Heathens and Heretics?

Note: This is a synchroblog in which several people contribute their thoughts on the same topic. This time the topic is unity, how the church can foster unity among its various factions and our divided nation. At the end of this post is a list of links to the other writers’ contributions. 

At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, history hints that for over two millennia the church has aggressively ignored Christ’s prayer for unity among his followers.

We have overplayed the differences between believers and non-believers, at times referring to the unbelieving as heathen. But we have also splintered ourselves into tens of thousands of denominations or sects, each tenaciously holding on to their particular version of “truth.” The members of each sect, of course, believe themselves to be more righteous and correct than the others. Those who differ with the prescribed narrow view, are conveniently regarded as heretics.

American churches have also entered today’s supercharged political environment, splitting believers into democrats and republicans, while of course, claiming the higher ground in each camp.

Sadly, Christian unity has been a massive failure. Why? The institutions and structures of the church became yet another framework to proclaim our supremacy over others and conduit for power and influence. In other words, they become factions.

It’s not just Christianity. When governments are weak, or they ignore the people in their jurisdiction, religions, often the most radical misrepresentations of them, become the center of power. On the other extreme, when religion and government attempt a merger or a theocracy, they can persecute or even execute the “heretics.” One religion can even justify taking up arms against another, e.g., the crusades, or one sect fights another, e.g., Sunni and Shia or protestant and catholic.

Where does all of this come from? It’s deep. Human kind is a dichotomy of the divine, being created in the image of God, and the depraved, owning a proclivity to sin. So, what is at this core of this sin thing? Rebellion? Falling short? Pride? Is it the desire for self-superiority? Me over others, over God?

We all desire to be right. (That sounds good.) To be the most right. (Hmmm.) To be “righter” than everyone else. (Approaching the danger zone.) Then we get to feel great about ourselves, establish those who differ as “the other”, the sadly mistaken, the heathen, the heretic, the enemy. (Red warning lights are flashing!) We can then carve up humanity with me and my small band of righteous cohorts on top of the heap. Other folks are well…dangerous!

So, how can we move toward unity?  It begins with understanding and remembering our command to love, refusing to think of people in terms of groups and stereotypes, and getting to know them as individuals. Here are some random ideas:

  • Do not fall into our tribalistic, two-party political system. It seems like each side might have a few good ideas and few bad ones, while being equally guilty of vilifying the other side for personal gain. The chances of each party being too extreme on its own are pretty decent.
  • Do not focus on the differences between us, but the similarities. Unbelievers have the same types of life issues we do. Members of other denominations are not so different. Our group is not as distinctive as we would like to think. Even members of other religions share our humanity and common desires for safety and prosperity for our families. Unless I am hugely mistaken, our response toward everyone on the list ought to be the same, to love them.
  • Watch Fox News and MSNBC. It will seem like they are reporting from alternate universes, but we need to learn more about that other universe, because they are not all stupid heretics or godless heathen. Having a personal opinion is great, but chances are, it probably needs to be a little more nuanced.
  • Have lunch with a liberal, or a conservative, or a muslin, or a catholic, or a protestant, or an evangelical. We can’t love people we don’t know, and we can’t continue to harbor prejudice once we move beyond referring to people as groups and get to know them as individuals.

Here is the list of other writers and authors who contributed to this month’s Synchroblog.

About Glenn

Glenn Hager is a blogger, former newspaper columnist, and author of two books, An Irreligious Faith and Free Range Faith.
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