Jayma Anne Montgomery
THE EXASPERATED MIDDLE BETWEEN EXTREMES
A church sister of mine made an excellent comment on one of my posts recently. She said a particular phrase that caught my attention. It captures beautifully the heart of what I try to accomplish on the TWT blog and what I hope to capture in my upcoming book. "[I] often find myself straddling what feels like an uncomfortable position between two polar opposites..." Can I get an amen? I couldn't have phrased it better! This one is packed with many thought exercises for those inclined to deep thought about such matters.
Choosing to live in the space between dominant viewpoints in this country is essentially choosing to live in a very quiet, unpopular, and lonely place. I would argue that it's a courageous decision that we have to intentionally navigate every single day, in every single relationship, and in every single situation that we are faced with. My hunch is that there are a lot more people like us here in America than most of us think but the nature of how we choose to engage or disengage contentious territory won't get us 10,0000 followers on any social media platform, an interview on the evening news, or representation by any major political organization. We tend to busy ourselves with living our lives well, loving our neighbors, supporting worthy causes, and carefully tending to our personal/spiritual growth. I am just crazy enough to believe that we actually represent a slight majority in this country but don't enjoy drama and are more than a little exasperated by the clownish spectacle that has become the norm of public life. The exasperated middle could probably fund a truly moderate third party in the US and make it toe the line of taking the political high road and actually creating bipartisan plans aimed at many of the social issues that keep the right and left slinging mud at each other all the live long day. Could you imagine?
There is a great book by JR Briggs called "The Sacred Overlap." In it, he talks about how truly following Jesus will sometimes make you too secular for your Christian friends and too saved for your non-Christian friends. After I read this book, I really took a lot of what he had to say into serious consideration. In my early days as a Believer, I was discipled to be preachy, judgy, and isolationist. This is a page straight out of the Evangelical playbook that is not specific to white Evangelicals. If your biggest focus is on saving people from going to hell and being right about everything, then you will spend most of your time telling people that they are wrong, condemning them for their sins, fighting circular culture wars, and living in hyper-protected enclaves of Christian culture that have no real pulse on the world outside of it. The fact that we have the resources to construct entire worlds within church ministries that can effectively keep Christians in comfortable bubbles from the Nursery ministry to the Senior Bible Study group would shock the early church. Sure, they worshipped underground by necessity (Christianity being illegal and all) but the work of the church was almost never inside of the walls. They were the social services system of their respective countries, caring for the poor, sick, widows, orphaned, elderly, imprisoned, etc. The entire medical discipline of hospice and palliative care (the discipline that I notice most Christians wage verbal war on in songs, sermons, and at the hospital bedside) came about because of Christian medical and non-medical personnel wanting to alleviate the suffering of dying patients. How ironic. Furthermore, the reason that there are so many hospitals with Catholic, Adventist, Baptist, and Presbyterian names is because Christians were the ones running into the plagues, pandemics, and wars to care for people, regardless of the personal cost to their own health and safety.
The Christian Booksellers Association, a modern group of over 1700 bookstores averages $4.6 billion per year in revenue. I can't imagine what that figure balloons into when you include CCM, Gospel music, megachurch budgets, Christian conferences, Christian schools, Christian colleges, and parachurch ministries into the mix. It's an astronomical amount of money...so is the $100 million dollar ad campaign "He Gets Us," meant to rebrand Jesus's public reputation that has been tainted by wayward Christians (because rather than actually discipling Christians into maturity and calling on the Body of Christ to follow His example more faithfully, we should just re-brand Jesus. I can't be the only person who finds this disturbing.)
Hospitals in America are now being purchased by businessmen with cash registers for hearts, who profit from pushing sick patients out of the hospital before they are ready and readmitting them sicker than they were before. Physicians are being dictated to by these non-medical business people and administrators regarding how much time we spend with patients, how we bill our time with them, how we manage their care, and how well we are reimbursed for our services. Medical care is being run more and more like a fast food chain where you give the patient and the family whatever they ask for if they demand it forcefully enough, even if it is to their detriment. This is, in part, because Christianity has largely fleed this space in pursuit of other things such as political power and religious conquest. I have a hard time imagining that Jesus will be pleased with us when we tell him that the reason we allocated disproportional attention and resources to the pro-life cause while practically ignoring hospitals and nursing homes filled with vulnerable people who are being exploited by insurance companies, health administration executives, and their own families is because we needed to win that particular culture war.
Every election cycle, I watch the political ads and debates get more juvenile and apocalyptic. The soul of America is perpetually at stake every election cycle. The other side isn't just wrong, they are irredeemably evil. Forget about representing nuanced perspectives that fall outside of the prescribed and preapproved machinations of the Republican and Democratic parties. American citizens are wed to a system meant to serve itself, i.e. keep people as polarized as possible, give audience to unproductive debates, secure votes for future political ambition, and intensify the bipartisan stalemate. When the vast majority of your leaders have a vested interest in perpetuating the very real problems that affect many of our lives, how can a rational-minded person who is seeking the goodness and flourishing of their town, state, and country maintain any hope?
St. Augustine of Hippo once said, "he that becomes a protector of sin shall surely become its prisoner." What does this mean for the Christian who knowingly supports evil in the name of a greater good? How can we engage in the fate of our communities while keeping in mind that our citizenship is first and foremost in the Kingdom of Heaven? I haven't had the bandwidth to read City of God yet, but this is one of the primary questions he attempts to answer in this body of work.
I think one of the ways that those of us who have knowingly chosen to stand firm in the lonely, often forgotten middle can do is to become more intentional about forming our own communities all while continuing to engage as productively as possible with our more extreme neighbors. Somewhere between the extremes of nearly any two viewpoints usually lies the gospel truth of how that issue should be approached by Christians. The option isn't to help poor, victimized pregnant women or save their babies from abortion. It's not about defunding the police or holding rogue police officers accountable for unnecessary brutality. It's not about acknowledging practices, systems, and laws that perpetuate poverty, mass incarceration, and violence against minorities or holding individuals accountable for blatantly racist statements and actions. The Biblical answer for each and every one of these issues and so many others is to do both. As Mr. Briggs would say, it's not an "either-or" it's a "both-and" approach that is needed. The answer for any American Christian is not to place all of your faith in one of the two major political parties and deem it “the only option for Christians,” its to place all of your faith in the King of Kings and trust Him to work through these fallen leaders, corrupt institutions, and however much or little His followers choose to engage civically. He remains King no matter which way you vote. He remains King even if you don’t vote. The question is: will He be pleased with the intentions of your heart? Perhaps those spaces we want to retreat from because they aren't GODly enough are precisely the spaces He is calling us to inhabit fully and make look more like His Kingdom.
A few more things to ponder:
Check out this great article by David French, "It's Always a Negative World for Christianity." You may only be able to read a portion of it since I believe it's behind a paywall but even just reading the first few paragraphs is an excellent exercise in perspective.
I will end with a song. WELCOME RESURRECTION by Elevation Worship. This song ministers to me about the dead things I am determined to cling to but the Spirit wants me to let die so I can be more like Jesus. It also speaks to me about the trust I sometimes put into good & GODly things/people/ institutions that cause me to fret about the impact of their loss or failure. We believe in the raising of the dead. This should make us a fearless people. And so, I'm asking myself this: What dead or dying things do I NOT trust GOD to resurrect? A ministry? A local church? A career? A marriage? A wayward child? A political movement? "[GOD] You can do anything, you can do anything. My eyes will see your glory."
Stay Thoughtful, friends. Thanks for reading.