Hospitable Courage in a Divided Church

By Amy Carr and Christine Helmer ’97 Ph.D.

Liberal Christians often feel invisible in today’s religious landscape. Despite drawing on biblical interpretation and theological reasoning to make a case for a progressive Christian vision of things, they feel that neither the media nor those suspicious of Christian faith really care to listen attentively to their positions, or even notice the very presence of progressive Christians. It is as if the prominent expressions of white Christian nationalism and Christian anti-LBGTQ rhetoric would need to vanish entirely before another way of being Christian could even be properly heard in contemporary society. 

The Christian vision of belonging is a large and extravagant one that perceives all Christians in the same boat together, whether we like it or not. 

Conversely, Christians who feel demonized by a perceived urban liberal elite attack on their positions often choose the rhetoric that contrasts a “Christian” with a “secular” worldview. This move dismisses any worldview that mixes progressive values and Christian identity as not authentically Christian. The tenacity of this perspective, found in both congregational and virtual spaces, reinforces the perception that the real contrast is between secular left and “true” Christian (conservative) worldviews.

Seeking a Sturdy Theology

Can Christians on opposing sides of polarized debates in the public sphere recognize one another as fellow Christians? Can Christians put aside anecdote-fed caricatures of each other to really talk with and understand each other? How can Christians address the current political polarization that is overlaid with conflicting Christian claims on a spectrum of ethical and legal issues? This urgent situation requires reflecting on theological and ethical models as well as spiritual and liturgical practices that would bridge the divides at personal, local, and national levels. It requires the best efforts of Christians, no matter how they identify politically, to lead in the healing of both the church and the nation.

To be sure, we might also wonder: at what point is it downright dangerous to lead in bridge-building among Christians? Those who identify as sexual or gender minorities do not want to face someone who tells them that they are in error and damned. On the other side, is it realistic to hope that honest conversations can even take place among those who assume they will be told they are racist, homophobic, or deluded? And it is hard to talk to someone who seems unable to abandon a picture of a stolen election based on lies. For someone who believes in the lie, how can a challenge to this conviction be more threatening than to recognize how their own fears and hopes are being manipulated by an authoritarian will to power? 

In order to even begin to address the topic of reconciliation among Christians today, it is necessary to consider the affective dimensions of how tightly beliefs are held, and of how value-laden positions are reinforced in the face of violent backlash. Christians need a sturdy theological basis on which to face not only their neighbors, but the fears, shame, hopes, and presumptions that underlie encounters with them. 

All in the Same Boat

The Christian vision of belonging is a large and extravagant one that perceives all Christiansin the same boat together, whether we like it or not. That is where we would like to begin: with a theological and sacramental grounding rooted in Paul’s old-fashioned but still vital idea of justification by faith in Christ. What this idea communicates is that all Christians—conservative or progressive, right, left, or centrist—are baptized into the corporate body of Christ. Through the justification that is begun in baptism, all Christians belong to Christ and also—however difficult this might be to acknowledge—to one another. Belonging on account of justification is central to Christian identity. Belonging to the crucified and risen Christ because of Christ’s work in justifying persons and also gathering all together into the body that Christ assumes as his own: this ecclesial perspective is the theological basis for working out the difficulties of belonging to each other. 

Psychologists talk about the need for connections as integral to human well-being. Humans are social animals—born into already established social environments that they will also inform. Theologians, like psychologists, are interested in the kind of belonging that promotes human well-being, while also providing insights into the ways that sin and evil destroy relationships. This makes belonging both necessary to human life and a deeply worrisome undertaking, especially in a polarized political and religious landscape. Belonging is what structures human values, beliefs, and our deliberations about them. So we need to start there: any inquiry into Christian values for the public good requires first understanding the basis for Christian belonging.

Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith in Christ as the condition of Christian belonging amplifies one profound insight communicated in the Gospels: Jesus’ actions in welcoming the disenfranchised into community. After the simple touch of the hem of Jesus’ coat healed the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, she was now regarded as “clean” and thus able to return to her community (see Matt 9:20-22). Much to the surprise of the faithful, Jesus chose to dine with a reviled tax collector, who repented of his greed and gave back fourfold to those he had swindled (Luke 19:1-10). Later, when Jesus asked his beloved Father to forgive the sins of those who did not know that they were murdering the chosen one, he in effect requested that even these be welcomed into the Father’s house (Luke 23:34). 

In these ways Jesus rearranged community, revitalizing the major prophets’ norms of belonging that often included those marginalized. In Luke, Jesus cites Isaiah to mark the beginning of his ministry; Jesus announces the major theme of his actions as one of changing people’s distressed circumstances so as to promote their life in community (Luke 4:18-19, paraphrasing Isaiah 61:1-2). And Jesus rebuked those who limited belonging because of prejudices against gender, age, occupation, and physical or mental condition. When his friends tried to move the women and children out of his way, Jesus was “indignant,” and called them out for their narrow-mindedness (Mark 10:14). His disciples apparently had their own assumptions about who ought to belong in Jesus’ proximity, assumptions Jesus challenged by blessing the women and children who had come to him.

How Large Can a Community Be?

The fraught question of how moral values should influence politics is at root the question of how widely or narrowly we construe our sense of community. For whom do we engage in justice-seeking through political means? Is it for the benefit of oneself? Or is it for the good of the community? How is community defined? How large is it? When we probe the issues informing our polarized landscape, we have to ask who justice is for. The question “who for” in justice-seeking has to do with who belongs or ought to belong (according to the justice-seeker) to the community governed by a vision of justice. Belonging to a community surely includes our tangible neighbors: the persons with whom we have real connections, such as family, friends, and peers. Yet justice-seeking in politics extends significantly beyond one’s immediate community. Here, the ethical imagination must come into play. When conceptualizing the “who for” in justice-seeking, the “who for” must surely include the imagined other, the person one has never met, including one’s alleged opponents. This is what Christian theologians who have read Søren Kierkegaard call the abstract neighbor or the universal neighbor. These are all the persons who one has come to imagine belong to the community for which justice is sought.

The abstract neighbor already has some contours in our imagination. We abstract from particular experiences in order to posit others’ identities. We muster an active imagination in order to work out the character of the abstract neighbor and decide what type of justice would best serve them. This can quickly go awry: we might know this abstract neighbor only from unreliable hearsay, news reports, or by the algorithms of our social media ecology. More often than not, the imagined abstract neighbor is the object of prejudice or stereotype: the “welfare queens,” “the crazy radicals,” “the entitled,” “the white racists,” “the climate change deniers.” Hence justice-seeking requires figuring out that the abstract neighbor really is an enfleshed person, a fellow citizen, with their own stories, perspectives, and dreams. How do we learn to grasp the kind of justice this real-life neighbor seeks? It requires better listening, face-to-face conversations with those with whom we disagree, and more nuanced depictions of their faith and values despite our disagreements. The abstract neighbor becomes more three-dimensional when we choose to become more familiar with them. They might even surprise us by being more similar to us than we had assumed, or they might reveal ways we have neglected their needs. Envisioning a more just society for all depends on expanding our imaginations, admitting a more multifaceted understanding of the abstract neighbor: a community-facing justice-seeking.

Disagreeable Neighbors

When we remember that our Christian belonging to the Beloved Community is conditioned on justification by faith (without works!), we can face the present polarization on justice issues with that original freedom: namely the freedom to engage more fully with our real and imagined disagreeable neighbors within the wider church and in culture. Distressing emotions, like fear and anger, might arise in our bodies as our imaginations catch up to the way Jesus rearranged his disciples’ own sense of community. Wrestling with our turbulent inner states is an unavoidable step toward embracing the Beloved Community as the foundation for all justice-seeking action. Yet when we envision a mutual belonging that encompasses all our imagined others in the Beloved Community with Christ at its center, the disposition of community-facing justice-seeking loses its compulsion to be right and victorious on its own terms, and instead regards all justice-seeking as a movement toward reconciliation in a community to which we all belong. 

The primary value we want to highlight, then, is this: a healthy spiritual politics means promoting mutual deliberation, even while holding onto heartfelt antagonistic convictions or uncertain questions, yet without fear that these would cast one out of belonging. The endeavor to foster communities of mutual deliberation finds some pathways within the Christian spiritual repertoire.

Lamentation and Beyond

To take an example that awakens resistance for some and a sense of mission for others: naming and recognizing the concrete history of racism. Lutheran theologian Denise Rector has argued that before jumping hastily to confession of systemic sin and a response to its redress, we might first create space for bearing witness in a way that invites lament.[1]Lament may not be a virtue so much as a medium in which we publicly express either our own suffering as a victim of injustice, or the sadness that accompanies identifying with others who suffer. Lament is not yet contrition. By beginning here, by holding this space in an ecclesial gathering open to mutual recognition that injustice causes deep harms, our deliberations together about systemic racism begin with a sense of mutual identification—rather than with a sense of parsing out who is perpetrator and who is victim. Such shared lament is not the endpoint, but an affective space in which we can more readily find the courage to begin to listen, repent, and repair. 

Lament is one avenue for recognizing the difficult state of complicity in racial systems and behaviors and how they affect oneself and others. Such a biblical and liturgical genre elicits the courage to move toward one another precisely where fears and grievances keep Christians from entrusting themselves to one another. This hospitable kind of courage can be an especially difficult virtue to practice when one feels confronted with another’s intransigence or denial–with the hardness of heart that Christian neighbors all too easily exhibit when they disagree.

Questioning a Famous Phrase

What we are suggesting are values for spiritual practices—both interior and communal—in which mutual deliberation can take place as persons move toward each other, without minimizing the challenges involved. We need however to reconsider a particular icon of courage that often lodges in our religious imagination. Many Protestants in particular find inspiration in the iconic “here-I-stand” posture, exemplified in stories about the Reformer Martin Luther or German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, their speaking truth to state or religious power, despite the costs. But there is a danger in misappropriating this honorable prophetic posture, or treating it as if it were the only way to pursue justice. The “here-I-stand” icon presupposes an enemy, an antagonist who will not heed us and who must be challenged, or else…. It also presupposes that our side already has all the necessary moral insights about the matters of justice or injustice at hand. The here-I-stand prophetic frame of mind expresses a form of courage that amplifies polarization, if donned as the clothing of Christian identity itself, and taken as the only needed expression of virtue in the public square.

By contrast, we imagine hospitable courage as a virtue that the many interlocutors within the body of Christ attempt and hone in the space of belonging, including those who disagree with our take on a matter of ethics or public policy. As members of the body of Christ (for Paul, these are our siblings!), we are called to practice mutual curiosity about one another (with our varied intuitions and moral orientations). Such a practice entails that we inevitably need to be mindful of when to back off, when to address the flare-up of negative emotions, when to acknowledge the difficulty of enduring another. Yet when we recall our mutual belonging to one another in the body of Christ, we can more readily think and speak together as companions. We underscore: a theology centered on primary belonging can elicit a new regard for the other through hospitable courage, including the courage to move toward and think together with those who do not share our values in contested ethical debates or our own sense of public policy direction. A hospitable courage holds together in our heart, imagination, and interactions both those persons whose ethical visions we advocate, andthose who challenge or seem indifferent to the particular justice-seeking changes we seek to enact. 

Hospitable courage is a virtue that emerges amid what we call in our book an ordinary faith—a faith that recognizes the Spirit-pulled responsibility to see that our ethical deliberations and political advocacy occur within the Beloved Community wrought by our covenantal belonging together as the body of Christ. In these polarized times, we encourage theologians, ethicists, and all Christians to imagine what ordinary faith looks like when it attends less to articulating our respective moral and political positions as the mark of true Christian belonging, and more to figuring out our way of working together within the Beloved Community, uncomfortably but truly.

Amy Carr, professor of religious studies at Western Illinois University, and Christine Helmer ’97 Ph.D., professor of German and of religious studies at Northwestern University, are the authors of a new book, Ordinary Faith in Polarized Times: Justification and the Pursuit of Justice, published by Baylor University Press. Carr, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, is the author of a forthcoming book, Facing Divine Affliction: A Lutheran Theodicy for the Sinned-Against (Cascade). Helmer’s books include How Luther Became the Reformer (Westminster John Knox, 2019) and Theology and the End of Doctrine (Westminster John Knox, 2014).

[1] Denise Rector, “Race and the gift of lament,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology (vol. 60, no. 1, March 2021), pp. 22-27.