to take off our political/ideological hats for just a few minutes, eliminate the name-calling, the shouting, the trolling and the flaming, and have a rational discussion about how to help each other through the current crisis, it would be now. Sadly, I’m not holding my breath.

Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? (If you live outside the U.S., is there similar polarization going on your country?) Which problems do you see going unaddressed while we rip each other apart? What do you think is behind all the divisiveness and how do we turn down the heat? How do Christians avoid becoming part of the problem? 

I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on the article itself. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: We need to talk

Note: This is the first excerpt from my book in progress, which will examine the polarization ripping apart our society and discuss an appropriate Christian response.

Sometimes I want to stick my fingers in my ears and yell “SHUT UP!” over and over at the top of my lungs until the madness stops.

One cannot turn on the news, sign in to a social media account or go out in public without getting a daily dose of the name-calling, accusations, counter-accusations, demonizing of opponents and overall nastiness that characterize our society’s Culture Wars:

You know who’s causing all the problems in this country, don’t you? … It’s those racist, misogynistic Rethuglican deplorables who want to impose their narrow version of morality on the rest of us. …  Those whining Libtard crybabies and snowflakes who want safe spaces and free stuff. … Those naïve socialists who would destroy businesses and bankrupt the government with their outrageous demands. … Those greedy capitalists who stuff their pockets while robbing honest hard-working people of their retirement funds. … Those lazy welfare recipients with their infuriating sense of entitlement. … Those wealthy elites who have too much already and want more, more, more. … Those incompetent teachers who staff our lousy public schools. … Those illegal immigrants stealing our jobs. … Those SUV drivers contributing to global warming. … Those environmental wackos who want us to give up eating hamburgers. … Those obese gluttons who gorge on junk food and drive up health care costs. … Those fat-shamers who encourage eating disorders with their unattainable standards of attractiveness. … Those feminazis destroying the family. … Those cisgender, heterosexual white men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege. … Those people who own guns. … Those people who want to take away our guns. … Those fundamentalist Christians, those radical Muslims, those godless atheists, those New-Age navel gazers … Those self-centered Boomers running up the national debt with no regard for how their decisions will affect future generations. … Those teenagers who watch too much TV, play too many video games, listen to music with depraved lyrics, do drugs, drop out of school, get pregnant and join gangs. … Of course, none of this would be happening if it weren’t for those helicopter parents who fail to teach their hopelessly coddled trophy kids personal responsibility!!!

Whew! Have we left anyone out?

Here in the U.S., one could see news commentators practically salivating as they proclaimed the 2016 demolition derby of a presidential election to be the ugliest mudfest in history. The venom shows no signs of abating as we gear up for a 2020 campaign season that began with an impeachment trial. 

Even before 2016, we had come to regard name-calling and character assassination as normal for election campaigns. On the cable news networks, political pundits and other guests routinely talk over each other and shout each other down while debating the latest hot-button issues. “Flaming” and “trolling” have become popular sports in the anonymous comments sections that follow some news articles and blog posts. 

We have Climate Wars — those who believe climate change is caused by human behavior versus those who believe the former are perpetrating an elaborate hoax. We have Health Care Wars — those who wish to preserve the private insurance system versus those who want government-funded Medicare for All. We have Class Wars — the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. We have Education Wars — ferocious debates over issues such as high stakes testing, merit pay for teachers and private-school vouchers. We have Mommy Wars — mothers scrutinizing and judging other mothers’ decisions on everything from working outside the home to letting one’s toddler use a pacifier. 

This seething anger has seeped into the public square and manifests itself as an epidemic of rudeness. Many people I encounter in my everyday life seem more cranky and defensive than they used to be, and some seem to be spoiling for a fight. A car with a middle-aged driver sports a bumper sticker that tells us what we can eat if we don’t like the owner’s driving. We have Road Rage (shouting, cursing and flinging obscene gestures at other drivers), Airport Rage (yelling at ticket agents and flight attendants), Sidewalk Rage (reacting violently because people in front of us are walking too slowly), Parking Lot Rage (engaging in an angry standoff with another driver over a parking space) and Starbucks Rage (working oneself into a ballistic frenzy over the color and design of a coffee cup).

Sadly, those of us who identify as Christians are in no position to judge secular society when it comes to polarization. We often stand justifiably accused of stirring the pot ourselves — and not in a good way. Progressive and conservative Christians regularly skewer each other on Web sites such as Patheos. And we have our Worship Wars (which transcend denominational boundaries) — Christians locked in an unyielding struggle over whether a congregation’s music and worship style should be traditional or contemporary. 

As I’ve paid closer attention to the steady drumbeat of vitriol that makes up the background noise of our daily lives, I find myself thinking, “No wonder we’ve become a nation of people with clenched teeth and balled up fists.”

It would be bad enough if the tide of anger and disrespect — both in our churches and our larger society — served only to put people in a surly, antisocial mood. Unfortunately, the damage doesn’t end there. Our finger-pointing epidemic leads to everything from Congressional gridlock to violence against individuals who belong to maligned groups. While we bicker incessantly, our real problems go unaddressed — raging war in various global hotspots creates millions of refugees; thousands of children worldwide die each day of starvation and/or totally preventable diseases; nearly a third of all children in the U.S. live in poverty. 

On a personal level, the constant conflict leaves me wanting to grab a good book and a flashlight and dive under the bed with my cat. Apparently, I’m not alone. Hidden Tribes (link HERE), a report on public opinion by the organization More in Common, says as many as 67 percent of Americans belong to a group the authors have dubbed “the Exhausted Majority.” Although members of this group have many political and ideological differences, they share fatigue with the current state of U.S. politics and a feeling of being forgotten in political debates. The relentless back-and-forth arguments have rendered many folks just plain fed up and wondering if the U.S. can move beyond division, according to the report.

Matthew 5:13-16 urges Christians to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” I suspect this precludes my hiding under the bed with my little yellow cat until the world stops fighting. But I suspect it also means I must aim to avoid being part of the problem. Because the vitriol on all sides is so widespread and so relentless and so damaging, we must look for ways to create more light and less heat. As Christians, I believe we should do no less.

Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? Your family and friends? Our larger community? Our churches? Which problems do you see going unaddressed while we rip each other apart? What do you think is behind all the divisiveness and how do we turn down the heat? How do Christians avoid becoming part of the problem? 

I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on the article itself. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Time to write that book

I’ve known since grade school that my writing skill would play some role in my life’s work, whatever that turned out to be. From young adulthood on, I’ve used this God-given talent in my career as a journalist, as a public relations writer helping various not-for-profit organizations promote their causes, and as a human services executive preparing grant proposals for prospective donors. I’ve even managed to win awards, from first place in an American Legion essay contest when I was in seventh grade to statewide journalism awards from the Associated Press when I worked for a daily newspaper.

But one goal on my bucket list has remained elusive. From age 10 onward, I’ve dreamed of writing a book. More than 50 years later, that goal is … still on my bucket list. So this year, I’ve decided it’s time!

My book — with the working title We Need to Talk — will examine the polarization ripping apart our society and discuss an appropriate Christian response.

Here are some of the issues and questions I want to explore:

  • I suspect the ongoing Culture Wars affect our daily lives more than we realize. How does the steady barrage of name-calling, insults, character assassination and demonization of opponents permeating every area of our lives affect our work, our personal relationships and our mental health? Is the endless bickering simply irritating background noise, or is the impact more malignant?
  • Our current political climate did not just come out of nowhere. Why are people so angry, and what factors are contributing to the rage? Are the Internet and social media to blame? Talk-radio and cable news networks? Changing demographics? Social changes that threaten to disrupt our way of life? The dizzying pace of technological change that overwhelms our ability to keep up? All of the above?
  • Part of my initial motivation for seeking spiritual direction was the internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness in our society. I’ve begun to suspect I’m part of an “exhausted majority” of folks who feel pressured to take sides in the Culture Wars, but at the same time, don’t fit neatly into either the left-wing progressive or the right-wing conservative camp. What are my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consume our nation’s culture warriors? How can I avoid the continual pressure to “choose sides” and do more of my own thinking?
  • As ideological positions in our society harden, and people become increasingly “dug in,” common sense seems to have flown out the window. Is healing possible? What aspects of our thinking and behavior would need to change for this to happen? What would happen if we could all take off our political/ideological hats for just a few minutes, eliminate the name-calling, the shouting, the trolling and the flaming, and have a rational discussion about the real issues?
  • Some would say Christians are in no position to judge secular society when it comes to the Culture Wars — we are often accused of stirring the pot ourselves, and not in a good way. What is our role as Christians in fighting or mitigating society’s political battles? How do we engage people who disagree with us, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? And perhaps more importantly, how do we avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grows ever more partisan and angry? How can we be part of the solution?

As I research these issues and explore the questions with my spiritual director in the coming months, I will post book excerpts to this blog. I’d like to invite the blogging community to comment and offer editing or research suggestions. I hope to get responses from all sides — liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, independents, centrists, people who don’t like labels. 

Since 2017, I’ve been posting entries to my blog Seriously Seeking Answers. Among the helpful features Word Press offers is a running word count. My annual site statistics show I’ve written approximately 20,000 words each year since I first created the blog. After three years, that’s almost … a book. This means I’ve proven to myself that writing a book is doable. No excuses!

A note to my atheist friends

I’m not interested in demonizing atheists. It would be too easy to say they want to deny God so they can be free to do whatever they want, regardless of the impact of their behavior on the people around them.

For one thing, I can see where many of them are coming from:

  • Some want proof of a God and they haven’t found any proof that satisfies them. Meanwhile, they do not wish to dedicate their lives to a belief system developed by ancient people before the advent of science.
  • Some are appalled by the evil done in the name of religion and they want no part of that.
  • Some are put off by believers who insist that they stop asking so many questions and forget they have a brain.

I know I’ve asked the same questions myself that my atheist friends ask: How does one prove God’s existence? And, if some folks are so sure of their beliefs, why are the rest of us discouraged from asking questions?

At the same time, I’m not ready to join atheists who paint believers as child-like purveyors of silly superstition. I want there to be a God, for several reasons:

  • If there is a God – and eternal life – it means I will once again someday get to see my beloved father, my grandparents, my sister Jennifer, my friend Patti and other people I know I will probably lose before I check out myself.
  • The existence of a God would mean there’s an ultimate answer to where the universe and everything in it comes from – an answer that makes sense to me.
  • I want Someone I can call on in times of trouble. I love the idea of a “close-up” God who not only cares about each of us, but each sparrow or dog or cat as well.
  • Yes, I understand some people distort spiritual teachings and do evil things in God’s name. However, I don’t like to think about the consequences if there were NO moral standards at all to appeal to.
  • A Peggy Lee song from my childhood asks, “Is that all there is?” The gist of the song is, we’re born. Our lives are filled with a series of relatively meaningless activities. Then we die and people may remember us for a period of time. Or not. I just don’t like to think that’s all there is.

While I’m not interested in demonizing my atheist friends, I must say their habit of calling my God a “Sky Fairy” and my beliefs “silly superstition” wears thin very quickly.

I’m not one of those Christians who promises hellfire and damnation to everyone who disagrees with my interpretation of reality. I don’t call atheists names or ridicule their beliefs. Nor do I blame them for everything going wrong in this country.

I would like the same respect in return.

 

Clarification

After my previous two articles, I’d like to clarify: I’m not saying we should retreat from the political arena, refrain from sharing opinions on issues we feel strongly about, passively accept mistreatment, look the other way in the face of injustice, forsake our favorite causes or stop working to resolve social problems.

Some would argue that even talking about politics or hot-button social issues is poor etiquette. That getting involved in causes is the province of people afraid to look too closely at their personal issues. That marches, rallies and boycotts are inherently divisive. That civil discussion is a waste of time since most of us already have our minds made up. That special interests control our government to the point where voting is futile, so why bother?

I would respectfully disagree with all of this. Participating in the political process is not only a right, but one of our responsibilities as citizens. Supporting a good cause beats sitting in front of our screens playing one video game after another. Too many problems need addressing for us to move in the direction of self-absorbed apathy and disconnection. We do need to stay engaged.

But could we please, please stop the vitriol? If we really want to change hearts and minds, we must stop the name-calling, the scapegoating and the demonizing.

The Constitution guarantees our right to petition our government for the redress of grievances, whether that involves writing letters to our representatives, attending town hall events or visiting lawmakers in their offices. But I suspect our elected officials – being human – will pay more attention to a politely-worded letter and listen more carefully to constituents who refrain from shouting them down while they’re trying to speak.

Marches and rallies are a time-honored way to call public attention to an injustice. But can we do this without violence and destruction of property? I think we can agree there is a huge difference between rioting or looting on the one hand, and a peaceful protest in which organizers have obtained all the proper permits.

If a company treats customers badly or engages in business practices we believe to be immoral, a boycott allows us to vote with our feet and our pocketbooks. But it wouldn’t hurt if we let the offending company know the reason for the boycott in a letter, email or tweet that has been edited to delete profanities.

I enjoy watching TV programs in which people discuss the issues of the day. But could our political pundits learn to speak one at a time and stop interrupting each other constantly? Recently I’ve taken to switching the channel as soon as commentators start talking over each other.

I have nothing against people wearing t-shirts and sporting bumper stickers in support of their favorite cause or candidate. But I’m with Her and Make America Great Again are one thing. Cheeto is a vulgar pig and Trump that Bitch are another.

Name-calling and other rude behavior stop genuine discussion and problem solving in their tracks. Lashing out only gives others an excuse to ignore our concerns, discount us and dismiss our issues. For those of us who claim to be people of faith, spewing snarky insults gives people ammunition to call us hypocrites and declare they want nothing to do with either us or our religion.

Being civil, on the other hand, carries strategic advantages. After all, we want people to take us seriously, right?

In my own case, I actually have changed my mind now and then over the years, even on some fairly big issues. When I did so, it was because someone presented factual information in such a way that I could listen without becoming defensive. It also helped if the other person was willing to hear my side of the story, shared their personal experience of the issue in question, or showed me how I could come around to their way of thinking without sacrificing values important to me.

But I can promise I have never, EVER changed my mind because someone called me names, insulted me or tried to convince me I was a terrible person. All yelling and character assassination ever did for me was encourage me to dig in my heels or walk away. People of all political stripes have let me know I’m not alone in this regard.

In our current environment, we are so often presented with only two alternatives – be “in-your-face” reactionary or be apathetic. I’d like to see a third option. I’d like to see all of us eliminate the name-calling, the trolling and the flaming, and have a rational discussion about serious issues.

We need to replace our desire to be right with a desire to solve problems. That way, instead of Our Side winning, perhaps we can all win.

Time for a look in the mirror?

I know some will accuse me of false equivalence, but I’m going to say this anyway: People of all political and ideological persuasions have been guilty of contributing to the divisiveness tearing apart our social fabric.

During the 2016 election, I noticed most candidates for public office spent more time telling us why we should not vote for their opponents than they did telling us what they planned to do themselves if elected. This was true whether the candidate was a liberal, socialist, progressive, moderate, centrist, conservative or libertarian.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on hypocrisy. Republicans who spent eight years obstructing and filibustering former President Barack Obama at every turn now lecture Democrats to “give Trump a chance.” Meanwhile, the same Democrats who decried obstructionism now focus on how to give the Republicans a dose of their own medicine. Democrats pounced on candidate Donald Trump’s “woman problem” while conveniently forgetting or just plain denying that former President Bill Clinton was accused of similar misdeeds. Trump supporters complained that Obama issued too many executive orders, but now cheer when Trump does likewise.

Liberals who wish to vent about the election results – or find memes with which to shoot down conservatives – can join Facebook groups such as Americans Against the Republican Party, The Angry Liberal, Amending the Constitution so Corporations Can’t Buy Elections, or Teanderthal Party, which declares “Trump’s a jackass” and pledges, “I will defend my country from all enemies, both foreign and Republican.” Conservatives mad at liberals for being mad about the election can join Laughing at Stupid Things Liberals Say, Liberal Logic 101, or Occupy Dimwits, which proclaims, “Dimwits support the Occupy movement, Obama, Hillary, socialism, Marxism and communism.”

Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of promoting fake news, overt propaganda and “news” of questionable accuracy: Daily Headlines, American News, IHaveTheTruth.com and Conservative Tribune on the Right; Occupy Democrats, Bipartisan Report, Real Time Politics and Freakout Nation on the Left. People on both sides can live entirely in their own bubble, if desired. Left-leaning folks have MSNBC, DailyKos, The Nation, Jezebel, AlterNet, Slate and Mother Jones. Those on the Right have FOX News, American Spectator, CNS News, The Federalist, The National Review and the Drudge Report. While none of these latter media qualify as “fake news,” it would be fair to say they are decidedly biased.

The comments sections that follow online news articles and blogs overflow with trash-talk of both political stripes: I’m going to say this real slowly so you un-ed-i-cated rednecks can understand it. … Keep it up and maybe you can turn being a flag-hating pansy into an Olympic sport. … I can see why you vote Dumbocrat – it’s easier than working. … Is that true or did you hear it on FAUX News? … I can’t even understand what you’re trying to say, it’s so stupid.

Finger-pointing and blaming others has proven to be an equal-opportunity pastime. Ask conservatives who or what is responsible for the problems in our society, and they’ll blame labor unions, illegal immigrants who suck our social system dry when they’re not stealing jobs from hard-working Americans, Muslims out to bring sharia law to our shores, and mothers who work outside the home while others raise their children. Ask liberals the same question, and they’ll point to corporations that bust unions, xenophobes who deny entry to this country for refugees with well-founded fears of death or persecution in their own countries, Christian extremists who would impose their own version of sharia law on America, and men who want to keep women in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant.

People on both sides seem to subscribe to the notion that if we can’t beat our opponents in an argument, we can always fall back on name-calling. Conservatives talk of Obozo, $hillary, elitist granola-munching Libtards, Welfare Queens, tree-hugging environmental wackos, woefully deluded do-gooders and snowflakes. Liberals talk of the Bloviater in Chief, Rethuglicans, racist-sexist-homophobic bigots, right-wing fanatics, extremist ideologues, the lunatic fringe, tea-baggers and alt-right fascists. Both sides fling words like idiot, moron, nut job and Nazi with abandon.  

Liberals and conservatives compete for the most in-your-face bumper stickers, t-shirts, ball caps and coffee cups. At the online Breitbart Store, conservatives can order their very own Border Wall t-shirt, Protected by 2nd Amendment doormat, RINO Hunter jumbo coffee cup or Safe Spaces Are for Snowflakes bumper sticker. Not to be outdone, the online Northern Sun store offers liberals a White House Alternative Facts t-shirt, He’s Not My President button, Putin-Trump Make Russia Great Again bumper sticker, or a refrigerator magnet which announces, “Mommy when I grow up I want to help smash the white racist, homophobic, patriarchal, bullshit paradigm too.”

Demonizing of opponents knows no ideological boundaries. People who favor gun rights accuse gun control advocates of wanting to render law-abiding citizens defenseless in the face of rampant crime. Gun control advocates portray people who favor gun rights as heartless monsters who don’t care about tragedies such as Sandy Hook. Christians portray secular humanists as hedonists out to strip society of its core values, while secular humanists accuse religions (including Christianity) of being responsible for most wars. Some Web sites seriously speculate whether Trump, Obama or even Pope Francis might be the Antichrist referred to in the Biblical Book of Revelation.

Perhaps Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich best summed up the free-floating animosity when she observed: “Everyone needs someone to loathe. … I mean some group, some class, some club, some clique, some collection of humans who can be disdained and despised simply because they wear the wrong ID badge. … We all gnaw on prejudices against groups that threaten who we’d like to be or think we are. Sometimes our prejudices explode into cruelty, even if words are the only weapons in our attack.”

Of course, if I’m completely honest with myself, I must acknowledge my own contribution to the divisiveness. No, I haven’t broken windows or set buildings on fire at a demonstration, and I don’t make a habit of spewing profanities at people. But I’ll plead guilty to passing along Facebook memes that subtly – or not so subtly – make fun of people whose opinions differ from mine. I’ll cop to sometimes feeling smarter than, and even a bit morally superior to, those poor misguided people who disagree with me on various issues. I’ve promised more than once to stop posting political memes on Facebook, only to renege a short time later. I’ve finally settled on a promise to post at least one cute animal video for each political post. Good thing there are A LOT of cute animal videos in cyberspace.

During election season, my husband and I rationalized that our candidates had to “go negative” during their campaigns because their opponents did. Thus justified, I cheered when “my” candidate got in a good zinger during a debate or attack ad. I was quick to pounce when a candidate on The Other Side said or did something “wrong,” and equally quick to make excuses when my own candidate behaved the same way.

As a Christian, I’ve even been guilty of getting snarky about other Christians. When a fellow believer expresses an opposing view, I’ve said, “Do they read the Bible they’re thumping on?” One day in Sunday School class, someone asked the group, “Do you think [well-known person] is really a Christian?” I replied with the proverbial wink-and-nudge, “By their fruits we shall know them,” and was gratified when several people laughed. I should probably deposit a $20 fine in Rachel Held Evans’ Jar of Contention for that last one.

I don’t believe it’s “false equivalence” to suggest that each of us look for our part in a problem. Admittedly this is much less fun than wallowing in the mud hole we all seem to be submerged in at the moment. On the other hand, no positive change is going to happen and no real problems are going to be addressed effectively until we all can do this.