Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Politics of Division

Like most of you, we’re in the middle of an election cycle here in North Carolina, and that means political campaigns, lots of them. And, unfortunately, that also means lots of television commercials for candidates – another good reason to turn off the TV!

I’ve seen a lot of campaign commercials over my 57 plus years, and I don’t mean to suggest that the so-called “negative ads” are anything new; they’re not. But something new has been dropped into the mix this year that I find troubling. It is the use of the “politics of division” to attempt to set one group of Americans over against another. There is a well-rehearsed litany of liabilities currently facing our country – the woeful economic picture, the credit and housing crises, the war in Iraq, the price of gas at the pump, the price of food at the grocery, the escalating costs of health care – and then the candidate comes on promising in vague and vacuous language that if s/he is elected, they will “fix” all this because they will be your (president, governor, senator, congressman, etc.) not theirs. And there it is: the politics of division. Note: you’re never told who “they” are, just that you’re not “them.” And, of course, the subtle and implicit subtext of these ads is that “they” have “yours,” and that if you elect me I’ll get “yours” back from “them” and give it to you so that it won’t be “theirs” anymore. Another example of the same thing is the candidate’s adoption of the political holy grail of the “middle class.” Every candidate, it seems, sees himself/herself as the champion of the ‘middle class” even though no one seems to know what it is or how to define it. But that doesn’t matter to the politics of division; matter of fact, it works to its advantage. You see, because everybody thinks s/he is “middle class,” it makes it easier for a candidate to set one group against another (“us” against “them”) so as to form a voter block.

Even more disturbing is that the primary tool for the politics of division is our growing ethnic diversity in this country – multiculturalism. I think it was the early 90’s that I first heard the term “multiculturalism,” and it made me uneasy then, though I wasn’t quite sure why. I wrote a “pastor’s article” for a church newsletter and titled it “Adjectival Americanism.” I made the point that the demise of the old Soviet Union (which had taken place just a year or so earlier) should have taught us some lessons. Turns out the Soviet Union was not really a “union” at all. It was a brutal, oppressive sham of a “union” in which very different and diverse ethnic peoples were compelled to form a “union” by means of Soviet muscle and missiles. But when the missiles were removed the “union” evaporated because it never existed to begin with. I went on to point out, conversely, that this was the genius of the “American Experiment.” Variously described as a “melting pot” or “mosaic,” the idea is that nobody cares where you came from before you got here; once you’re here, you’re an “American.” That’s why I’ve never liked what I call “Adjectival Americanism” – putting an adjective (or hyphen) in front of the noun “American” (African-American, Hispanic-American, Arab-American, Jewish-American, Japanese-American, etc.). I find this disturbing and divisive in that rather than emphasizing what unites us, it emphasizes what divides us. Well, that was the warning I sounded back in the early 90’s. It was not well-received then; it probably won’t be now.

Let me make clear that I have no disagreement or reservation about anyone taking appropriate pride in his/her ethnic heritage. If I’m anywhere near your town when it celebrates its Greek heritage with a “Greek festival,” I’ll be there, and I’m not even Greek! But as a Christian, all kinds of things about this phenomenon trouble me. For example, Paul’s whole point about the unity of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians turns on the fact that our diversity is always to be understood as functional not formal. Shift diversity from functional to formal and unity evaporates and diversity gets divisive.

I am also troubled, as it relates to the church, by the deeper, underlying principle at work in this kind of “politics of division.” Even in congregations where there is ethnic homogeneity, the politics of division is too often still at work in the form of “special interest groups.” Rather than looking to the unity of the Body of Christ and the total mission and agenda of the church, increasingly the church devolves into a collection of special interest groups only interested in what they’re interested in and not interested in what you’re interested in – music special interest groups; youth special interest groups; senior adult special interest groups; and a whole array of “spiritual elitist special interest groups” who think that if you’re not “into” what they’re “into,” you’re just not “spiritual.” Politics of division. Somebody read 1 Corinthians; for God's sake, somebody read 1 Corinthians!

What we need in the church is not a “politics of division” but a “theology of unity.” The pattern is already there in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Christians are not tri-theists. We don’t believe in three gods. We’re Trinitarians. We believe in the oneness of a God Who is nonetheless so mysteriously diverse and wondrously singular that the deeper you move into His reality the more complex He becomes: Father, Son, Spirit – Trinity. This is the diversity to which the church aspires. And in Jesus’ final prayer for the disciples, then and now, he prayed that we might embrace it and live in it: “That (they) all might be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also might be in us, that the world might believe that you sent me. And the glory which you gave me I have given them, that they might be one even as we are one; I in them and You in me, that they might attain the oneness, so that the world might know that you have sent me and have loved them just as you loved me” (John 17:21-23, my translation).


Norman said...

To have a theology of unity rather than a politic of division requires in our "multicultural" reality a fairly broad theology. That is the theology of the Evangelical Manifesto unveiled last week.
It is as broad as possible, to incorporate as many as possible who would claim faith in Christ and a commitment to a theological understanding that says we are to tell others the good news that Jesus saves. In response to this broad, inclusive call to civility and call to define evangelicals theologically and not politically, Southern Seminary President Al Mohler says he cannot sign it because it is not narrow enough.
I'm late to the Baptist life, not finding this community until i was age 20. But from the beginning I was always amazed at how broad it is, how inclusive, how open to all ethnicities and how beautiful in its embrace. Maybe I was just naive but the politics of division seems new to me; new in the scope of history anyway. It's nasty in the national political scene and it is harmful to the body of Christ when practiced in the family. Honestly, I sense a change in the air, though. And my hope springs eternal that God has great things in store for Baptists.

Unknown said...

It is the nature of politicians to be dividers. Each has to show that they alone have the answers to the future of our nation. "Vote for me and I will fix this country! The other guy can't!" So much rhetoric it makes me ill.

I ran across this website a few months ago. ( While I don't believe everything on it, I read it all and I am often surprised when people around me make comments about things happening in the news and politics that relate directly to what John has said on the website. While he doesn't go into great detail about what happens, it sounds as though the Apocalypse has occurred somewhere around 2015. Hopefully the people of the Kingdom of God will be gone by this time.

Like I said, I don't believe everything on it or whether this guy is a wacko, but I'm stocking up on bicycle tires and tubes, just in case! It is my hope I won't need them.

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Hi Norman, thanks for your comments. Sorry to have been so long responding. I was leading my annual study pilgrimage to Israel and Egypt. Just got in last night and still recovering from jet lag.

I believe you may have mistaken my meaning (which probably means I didn't communicate clearly enough). I was not calling for a "theological unity" but for a "theology of unity," that is, a unity built and based on what God wants for the church rather than on what we want the church to do for us (consumerism, special interest groups, etc.). Theological unity (Can Baptists ever have a theological "unity"?) is not required in order to have a "theology of unity." That is, I believe, Paul's precise point in his remonstrations to the divisive Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians.

Thanks again,