When Polarization Becomes a Tug-of-War

This article is one of a five-part series on Polarization:

  1. What Causes Polarization by David Brubaker
  2. How to Lead While Polarized by Sarai Rice
  3. Four Guiding Principles for Managing a Polarized Congregation by Susan Beaumont
  4. When Polarization Becomes a Tug-of-War by Lawrence Peers
  5. What Cures Polarization by David Brubaker[/box]

Earth's magnetic poles

Is there any hope we can untangle from the tug-of-war in many congregations between people who not only disagree on issues but hold different world-views? Each day seems to deepen the tensions and can cause any of us to dig in our heels and hold onto our end of the tug-of-war rope even tighter.

Polarization has become the new normal in many arenas of society, including, of course, congregations. Pope Francis, in his address to the United States Congress in 2015, stated: “The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization.” Ironically, it seems that Congress needs more than a speech to get them to “forsake their foolish ways.” And so do we!

Polarization as a Moral Ecology?

Our country’s polarization has become more evident since the 2016 election. I’ve been intrigued by the research of the social psychologist Matt Motyl into the deeper sources of political polarization. Motyl points out that in 1992 many US counties had a relatively even balance of Democrats and Republicans. But when “red” and “blue” affiliations are plotted on a map of the United States today it shows that many of us do not even live near those people with whom we disagree.

More than politics and geography, Motyl sees this as a “moral ecology” in which our morality can be either “individualized” or “group-based.” He explains:

Individualized morality includes a focus on what is best for individuals. Someone who is high in individualized morality cares deeply about the rights of individual people….On the other hand, someone who is high in group-based morality focuses more on what is best for one’s group (think America First). From this perspective, deference to authority is a deep and critical moral value.

Individualized morality includes a focus on what is best for individuals. Someone who is high in individualized morality cares deeply about the rights of individual people….On the other hand, someone who is high in group-based morality focuses more on what is best for one’s group (think America First). From this perspective, deference to authority is a deep and critical moral value.

When polarization results from an emerging political geography and also a “moral ecology” is there still any hope that we can bridge the divides between us? Is there any role that congregations can have in this? Are there ways that the world views that underlie our differences can speak to each other rather than—well—yell at one other?

“You Are the Cause”

In defending our positions on political or ethical issues, we customarily demonize those whose positions are diametrically opposed to ours. We tend to reinforce our positions by watching and reading what reinforces our own point of view. And, as Motyl points out, we increasingly tend to associate with those who have a similar world view as our own.

So, as the Jesuit, Matt Malone, points out the critical question is not just “What is the cause of polarization?” The answer to that question, it turns out, is “You are.”

For polarization is not something that is happening to us but something we are causing. And the temptation to think that you or I are not complicit in it and that the fault lies entirely with someone else is what polarization is.

A number of secular organizations are trying to address this issue by gathering people across seemingly intractable divisions to hold longer conversations than the parties would have on their own. Motyl, as a social psychologist, feels so strongly about the impact of increasing polarization that he is part of an initiative called Open Mind. Another organization, Better Angels, aims to “reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences, and making a strong public argument for depolarization.” Essential Partners (previously known as the Public Conversations Project) has been on the forefront of teaching and providing resources for facilitating conversations about tough issues since long before the 2016 elections. We can as congregations learn from and support the work of these organizations that are creating pathways beyond polarization.

The question remains: Can congregations take their rightful place as a moral force within our society during this time of polarization? Can we find ways to foster practices and perspectives that can allow our religious communities to move beyond reinforcing polarization to helping change us—enough to be a healing and reconciling force?

I believe that as congregations we can—and that even though our track record is not always exemplary, we must.

Greenhouses of Hope

We can be greenhouses of hope cultivating new practices in our congregations that can impact not only the ambience of our congregations, but also how our congregants show up in their everyday conversations with family members, members of their neighborhoods and on-line.

In my own consulting work, I have sometimes had to show up with what I call “my invisible asbestos suit” in overheated situations of conflict and polarization in congregations and other organizations. Often my first question in this situation is: “I know some about some of the tensions and differences that have caused you to call me in as a consultant. However, as we work together over this next period of time, what might I also come to appreciate about you as a congregation? What is it that has positively connected you to this congregation over the time that you have been here?”

Invariably, congregants—even who have differences around whatever the polarizing issue might be—can name something. Even, in the midst of their squabbling and divisiveness, they have often forgotten these affirming bonds. This is important to name—not as a way to disregard their current tensions—but as a way, as I put it, to also “stand in a different place as you are working on how to navigate your differences.”

I have sometimes used the Conflict Dynamics Profile created by Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan to help individuals and congregations recognize their own behaviors that exacerbate division rather than lessening it. Often, we “heat up” a situation by using behaviors that do not move us toward constructive utilization of differences. To create a “conflict competent” congregation requires not just doing different things but thinking differently about how to manage tensions.

Today we don’t need lessons in how to hold onto our side of the tug-of-war rope more forcefully! Name-calling and attacking not just the ideas but the person are in full display on social media. Online articles that allow people to write their own comments about the article and comment on other people are a prime example of how divided and cruel and rude we can be. I don’t imagine that everyone who comments necessarily intends to create discord and havoc. Usually, they think that they are right, if not self-righteous. They may merely want to set the other person straight—which means to think like they do about an issue.

We do need ways to become more aware of the behaviors that can create an ambience of greater understanding, deeper reflection, and potential reconciliation. We can engage in behaviors and foster our own personal and organizational development through practicing these behaviors (which are the focus of the Conflict Dynamics Profile):

  1. Perspective taking rather than “winning at all costs”
  2. Creating solutions rather than demeaning others
  3. Expressing emotions constructively rather than displaying anger inappropriately
  4. Reaching out rather than retaliating

Some of us may also need to move from our non-constructive passive behaviors of yielding, hiding emotions, or self-criticizing which don’t allow us to show up fully in a situation that might require our compassionate and/or mediating presence.

Draw Upon Our Faith Resources

In Jesus’ parables of the leaven in the bread and the mustard seed—he emphasizes small beginning as having a larger impact. In the Jewish Kabbalah tradition, there is an understanding that our human, religious task is to release the “divine sparks” that want to emerge even in people who are trapped in not-so-constructive deeds.

Likewise, we can find stories from our scriptures and practices from our faith traditions that reinforce how shifting toward some seemingly small but constructive practices instead of polarization can make a difference. We can use illustrations in our sermons and our leadership activity that point to those constructive responses. We can actively reorient a tense conversation in which differences are present toward these practices and call for a pause when the destructive practices dominate.

Pierre de Teilhard Chardin, a Jesuit like Matt Malone, understood the human as the “universe conscious of itself.” Indeed, living into our full human vocation is developing this conscious awareness of our role in the evolution of the universe into play into our everyday interactions.

Can we find ways as individuals and congregations to “drop the rope” and call ourselves back to constructive ways to manage our differences? Can we find common ground and action to address the threats that face our human community and our common earth?

I believe we can. And we must.

[box]Lawrence Peers partners with religious organizations and leaders across many faith traditions to help them lead from a sense of purpose and innovate by aligning strategy and spirit. He draws from a rich array of methodologies as he facilitates whole system, participatory strategic planning, staff team coaching, clergy coaching, conflict transformation and retreats. Larry joins the Congregational Consulting Group and some of his former consultant colleagues from the Alban Institute after his four years of being a director of the Pastoral Excellence Network.[/box]