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Embracing the ministry of reconciliation in a time of polarisation

Thursday, 30 September 2021  | Nils von Kalm

In these days of growing polarisation, we may wonder where it is going to end. There are protests by anti-vaxxers, pleas on social media and ads on television for people to get vaccinated, and a general mood of people being simply fed up with the effects of COVID-19 on our way of life.

How are we as Christians to respond to this situation? What is a loving but truthful approach to engaging with people we disagree with?

In a time of much uncertainty, it is normal for us to want certainty and to become more frustrated when we don’t get it. One way we try to achieve a sense of certainty is to find sense when there seems to be none. This is where the attraction of conspiracy theories is so strong and seductive for many, including Christians.

As American author Carlos Rodriguez says, ‘Conspiracy theories have become the preferred hiding place for Christians who don't want to face the actual oppressions of our age. They reinforce the lie, “Others are blind but I know the truth. God chose me. I'm not deceived”. A form of pride. Not humility. Unhelpful to all’.

Such a statement might itself seem unhelpful and judgmental. However, if we see this statement as not being judgmental of those who fall for conspiracy theories, but simply as a statement of fact that could affect any of us, then we can see that conspiracy theories have indeed become the preferred hiding place for Christians who don’t want to face reality.

Why does this happen? Why is it that Christians are often more susceptible than others to the deceptions of conspiracy theories? I am convinced that it has much to do with misguided evangelical theology and its dangerous moralism that splits life into black and white and turns the Christian message into a trap of legalistic and Pharisaical rules, rather than the life-giving freedom that Jesus showed us and apostles like Paul then spoke about.

When life and faith are simplified into black and white and you feel certain in your belief, you are actually more prone to conspiracy theories because you are not as open-minded. It becomes more important to be right than to be loving and open. It's a position based on fear, but when you are trapped in it you believe you are living by faith, so you will often be defensive when challenged.

This background is vitally important as we think about the best way to engage with people who have become susceptible to conspiracy theories. But once we understand this background, the first step is to ensure that we ourselves stay in touch with reality and learn not only to accept uncertainty but to embrace it as a fundamental aspect of life.

Life is not black and white. It never has been and never will be. We need to be more intelligent than we often have been in how we think about the Gospel and present it to others. The church needs evangelising just as much as the rest of the world. We need to remain humble enough to accept this.

Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to illustrate this point. The tax collector went home justified before God because of his humility. He knew that there was nothing to be gained by comparing himself to others and being ‘holier than thou’. He knew his limitations and that he needed God more than anything. This kept him humble and with a right attitude toward life. I am sure this tax collector would not have found himself succumbing to conspiracy theories today.

So how can we engage with people who are susceptible to conspiracy theories – or indeed with people who simply think differently to us? A good starting point is the example of the Apostle Paul in Athens, as told in Acts 17. Notice the main points in this story. Paul arrives in Athens and is distressed at the plethora of gods they worship. But instead of berating them for idolatry, as many Christians might do, he instead engages with them intelligently and commends them for their religiosity. He finds commonality between what they worship and what he wants to say about Jesus. He firstly points out their inscription to an ‘unknown god’ and uses that to explain that this is the God of Jesus who can and indeed wants to be known. He then engages their culture in a way they can relate to by quoting one of their own poets.

I remember John Smith talking about this when he began to realise in the early 1970s that he needed to engage Australian culture more intelligently. Smithy started listening to the music of the day – the music of people like Bob Dylan and others who were speaking about the burning issues of the time. He would quote them and use their own words to preach the Gospel of Jesus. In doing so, he made the Gospel come alive because people could suddenly see that it was relevant to how they were living.

Paul used the same approach when speaking to the Athenians. He used the language of the culture without berating or condemning it. He found points of commonality and praised them. And in doing so he won many of them over. They listened to him and wanted to know more. They saw that what he was saying was directly relevant to their lives. He even said that the God he was preaching was close to all of them.

This is the approach we can take when talking with people we disagree with about the Covid vaccine (or about anything else). Find out what you have in common with them. This immediately breaks down barriers and helps to form relationship. The deeper human need is for connection; we all want to be heard. When people we disagree with are heard and not condemned by us, they will be much more likely to open up.

It is so easy to react and let our emotions get the better of us when we engage with people we strongly disagree with, especially with an issue of public health like the Covid vaccine. Yet we actually have much more in common with those we disagree with than we often realise. We just need to find out what those points of commonality are. We can start by asking questions and getting to know the people we are engaging with. Some won’t listen, but many will.

Jesus called us to be one. He gathered together the most motley bunch of people you could think of to be his disciples. Think about it. He had a Zealot named Simon. Zealots were ‘freedom fighters’ who wanted to violently overthrow the tyrannical Romans and bring Israel back to what they saw as its former glory. And alongside Simon the Zealot, Jesus chose a tax collector named Matthew. Tax collectors were hated by most of society because they were seen as colluding with the Romans, doing their dirty work for them and ripping off the people in the process. A Zealot who wanted violent revolution against Rome, and a tax collector who worked for Rome. And Jesus said, ‘I want you to work together and help start my revolution of love, justice and peace for all’.

Who then are we not to want and do the same? As followers of Jesus, we have the ministry of reconciliation. May we relate in godly love with those we strongly disagree with. With the Spirit of God working in us and the love of Jesus working through us, we can not only do it; we are more than conquerors in living out the bridge-building and wall-demolishing love of God.


Nils von Kalm is a Melbourne-based writer who is passionate about the relevance of Jesus to life in the 21st century. He is the author of Bending Towards Justice: How the Gospel is More Relevant Than Ever in the 21st Century and can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/nils.vonkalm.

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