In a recent podcast Jim Winkler, President and General Secretary of the liberal and declining National Council of Churches (NCC), discussed polarization, race and religion with Michael Reid Trice of the Religica Lab at Seattle University, and how the Church can respond post-Trump.
It’s common knowledge that on Capitol Hill lawmakers cannot “reach across the aisle” anymore; “in the past people used to be able to vocally disagree with one another and then go out and have a drink or dinner together or have their families over with one another,” Winkler told Trice. “That Capitol Hill culture is gone. Part of what I think we are facing here is a way to just talk with each other.”
This is how Winkler, the former chief for the United Methodist Church’s General Board on Church and Society (GBCS) describes the broader problem facing America. But it’s worth asking: even if our national politics in Washington, D.C. are so polarized, why does everything else have to be? Trice agreed with Winkler that “there’s something about the sinews of our capacity to trust one another that have been dissolved.”
How can we begin to overcome our political polarization at a grass-roots before thinking about national change? How do we reconstruct conversations that now seem impossible to have?
The answer is largely spiritual, said Winkler. Daily prayer, Bible study and reading commentaries give him the strength to have these conversations. In addition, despite the number of churches shrinking numerically, many of them still have a broad swathe of Democrats and Republicans that trust each other enough to engage in dialogue.
Winkler noted that in his own church he had an adult sunday school class that discussed social issues, but that they also would “take covered dishes to one another’s houses if somebody was sick, have picnics and see plays together.” It was these pre-existing Christian bonds that built the trust that was necessary to have tough conversations about meaningful issues.
Winkler also said that he had seen many young people at United Methodist conferences respond very positively to speakers, having their minds opened to the experiences of others. For them, it was “like a light has gone on” and “now you never ever for the rest of your life have an excuse to say ‘I just didn’t know’ and so now the question is ‘are you going to work to change society for the better, to battle injustice and racism, or are you going to sit on the sideline?”
Especially with regard to race, Trice asked Winkler about his hope for the future of the conversation. In response, Winkler told a story about attending ecumenical conferences with black churches and hearing from pastors “I’m weary, I’m tired of white churches talking the talk but not walking the walk.”
This led to a new emphasis in the National Council of Churches to having more conversations and action on fighting and eradicating racism. “In this nation we’re finally saying we have to address white supremacy, we have to address the legacy of racism, we have to deal with reparations and so we’re partnering with the conference of national black churches and others to try to make change.”
But, he acknowledged that going in this direction has not been easy: “To be honest, the last four years have been nothing but resistance. It’s as if the white community is being very simplistic, but much of the white community is fighting a rearguard action against the change and drive towards racial justice that’s been part of the trajectory of the nation for decades. And I say rearguard because I think this is God’s justice. We’re getting on the correct side of God when we’re working for racial justice.”
The main takeaway from the conversation was the way in-person, face-to-face interaction among people you strongly disagree with in a church context is the key to healing our divides. Winkler and Trice both gave the impression that it’s much harder to hold the ‘other’ side in contempt when you’ve personally met, worshipped and broken bread with those people.
Although our divides seem insurmountable that may be because our nation’s social capital is so diminished. Americans are less likely in recent years to see and talk with people whom they disagree with; we remain in our echo chambers, both online and in person.
Maybe there are some issues we won’t find any compromise on. Yet, if any institution can find common ground it’s the Church. Reconciliation across political, racial and social divides might seem impossible, but maybe this just means we need more faith in Christ’s body on Earth.