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Walking the dog last October, before the US presidential election, I noted the obvious evidence that my neighborhood sits on a fault line. Not a tectonic-plate-type fault line, but an ideological one. Some people flew Trump flags. Some people stuck signs in their lawn that proclaimed “Science is real” and “Love is love.” People directly next door to each other clearly lived on opposite sides of the ideological fault line that has yawned wider in the American body politic since 2016.

Because of a trick of geography and zoning, most of the people in my neighborhood are religious day school people: they live here because they send (or sent) their kids either to a Protestant or Catholic school. Most of us are Christians, then, and yet we live in different political universes, it seems.

So now I know. Even though the flags and signs are gone, I remember which neighbors are on which side. Because when you live on the fault lines, you…

… start to think in dualisms

We love the good guys/bad guys divide, don’t we? Maybe we are too enamored with the excitement of our movies, computer games, and TV fictions in which we flatten reality into a two-sided conflict that sooner or later results in a satisfyingly exciting smack-down, which decides, usually by violence, who “wins.” We do love a winner. It’s so much harder to live in the real world, where everyone’s motivations are murky and every issue is confusing and many-sided and wins are hard to come by and usually fragile.

I appreciated Daniel Meeter’s meditation earlier this week on enemies in the scriptures, especially the Psalms. “Enemies” is an extreme term we associate with war, perhaps, but what if we expand the “enemy” category to include adversaries and opponents? Ah, well. Adversaries and opponents, as Daniel observed, you shall always have with you.

Including within the church, because various fault lines run right through our churches and denominations, too. This fall at their Synod, the Reformed Church in America will likely split over LGBTQ+ issues. A large group of conservative RCA churches has already created a breakaway alliance—they have a website—and some churches are already maneuvering their way through the unsavory property and money issues that come with any divorce. The Christian Reformed Church Synod, meanwhile, will cope with the infamous sexuality report. Whether or not CRC Synod 2021 adopts this report, there will no doubt be schismatic repercussions.   

One of the distressing effects I’ve noticed in myself, living in America right now and being connected to these two denominations, is my newly sensitized nose for cues about what side people are on. Are you with me or against me? I can sniff you out in two minutes. And if you’re against me, I will back away. Because when you live on the fault lines, you…

… lose trust

Late last summer, some of my nearby neighbors gathered for what was supposed to be a friendly, socially distanced outdoor potluck. We should have sat around in our camp chairs chatting about our children’s latest antics, but instead, we started arguing politics. Things got contentious and heated. We all parted “friends,” but I slept badly that night.

Since then, I’ve barely talked to the neighbors who were on “the other side.” Not that I’ve avoided them, exactly. We wave hello from a distance. No one, I am confident, has any ill intentions toward anyone else. Also winter weather and pandemic concerns have helped keep us at a distance. But still. I think we’ve all lost some trust in each other. I’m not even sure what trust means in this context. We would all certainly step up for each other in a crisis. But I fear that a hairline fracture now runs down our street.

In my household, my husband and I work for two different Christian higher educational institutions, one associated with the RCA, the other with the CRC. Among our students, co-workers, board members, donors, and other constituents, there are fault lines all over the place. Politics, racism, gender norms, complementarianism vs. egalitarianism, worship styles, environmental issues. We not only disagree, we’re on opposite teams, jostling together somewhat uncomfortably in our daily endeavors.

Sometimes it feels safe and fruitful to engage issues with “rivals.” I can usually manage in a classroom setting, for example, or with very close friends. Sometimes, I can write about things and risk the online comments. Other times, I just don’t engage. Because when you live on the fault lines, you …

… learn to draw boundaries

I was reading John 2 the other day, and I noticed a verse I had never noticed before. Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem for Passover. He has just cleansed the temple, because, Psalm-69 style, he was consumed by zeal for his father’s house. In the subsequent verses, Jesus performs miracles, the Pharisees harass him, and the crowds ooh and aah over him. However, “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people” (NRSV).

So… Jesus had boundaries? What an odd verse.

The next verse adds that he “needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone”—or as, the NIV has it, he “did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in man.”

I love how the online commentaries, trying to explain these verses, focus on Jesus’ omniscience. One commentary concludes that because Jesus is omniscient, he knows exactly how you think, and if you don’t believe in him the right way, then he won’t love you as much. OK, then. Good luck to us all.

Anyway, sure, Jesus is omniscient, but you don’t have to be omniscient to have a little cynicism about “what is in a man.” You just need to pay attention. And sometimes, it’s not worth entrusting yourself to certain people. Or it’s not the right moment. Because when you live on the fault lines, you know that…

… people fall in

An author shunned by her publishers and readers for supporting the wrong candidate and then “coming out” in favor of LGBTQ+ inclusion. A pastor who performs the wedding of his gay son and is then kicked out of the denomination he served faithfully for decades. Students harassed by aggressive signs on campus claiming that said students are by nature sinful. Fully qualified and called seminarians whose denominations will not ordain them. Family members who no longer speak to each other. Grandparents who refuse to wear a mask or get vaccinated even in order to see their own grandchildren. Neighbors whose friendly hellos have gone rather cold. People whose beloved denominations or even congregations will split down the middle. Anger, loss, pain, anxiety. Grief.

I have no lofty aspirations here, no proposals for healing the fault lines. I’m just naming something, finding a way to describe what I bet we’re all feeling, no matter which side of which cracked earth we stand on. I suppose we could invoke the usual earnest panaceas: “emphasize our commonalities” or “dwell in our unity in Christ” or “engage in conversation with people who disagree.” But I hereby confess that I’m not good at any of that. I’m much better at stepping well out of the way.

Daniel Meeter is right, I’m sure, when he concludes that the Psalms are full of prayers about enemies because conflict is a fact of life. Why should we be surprised by fault lines? Therefore, Daniel writes, “Opposition cannot be excised from our experience of faith. And, except when we are hurt or angry, it is probably a much larger component of our faith than we comfortable North American Protestants acknowledge to ourselves.”

I would add: than we comfortable white North American Protestants acknowledge. I’m confident that Black Americans and other people of color understand much better than I do how faith can somehow absorb experiences of opposition and enmity. 

How can faith do that? Last September, Marijke Strong wrote on this blog about her own grief over fault lines in the RCA. Striving toward hope, Marijke wrote, “we might experience this as a process that feels like death but could lead to life.” Death to life. There’s no dynamic more central to our faith than that.

Indeed, we are undergoing a lot of seismic shifting right now, on every scale from the personal to the global. And when you live on the fault lines, you…

… must develop poise

I imagine we will all be dancing around especially frightening cracks in our familiar institutions and relationships for a long while. One way or another, we’re all going to get hurt in these seismic shifts. It does feel like death sometimes.

What God is bringing into being, I don’t know. Now as always, “Nations are in an uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.” In response to the tumult, the psalmist commends that we listen for a divine voice: “Be still and know that I am God.” In that stillness, it’s possible that God can teach us the love that eludes us, teach us to perceive a new wholeness just beginning to take shape.    

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty for over twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over two hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. My husband and I have three grown children.

18 Comments

  • Dana VanderLugt says:

    Thank you for writing this. That fault line dance is exhausting and I know it well. Your wisdom and authenticity is so helpful.

  • mstair says:

    “Because when you live on the fault lines, you…
    … lose trust”

    “39 Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. 40 Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace.” (Acts 15)

    “ … it’s possible that God can teach us the love that eludes us …”

    Yes, it is. Our Lord does not require us to agree in thought and act in order to love each other.

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    Deb,

    Your essay did a great job of describing, identifying, and naming the tremors that are shaking your Reformed Christian Tribe. I hope that 9.0 earthquake is not needed to release the pressure.

    I will name one more tremor for your insightful paragraph (copied below): “a seminary withholding a certificate of fitness from a truly gifted graduate.”

    Thank you for providing empathy for everyone dancing on the fault lines.

    “An author shunned by her publishers and readers for supporting the wrong candidate and then “coming out” in favor of LGBTQ+ inclusion. A pastor who performs the wedding of his gay son and is then kicked out of the denomination he served faithfully for decades. Students harassed by aggressive signs on campus claiming that said students are by nature sinful. Fully qualified and called seminarians whose denominations will not ordain them. Family members who no longer speak to each other. Grandparents who refuse to wear a mask or get vaccinated even in order to see their own grandchildren. Neighbors whose friendly hellos have gone rather cold. People whose beloved denominations or even congregations will split down the middle. Anger, loss, pain, anxiety. Grief.”

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Much to think about. Just one note in passing: You don’t need to be omniscient, “you just need to pay attention.” Excellent point, and I think about the Lord Jesus too.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Some relevant advice from an Insurance company for living on a fault line:
    Before an earthquake: Know your risks; reinforce your building; have a disaster plan
    During an earthquake: Avoid hazards; take cover in a safe place; stay inside
    After an earthquake: Expect aftershocks; check for leaks; document the damage

    PS there are 50 earthquakes a day in the USA. No wonder so many are taking cover inside & playing it safe

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Debra, for the insight into fault lines. So many of them and so varied. Just remember, the only person you can really change is yourself.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      And sometimes. It even that, the most you can hope for is self-control, and even that is often beyond our strength.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you, Debra.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    Thank you, Debra, for this prose lament!
    When they were stuck between Assyria and Egypt, the Psalmist said,
    “Be still, and know that I am God.” [46:10]
    and Isaiah said, [30:15]
    “In repentance and rest is your salvation,
    in quietness and trust is your strength,
    but you would have none of it.”

    I also hate doing nothing to fix our looming disaster, and I hate not even knowing how to fix it!
    Today, Psalm 13::2 is my lament,
    “How long must I struggle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I wonder how much social media has played a role. We are allowed to “meet” so many people we really don’t know or never knew and “learn” so much about almost everything which is to say really nothing.
    Before this there was a fabric that held us together that wasn’t so shallow or surface based. I don’t think “blame social media” is the balm for all our problems but I can’t help but see how much it amplifies them.
    There’s more to be said about identity and political diversity vs. information silos and all that but you can’t cover it all in a blog or comment section
    Thanks, Deb!

    • Tom says:

      I’m with you on that! I think often these days on the story of the Tower of Babel. As a kid, that was kind of a baffling story to me; now it seems an example of God’s infinite wisdom.

  • So how do we live in such a hostile world? By remembering the basics; to love and pray for all despite their religious/political beliefs.

  • Henny Flinterman Vroege says:

    Thank you.

  • Henry Baron says:

    We feel a painful sense of loss, for all the reasons you mention.
    If the “other side” (our enemies) feels the same pain, maybe we can get together to talk sincerely about our pain instead of our positions, and in so doing move a little closer to each other.

  • Gary VanHouten says:

    An outstanding assessment of our current situation. Thank you. I read it right after reading this David Brooks editorial in the NYTimes: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/06/opinion/herd-immunity-us.html
    They somehow dovetail. In Brooks words, “We’re in the middle of a distrust doom loop.”

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thank you for this post. You name so much of what I feel.

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