Ben Wideman is the Campus Pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a ministry of University Mennonite Church at Penn State. He blogs regularly for www.TheMennonite.org.
Why has it become so hard to relate to our fellow Christians?
Over the last several months I’ve heard a consistent refrain from the Christians in my life who lament their inability to relate to those who also claim the Christian label. It has come up in casual conversations at the corner coffee shop with my student leaders, curious about why our student organization is so different than the others at Penn State. It has come up in planning for community events that try to bring together our diverse Christian community here in State College, but fail to attract one segment or another. It has come up in clergy gatherings where we’ve lamented that there are pastors who don’t seem to want to connect or collaborate. It came up last month when we hosted Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans for a reflection on the biblical story and last week when Jared Byas and Pete Enns were here talking about their podcast, The Bible For Normal People.
We see it in our increasingly polarized society, as our cultural, economic and political divisions continue to widen. We lament its presence in our fractured Christian traditions, with hardly any denomination safe from splintering and separation. We even see it in many family units, many of whom have lost their ability to relate to relatives who think differently than they do.
Part of me knows that we Christians must dig deeper to find common ground and empathy for those with whom we disagree or this problem will only worsen. I know that my own biases and judgments make me complicit in this increasing problem.
Perhaps we could blame a cultural shift in our churches toward doctrinal fundamentalism and the corresponding reaction and division that followed. Perhaps we could blame all the people who have committed atrocities in the name of the Church, in the name of Christianity or in the name of Jesus. Traditional Christian “values” have been used in order to defend everything from slavery to questionable political leaders (just this week news broke that a prominent Alabama state official was defending the predatory sexual behaviors of Alabama Senate candidate, Roy Moore, citing the age difference between Joseph and Mary as rationale).
This week, 3rd Way Collective was able to co-host Amber Cantorna, the child of a Focus on the Family executive who was disowned by her family after coming out as a lesbian. On the surface, Amber’s story is a tragic one, reminding us again of the divided church we occupy. Yet Amber has embraced this as an opportunity to be a bridge between the Christian context she grew up in and the one she finds herself in now. Her recent book, Refocusing My Family, emphasizes a desire to use her authentic story and her understanding of truth despite division to heal a fragmented tradition.
Perhaps at the core of our intolerance for others who profess to also be Christian is part of our ongoing search for what we know to be true and know to be real.
I find myself wondering if our Christian division and inability to find common ground is part of a necessary process toward deeper understanding. Could it be that part of joining the Spirit’s movement in our world, and striving to authentically follow the life of Jesus, brings us to moments in which we must break from others in our traditions? Perhaps in that breaking apart, something new and more refined can emerge from the pieces. My hope and prayer is that it can be so.