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The great division

We live in a time of discerning who’s on which side

I was invited, out of the blue, to the home of a woman for tea. Just she and I. She is a fellow worshipper at our local church with whom I have only infrequent contact—the occasional Saturday morning prayer meeting with a few other women, a social gathering at her farmhouse a year or two ago. Especially since the virus we have been almost entirely out of touch.

Doubtless she had been observing me awhile, for I was not in the house five minutes before she said, while preparing the tea, “I’ll put it right out there: I voted for _______.” I replied that I had too and added that it was good to get it on the table and have it over with, to defray the tension.

The tension needs no explaining. It is the subterranean dis-ease in every human interaction in these times—the question of which “side” the other is on, of whether our interlocutor is one of “them” or one of “us.” Of whether it is safe to talk.

George Orwell captures this social dis-ease in his dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four when describing the office dynamics between protagonist Winston Smith and a colleague in the Ministry of Truth:

“The other person was a man named O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party and holder of some post so important and remote that Winston had only a dim idea of its nature. … He felt deeply drawn to him. … Because of a secretly held—or perhaps not even a belief, merely a hope—that O’Brien’s political orthodoxy was not perfect. … He had the appearance of being a person that you could talk to if somehow you could cheat the telescreen and get him alone.”

Gradually some Christians discerned a different spirit in the Führer.

I am amused to recall the ease with which the question of who is on your side was settled on one occasion more than three millennia ago. Gilead defeated Ephraim in war, and as the losing Ephraimites tried to make their escape across the Jordan, Gileadite soldiers seized the fords of the river. When any Ephraimite came and said, “Let me cross over,” the Gileadite would ask, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied no, the Gileadite would say, “Pronounce Shibboleth.” And if he was an Ephraimite he would say Sibboleth, because he could not pronounce Shibboleth. And they would kill him (Judges 12). Very efficient.

Speaking of “sides,” Eric Metaxas writes in his masterwork Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: “In 1933 … most pastors were quite convinced that Hitler was on their side, partly because he had a record of pro-Christian statements.”

Gradually some Christians discerned a different spirit in the Führer, and the incompatibility of his National Socialism with Biblical Christianity, while others were beguiled and met the fate of the frog in the pot. The result was a church split—the “Confessing Church” (of which Bonhoeffer was a part) and the “German Church,” which stuck with Hitler.

That is the one good thing about mounting pressure: It has the effect of making things clear that were ambiguous and incipient before. It brings to the surface what was latent, “so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). 

“There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized,” says Paul (1 Corinthians 11:19). We see in hindsight which faction in Deutschland was genuine and are grateful that the entire German church did not go headlong off the cliff.

I have been shaken to see the increase of lawlessness in our nation (Matthew 24:12). With each incremental worsening I thought, “Now everyone will see how wicked these people are! This is surely the evidence that will persuade them!” But that did not happen. I was wrong. I had not remembered an important story in Scripture:

Jesus raised a dead man named Lazarus from the grave, the most compelling evidence of His deity to date. Rather than persuading the Pharisees, it hardened them. 

That day they made their plans to kill the Lord.

—This column has been updated to correct the date of the war between Gilead and Ephraim described in Judges 12.

Comments

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  • Postmodern Redneck
    Posted: Thu, 12/17/2020 12:23 pm

    Here's a quote that I have been thinking about for a while:  "...If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family--anything you like--at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous.  Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse:  the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing.  The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder….Everything is getting more itself and different from everything else all the time.”  C. S. Lewis, "That Hideous Strength"

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Fri, 12/18/2020 04:15 pm

    Thank you for years of insightful articles.  This one was no exception but is an excellent observation of what many of us are seeing come to pass.  

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sat, 12/19/2020 10:53 pm

    Ms. Petersen,

    You wrote, "I have been shaken to see the increase of lawlessness in our nation (Matthew 24:12). With each incremental worsening I thought, “Now everyone will see how wicked these people are! This is surely the evidence that will persuade them!” But that did not happen. I was wrong. I had not remembered an important story in Scripture:"

    Would you believe me if I said that people on both sides are thinking these same thoughts about the other? And with equal incredulity as yours.

    Concerning "The increase of lawlessness in our nation," as a concept both sides are floating--this term needs to be defined. You would agree, I'm sure, that our greatest blindness is when we consider ourselves. There are many, many different manners of working outside the law. If you think that only one side is perpetrating lawlessness, then you are blind indeed.

    My biggest objection to your article is your use of the term, "these people." No matter which side you represent, use of that phrase is usually pejorative. With only two major political parties, only two major candidates for whom to vote, and a vast percentage of Americans who didn't vote at all, do you really think there exists an entity such as, "these people"? And are they so clearly distinguishable under such a large blanket label that you can pin a certain unnamed brand of lawlessness to them?  To my ear, your article seems highly judgmental. Could that be because I see myself as a genuine Christian, same as you, and yet I'm pretty sure I'm on the other side. Would I commit those acts of lawlessness? Never! And yet, it appears you may have lumped me in with, "these people." And are you aware that you're comparing "these people" to Hitler? No matter how you cut the cake, you are.

    Yet your main point does stand--Hitler was evil and some Christians did figure that out before he died. Thinking about our situation today, I've concluded, sadly, that we'll have to wait for the history books to be written some time in the future before we discover which in fact is the evil side.

  • SteveInMA
    Posted: Mon, 12/21/2020 11:49 am

    Interesting article, but I'm afraid it's not all that meaningful without some reference to absolute truth.  Without some way to say "this side is the good side because XYZ", there is no actual "right" or "good" side.  Anyone reading this will assume that their view, regardless of what that view is, is in fact, the "good" side. A reference point needs to be established, without that, there's not much meaning.

  • JENNYBETH
    Posted: Sun, 12/27/2020 06:51 pm

    West Coast Gramma's comment "Would you believe me if I said that people on both sides are thinking these same thoughts about the other? And with equal incredulity as yours," is dead on. My Republican family can't believe that any thinking persion would vote for Democrats, and my Democrat friends can't believe that anybody with any moral sensibility would vote Republican (or decline the Black Lives Matter bandwagon). Also strongly demonstrated by the typical reaction to third-party voters: "It's all your fault that my candidate lost!"--assuming surely they would have voted a certain way otherwise.

  • RH
    Posted: Fri, 01/01/2021 04:37 pm

    Thank you so much for this article! It is so good to be reminded that I'm not the only Christian who is "discerning a different spirit in the Führer," and grieving that the Church is battling a dangerous infection of political idolatry.