Welcoming Dangerous Diversity in the Security of the Gospel

In what follows, I want to make what I realize will be to some a provocative argument. One of the greatest challenges in our world, both culturally and politically, is what to do with pluralism. We live in an age where people with different cultures and religions and belief systems rub elbows more than ever before. All of us are forced to wrestle with this question: in such a world, how do we live together in peace?

I want to propose that, contrary to what most people might think, the single best resource for life in such a world is the Christian gospel.

If that surprises you, please keep reading. I’m intentionally putting it provocatively. That said, in this and a few following posts I want to explore some of the reasons our society is becoming increasingly less tolerant of diversity and how Christianity uniquely responds to these challenges. First up: how the Christian hope should destroy the divisive power of our fear.

A Corrosive, Entirely Rational Fear
One of the key divisive forces in our society is fear. In the abstract such a statement approaches the level of a truism, however, so we need to dig down into what fear means.

Human beings are afraid of other human beings for rational reasons. Another human being represents a being with agency and power. They can make choices that we cannot control, and the choices they make can thwart our interests or even hurt or kill us. On some level, every human interaction must overcome the unspoken reality that at any moment our conversation partner might try to bash in our heads.

The solution for humanity to overcome this fear is tribalism. We enable relationships with certain other people by forging bonds of trust that make them less of a threat. By developing a shared sense of identity, we increasingly come to feel like, whatever heads they will be bashing in, it won’t be ours. Of course, that solution only works until we interact with those across tribal lines. When confronted by an outsider, we are left with two possible scenarios. In some cases the other has so little power in relationship to us or our tribe that we feel unconcerned. This is the pseudo-benevolence of the enfranchised majority; it works, and might even allow a shadow of diversity, but it only functions when the second group is thoroughly disenfranchised. As soon as they become capable of wielding any meaningful amount of power, the second scenario arises: we are forced to confront the reality that this other person is a threat, and they view us the same way. 

The crucial thing to realize is that this fear is, again, rational, inasmuch as both groups can find good reasons to justify it to themselves. Let me try to offer an example. I have had the opportunity to watch firsthand, within the context of relationship, debates between evangelical Christians and members of the LGBTQ community over societal views of sexuality. On the one hand, those in the gay community feel that evangelicals want to strip them of their rights and pursue policies of active persecution. This is a reasonable fear – they were persecuted by socially conservative groups in very recent memory, evangelicals certainly have enormous political influence (as the current administration shows), and there are plenty of evangelical figures to quote expressing desires to do things like outlaw sodomy. On the other hand, those in the evangelical community feel that the LGBTQ community wants to strip them of their rights and pursue policies of active persecution as well. This is also a reasonable fear – historic Christian views on sex are viewed in modern discourse through increasingly hostile lenses, the LGBTQ community have enormous cultural influence (just watch the Oscars or read a major newspaper), and there are plenty of news stories to clip out showing how evangelicals will be attacked legally and culturally for their beliefs. The key thing to recognize is that both communities tell narratives that center on fear of persecution by the other, and while different people might find one narrative more compelling than the other, there is ample evidence to convince both sides that they are correct.

Before we discuss Christianity’s answer, I want to point out the imperfect solution in our society. The idea of “liberalism”, not in the sense of modern progressivism, but in the sense that we are a liberal democracy, was historically the way we sought to overcome our diversity through enforced tolerance. We create a structure with checks and balances so that enemy tribes might scrabble against each other, each pushing in its own direction while keeping the society in aggregate intact. We always recognized that such a structure was tenuous, but for a long time being American meant believing it would work.

This idea is coming under increasing fire, and again, with good reason. A significant part of why liberalism worked was because, for much of our history, one set of cultural norms and values was so much more powerful than most of its competitors that nobody could compete. While there were two partisan versions of this dominant narrative, what they had in common dwarfed their differences. The issue is that, as other voices and perspectives have been empowered by elements of that dominant narrative, cracks are beginning to show. Much of the broadly liberal-mindedness of American society rested on the fact that those with significantly different beliefs scraped by in the margins. Now that they are closer to the center – which is in itself something I would celebrate as a good thing – our talk of tolerance is increasingly shown to be a product of privileged consensus.

As is pointed out by voices pushing back against the liberal impulse, ideas have consequences. Conversations that seemed harmless, especially when all the participants were of the same class and race and system of values, are shown to be dangerous and harmful when their impact on other groups are considered. Beliefs hurt people. Wrong beliefs create destructive societies. Yet what is left is simply an impasse. The more aware we become of the destructive power of wrong opinions, the more we are tempted to use our power to destroy those we see as in the wrong. Over time, as they realize this threat, they will respond in kind. The logic of fear will continue.  

The Christian Response
If open-minded tolerance is really just a delusion for the privileged, how on earth can we move forward? The growing empowerment of diverse groups in our society will of necessity result in a world where fear rules – traditionally empowered groups are terrified of the new power of the upstarts, and the new groups are terrified of the entrenched power of the establishment. Is the only option to seek the other’s destruction or subjugation?

In some ways, I cannot answer that question for society as a whole. Perhaps societal liberalism is a wish-dream, although we can perhaps appreciate the usefulness of its delusions when confronted by the inevitably-totalitarian alternatives. What I want to propose, though, is that one of the ways the Christian gospel should shape those who believe it is toward a different sort of tolerance within diversity that is immune to this logic of fear.

Consider the way Jesus often weaves together the following realities: 1) you will often be less powerful and disenfranchised in society; 2) those groups will actively use their power to harm you; 3) nonetheless, your response is to be love. What makes this logic so remarkable is how clear-eyed it is. The Christian would come to Jesus and say, “Lord, look at this other group! They are powerful, they are opposed to us, and they might use their power to do us harm!” If Jesus were an advocate of enlightenment liberalism, He might respond with an “I’m sure it’s fine. Diversity only makes us stronger, and besides, what we share in common is far greater than what separates us.” Instead, he assures us of the opposite: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18-20) Nonetheless, He says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

Scripture regularly commands us as Christians to be unafraid (Matthew 6:25-34, Philippians 4:6-7, 2 Timothy 1:7). This is an imperative we must seek to obey; it is also a natural outworking of the Christian hope. If the gospel is true, we are ultimately secure. The story ends with the victory of Jesus and the resurrection and restoration of all things. More than that, thanks to union with Christ, that eschatological security spills backward through time to the present. Right now, our citizenship is in heaven, our reigning king is Jesus, and no force in this world could separate us from the defining power of God’s love (Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 1:3, Romans 8:35-39).

Crucially, this admonition against fear does not rest on some belief that there is nothing in this world to be afraid of. Quite the opposite, as we said – Christianity assumes the other may well use their power to do us harm. Nonetheless, it says that our task is to love them. We are to open our arms, knowing full well it leaves us vulnerable and in a real sense expecting the knife to slide between our ribs. The only way we can do this is if we really believe the good news of God’s salvation. If God’s love and Christ’s resurrection are just spiritual allegories for having a good life, as many Christians treat them in practice, we won’t be sustained in such a robust calling. We must have a vision of reality like that of Stephen who, as he was beaten to death by stones, lifted his face to the heavens. “’Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” (Acts 7:56)

While we ought not discount the general reality of sin, part of the reason so many Christians have failed to embody this spirit of fearless love for the other is because they don’t really believe the gospel. They are looking to a future secured not by God’s sovereign grace but by their own efforts. They therefore become intolerant. Yet this intolerance is not a result of their faith, as is sometimes thought, but of a lack of faith. The more they believe the Christian hope and embrace the Christian calling, the more they must move towards those who are different, even those who are enemies, with a spirit of fearless love.

There is more to say – this is only one dimension of the “why” of Christian love in a pluralistic world. I’m planning to write another piece exploring other dimensions of this calling. That said, I want to flesh out the radical freedom that comes with embracing this idea.

As we said, there are generally two responses to our diversity. One is tribalism, forming up with our group and do everything we can to ensure we are the ones with power so that others cannot hurt us. Tribalism is appealing, but it is both insufficient socially (since it only works for us when we are the winning tribe and excuses all sorts of injustice and evil) and anti-Christian (since Scripture calls believers to renounce power in service to others rather than wielding it against them). The other is liberalism, which rests in convincing ourselves that, at least with enough education and societal engineering, the tribal divisions of our world can disappear. Liberalism is also appealing, but it is often just a mask for a different sort of tribalism and it ignores the fact that some differences are profound, and many people will abuse power to harm others.

What Christianity offers instead is the radical idea that the world is indeed divided, and people will indeed do us harm but that those facts should not have any bearing on how we treat them. Our callings to care for them, to protect their rights, to love them and to show them the mercy of Christ are a product of what Jesus has done, not something that rests in them. In such a posture we can be fearlessly welcoming even though people might seek to harm us. We can love our neighbor even though he isn’t safe.