Divided society mirrors divided churches

Recently a friend gave me a sheet with similar quotes from 12 different religions. The Biblical quote from Matthew 7:12 proclaims, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Then the paper printed something very similar to this “golden rule” found in the sacred writings of other world religions.

Such commonality underscores importance of this fundamental rule of graciousness. It tries to suggest that all faiths have so much in common. Alas, I fear that’s not true!

Some of our world’s most bitter battles have been fought over religious principles. Even today, lives are being snuffed out in wars waged to “honor” one’s God. More unfortunate is the reality that within our Christian “umbrella,” there’s growing alienation across lines of theological thought, Biblical interpretations, and “right ways” to live one’s faith.

That ugly fragmentation in America’s religions is mirrored in America’s sharply divided political lines. Political polarization paralyzes our nation’s governing processes. Animosities across these boundaries seem to grow every day.

Thus I ask if there’s a causal relationship between our growing religious divide and the mushrooming antagonism between Republicans and Democrats. My answer: I fear the growing theological disunity among Christ’s followers contributes significantly to the rancor in our disruptive political process.

I recall, some 50 years ago, the birth of a theological movement within my denomination which altered the character of holy discourse on every aspect of Biblical understanding and Christian responsibility. Adherents believed they were so right that they needed to impose their views on others. Discussion partners became theological adversaries. Fellow workers in Christian endeavors became competitors.

I observe similar cancerous hostility growing in other denominations — a spiritual disconnect among individuals within denominations. Such disconnect often is found even in individual congregations.

I believe all this was a precursor to today’s disruptive political divide.

It’s not important to name the moment the aforementioned friction began, or the specific sources of the animus among brothers and sisters in Christ. The greater question is how and why Christ’s followers tolerate such divisive disposition that surely grieves the Christ whose name we bear.

Ironically, concurrent with growing animosities at some levels, there’s been an inspiring growth of respect and collegiality at upper levels — among major Christian denominations. An example of such collegiality is seen in central Ohio in the inspiring ways that our area’s three theological schools — Pontifical College Josephenum (Catholic), Methodist Theological School, and Trinity Lutheran Seminary — work together in many significant ways.

Church historians tell us the church has had its greatest spiritual strength and integrity when it’s been oppressed — and not when it’s the oppressor. Likewise, our faith is most vital — not when it’s imposing its views on others and compelling others to live by its rules. One’s personal faith should be so secure that the person can live with and accept people with different experiences of Christ and varying understandings of the Bible.

Matthew 15:21-28 has a compelling story calling us to graciousness toward those who see religious matters differently. There was an occasion when the people of a Samaritan village rejected Jesus. His disciples wanted to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them.” Jesus, instead, quickly rebuked them.

The lesson is clear. Our faith is not made legitimate by imposing it on others. Our faith should have an integrity that means one does not have to condemn or undermine other Christians who see things differently, who find different truths in the Bible.

We’re not asked to compel uniformity on other followers of Jesus. Our obedience to Christ is to be manifest in our faithfulness to Christ — and his graciousness — in how we live out our lives.

If we’re looking for some broad agreement in matters of faith, it may best be found in unity of respect for every life that’s been touched by Christ.

By William McCartney

Your Pastor Speaks

William McCartney is a retired minister and professor at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.