“I just don’t understand why we can’t have healthy conversations today,” my friend Claire shared recently. “Is the age of civil discourse over?”
What prompted Claire’s question was being at the center of an unprovoked online attack. Claire is a parish minister and routinely shares positive news online about her work in the community. One day, she shared an article on social media about the importance of having faith during this pandemic time, and it devolved into a personal attack that upset and surprised her.
“I am pretty proud of my faith, even though I know I’m not perfect,” she said. “I truly believe that faith can help us to heal from the effects of the pandemic and, instead, I was shamed for believing that faith has any part to play in modern society.”
Claire’s neighbor, whom she has lived beside 25 years, and who, up to this point, had a good relationship with her, posted a very negative, derogatory and inflammatory comment directed personally at Claire. Understandably, Claire was surprised and hurt, especially because she could not remember a single discussion with her neighbor about faith. “I tried to reach out to my neighbor, because I was so upset,” Claire said. Instead, she said her neighbor told her that “we have nothing to talk about since our views are so obviously different.”
Unfortunately, Claire’s experience is not an isolated one. We can all relate to the fact that it is getting harder and harder to have conversations about difficult and sensitive topics, particularly about faith. While we don’t know fully what was going on in Claire’s relationship with her neighbor, it is important to understand that healthy differences can be great fodder for engaging conversation, rather than avoiding or ignoring them. Just because we don’t find it comfortable to talk about sensitive issues doesn’t mean that we should remain quiet, especially when it comes to our faith.
As a society, we have sadly become highly polarized, intensely politicized and are devolving into factionalism and dualism. For example, the older categories of “left” and “right,” traditionalists and progressives, have broken down into smaller subsets and categories as we separate and quantify people into smaller opposing camps. Legitimate areas of difference and disagreement have become battlegrounds to divide and conquer, with “winners and losers” rather than sincere attempts to understand and find common ground.
This creates an echo chamber where we can dismiss people because they do not agree with us and listen only to those whose opinion confirms ours, instead of challenging it. “Similarly minded” can often mean “singularly minded,” as those who don’t agree with us are often silenced, ignored and marginalized. On social media, we can “hide” people who irritate us and marginalize their voices, an option we don’t have when we are face-to-face or living side-by-side as neighbors.
Spiritual echo chambers can also characterize many discussions about religion, which become polarizing and mistrustful, instead of open and dialogical. Uncomfortable with the demands of the Gospel, we may choose which parts of the Gospel we want to focus on and ignore the rest. Or, we may distort what we perceive is valuable, changing it to fit our own narrative. Sometimes we even over-generalize large swaths of that Gospel and ignore nuances and miss additional perspectives.
For example, Claire’s neighbor believes Claire’s faith is primitive and anti-science, when this could not be further from the truth of who Claire is or what she really thinks. But her neighbor will never know this because she has dismissed Claire without ever having a thoughtful dialogue about what Claire truly believes.
Have we lost our ability to see nuance, to see as God sees? Have we forgotten how to “love God and love one another” (Jn 13:34)?
Let’s set aside the “us vs.them” mentality and, rather than point fingers at others, we ought to examine our own hearts. As we celebrate the season of Easter, let’s meditate on the image of Jesus on the cross with his arms stretched out from beam to beam. Jesus was crucified with his arms outstretched, arms reaching out to both sides of the cross. As the ultimate reconciler, Jesus calls us to the center, for at the center of the cross is Jesus’ Sacred Heart. His arms are outstretched for everyone, a heart capable of loving the victim and the perpetrator, the blessed and the broken, the saint and the sinner. A big heart open to all.
Stanz is director of parish life and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay and author of “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church” (Loyola Press).