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Seventy-eight years ago today, Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin the misnamed invasion of Europe. I call it misnamed because the Allies had already been fighting in Italy for some time. But Normandy was the big one, and June 6, 1944, was the day it began.
I’ve walked on Omaha Beach, read Stephen Ambrose’s World War II books, read and watched The Longest Day (with my family–so much so that when we went into Sainte-Mere L’eglise and saw the statue of John Steele hanging from the church bell tower my twelve-year-old son said, “There’s Red Buttons,”), watched Saving Private Ryan and every episode of Band of Brothers and much more. There’s nothing quite like the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer to make you feel the incredible weight of sacrifice so many young men made on D-Day, or standing on Omaha Beach looking up to the hills where German troops would have been stationed and trying to imagine what it would have felt like to run the gauntlet of the long expanse of sand from the sea to the hills lugging an 80-pound pack hoping not to die. These are profound experiences every American should have to help us all appreciate what happened there.
Yet I wonder if it is possible to respect and honor those who participated in D-Day and World War II – arguably the last “moral” war—and at the same believe the United States exited that war compromised after dropping atomic bombs on Japan? Yes, I know all the arguments about the lives saved by those bombings. I am generally sympathetic to those arguments. But think about this: while the estimate of the number of deaths in Nagasaki runs between 60,000 and 80,000, it is also estimated that only150 Japanese soldiers were killed. Is that moral? Couldn’t the US have convinced Japan that the bomb was inescapable without killing so many non-combatants?
Is it possible to think that D-Day was right and Nagasaki was wrong?
I’m not trying to start an argument about the use of the atomic bomb in World War II. Save your comments. I’m simply wondering if it is possible to hold seemingly conflicting ideas in your head simultaneously. I’m talking about appreciating and holding onto paradox. Another way to say this is to live with tension, to not push everything to resolution. Jesus even told a parable about this in Luke 13. My Bible calls it the parable of the barren fig tree. I think it’s the parable of the impatient owner.
Living with tension is one of the keys to holding moderate positions. It is the key to seeking a middle path between two poles.
Our world is making that less and less possible.
I’ve seen this played out on the pages of the Reformed Journal the past few weeks and I applaud the efforts of our writers who attempt to hold the middle in a zero sum game world. People ask, “Are you for or against abortion?” Is it possible to be neither? Wes Granberg-Michaelson staked his claim to middle ground on abortion, carefully arguing that the “right” answer about when life begins is somewhere between conception and birth. His arguments were thoughtful and nuanced. But the loudest voices are on the far ends of the left and right, and I highly doubt a view like Wes’s will be widely understood.
In the days after the horrific events in Uvalde, Texas, Tim Van Deelen wrote a piece pleading for something to be done to regulate guns but also admitted that as someone who works in wildlife conservation, he’s a gun owner and hunter. I thought Tim’s admission was brave. Is it possible to be a gun owner for gun control? That doesn’t seem too much to ask, but both the right and left approach gun control as a zero sum game. Are you for or against guns? Is it possible to be neither? Is it possible to be for hunting rifles and against AR-15s? That requires nuance.
As the 2022 CRC Synod approaches, Scott Hoezee asked if there might be “middle wisdom” to be found as Synod deals with a contention Human Sexuality Report. A few days later, another of our regular CRC bloggers, Laura de Jong, doubted that was possible, and sought to lessen the coming schism by changing the way we define unity. It’s hard to feel optimistic after reading either of their blogs.
These ideas have been swirling in my head for some time. I put it this way in a sermon I preached last week: “The difficulty with talking from the pulpit about any of the events of the day—whether it be gun control, or abortion, or climate change, or the pandemic, or racial justice, is that somehow these have all become partisan issues, with well-known talking points fed to us, depending on your inclination, from Fox News or MSNBC, and instead of being able to take on an issue and talk about it in isolation—which we used to do in debate when I was in school—these issues are now all interconnected into binary red or blue identities, and there’s no space for nuance or conversation or, it seems, common sense. Everything is a zero sum game and truth and trust belong on the endangered species list. As with every issue, the choices are painted in black and white terms . . . data shows the great majority of American Christians are politically moderate, but those on the far ends of the left and right make the most noise, leaving those in the middle feeling lost, left out, and homeless.”
Homeless is not a metaphor. We are on the precipice of both the CRC Synod and RCA General Synod. Many congregations have left the RCA since the last Synod. Splits seem likely in the CRC. As these denominations crumble over the inability to find middle ground and live with tension, many people wonder where their home is. People on the outside looking in wonder why it matters. People on the inside feel loss. I hear Jesus saying, “It shall not be so among you” and feel like we’ve horribly missed the mark. I’m having a hard time seeing how we are anything but a mirror of the larger culture, which has killed nuance with sound bites and has lost the ability to compromise. I feel anxious about both these Synods because I am certain that in this climate, to borrow four words from Mr. Yeats, the center cannot hold.
So true! I’ve asked my own pastor, “Where do I belong now? Is there still a place for me in this church”?
I remember my first General Synod back in the late 70s. Different folks were coming to the microphone and making assertions about different issues—women in ministry was one. I was new and ruminating over what I was hearing, mostly from people on the far edges. It bothered me and I expressed my worries to some veterans. Dick Welscott said this: “Don’t worry about what you are hearing. At the end of the day, the moderates will make the decision.” And they did!
Yes, yes, yes. You articulate this well. We have to work at holding ideas and issues in the middle and I fear most of us don’t want to work that hard. So we fall into the partisan nature of society without considering a third way. Jesus, help us!
So well put, Jeff,
Keeping opposites in creative tension, resisting the charge from the left or right that we are “selling out.”
We need both the light of clarity and the dark of nuance. Jesus was a master at it, but persisted in The Way of sacrificial love and restorative relationships with all segments of his society: Rich and Poor, ins and outs, women and men, young and old, slaves and free, extreme Nationalists and Quisling tax collectors, Sadducees, Romans, Gentiles, Essenes, “terrorists” (Zealots) and legalistic Pharisees. Quite a feat!
It is possible to hold conflicting ideas, one in each hand. But it’s not something that Anglo-American Christians have much practice with, or that our Calvinist tradition taught us to value. Quite the opposite, actually. If we look at friends in other cultures, we might be able to learn better how to do this. I know that I have native students that can do this where I teach in New Mexico, and I try to learn from them.
Could this be required reading for all Synod delegates? And I am praying the Holy Spirit’s power be felt in that room for wisdom and unity in Christ.
Hi Pat. I’m a CRC Synod delegate, and I happily read Jeff’s thoughts here. You could say, though, that I hold Jeff’s thoughts in tension, so to speak. And by that I mean I both agree and disagree.
To be sure, I agree that the church evidences too much of the polarization of the broader culture. And I agree that some things must be held in tension. We all do that, to some degree or another. In Reformed theology, we hold in tension things like God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, or God’s immanence and God’s transcendence.
But there are limits to the effort to hold things in tension. This article seems to somewhat uncritically position the “middle path” or “middle ground” as the proper place to position ourselves. But in some, if not many, instances, that middle way can best be described as the sort of lukewarm approach repudiated in Rev. 3:16. We still hold to the real presence of light and dark, truth and lies, thesis and antithesis. And we do not do well to split the difference between light and dark – the middle way can be the way of wicked compromise. There are times in the life of the church where we do not rightly “split the difference”, and certainly those of us who follow in the path of the Reformation can recognize that.
So, as a synodical delegate, I am glad to read Jeff’s thoughts here, as they are a helpful reminder of the need for humility and (where appropriate) compromise, but also as I ponder I am reminded that we do fight real spiritual battles and there is real and valuable spiritual ground that we are not to surrender in the name of finding a middle way. Scripture speaks much more about antithesis than it does broadly commend a universal or near-universal desire for commonality. May God grant wisdom to each of us seeking to discern where middle ground or holding things in tension is actually God-honoring and where it is simply a reflection of a worldly call to compromise. The world may like and demonstrate unhealthy polarization, but equally does it demonstrate unholy compromise.