I make a point of subscribing both to CNN and Fox News. Switching between channels is like teleporting between alternate universes.
One of the things that stands out sharply on both the news channels and on my twitter feed is that the terms “conservative” and “liberal” have become emotionally charged, particularly on Fox. Simplistic commentators divide the world into a continuum between what are seen as two polarities.
What I find bewildering is that people identify with those labels and as they do they seem to automatically define themselves against those people who they define with the other label, seeing them very much as “the enemy.”
This week we saw the outcome of this constantly worsening divide as a gunman walked up to a baseball field and opened fire on Republican congressman after previously ensuring that they weren’t Democrats.
The result of the shooting was another round of emotional calls for a de-escalation of the vitriolic dialogue and another much publicized symbolic act (this time a moment of collective prayer on second base before the game started).
We saw the same kind of response after the shooting of congresswoman Gabbi Gifford and after 9/11. Those two precedents don’t fill me with much hope that another violent act will produce any long term cultural change.
I believe that the reason that things won’t change is that people are talking about the wrong thing. The real problem is buying into, and living out of simplistic labels.
We are getting our identities from the wrong place. When we act out roles shaped by the labels we find ourselves living in a world of stereotypes that bear very little resemblance to reality.
The world is complex, and any attempt to divide the world into broad groups will always be unhelpful.
The Christian understanding is that each and every person is unique, and has a unique role to fulfill into the world.
On Sunday I am preaching my final sermon at St. Albert Alliance church, and as I do I will be finishing a series of sermons in which we have been exploring what it actually means to step into the unique story that God has for each person.
I’ll be quoting Gordon Smith who says:
“For each individual there is a specific call—a defining purpose or mission, a reason for being. Every individual is called of God to respond through service in the world.”
I will be pointing out that seeking labels and roles is a normal part of growing up, but getting fixed in a role is actually sign of immaturity.
The official definition of role fixation is:
The acting out of a specific role, and that role alone, no matter what the situation might require.
When people get fixed on the role of conservative or liberal, they find themselves acting in ways that keep re-enforcing dysfunction because they are not free to respond in the way that any situation might actually require.
It is this role fixation that is the real problem in American politics. It is also the real problem in the Christian church and in most workplaces.
I have known that in talking about “calling” or “vocation” there is a real danger that people will hear that as an invitation to accept a role or a label. It’s not.
Roles and labels become focussed when true vocation goes missing.
I am convinced that discovering our unique calling is about commitment to goals and not to roles.
I discovered the power of commitment to a goal when, as a 20 year old, I stood atop Mt. Wellington, overlooking the city and accepted the task of reaching Hobart. That moment shaped my life. From that point I didn’t need anyone to tell me what I should be doing, I was free to act.
Eventually I would leave Hobart, because I had accepted a bigger goal, and as I reflect on my life, I have been discovering my calling as I work towards goals that Jesus invites me to take on.
Hebrews 12:1-2 says:
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
The picture that this verse paints for me is of an orienteering course. We don’t see the finishing line, but we do see the next mark, the next goal, and we trust that Jesus knows what he is doing as he marks out the race for us.
Very rarely does the pursuit of a goal work out how you think it should, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong to pursue goals. Goals help us find chart out course and give us a reason to get beyond the limitations of our identities.
As Leeanne and I prepare to head back to Australia we have had a number of people say to us “I could never do what you are doing.”
It is hard to know how to respond when people say things like that, because at one level, of course, this journey is ours and no-one else’s. Jesus is probably not inviting you to move to the other side of the planet.
At another level though, saying that you wouldn’t be willing to do something is actually a pretty big deal.
When you say to God “I am willing to do this, but not that,” you also should have the integrity to say “I’m not ready to run the race you are marking out for me Jesus, my roles and identity are still to important to me.”
Similarly in the world of politics if you want to say “I’m going to work for what is best for my country but I won’t work with those people”, you also should have the integrity to say “The labels I adopt and the roles that come from them are more important than the country is.”
One of the things I love about the story of Mother Teresa is that while she was world famous, she also cleaned toilets.
I know for me there was a turning point in my life when I felt like Jesus was asking whether I would truly be ready to do anything he asked me to. I started to imagine the worst possible job I could.
I realize that the worst possible thing Jesus could ask you to do is very particular to who you are as a person. For some it would be moving across the world, for others it would be public speaking.
For me, I imagined what it would be like to have a job sweeping the aisles in a supermarket at 3 a.m. every morning. That was the worst job I could imagine. After a fair bit of wrestling I said to God, “o.k., if that is what you asked me to do, I would do it.”
As I look back, that was almost as important a moment for me as the moment on the mountain. There are two things you need if you are to step into your story: a commitment to a goal, and a willingness to do whatever Jesus asks you to do.
American politics needs people who are willing to let go of the labels and commit to goals.
The Christian church, too, needs people who are willing to pursue the race marked out for them and in that pursuit, take on whatever role necessary.
Living your life based on goals means that you are willing to accept any role necessary in order to achieve the goal. This is exactly what the Apostle Paul was saying when he wrote:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV)
The Apostle Paul is clearly saying that he will not allow himself to be defined by a role, but will take on whatever role is necessary for the sake of the goal to which Jesus has called him.
This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It means being ready to say yes to a goal that is bigger than you, and being willing to do whatever role is necessary in order to achieve that goal. Technically that is called “role flexibility,” and its a sign of maturity.
We need more people who are willing to let go of the labels and step into the complex real world, following the path marked out for them by the real author of their stories.