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10.21.2012

Forbearance: Antidote to Polarization


Sermon Preached on October 21, 2012
Proper 24B: Hebrews 5:1-10

“Mitt Romney – a skillful liar – is lying to Medicare Seniors to get their vote – he will end Medicare, as you know it, seniors.”[1]

“How could anyone vote for a man who forces Christians to fund ABORTION, CONTRACEPTION and STERILIZATION and considers this the most important achievement of his life?”[2]

These two statements, paired with less than flattering photos of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, have been floating around the Internet in the past several months.   In Michael Grunwald’s book The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, he writes that in December 2008, after Barack Obama was elected, Eric Cantor, the new House minority whip from Virginia, called his whip team to a meeting at his condo to plot strategy.  The strategy was to fight – to oppose every Obama initiative and insure that he could claim no bipartisan victories.

Ezra Klein of The Washington Post wrote this on February 1, 2011:

“If historians ever have to pinpoint the day that America lost the future, they're likely to look to last Thursday. That was when Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor of the Senate to announce an agreement on fixing the increasingly sclerotic, polarized, dysfunctional body they lead. Their agreement? Neither of them would fix it.[3]

Granted these examples come from the past 4 years and do, as a result, paint the Republican party in pretty dark and sinister terms.  But, I want to be clear that polarization in politics has always been a reality and that it crosses party lines.  And, more importantly, what I want to say is that the polarities of our political climate seem to have been infiltrating our churches – perhaps for just as long. 

In the earliest times, polarization in churches led frequently to the declaration of the minority as heretics and the majority as orthodox.  People have been burned at the stake, crusades have been fought and, in more recent times, denominations and congregations have split over the social issues of the day: slavery, the role of women, differing understandings about sexuality – not to mention those congregational schisms that result over the color of the new carpeting in the parish hall and whether or not it is acceptable to check e-mail on the Sabbath (and I don’t mean during church – I hope we all agree on that one!).

To highlight the tragedy, Lark News published this tongue-in-cheek article a while back:

GREELEY — A little Jewish praise word caused a lot of controversy as a Colorado church, divided over the proper spelling of ‘hallelujah,’ split up and re-formed as separate congregations.
The problem arose when the board of elders at Full Gospel Temple budgeted money for a praise banner to hang from the sanctuary ceiling bearing the word “hallelujah,” or “alleluia.” One faction insisted the word be spelled the first way, while the other wouldn’t budge from the second way. Petitions were drawn up, rallies held and late-night threats received by both sides. One man, an “alleluia” supporter, was nearly clobbered by a rock that came through his window. The rock bore a note that said, simply, “hallelujah!”
Both sides were adamant that since they had grown up with a particular spelling, theirs was correct.
“It makes a tremendous difference, when you open your eyes and see it there on the banner spelled wrong,” said a hallelujah supporter. “It’s so jarring to see it without the ‘h’ at the beginning. Nobody spells it that way anymore.”
“I was so sick about it I couldn’t sleep,” said Evelyn Haney, 57, an equally ardent ‘alleluia’ supporter who carried a sign during a recent day of picketing. “To think some people spell this wonderful word with a ‘j’ in it. It’s not something where I question their salvation, but at times you have to wonder.”
The two churches now meet in separate school auditoriums, and each has fashioned a banner to suit its own preference. Worship, says one parishioner, is “much better now.”[4]

So, why are we so “at risk” for polarization? What makes us susceptible?  Anxiety may be the answer.   I’m not talking here about the kind of acute anxiety that comes up as a reaction to a specific crisis or trauma but rather the kind of chronic anxiety that builds up as residue leftover from past incidents of acute anxiety that have never been adequately addressed or resolved.[5]  Violence in our communities and in our world is on the rise; resource shortages and overcrowding in our urban centers continue to stress us out and all of this is magnified as it is mirrored back to us by the media.  We are on information overload as the media bombards us with the harsh realities of our world not only during a 30-minute news segment or in the pages of the newspaper, but on our computers, 24 / 7 news stations, and now even on our phones where we can receive tweet news updates wherever we are.

“The Greek word for anxiety is related to the word for ‘narrow’ . . . [Anxiety] narrows the perceptual focus so that people cannot see all that is going on in a situation, [that narrowing] reduces the options for action.”[6]  In other words, when we become anxious, we lose perspective. We find comfort in being close to people who agree with us and, as a united group, we become less tolerant of those who hold a different opinion. In other words, we become polarized.  Focusing on chronic anxiety helps us to realize that polarization is often not about the content of a division – is red carpet or blue carpet the right way forward? – but rather polarization is about our response to anxiety, an attempt to be comforted, to be comfortable.

If you and I live in anxious times – and I think it is fair to say that we do - where then lies the hope? Is there a path forward for our churches, for our denominations, for our country amidst the polarizing positions present all around us? Perhaps a portion of our reading from Hebrews this morning can lead us toward another way.  “Every high priest,” the author writes, “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.”[7]  Now first let me say, labeling the other as “ignorant and wayward” is probably not going to be the best path forward.  In fact, it might just be a way to increase polarization – though to the author’s credit, the verse does go on to say that all of us are subject to the same weaknesses.  Nonetheless, let’s focus on the front part of that verse where we are encouraged to “deal gently” with those “others.” 

The literal sense of the Greek word translated here as “deal gently” is to “moderate” or “to control” emotion.  The word does not appear elsewhere in Scripture; however, where it appears outside of Scripture in the same time period it typically referred to anger – in other words, “controlling one’s anger” or “moderating one’s anger” toward another.  Perhaps it is closest to the biblical notion of forbearance – self-control, restraint, and tolerance.

In an essay on forbearance, Tom Yoder Neufeld writes “Forbearance is the Christian belief that we ought to bear each other’s burdens, weaknesses, shortcomings, . . . and sins.”  He goes on to say that it is “based on a biblical understanding of God – a God whose love, mercy, and compassion far outweigh the word of judgment, a God who loves the world and bears its shortcomings, whose goal is to reconcile all things.”[8]   The practice of forbearance is a practice of modeling ourselves after God – holding back on judgment and beginning with love, mercy and compassion.  It is a practice “fueled by love, motivated by hope, rendered resilient by the practice of patience, and willing to suffer for the sake of reconciliation.”[9]  And, forbearance, dealing gently with the other, calls us to be “deliberately vulnerable, leaving [ourselves] open to … to disappointment and grief – which is the story of God’s love, most especially as it has come to expression in Christ.”[10]

The author of Hebrews, in our passage today, after describing the way humans are to live into relationships by dealing gently with one another, goes on to say that we do this because we are to be imitators of Christ who “In the days of his flesh. . . offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death. . . and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . .”[11]

Forbearance is a posture that moves toward the other with interest.  Imagine asking someone with whom you disagree, “can you help me understand how your desire to be faithful to Jesus Christ, to follow him in discipleship, has brought you to this conviction?”[12]  And asking this question, not in a sarcastic or accusatory way, not in a way that suggests you have an agenda, but in a way that shows your honest desire to remain in relationship with them.  Forbearance is the way forward and it is, for Christians, not an option but rather “the required stance of all who would wish to be daughters and sons of God.”

I want to end this morning with these words of The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University:

“We may be entering an Epoch of Forbearance. . . . If we can restrain ourselves, in the future, from making scapegoats of some in order furiously to retaliate against other hidden foes, that is, if we can forbear, we shall find that the community of peoples will see in us a last best hope. We may model, as a people, a path forward into a time of freedom, pluralism, toleration, compromise, and peace.”[13]


[1] “The Pinocchio Press,” (September 4, 2012), accessed online on October 19, 2012 at http://article.wn.com/view/2012/09/04/The_Pinocchio_Press_y/
[2] Image shown during Richard Blackburn’s presentation “A Never Ending Supply of Polarities: Overcoming Polarization in Church and Society” at Advanced Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process sponsored by Lombard Mennonite Peace Fellowship, October 15 – 17, 2012.
[3] Ezra Klein, “The Senate vs. the Future, “The Washington Post, (February 1, 2011), accessed October 19, 2012 at http://voices.washingtonpost.com.
[4] Accessed October 19, 2012 at http://www.larknews.com/archives/84.
[5] Richard Blackburn, “The Road to Damascus: The Church and Change in an Age of Anxiety,” presentation at Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process sponsored by Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, October 24 – 26, 2011.
[6] Ronald Richardson, Polarization and the Healthier Church: Applying Bowen Family Systems Theory to Conflict and Change in Society and Congregational Life,  2012, p. 75.
[7] Hebrews 5:2.
[8] Tom Yoder Neufeld, “Forbearance: Binding Loosely or Loose Bindings,” in Creed and Conscience: Essays in Honour of A. James Reimer, Pandora Press, 2007, pp. 27-43.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Hebrews 5:7, 9.
[12] Blackburn, “A Never Ending Supply of Polarities.”
[13] The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, “With Malice Towards None,”  Marsh Chapel Sermon Archive, February 20, 2011, accessed October 19, 2012 at http://blogs.bu.edu/sermons/

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