The Desperate Necessity for ‘Common Ground’

“There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground.” This was the headline for a recent article in Time magazine, penned by novelist and professor Tayari Jones (Emory). In her article Jones tells a compelling story about her upbringing. Her parents were activists, “veterans of the civil rights movement,” and under their tutelage she also learned to stand up for what she believed was right. On one occasion, riding in the back of a car for a zoo trip, she was astonished to discover that the driver was getting gas from Gulf, a company complicit in financing Apartheid. Young Tayari got out of the car and refused to ride further. She missed out on the zoo that day, but when her father came to collect her he was proud of her choice.

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Jones uses her story as a launching pad to critique the desire for ‘common ground.’ She writes,

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

Where was the ‘middle,’ she asks, with regard to American slavery? Where is the ‘middle’ with regard to Japanese internment during WWII? “What is halfway,” she queries, “between moral and immoral?” (The implied answer is ‘no place.’)

To be fair, I think Jones is right to critique the rhetoric of platitudes. There are times when appeals for ‘common ground’ are, as she suggests, rooted in “conflict avoidance and denial.” There are times when the language of ‘good people on both sides’ is a cheat, a deception, a statement intended to diffuse the perception of discomfort. In this I am reminded that when eight clergymen approached Martin Luther King Jr. and critiqued his methods of nonviolent resistance, he responded in his famous letter from the jail in Birmingham, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Those clergyman didn’t want King to delay for the sake of compromise, they wanted him to delay because they were uncomfortable. They advocated for a kind of ‘common ground’ in order to ease their own discomfort.

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And yet the blanket dismissal of compromise which Jones’s piece advocates is deeply troubling. Above all else, in the rejection of compromise there is a presumption that one side is completely right, while the other side is completely wrong. This might make sense when fighting Nazis in Germany, and it might have validity when defending yourself from an advancing army of cannibals, but things in real life are rarely so clear-cut. Furthermore, an appeal to no-compromise sounds compelling, and can effectively galvanize a base, but what if you find yourself on the outside of that base? It’s one thing to claim no compromise, as Jones does, with respect to issues of immigration, Black America, and White Nationalism, but what about no compromise on the part of abortion, or gender identity, or the dissolution of the family? Aren’t these also issues that display a spectrum of ‘moral and immoral’? Am I to reject compromise with Jones, or any other disputant, when a moral question is in play?

But there are deeper problems still. What has happened in the past when we have rejected compromise? Consider the following:

There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it. And that party is either the Left: and then God help us! for it will lead us to complete destruction – to Bolshevism, or else it is a party of the Right which at the last, when the people is in utter despair, when it has lost all its spirit and has no longer any faith in anything, is determined for its part ruthlessly to seize the reins of power – that is the beginning of resistance of which I spoke a few minutes ago. Here, too, there can be no compromise – there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew. (Adolf Hitler, 1922, emphasis added)

Here lies the real danger, to which Jones (unwittingly) points but to which both sides of the ideological debate are prone: the logic of Hitler applies to both sides of the ideological spectrum. And the grim truth is that if I determine you to be irredeemable—a misfit, a deplorable, recalcitrant, unwilling to change—then if I will not compromise with you I must do other things to you. In short, I open a door to the possibility of removing you from the equation. A refusal to compromise is the proto-rhetoric to murder. And if we aren’t planning to murder one another, then some form of compromise is going to be in order.

Adolf Hitler holding a speech

What is compromise? I can think of two definitions. First, compromise is the art of living within a complexity of differences. Every marriage is built on compromise. Two agents inhabit the same space but with different wills and desires. She wants to watch one film, he wants to watch another. Without compromise, how do you resolve the situation? Second, compromise is the art of disagreeing with someone without killing them. Sometimes a compromise is an agreement to disagree. Sometimes compromise means both of us giving up something we like for the sake of living in relative peace. And it’s worth noting that some compromises work, while others don’t. For example, the American government is founded on a “Great Compromise” which created our two houses of government (bridging the competing factors of states-rights and population). This compromise has been working successfully for hundreds of years. In the same vein, the Mason-Dixon line was a compromise with regard to the spread of slavery in early America—this was a compromise that failed, catastrophically.

For certain, it is not always the case that failed compromise ends in the murder of your disputant—some failed compromises end in divorce, or loss, or never speaking to one another again. But when we’re speaking of a political entity—such as a state—and when we are advocating through our rhetoric for a set of members in that state to be regarded as fundamentally immoral and irredeemable, then we are sidling up to a very dangerous line. Are there times when it is the right thing to do away with an ideological bloc? Certainly. Can we kill Nazis with impunity? Sometimes. Have we found a better way, in the past 2000 years, of changing someone’s mind than violence? The answer is uncertain—gulags and re-education camps are some of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. The only way, it seems, of changing someone’s mind without violence is, well, compromise. Finding common ground, highlighting the good ‘on the other side,’ and patiently, sometimes painfully, waiting while working for change. The alternative is to murder them.

Dear James (3), Objections, The Real Gospel

Dear James,

Oh my! It appears I have struck a nerve with you—I talk about avoiding outrage and yet you send me a letter almost full to the brim with example upon example of outrages of culture, outrages of Christianity, outrages of Islam, etc! Does it strike you as strange that when I pressed you to anchor your faith on a true centre your first response was to (strongly!) reinforce the fringe? I fear that you have fallen into the trap of thinking in which the Christian faith is seen primarily as a cause. A cause for which we can be in support or against, a cause which makes it easy to see who is with the cause, and who is not with the cause. This is very dangerous, and we must take some time now to sort this out together.

It is an age-old problem in Christianity, determining precisely who is in and out of the Kingdom of God. We are commanded not to judge—and that is well and good—but it doesn’t help us in the meantime when we are also commanded to be on guard for the wolves in sheep’s clothing. So who are the false believers? Who are the wolves? And are there reliable means for determining such individuals? For the early Christians, baptism was a simple indicator of loyalty—baptism was a tangible, visible commitment to the people of God (you wouldn’t even be allowed to sit with the regular congregation in the gathered church until you had been baptized—they had special places at the sides of the church for you!). But when it became politically advantageous to be a Christian at the time of Constantine and following, and as baptism became as much a rite of the state as of the church, it became less clear who was in and who was out. At that point, participation in Holy Communion became the signifier for the ins and outs. This held until the Protestant Reformation, when, with the throwing off of the old Roman order, the Protestant churches suddenly had to find their own way of belonging to the Church catholic. The result was that the Reformation generated an identity crisis from which we have never really recovered. Think of it this way: for the Roman Catholic (even today), salvation is a simple matter of being part of the church. Are you Catholic? Then you’re saved, of course. It’s a simple equation. But for Protestants it isn’t so simple. Are you a member of a church? Good. Is it a Bible-believing church? Good. Does it preach the undiluted word? Good. Does it exhibit the fruit of the gospel-as-preached? Good. Have you made a personal confession of faith in Christ? Good. Are you walking in the life of Christ? Good. When Protestantism severed from its Roman roots, it invited a host of clarifications about the precise nature of an individual’s salvation.

If you’re still with me, I want to draw a connection between the cause-based Christianity we have today and our history of Protestant anxiety about salvation. When certainty of salvation is not a given, it is easy for individuals to outsource their certainty to other factors. In short, it is easier to ally oneself to a cause, and call that alliance “Christianity,” than it is to actually invest one’s life in the Christ-life called for from the Gospels. We must beware a confusion here—when I live the Christ-life in all its fullness I will doubtless invest myself in any number of causes for the name of Christ, but those causes will never be my faith itself. I am an advocate for the lives of the unborn because of my faith in Christ, but my advocacy cannot be a replacement for the reality of faith in Christ. I may advocate for the poor in my city, but that advocacy is not a replacement for my faith in Christ. It is all too easy to experience zeal and passion for a cause, then confuse the zeal I have for the cause as zeal for my faith in Christ. But they are not the same thing at all.

What we do next is more wicked, though, because we assemble congregations around causes, rather than around the Gospel of Christ, and then we make judgments about the faithfulness of individuals based more on their allegiance to the cause than to their allegiance to Christ. Do you see how this can happen? This is what I meant by “shibboleths” in my last letter—it’s a story from Judges 12 where one group can’t pronounce the word shibboleth correctly (they lisp). When they are questioned by another group, and fail the test, they are killed. These kinds of cause-based fellowships are troubling not only because they are so pervasive, but because they cross the liberal/conservative line. Consider the following loaded questions: What’s your position on abortion? What’s your position on the poor? What’s your position on gay marriage? What’s your position on immigration? What’s your church doing for world missions? What’s your church doing for neighborhood engagement? Virtually all congregations are susceptible to this kind of sneaky transference, where orthodox acceptance is more a matter of aligning with the church’s pet-cause than with the Gospel of Christ.

This, of course, begs a question—what does the actual Gospel of Christ look like? What is the real gospel? I think the presence of Christ’s Gospel shows up in two kinds of stories which communities of faith must tell. Both of these stories come from Ephesians chapter 2, and both stories are shaped by the words “formerly” and “now.” The first story of the Gospel is the story of how formerly we were dead in our sins, but now we are alive in Christ, and this is the story from the first half of Ephesians 2. Formerly we lived as children of darkness, agents of the world’s agenda, captives to the world’s way of thinking. But now we are children of God, agents of His mission in the world, and captives of Christ. The second story of the Gospel, from the second half of Ephesians 2, is the story of how formerly we were separated from God and one another, but now we are unified as a new people in Christ. It is very important for us to see that both these stories are the Gospel. It is not merely that God has saved us from our sin, it is that God has saved us for a community of His people, the Church. Indivisibly, inseparably, these are the witness of the Gospel.

This means that a church anchored in the Gospel of Christ, and not in a cause, is anchored in the twin witnesses of changed lives and new community. Then, those changed lives and that new community engage in the causes to which God has called them at that place and time. There is an immeasurable diversity of causes, but an unmistakable harmony of Gospel.

All this invites a few further comments—firstly, that this is a matter of the principle of first and second things. When the Gospel is first, then the causes come second. But when the causes come first, the Gospel is always a casualty. I mean that—all cause-based Christian fellowships are slowly but surely ceasing to be Christian at all. Secondly, we can revisit the passage about wolves in sheep’s clothing—who are the deceivers in the midst of the congregation who are not really members of the faith? Among other things, they are people who cannot tell the two stories of the gospel. They are “known by their fruit,” and their fruit will show up in dividing the people of God, which is often by advocating a cause or a practice more than Christ (“if you’re not with this cause/worshipping in this way, you’re not a Christian!”). Their fruit is also revealed when they lead people away from Christ. Without true conviction of God’s Gospel, they lead others by their own preferences into destruction. As far as I am concerned, the whole of the prosperity gospel movement fits within this category. It has as its centre greed and worships Mammon in the name of Christ. May its wolfish ministers be convicted and repent.

I am sorry, James, if this letter has been a little hard-hitting in response to your objections, and I am sorry as well if it has been at all repetitious, but these are some of the central issues facing the Church today and they need to be teased out clearly if we are going to move forward. The restoration of the Church in North America (and throughout the world!) will not be a matter of finding just the right cause around which to gather the troops and invigorate the masses. Such a cause, if it is not Christ himself, will simply be another fire around which we gather to deny our Lord in time, choosing a win in the present over the eternal Gospel. We could win the moral war, the war for justice, the war for whatever good cause it might be, but lose our very souls. The only cause sufficient to gather and unite the Church is the cause of Christ and His Kingdom, and the only safe fire around which we can gather is the fire of the Holy Spirit.

I fear, in your frustration, that you have omitted mention of your visit with your pastor. Do please mention it in your next letter, as I am still keeping you and he in my prayers.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios