Overcoming Polarization -


Danish Folk Meeting, August 18, 2017

Darrell Jodock

Fragmentation, anxiety and fear, allegiance to ideologies, and socially structured differences of experience all contribute to polarization, and this polarization undermines our ability to face and deal with our problems. We need to deal, not only with polarization but also with the features that support it.

Making Some Connections

What then might the legacy of Luther and the Reformation have to offer? Allow me to consider the causes of polarizati on, in reverse order:

Economic and Racial Inequity

The last source we identified was structural. We have already given examples of how Luther worked to bridge differences––between the peasants and their landlords, and between mineworkers and their prince. An even better example of his attempts to institute structural change was his open letter to the city councils of Germany in which he recommended public education for all young men and young women.1 Prior to this, only the children of the relatively affluent had access to schooling. This was the first time universal education had ever been proposed. Not only would it allow people to read the Bible themselves, but it would equip all citizens to discern what was best for their society. Access to education had the effect of lowering one of the social barriers of his day and contributing to social justice‚Äîthe kind of social justice that lessens the structural differences that foster polarization. It leveled the playing field.

Another example was begging. Prior to Luther, the teaching of the church had been that beggars were part of the social order. Society needed beggars in order for others to give them alms, which was a religious duty. However, Luther‚Äôs thinking was not bound by the assumptions of his day. He envisioned a society without beggars and went to work devising a new plan. It entailed community chests that were overseen by highly regarded people from the various sectors of society. They would decide how to distribute the money––to beggars, to widows, to orphans, and others in need––money that came from taxes and gifts and income from monastic lands. They also provided low-interest loans to business owners and the like. This was not just a way to help the poor; it was aimed at structural change.

An observation that may appear unrelated but will connect: Recently, one of the ELCA colleges gave an honorary degree to an overseas student who had returned to his home country and accomplished significant things. In his response to receiving the degree he expressed his appreciation by saying that at that college for the first time in his life, he had been “seen.” What he had in mind was that he had not been viewed simply as a member of a social class or a member of a particular family; he had been treated as an individual with intrinsic worth.

I want to borrow his image. The gospel is all about being seen. Loving one’s neighbor is all about seeing that neighbor. Luther’s own experience of church authorities telling him to keep quiet was all about not being seen. The peasants in Luther’s day were suffering very difficult changes from a barter economy to a money economy. The Peasants Revolt was all about this struggling group not having been seen. Luther’s theology of the cross says that unless we see God through the eyes of the suffering, we do not see the God who was incarnate in Jesus. And unless we see ourselves and our neighbors through eyes of the suffering, we do not understand those around us. The fact is that we as a society have too often not “seen” the poor, persons of color, refugees, those displaced by economic changes, victims of sexual abuse, and many others. In a society that does everything it possibly can to avoid or to camouflage suffering, to avoid or camouflage poverty, and to avoid or camouflage persons of another race or ethnicity, it is sometimes startling to read Luther on the topic of suffering. “Suffering! Suffering! Cross! Cross! This and nothing else is the Christian law!”2

The very fact that Luther responded to the peasants and affirmed the justice of their concerns was a way of seeing them. Yes, he disagreed with them about naming themselves a Christian association, but he did not dismiss them. He took their concerns seriously enough to comment and seriously enough to urge the princes to negotiate and warn them that they would be knocked off their pedestals if they did not respond––if not by the peasants then by someone else that God would raise up.

Reconciliation requires a mutual seeing, a mutual understanding. Part of our calling is to overcome all those influences that get in the way of this mutual seeing. Along with this, people need to be brought together to talk, to find common ground, and to figure out together what steps can make a difference.

A few years ago Sharon Parks and three of her colleagues identified and studied 100 persons who were actively involved in their communities,3 people of differing backgrounds and from various parts of the U.S. Parks and her colleagues looked for common themes in the background and outlook of these 100 engaged folks. Some of what they found they expected. For example, the people they examined had had models to follow and they had had mentors who asked the right questions and encouraged them. But they discovered one common theme they had not anticipated. They called it a “constructive, en- larging engagement with the other.” Virtually every one of the 100 had had an experience or series of experiences where they came to see the humanity of someone on the other side of a social divide. Usually this involved sensing their humanity through their suffering. To use my terminology, their constructive, enlarging engagement with the other enabled them to see the humanity of someone they had not previously seen. And this led them to develop a significant response by organizing a program to help those they had discovered. None of this would have happened had they not crossed a social boundary and discove red the humanity of those on the other side.


I earlier identified four sources of polarization: social structural differences, ideology, anxiety and fear, and fragmentation. Let us consider the second: ideology. Ideology involves exalted claims for the authority and truth of an idea or a proposal. A Marxist ideology blames every problem on capitalism. A capitalist ideology believes a free market economy will solve every problem. And for any ideology, its claims to authority and truth often lead its adherents to try to win compliance by force. The governments of Luther’s day, both Protestant and Catholic, were so convinced that their view of state and church was correct that they used force against those who disagreed; they drowned Anabaptists or burned them at the stake or hung them up in a cage to die while the residents of the city went to and fro. Or think today about ISIS, so convinced that its view is correct that they torture and kill Muslims who do not subscribe to their claims, to say nothing of others with whom they disagree. If they, or anyone else who holds an ideology, cannot win adherents by persuasion, they will gain them by coercion––because what matters is that everyone fall into step behind the ideology.

When we consider Luther’s response to ideology, we need to start with his religious outlook. Luther objected to any attempt to create a coherent, unified, and complete set of Christian teachings. Instead of trying to fill in every blank, Luther thought, theology should admit its incompleteness. Even in revelation, he affirmed, God remains hidden. We cannot, even in Christ, comprehend the fullness of God, and we cannot see the world through God’s eyes. Our theology should stick with what has been revealed and live with unanswered questions, because, as he came to see, even in the Scriptures (in the Psalmists and in the Gospels, for example) questions are asked for which no answers are provided. Our knowledge is incomplete and always distorted by our finitude and our sinfulness. This incompleteness makes the claims of any ideology untenable–– whether it is a political ideology, a philosophical ideology, a scientific ideology, an ethical ideology, or even a religious ideology.

The implication is that we always have something to learn, and those who disagree with us may just be the ones to help us see what we have been missing.

Luther’s insistence on free grace, human freedom, the use of reason, and his objections to a theology claiming to have an answer to every question cleared the way to move past ideology and focus on the common good. His theological principles made room for deliberation about the well-being of the community. Here he prized wisdom and practical reason. Here he favored the kind of justice that was not possible when ideologies are being enforced. Education was to equip people to discern the common good. And, as he told the princes, all rulers were to serve that common good rather than their own careers. By making room for wisdom, practical reason, and deliberation, he undercut the unholy alliance of religion and ideology and of partisan politics and ideology.

Maybe it is time to retrieve the possibility that Luther’s thinking opened up the possibility that grace frees us from ideologies and frees us to chip away at the barriers that ideologies create.

Instead of ideology, Lutheran theology prioritizes the relational. Yes, ideas are important. Learning is important. But they are important in so far as they heal and reconcile, in so far as they free and equip people to serve the neighbor and the community––only insofar as they guide that serving.

Ideologies provide a false sense of safety and security. It takes grace to entice us all to risk a fresh look at the world.

Anxiety and Fear

Let us now turn to the third source of polarization: anxiety and fear. A newspaper article last fall described a survey of gun owners. It pointed out that the reason they give for owning guns has changed since the 1990s when it was primarily for hunting and target shooting. They now say their guns are for protection from other people. One of the lead authors of the study that uncovered this change said “When I look at our survey, what I see is a population that is living in fear.”4 Another fear, a fear of terrorism, is threatening to drive a wedge between Americans who are Muslim and those who are not. It is threatening to exclude the refugees who desperately need a place to go, despite all the scriptural encouragement to welcome the sojourner and the stranger, the refugees of that day.

What is the antidote? Luther’s answer is a down-toearth God who is working behind the scenes to establish shalom. He is confident that God is at work and that God will level the playing field. That is why one of his favorite passages is from Luke, Chapter 1, where Mary praises God for raising up the lowly, breaking down the powerful, feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty. If God is present and at work creating justice and peace, then there is little to fear, unless we are among those who bene fit from injustice and conflict.


My proposal is that the church and its members should be the match-makers of the community––that is, the community of faith should be the place that fosters personal connections between liberals and conservatives, between immigrants and other residents, between Muslims and Christians, between police and minorities, between any groups that fear each other, so that personal ties can replace the isolation and fear. The solution is not always complicated. Parker Palmer, in his book on democracy, tells about a pastor whose church had a reputation for having a beneficial influence on the community. Palmer asked him, what’s the secret of your success? The pastor answered “Potluck suppers.” Palmer was taken aback until the pastor explained that these were not suppers for church members to schmoose with each other, but suppers where they brought together teachers and parents when there was a problem in the schools, or police officers and residents of the community when there was a problem in that area or city officials and those without basic services. They talked over dinner, got to know each other, and heard what the other had to say. When the issue came before the school board, the parents and teachers could discuss the problem from a position of mutual trust or when the issue came before the city council the people in the room already knew each other.

What I am saying is that, for the sake of our polarized society, churches and people of faith should provide opportunities for those who differ to come together to talk about their differences. In order for this to be productive, there needs to be civil discourse. And, in order for there to be civil discourse, there need to be rules for the conversation.

• For example, each person has to agree to listen carefully enough to be able to repeat what another said in a way that person accepts.

• For example, there needs to be a shared commitment to using arguments rather than inflaming passions. A private opinion is not enough. One needs to show how the proposal affects the common good. How will this benefit the whole community? Will it foster justice? Who will benefit and who will be harmed?

• For example, the group needs to be ready to identify what information is missing and to seek it out. It is amazing to me how much misinformation circulates that exaggerates people’s fears. Not only do we need to seek out more accurate and more complete information on a topic, we also need to help everyone see how important information is. Sooner or later, proposals based on bad ideas wind up hurting someone.

In order for polarization to be overcome, persons of faith and persons of good will need to foster what James Hunter calls pre-political discussions––that is, discussions that are not focused on raising support for a particular proposal, but discussions aimed at solving some problem or helping some group in need of assistance. These conversations are aimed at creating “common ground”––that is, identifying overlapping moral commitments that can inform personal actions and public policy.


Our task has been to assess the legacy of the Reformation. My argument is that Luther had many things to say about our communities that are of direct value today. Yes, his society was different from ours, but the problems he sought to overcome are close enough to the problems we face so that his responses can, at least in some cases, be insightful.

To bring this together, I want to underline the importance of what churches and persons of faith can do. In an adult class in my home congregation, one of the Chaplains at Gustavus Adolphus recalled a turning point in his life. It was when Sister Helen Prejean, the nun in Dead Man Walking, visited his campus and said “Our theological affirmations have public implications.” We need to affirm those affirmations and discern their implications for our involvement in our neighborhoods.

What are the theological affirmations that support efforts to overcome polarization?

• Every person is made in the image of God and has intrinsic worth

• As creatures we are all connected. We are tied to each other and tied to the earth.

• We have a vocation, a calling, to serve the neighbor and the community, and each congregation has a similar vocation.

• God is hidden as well as revealed, and we must recognize the gap between our theology and the nature of God. Our theology is tentative, incomplete, and in service to the relational. An ideology is neither tentative, incomplete, nor in service to the relational.

• God is at work, behind the scenes, fostering shalom, creating justice, and making all things new.

• God‘s generosity and mercy overflow, and this generosity gives us freedom, including the freedom to cross boundaries and to act out of love, guided by wisdom, rather than fear.

• We need to grow in wisdom and practical reason in order to know how to serve our communities effectively, in order to avoid letting good intentions produce harmful results.

On the other hand, if a religious outlook emphasizes “God and me,” it will not overcome polarization. If a theology is an ideology or endorses an ideology, it will not overcome polarization. Or if a faith does not help overcome the kind of anxiety and fear that turn boundaries into barriers, it will not overcome polarization. And, if polarization is not overcome, then sooner or later, our fellow citizens will welcome a demagogue who promises to enforce unity and to get things done, at the expense of our democratic system.

The calling of believers and faith communities is to serve the neighbor and the community in all areas of life. Polarization gets in the way; our calling is to overcome it. Ideology gets in the way, and fear and anxiety create barriers that get in the way. Isolation and fragmentation get in the way. Our calling is to overcome all of these impediments to the common good.

To use slightly different words, our calling and the calling of our churches is to serve the larger community by fostering shalom, by mending the world. How do we do this? I submit that in our setting the crucial first step is fostering reconciliation among the members of our society–– to overcome isolation and polarization and rebuild the trust that is needed to tackle problems and deal with our crises.

If our churches and people of faith and all of us do not do this, then who will? And, if not now, then when?


1 Luther’s Works, 45: 339-378.

2 Luther’s Works, 46:29.

3 Sharon Parks, Laurent Daloz, Cheryl Keen, and James Keen, Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). See especially pp. 55-79.

4 September 30, 2016, issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, p. A2.

5 Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), p. 142.

6 Here are some examples of some things that are often misunderstood:

First-generation immigrants commit far fewer crimes than do people born in the U.S.

Immigrants do not take jobs away from American workers, even unskilled workers, who have grown up here, because the two groups fill different kinds of jobs.

The chance of being in a terrorist attack are much, much smaller than being in an automobile accident or being killed by an American carrying gun. All the people killed by terrorists since 9/11 is smaller than the number killed by gun violence in the last three months.

The restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia reflect the Wahhabi sect, not Islam in general. In Iran, there are more women than men studying in1 the universities.

Muslims in America are far more assimilated into our society than are Muslims in Europe. So, just because there have been problems in Europe does not mean that there will be here.

7 James Hunter, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture Wars (New York: The Free Press, 1994).