It was the day of the presidential election, November 8, 2016.
I had been asked to preach in chapel at the Bast Preaching Festival at Western Seminary in Michigan. Shortly afterward I found myself driving back home to Ontario. It was a crisp day – one of those bright, cold days teetering between Autumn and Winter. A few red leaves were still gripping the trees, resolutely refusing to let go, but most had fallen. There was a bite to the air that reminded me I should look for my winter boots when I got home.
As I drove, I listened to the radio. Of course, all the commentary was about the election race between Clinton and Trump. When I crossed the border, I switched to a Canadian station. Even there I heard a fascinating conversation about the divisive nature of this particular election, including comments on populist politics, echo chambers, and the nature of social polarization.
At one point one of the commentators said, “It’s like Two Solitudes all over again,” and the way he said it made me sit up and take notice. Like “Two Solitudes” was a thing. I had never heard of Two Solitudes. What was it? A political term?
When I got home, I hopped onto the internet and discovered that Two Solitudes is a novel written in 1945 by Hugh MacLennan. The narrative is set in Québec, and follows the fictional life of a young artist in his struggle to reconcile the differences between his English and French Canadian identities. It also illustrates through story the deep divisions between Anglophone and Francophone communities in Québec. In the years following the novel’s release, the term “two solitudes” became popular to describe the lack of communication (and often lack of desire to communicate) between these two communities.
I had been fascinated for some time by the concept of social polarization, and wondered about its infiltration into my own context, the church. So, I went out and found a second-hand copy of the book, and devoured it. Although that was a long time ago now, I vividly remember the tension and alienation the protagonist felt as he was pulled between his two worlds. And I remember the seeming inability of those two worlds to meet. I also remember how startled I felt when I flipped open the first page of the book and found a quotation by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (a poet I love):
“Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”
This concept of love seemed so consistent with what I had understood in the gospels about love bridging gaps and barriers. I thought of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies… if you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”
I thought of the Apostle John’s plea in 1 John 4: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God,” after which he went on to explain that God modeled love for us by sending Jesus to bridge the gap between God and humanity.
Clearly one of the qualities of love is that it reaches out to, greets, touches, embraces and protects the seemingly unlovable, untouchable “other.” Despite all temptation to turn away.
I think that’s why, when I asked an American pastor friend what text she thought I should preach at chapel on the day of the presidential election, she said without hesitating, “Jesus wept.” Not because of the outcome of the election (none of us knew the outcome yet) but because of the way people were treating one another: vilifying and pulling away from the “other,” harming those who looked or thought differently than they did, and drawing into two polarized “camps” or silos.
Two Solitudes. Of course Jesus wept. In the story my friend was referring to, he wept over the death of his friend, Lazarus. But I believe Jesus was also weeping over the presence of death in this world. I believe he still weeps over the kind of death that separates human beings from one another.
Systems Theory is the idea that every grouping of human beings is organized into a complex network of mutually inter-dependent relationships. Families are systems, workplaces are systems, schools and churches are systems too (to name a few).
One of the underlying concepts in systems thinking is that anxiety shows up in the system any time there is change. Anxiety is neither good nor bad, it just is. It is the normal human reaction to a perceived threat.
Human beings have very different ways of responding to anxiety. One of the classic human responses to anxiety is emotional cutoff, which can show up in a variety of ways – from shutting down in a conversation, to becoming emotionally inaccessible in a relationship, or even physically leaving a space when the topic gets too heated. It can also look like polarization, or the creation of… two solitudes. We polarize when we reduce complex, nuanced situations into binary opposites. We essentially create an “other,” so that we can vilify it and then isolate ourselves from it to feel safe.
As I consider these things, I wonder. What if the rampant polarization we see in our society, our politics, and even in our churches, is really the result of anxiety? What if the fear of loss and change is causing us to isolate ourselves into a myriad solitudes? And what if my best response to this situation is not to point my finger at others (as I want so desperately to do), but to look inward, to my own heart? What if the cure for polarization is love? After all, Jesus himself said “love your enemies,” and if Rilke is to be believed, “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”
To be clear, I do not think this kind of love requires us to subject ourselves to oppression or toxicity (sometimes it is the right thing to separate ourselves from those who harm us). But I do think it requires me to rethink my default responses to anxiety.
In the midst of conflict, when I am most tempted to vilify those who are different than I am, and to reduce myself to binary thinking so I can practice emotional, social or theological cut-off (it is so satisfying, after all, to speak poorly of “the other side”), the invitation of Jesus is to reach out to, greet, touch, embrace and protect the so-called “other.” And to allow the other to reach out to me too.