Common Ground

The End of Common Ground?

I recently heard someone say of the present political scene that congress is not split on issues, but is split between those willing and those unwilling to compromise. She said that the argument is not over policy, but over whether or not there is or ought to be any common ground between the two sides.

We live in an era of the polemic. In our present political crisis compromise has been replaced with consistency. Consistency is not bad, but it does have a cost – gridlock in Washington.

A similar gridlock has occurred in religious debates in the public square.  No longer is a vague atheism any good; one must follow through in ethics, politics, economics and in rewriting of history. All these spheres of life must be stripped of their religious underpinnings; they must be secularized.  The Christian has, perhaps, moved away from the secular. Some argue that the secular is not even a valid concept. To be secular is to assume a neutral space between the two positions. Radical orthodoxy, for example, claims that there is no such space, that everything is inherently religious.

What causes such gridlock? It appears to me that when two people disagree it is often not the argument itself that causes the conflict, but a failure to see the other point of view. This is usually deemed to be a failure in itself – one person has failed to understand. However, there are times when a conflict flares when even the most generous reading of the other point of view yields no understanding.

For example, when a Christian speaks about what she believes an objector can be baffled by how a seemingly normal person could come to believe such hocus pocus. Even worse is the appearance that the believer thinks she is right. Then the question becomes: how can someone who is so wrong be so certain that she is right? At this point in the argument it appears that any common ground is impossible.

More widely speaking, I think that all this has led to a great anxiety – that we cannot unite as a culture. And if we cannot unite we feel we may at any moment turn to arms. For if it becomes impossible to persuade another person of one’s point of view, that point of view may just have to be imposed. And this anxiety is not helped by the feeling that any restraint on imposing one’s ideas on another has been eroded. Much of the political debate has, as its subtext, the concern over government overreach, that constitutions can be overridden, freedoms removed.

In religious debate, Christians are often portrayed as people who want to impose their God on other people. But the same is true from the Christian perspective. We watch as public expressions of faith are removed or restricted in the name of reducing offense to those who do not share our commitments. This leads to the feeling that give and take is a thing of the past, that there is less commitment to toleration of another’s point of view.

Perhaps this public polemic is not as bad as the previous era of murky compromise when we thought all politicians and religions where the same. The culture embraced unclarity and, to some extent, a peace was bought. The price was not conflict, but inconsistency. Atheists were nicer; they sometimes said things like, “I wish I could believe like you; I just don’t have the faith.” Christians were a little less dug in; there was a little more doubt about their exclusive claims. But no one said what they meant; they were inconsistent to the point of vagueness. In order to be accepted Christians agreed to talk less about sin and hell and atheists agreed to be respectful of the good teacher, Jesus. But that era is over. Now atheists call Jesus evil and Christians are up front about the wages of sin.

Great restraint is required in order to avoid deepening conflict and division. But restraint is a uniquely Christian concern. Restraint is shown by those whose worldview entails restraint. The Christian martyrs and those who are persecuted show restraint because they know the value of human life to God. Even their tormentors are to be treated with compassion. In China, where the religious can be locked up for their faith, there are stories of those who appear to love their guards. One such girl was locked up and continued to preach the gospel to her jailers despite beatings and extended sentences. They released her. The point is not that she should have loved her guards and she should have preached the good news about Jesus to them. The point is that only the Christian worldview would provide the resources for loving her guards. What other worldview can make sense of her actions?

It might be suggested that although, in principle, the Christian has such resources, in practice, however, Christians are often far meaner, more vicious in attempting to get their way. In part, the answer might be that when a Christian “gets his way,” even if he has been kind in doing so, it will not feel so good for the one who does not get his way. This would be the case, for example, if the Christian view of a fetus was to win over legislation. What if abortion was banned in the US? Now, although, for a pro-choice person, that might feel like an imposition, it is nonetheless not inconsistent with the worldview from which the policy originates.

On the other hand, there are many examples when Christians have run roughshod over other people in order to get their way. History, as we know, is littered with examples of Christians who seem to ignore the teachings to love and just lash out (it should be pointed out that I don’t consider all conflict as inconsistent the the Christian position since I think governments of countries are justified in using force under certain conditions. Rather I have in mind particular Christians lashing out in force or in rhetoric when their backs are against the wall). However, it is the Christian point of view that tells them this is out of order. In other words, they have acted inconsistently with their professed commitments. They have compromised the Christian position regarding other people.

The solution to gridlock in religious debate is not compromise, but compassion; and it is only when a Christian refuses to compromise that she finds the resources to stand firm, remain humble and love, yes love, her objector. The very position she seeks to defend is the only position that can provide the conditions to love an enemy, remain humble and yet be fully confident in her God. She knows her own sin before she brings to light another’s; she is confident not in her own knowledge, but in God’s knowledge of all things; she loves not because of some duty or special human power, but because of God’s great love for her; she has power not because she has force, but because God dwells in her by the Holy Spirit; and she has hope that, though all may be against her, she is vindicated by the work of Christ on the cross and his resurrection  She has hope not in human vagueness, human unity, human compromise, but in God’s power to save and make a people of his own.

I must admit that the charge to love my enemies has been ignored on more than a handful of occasions by myself and my fellow believers. But let me ask this to you directly: does your worldview even entail love for the enemy? I don’t mean  do you think you should, but do your basic assumptions about reality necessarily lead to the conclusion  that you should love an enemy? 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.