Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Loneliness of the Middle

Very few people who know me would describe me as being in "the middle."

My liberal friends will scoff at the very idea, for my politics and economics are, to them, very conservative. I am a member of a Baptist church. My personal ethics and morality are straight arrow.

My conservative friends, on the other hand, shake their heads that I do not join their causes. I do not boycott, retweet, or rally. I don't think that either President Obama or Secretary Clinton is evil. I don't think we are on the brink of socialism in America. I don't think most people in America even have much of a clue what socialism is.

It is well-documented that the extremes are controlling the political debate in our nation. That is also true in our churches. To say that I am in the Middle does not define me as classically "middle of the road" on any issue, nor does it mean that I do not hold strong and well thought-out convictions. It simply means that I do not identify with either extreme.

I entitle this blog "The Loneliness of the Middle" not because I think I am alone there. I fully believe that a vast majority of Americans, of the church, and of my friends are right there with me. The reason it is a Lonely Middle is that majority stays largely silent to avoid the barbs and arrows that will invariably rain down on them from both sides if they speak.

It is lonely when your friends on one side lead with fear, distrust, and suspicion. They do not, by and large, (and despite what my friends on the other extreme say) actually preach hatred. But they are loudly offended, and they believe that the end is near - whether because of economics, crime, immigration, blanket acceptance of behaviors that are unthinkable to them, or terrorism. In their response - often without their intent or even their understanding - they are offensive, narrow, and off-putting. Their language is foreign to much of the rest of the world, and so they are not understood as anything but reactionary.

It is lonely when your friends on the other extreme lead with open intolerance, mockery, and disdain. They preach broadminded acceptance but show no forbearance or patience with those on the other extreme, not simply disagreeing but labeling with brickbats and ostracism. In their response - often apparently intentionally - they are rude and dismissive. They appear uncaring and uninterested in other points of view, and so they are not understood as anything but high-handed and, ironically, bigoted. They cannot imagine that they are so viewed by anyone with any bit of discernment, but they are.

Freedom of course must mean that we allow what we do not like, what offends us, and that with which we do not agree. As we become freer and freer, more and more behaviors, attitudes, speech, and ideas become more and more prevalent. To want to squash what grows freely is no doubt contradictory, hypocritical, and wrong.

Having an opinion or a standard that says that any behavior is somehow wrong has become the equivalent, in the loudest circles, of small-minded hatred. "Love the sinner but hate the sin," a watchword for many of us growing up, has somehow become a byword, a badge of condescension and scorn. The idea of absolute truth knowable to human beings is, in our post-modern conceit, somewhere between an afterthought and a punchline.

I have friends on one side sermonizing with a message that sounds like anything but love for neighbor and faith that God will bring us through. I understand the reaction to what are believed to be dangerous actions, but expecting everyone to behave like you want them to, or like people used to, or like you imagine would be perfect is a fruitless - and, more importantly, dangerous - daydream. I understand concern that the Left is leading us down a path of no return - whether the issue is economic, political, religious, or behavioral; but understanding it does not mean that I agree with it. And while I understand the concern, I do not understand the lack of faith that truth and right and grace - and yes, God - will not only survive but overcome.

I have friends on the other side moralizing with a message that sounds like anything but love for neighbor and faith that God has brought us safe thus far. I understand the reaction to what is believed to be opinionated and unjustifiable prejudice, but expecting everyone to agree that anything goes and that long-held standards have become passé is a fool's errand. I understand concern that the Right is callous and dogmatic; but understanding it does not mean that I agree. And while I understand the concern, I do not understand the easy intolerance for those perceived to be intolerant. The prejudice against the (perceived to be) prejudiced is self-evident and paradoxical.

There may be no better example of what I am talking about than within the church, where there are those who condemn interpretations that vary from the approved and there are others who cannot abide the idea of doctrine. The fundamentalist's unwillingness to commune with those who disagree is outgunned only by the progressive's complete intolerance of the fundamentalist.

I also have many friends who profess to be "tired" of it all. That is scary, and it is unfortunate. When those on the extreme have worn down those who do not want to engage, or do not know how to engage, or simply find better things to do than engage on the extreme arguments, we are all poorer as a result.

I find myself in the Middle. I have strong beliefs about behaviors, economics, politics, and religion; in the right setting, I am happy to debate all of them. But I do not understand the need to announce them to the world in what can only - especially in this day and age - alienate and offend far more than it can ever hope to persuade. I do not understand subjugating love and grace to the blood sport that our political (and far too often our religious) colloquy has become.

I am ok being lonely in the middle. I am not writing this asking for like-minded folks to send me an attaboy and let me know you are there with me. But I do hope that my friends on both extremes can take a deep breath and think about what is ultimately important. On the Right, is sending a message that is heard by many (even if wrongly) that you are guided by anything less than love worth it? Does announcing fear do anything to demonstrate your faith in the Spirit of Christ? On the Left, does browbeating those who hold to standards you no longer hold do anything to make the freedom you cherish more palatable? Does loudly declaring that those who disagree with you are morons really demonstrate your superiority?

Do the ends justify these means?

I end by reminding myself that I am doubtless guilty of much of what I chastise. I have unquestionably spent my time on my high horse - perhaps even in this blog. I have criticized behavior, taught scripture in a way that I am sure made me sound narrow and intolerant, and arrogantly dismissed those who have disagreed with me. I need to read my own words.

The Middle is full of lonely people who hold all sorts of views. We are liberals, conservatives, pragmatists, dreamers, believers, non-believers, nationalists, universalists, free spirits, and sticks in the mud. We diverge on many issues. But however much we disagree with each other, we circle around principles of knowable truth, freedom, reasonableness, standards, toleration, hope, love, grace, and faith.

There is much that needs to be discussed and addressed. The Left has some good points to make about freedom and self-control and growth. The Right has some good points to make about what threatens us and what deserves preservation. Those of us in the Lonely Middle - whatever edge of the Middle may be our home - are fully engaged in debating and seeking those answers. I invite my friends on both extremes to join us. We welcome you.


Ben Voth said...

I do think this is a good post--especially in the sense that I believe people should not give up on dialogue.

I do also think that the "middle" is an over used term. If we strive for the "middle" I think it encourages ideologues to bid up their politics-- knowing that those committed to the middle are going to split the difference with them regardless of the issue.

I think we all need to do a couple of things regarding political argument:

1. Be willing to state clearly and specifically our convictions about issues-- almost without regard to ideological referents.
2. Seek to utilize warrants common to our opponents to bolster our side and encourage dialogue [i.e. feminist reasons for opposing abortion]

As always, I am a huge fan of James Farmer and his rules for CORE about the steps a person should engage in prior to public advocacy which involves respecting the opponent and researching the actual facts of the controversy.

Thanks for putting something on the internet about politics. Ben

Lyn said...

Ben, thanks for reading and commenting. I think that I have defined "the Middle" carefully to avoid the forced compromise you discuss. As far as being "willing to state clearly and specifically our convictions," I believe that in this, as in all things, context is key. The Teacher is right in Ecclesistes: To everything there is a season.