Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
What does it mean to be Christian in a hyper-polarised society? I’ve been giving this question some thought this week as I reflected upon our gospel lesson for today. The fracturing of social groups, compelled by political and ideological differences, has given cause to real violence. In the past few years many countries have seen an increase in the number of hate crimes and violence against persons of various racial and ethnic groups. Tragically, many persons of colour fear for their own well-being even as they go about their daily routines.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, rigid political positions have threatened the health and well-being of our communities. We’ve witnessed in recent weeks protests in the United States demanding an end to government restrictions despite a never-ending rise in deaths each day. Even more shocking are the images of self-styled militia men entering government buildings and the recent death threats directed towards certain political leaders. Although Canadian protests may not be as extreme as those in the U.S., groups have gathered despite government directives and the dangers associated with such meetings at this time.
If the public protests weren’t troubling enough, the stance of some Christian ministers has been even more disturbing. Despite pleas from health officials, some ministers outright ignored public health guidelines and proceeded to hold worship services, often with tragic consequences for their congregations. Even now, some ministers advocate a quick return to churches, despite the remaining dangers associated with the virus.
I find this all unsettling. I find such actions to be contrary to the Gospel. What happened to sacrificial love, to our willingness to deny our wants and desires for the greater good? How do we reconcile Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us? (John 13:34) Or even more importantly, how can we say we love God if we’re unable to be obedient to Jesus’ command? Jesus is clear in today’s gospel lesson that our love of God is reflected in our obedience to his commands: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:21)
These questions have weighed heavily upon my heart over the past few months. While I am appalled by some people’s utter disregard for human life, I’ve sensed the effects of polarisation have even effected our Church. Theological and liturgical debates have increasingly become divisive, with some unable to even possibly listen to other’s perspectives. Rather, some have fortified their positions much to the peril of the good of the larger Church. At first I was drawn into these debates but grew quickly weary of them. Now I find myself largely ignoring or avoiding any sort of ecclesial or political discourse simply because I’m tired of hearing everyone talk without listening.
See the danger with ideological polarisation is that it severs our connections with one another and kills the bonds of our relationships. Rather than seek the good of another, or to truly engage in conversation with another person with the desire to better understand them, we fortify our own long-held beliefs and ignore the other. This can have deadly consequences; again, consider the deeply held racists opinions held by some persons. So engrained are their racists views that anytime they see a person of colour, they immediately assume the worst. How many more stories will we read of innocent black persons being shot down because of the colour of their skin?
Or consider our society’s idolatry of money. We are led to believe that we would be better off reopening the economy sooner than later despite the very real threat that many innocent lives will be lost, particularly among the most vulnerable and marginalised groups of our societies. (Ironically, several economists have pointed out the more dangerous consequences of re-opening too soon. The economic impact of illness and death may be too much to bear for some economies.)
There is another way, however. We could set aside our own self-interests and ask ourselves regularly whether or not our words or actions are building-up the good of all God’s people. We could embrace a life of service and offer ourselves as gift to others. We could embrace a life of sacrifice and set aside our pride and selfish desires so that all may have life and have it to the full.
That is the form of life Jesus calls his disciples to: a life of generous love and care for all. Let us not forget that Jesus invited his disciples to love one another as he loved us. How did he love us? He not only got down on his hands and knees to wash the feet of those he loved — and even the ones who would eventually betray him — he also gave of his life for the very life of the world.
While we may not be called to physically die for others, we are called to embrace the cross and to sacrifice our own wants and desires so that all may have a place at the table. Jesus doesn’t deny the difficulty of such a life, but he still invites us, his disciples, to embrace such a life.
As Christians we are reminded of this each and every time a person is baptised. Immediately after the candidate emerges from the waters of life, the person has their forehead marked with the sign of the cross. It is a tangible sign of the new life we are called to live.
The remedy to the disease of polarisation is sacrificial love. If we really love God, then we would readily embrace Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us and set aside our own self-interest. To be sure, this will not be easy and will not take place over night; but the life of the Christian disciple must be always oriented to loving all God’s people as Christ loved us.