Review: Divided We Fall

Divided We Fall, David French. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020

Summary: An argument warning that the political divides in American life could lead to a dissolution of the nation through secession and may be averted by a tolerant federalism.

One of my enjoyments is reading the history of the American Civil War and the events leading up to it. In recent years, that history has increasingly disturbed me as I recognize the troubling parallel of the deep political divides and inflammatory rhetoric that led to armed conflict, and our present time. I’ve wondered where this could lead: authoritarian government, civil unrest and breakdown, or a war of red versus blue.

If there is any comfort in Divided We Fall, it is to learn that a thoughtful political commentator has similar concerns. David French believes we could well be headed toward another secession of states, one he does not believe will lead to military action, but to a greatly diminished America, both domestically, and in global affairs, a prospect perhaps as troubling as armed conflict within our border.

What leads him to moot this possibility is the character of our divides. For one thing, they may be charted along regional lines. His thesis is that geography plus culture plus fear may equal secession. One particular culture subject to the kindling of fear is the religious subculture. While some fear the intrusion of the state on religious freedom and decry court decisions contrary to religious morality, others fear the intrusion of one religion into a very plural public life, limiting the freedom of others.

Chapter 5 on “How an Academic Article Explains America” may be the most important in the book. It introduces us to an article titled “The Law of Group Polarization.” that proposes that when groups are formed with a “predeliberation tendency,” rather than making better judgments than on their own, they will move toward the extreme of their bias. In our present setting, even moderates put off by one side (left or right) will tend to move to the extreme version of what they favor, intensifying our divisions. Sadly, French observes in the following chapters, churches have followed this, largely following the cultural and geographical alignments within which they are embedded, and that political alignments have trumped other alignments, where political identities primary and ultimate.

French traces the breakdown in our capacity for discourse. No longer can friends agree to disagree–they become enemies. Free speech has become subject to “safetyism” and cancel culture. French, who has worked extensively as a lawyer on free speech issues, makes a passionate appeal for the critical role of the First Amendment as critical to giving marginal groups a voice. Instead, the effort of our contemporary discourse is to use power to silence the opposition, which only inflames opposition.

He sets out two fictional secession scenarios, one led by California, the other by Texas. California’s is over immigration and gun control. Texas secedes to protect from a blue backlash. He explores the resultant unraveling of the Pax Americana, the various security guarantees that prevented armed conflict in many parts of the world, including China, the Middle East, and eastern Europe.

French’s proposed remedy is Madisonian federalism that accepts faction but vigorously protects free speech. He believes that it is possible for competing communities to exist in different parts of the country. He argues that the First Amendment protects these. He contends that genuine tolerance protects difference–we only tolerate that with which we disagree. He longs for moments of grace leading to movements of grace, citing the example of the reconciliation between SNL’s Pete Davidson, and Dan Crenshaw, a Republican congressional candidate. When mocked by Davidson for a war wound, Crenshaw accepted a later apology and then appeared on the show, talking about what “never forget” meant to both of them–speaking of Davidson’s father, a fireman who died on 9/11.

French argues this healthy federalism protects individual liberties while allowing public policy to be shaped more by state and local governments than a “one size fits all” approach that may work in a utopia, but not in America. He contrasts Arizona and California’s approach to use of state resources with regard to immigration enforcement and argues that each were responses to what they thought best and should have been equally upheld under healthy federalism. He similarly cites state-based universal health care proposals as opposed to a nationalized system.

In the end, what French calls for is courage to engage what he considers the more critical culture war of the age–not between left and right, but between decency and indecency. He believes there is a need for a better political class, one committed to Micah 6:8 virtues of justice, mercy, and humility before God.

I find myself both affirming much of this analysis and questioning parts. I agree with his analysis of our divides. I had not thought deeply about secession, but having seen more and more commentary from others, it seems possible. Yet I wonder. Many states are more purple than red or blue. My state of Ohio is like that. What happens to the element not in power, though demographically significant, in this scenario? Or what happens when a state like ours “flips.” All in all, I am more fearful of civil disorder within many of our states and growth of militia and vigilante actions. I think there is much in his proposals of a tolerant federalism in our pluralistic society, but how this works to protect individual liberties seems to be the challenge. While some states provide for universal health care, what about those who don’t, when access varies along economic, racial, or even partisan lines? Finally, I wonder from where we get a better political class committed to justice, mercy, and humility?

I agree with French that we need such a political class and recovery of the kind of federalist toleration and First Amendment-affirming political discourse for which he advocates. French has been courageous in using his own voice to advocate for a better America, resulting in vicious criticisms, and threats against his family. The critical question is whether enough others will join him and those of his like to make a difference.

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Disclosure of Material (and Personal) Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the author, who served as a wise advisor during a campus religious freedom issue with which I was involved in 2005. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Holy Disunity

Holy Disunity

Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save UsLayton E. Williams. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that difference ought be viewed as gift rather than problem, that difference, and even disunity, as messy as it is in the church, can be a source of growth.

Within the Christian community, the existence of difference, disunity, and division is viewed as problematic. These seem to betray the oneness, the unity of the body of Christ of which scripture speaks. Layton Williams makes the argument that difference, disagreement, and sometimes even division, is a gift. She roots her argument in the Trinity where three distinct persons exist as one being. She argues that we do not create unity but that we are one, and this is a unity that does not obliterate difference but treats it as a gift.

Williams observes that often our strategy is to suppress difference and the undesirable in the various forms it takes, which she unpacks chapter by chapter: doubt, argument, tension, separation, vulnerability, trouble, protest, hunger, limitations, failure, and uncertainty. Often, our posture is to try to act as if these things don’t exist, or address them with over-simplistic solutions, or to normalize a certain position to the exclusion of others. Worse yet, we often marginalize, demonize, and dispel those who persist in honestly differing. By the same token, sometimes we sacrifice deeply held convictions and perspectives to “keep the peace.”

Instead, she contends:

We don’t have to fear difference. Difference–our own and others’–is how we know who we are. It’s how we distinguish ourselves. Our own unique place in this universe and the experiences and qualities that define us allow us to interpret the world around us and make our own particular mark on it. The world is the way it is–different from how it might otherwise have been–because of us. It’s also different because of others. The ways that others are different from us, their unique experiences and qualifications, expose us to new ways to understand the world.

Each of her chapters explore how the various facets of difference save us. Each includes a reading of a biblical text that develops her position. In the chapter on tension, she contends for the hard work of wrestling with tension with a discussion of Jacob’s night of wrestling with God in human form, emerging both blessed with a new name, and limping. Difference often means walking into hard things that both leave their marks on our lives and lead to growth and greater self-understanding.

There is an important autobiographical element running through the narrative that makes Williams wrestling with and embrace of difference significant. Williams self-identifies as LGBTQ, and with other “out” LGBTQ Christians. Her own perspective of the gift and “holiness” of difference emerges from her own experience of growing up in a home, and a church in the South where she both experienced deep love, and yet also deep pain as neither could fully embrace her LGBTQ identification. In a chapter on “the gift of separation” she writes movingly about what this has meant for her and her mother:

It isn’t that I don’t wish, deeply, that my mother and I could be equally at peace in the same church. It’s that I know that it takes at least as much love and commitment to look in the face of one of the people you care most about in this world, and to know that at this time you cannot be theologically reconciled, and to let them go to pursue faith in a way that doesn’t prevent you from doing the same, hoping all the while that your paths might one day come together. For all the ways we disagree, my mother and I have both done that for each other.

I was impressed with the perspective that allowed for the possibility of disagreement and even separation, whether of individuals or church bodies, while also allowing for the possibility of continued love and charity toward one another. It is a perspective that refuses to diminish or disrespect the theological commitments of either, without minimizing the disagreement, or allowing the disagreement to degenerate into rejection of, vitriol toward, demonizing of, or hatred of the other. This note is exceedingly rare and welcome in what has often been a hurtful area of contention within the contemporary church.

The question I might pose would be how far would the author extend her argument about difference within the church? How would she have responded to the differences in the church in the United States around the issue of slavery? How would she respond to an embrace by the church of a nationalism that diminishes the value and worth of other human beings and obligations as Christians to them, as occurred in Nazi Germany? Is difference always a gift? And if not, by what criteria ought such difference be deemed unacceptable; not a gift but a matter for repentance and re-formation?

At the same time, I found much that resonated deeply. Allowing room for doubt and dispelling the false god of certainty has been a vital part of ministry among university researchers. Getting further on in life, I recognize the gifts of limitations and failure. When people can be more vulnerable in a bar than among the people of God, this challenges the church with the question of what we must become to be places where people can truly disclose themselves. As a cis-gender heterosexually oriented male who might identify more closely with the theological commitments of the author’s mother, it was illuminating and important for me to listen to and sit with this LGBTQ woman’s journey and to see the church through her eyes. I needed to read of her fears and hopes, and to be challenged with the call to love across our real differences, and to believe with the author that even in the mess of the moment, “[w]e can trust that God is at work.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Scandal of the Church in America: Part Two

claude_vignon_-_the_lament_of_saint_peter

Claude Vignon, Lament of St. Peter CC BY-SA 3.0

Yesterday I made the contention that the scandal of the Church in America is that it is deeply divided within itself, that we have deeply rent the body of Christ, and that these divisions reflect the divisions in our country rather than the unity of people across our differences in Christ.

So what can and must be done?

I am not proposing that we all just try to gather in some kind of circle around a campfire, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya.”

First of all, I believe we must awaken. I wonder whether most of us are all that disturbed that the Church in America is divided within itself and that we often include fellow believers in “the enemies” we are fighting and attacking (even when we’ve been told that our warfare is not to be against flesh and blood). I wonder if we are caught up so much with the urgency and the grievances of our particular tribe of Christians, and those with whom we have made common cause that we are woozy like boxers who have been punching each other too long.

Second, I believe we need to lament our sad state. We may not have a clue how we can mend the wounds between us. That tells us how desperate things are. It acknowledges that we need an intervention from on high. Lamenting takes us into a place where we realize our desperate need for God, and that to go on in the way we have is increasingly intolerable.

Third, as we begin to grasp our own contribution to the deep divisions that exist among believers, and the ways we have wronged in word, thought, and deed, in personal acts and unjust structures, we need to repent. Repenting is to call our own sins for what they are, to acknowledge them to God, and the wronged person as wrong, to come to terms with the real hurt and harm we have caused, and to acknowledge our intent, with God’s help to live differently and to determine what that difference will look like. Often we need to do this with the offended.

Repenting is hard, particularly when we think the other might have more to repent of than do we. Often the others think it the other way around. The question sometimes is simply, who will end the rounds of accusations and begin the process of repentance and restoration?

Fourth, we can begin to engage with our fellow believers across our differences and often at this point, what is most needed is simply to attend.  To attend is to listen to understand rather than to refute. Can we listen well enough that we can repeat what is said in a way that the other recognizes that we understood them? We may have to ask ourselves beforehand whether we are truly open to such dangerous listening, because it may open us to different ways of seeing things.

Fifth is that I believe there is a necessity at times to contend. We cannot start here, I think, because I think so many of the things we would contend for are things in which we are deeply invested. The process of awakening, lamenting, repenting, and listening, may help us discern where we are healthily and unhealthily invested, enabling us to advocate for the right reasons, as well as with the right demeanor. But there are things where we really do disagree. The question is whether we will ever seek to come to a meeting of the minds, or at least to identify what we can agree upon and work from that. So often, differing parties only contend in their books and talks directed toward those who agree with them.

Sixth, this may lead us to amend our ways toward each other and toward how we address each others concerns.

I dream of several changes that might flow out of this:

  • I hope this would lead our churches into a similar process of listening deeply to God, the Holy Scriptures, and one another, more intensely than to the political echo chambers that form many of our views.
  • I would hope public Christian leaders would sit down with those who differ greatly to practice these steps and model them for others. Imagine if Franklin Graham, from Samaritan’s Purse, and Jim Wallis from Sojourners met each other as believers and modeled this effort toward coming to a common mind and communion of heart.
  • I dream of the day when Christians, instead of aligning with one political party or another, would line up together to advocate for public policies that reflect the whole of the counsels of the Bible and challenge both parties to end the either-or approaches that characterize so much of our politics that set our people against each other.

As I wrote yesterday, I am convinced that if we do not work at composing and reconciling our differences in the American Church, we have little right or hope of expecting our American politicians to do it. I believe this is urgent for several reasons:

  • Christ is grieved and not glorified by how we have torn asunder his Body.
  • Our divisions sow seeds of doubt about the power of our gospel.
  • Our children are abandoning many of our churches because of our behavior around these divisions.
  • If we allow our divisions across race, gender, economics, and politics to continue, we will only aid and abet the inflaming of differences that could lead to a very scary future, and not one from powers outside our country.

Where am I beginning? I’ve decided that from now through Lent I am not going to post political posts or comments in social media in order to work on the six steps above in my own life. I’ve become increasingly aware of my own participation in the divisions about which I’ve written. I’m also going to look for at least a few fellow believers with views different from mine who would be open to practice this with me (anyone interested?).

Do me a favor, would you? If you think these posts on target, pass them along to church leaders you know, locally or nationally. I don’t want to see our generation repeat the error of church leaders in the pre-Civil War era. I hope instead they will say, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”