Driving the backroads of rural Alberta can be an adventure into some of the most lovely country in the world. There is a unique beauty of the Alberta prairie. Driving the gravel roads can be a bit of a trick as different stretches of the road can be different than others - washboards, deeply rutted, wet, packed or loose - all present different challenges to keeping it between the ditches. In some places in my prairie home, hitting the ditch means a long walk to the nearest farm to ask for a tow out of the ditch.
The ditch analogy has come to be a profound one for me in many areas of life, especially because I feel that in some ways I have spent my life going from one extreme to another. When I think of ditches, I am thinking of a broad number of areas including politics and most certainly faith. It seems that much of our western life or politic can be one of the extremes - you are either on the right or the left, and it seems that it has become increasingly polemic. Like a centrifuge, taking something that is whole and fractionating community - isolating each constituent to the extremes.
There's a Ditch on Either Side
Our life together can often be subject to the whirl of rhetoric, politics, and the clamoring for the spotlight results in a stark demarcation - insisting that one either subscribe to the far right or the far left. For if you are sympathetic to the point of view or can recognize the value of an approach of someone from the "other side," you are often viewed as a traitor or at least with suspicion.
Neither right or left-wing, I believe that the healthy faith lands in the middle ground. The place where we must wrestle against the draw of both ditches and learned to live creatively in the tension. Looking to maintain the space between the polemic ditches can be some of the most hazardous ground to hold. To navigate the middle of the road is to risk being hit by a bus going in either direction. It is for this reason living in this middle is so radical, so counter-cultural - resisting a kind of cultural fascism. The radical middle is the place of genuine revolution and resistance to the respective ditches.
To navigate the radical middle can require a great deal of wisdom, creativity, and self-awareness. To use our gravel road analogy, to discern the patches of the road that may be washboard or seriously rutted - if we hit these places carelessly, we can find ourselves in the ditch pretty quick. It is with the challenges of life we are tempted to careen one way or the other, and it takes that steady hand to travel over those areas of life that are challenging, scary, fraught with pain and avoid the ditch.
Many can see this issue clearly when we look at the political discussions in the west where it would seem that the focus is no longer on good government for the people, of the people but the focus for our leaders is winning, keeping power. This lack of genuine statesmanship has been drowned by corporate and ideological demagogues who have successfully usurped healthy discourse to serve their agenda. As glaring as this is in our political climate, I turn my focus to the area of faith. I will speak most specifically to a Western Christian context.
Extremism in Western Faith
I am concerned that throughout history, be it left or right, many have used heavy-handed tactics to claim the pinnacle of all things God. Extremism isn't the sole domain of "the group over there." There are extremists in almost every arena of ideology. It is the extremism on both sides that makes for massive causalities - that effectively the ultra-right-wing "fundamentalists" and the ultra left-wing "liberals" fighting to own God, create carnage for those in between. Each side trying to claim the high ground of faith and each side is launching their salvos with threats of wrath, exclusion, and exile can leave many of us taking cover from the fallout. Leaving many us unable to identify with either, and choosing to abandon the labels (and faith) altogether. But this war with its two factions insists that we take sides.
It is true that many fortunes are made during times of war and many of the pundits make a good living in times of culture wars. Vilify the other side, ramp up the fearful rhetoric and cash in! Truth is these extremist groups only make money when there is a fight - a culture war to win.
I don't want to be a part of their holy war. I'm not interested in fighting the religious-veneered culture wars. I am long since worn out by the vitriol from the shrill, opposing voices within some parts of Christianity. I am searching for and discovering a constitutive faith - the core of what it is to be a follower of Jesus. I am dreaming of a heroic, rigorous and integrous faith that will contend for the Kingdom of genuine love with acts of love. For I am convinced that healthy faith is lived here in the radical middle.
However, the ditches can serve us. They serve us in so far as they help us navigate the radical middle. We stay aware of the life-giving ideas and values from both sides, jettison the divisive, unhealthy ones and live creatively in the tension. I also find it helpful that divine love as characterized by Jesus acts as the centerline on the road. With divine love as the plum line, we have that reference point by which we can evaluate ideas and doctrines. Divine love will help us by asking us again and again:
- Is it loving?
- Is it life-giving?
- Is it Good News for all people or just some?
- Is it something Jesus would say or do?
Leadership must mature
We are in a season that demands healthy leaders to provide love-inspired leadership. Helping people learn to wisely navigate and thrive in the radical middle. Anyone can draw a crowd as they throw stones at another person or idea. This appeals to the baser, darker areas of the human soul. Healthy leadership will no longer form communities, fans, networks on what is darkest, what we are against, rather it will call out that which is lovely, life-giving and genuinely loving - or if you will, that which is truly Christ, inherent in every human life.