Just recently Donald Trump decided he was a nationalist. “We’re not supposed to use that word,” he told an enthusiastic crowd in Texas, according to news site Politico. “You know what I am?” he continued. “I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.” Many commentators were horrified, linking Trump’s use of the word with white nationalist hate groups, not to mention Hitler’s Nazis.
Then there are the socialists. What was a taboo label during America’s anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s is now proudly embraced by many left-leaning groups, regardless of the historical associations with murderous regimes led by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, and contemporary abuses in China, North Korea and elsewhere.
In Australia we’re also witnessing a widening gap in politics and increased polarisation in a number of debates. Increasingly people talk past each other instead of to one another. The nation’s recent prime ministerial switcheroo revealed fractures in the Liberal Party and were a dispiriting echo of Labor’s leadership shenanigans just a few years back. Voters were left exasperated. I remember seeing an only half-joking media poll during August’s fiasco asking Australians who they’d like as their next PM. The candidate who came out on top? Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister!
In a Lowy Institute poll released just a few months back, less than half of Australians aged 18–44 could bring themselves to agree with the statement that “democracy is better than any other kind of government”. And in a more recent study by ANU, a solid third of respondents aged 18–35 indicated that “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections” would be a “fairly good” or “very good” way to run the country. Such is the level of disillusionment with our polity.
And if you think Christianity is immune from these trends, you haven’t been paying attention. Cardinal George Pell’s matter is still before the courts—he’s the most senior Catholic leader to face criminal charges in connection with the worldwide pandemic of institutional child abuse. And according to Public Radio International, the Russian Orthodox Church has cut ties with the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy, unable to stomach the approval given to the Ukrainian Church’s moves towards autonomy. That’s a major schism in the world’s second-largest Christian organisation by membership.
"It's like no-one's trying to actually listen anymore. Each communiqué from one side only serves to reinforce the prejudice of the other."
Then we, in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, have our own crises of leadership, confidence and communication. Respected elders of our movement, William Johnsson and George Knight, have respectively called for those who allowed the compliance committees matter to come to Annual Council to be censured, and described the General Conference leadership as “joining the beast [of Revelation 13] in its eschatological crusade, with the denomination’s president leading the charge.” Knight’s immoderate language, published in Spectrum, produced hearty amens from the progressive corner, while the conservative website, Fulcrum, lobbed its own grenade over the barricades, characterising his concerns over GC heavyhandedness as “Wilson Derangement Syndrome”. Hilarious perhaps, but unhelpful.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” wrote poet William Yeats in 1919. A century later his grim foreboding is awfully resonant. Postmodernism has brought with it the fracturing of shared language and meaning. Statements of compassion are derided as woolly-minded liberal snivelling. Culturally “tone deaf” communication is met with facepalming dismissal or screaming outrage. It’s like no-one’s trying to actually listen anymore. Each communiqué from one side only serves to reinforce the prejudice of the other.
Strangely, as our world moves towards pluralism and diversity, too many of us retreat into tribalism: our own language and symbols; our own political, social and theological opinions and champions; our own websites, films, music and books produced by canny niche marketers. But our hobbit holes are not the best platform from which to share the gospel with the world! If we can’t even handle the slightly divergent opinions of our fellow Adventists, how will we ever communicate meaningfully with the unsaved?
What do we need?
Not to the GC necessarily, but to Jesus. He said tough things like “love your enemies”—that’s a message we need right now. Jesus modelled servant leadership and instructed His disciples to do the same. That’s the example our leaders need right now—from the General Conference to the local church. We need to reform both our structures and our organisational culture to ensure that they reflect and reinforce a commitment to servanthood.
People express themselves poorly sometimes. It’s because they’re human. The words they choose may reflect the circles they move in; they may not realise that those same words are red flags among the circles you move in. And an angry response will most likely produce more vehemence, not more clarity. So look for the deeper meaning beyond the words. Identify the underlying fears and the passions and speak to those. Imagine the best about the person, not the worst. Even when the words and tone are clearly aggressive, we have a choice: we can use the verbal bricks thrown at us by our enemies to either build a wall between us, or a house for us to live in together.
A fair fight
There comes a time when we need to speak out strongly to defend a view, a principle or a person. That’s OK. But make criticisms specific and evidence-based; don’t make sweeping generalisations. If the offence is private, deal with it privately as per the framework laid out in Matthew 18:15–17. Recognise that people on different sides of a debate often go to their own sources, experts and statistics for ammunition. Consider a wide range of evidence before you back yourself into a corner—you might learn something! And if you’re still clearly in the right, tear down arguments, not people.
Jesus lifted up
Focus on making the main thing the main thing. What are the themes Jesus emphasised in His ministry? Which people did He consider worth defending? What offences drew His ire? What arguments did He consider worthy of participating in? And what did He do to ensure He had His priorities and heart right before entering the fray?
I observed one of those devotional “object lessons” recently. About 12 people were asked to stand in a circle and each hold a piece of string that was tied to a rough wooden cross made of sticks, the upright piece being quite tall. As the facilitator lifted the cross higher and higher, the strings grew tight and pulled the people toward the centre of the circle—closer to the foot of the cross and closer to one another. It was a powerful picture of what happens when we are connected to Jesus and uphold Him as our Saviour and Answer—“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Focusing on Jesus, we might not even realise at first that every step towards Him brings us closer to our brother, our sister, our enemy. Almost close enough to reach out and join hands.