On Living in These Antagonistic Times: Leading the Church to Be Christ’s Reconciling Presence

David E. Fitch

Back in 2015, the Indiana State legislature passed something called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Christian businesses, it was now argued, could legally refuse goods and services to customers if their religious conscience was offended. Conservative Christian lobbyist Advance America advocated for the bill because “Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!

The signing of the bill set off a media firestorm. An Indianapolis television station newsperson was dispatched to the streets to get reactions and ended up interviewing the owner of a small local pizzeria named Memories Pizzeria. She asked the owner, Crystal O’Connor, whether she would cater a gay wedding. Crystal reluctantly admitted that same-sex marriage was against her Christian convictions. The pizzeria probably would not cater to a gay wedding if they were asked. In a matter of hours, the pizzeria’s Yelp review page blew up with degrading insults and dehumanizing slurs. Lewd pictures of naked men appeared on their Facebook page along with threats to rob and burn down the restaurant. In a matter of days, the pizza parlor announced it was going to shut down because of the hardships this incident had put on their business. Soon thereafter a GoFundMe page was started by conservative Christian supporter and over 29,000 people donated close to a million dollars in less than a week to the Memories Pizza—more money than the pizza place had generated in revenue throughout its entire existence! In less than a week, one little pizza parlor had become the eye of a furious hurricane of anger and antagonism.

Notable in all this is that no gay or lesbian couple actually ordered pizzas for their wedding reception. In fact, it is rare that any couple—gay, lesbian, straight, bi—would ever think of take-out pizza as the preferred meal for a wedding reception. And so the Memories Pizza Parlor became, what in essence is, an absurd and empty symbol toward which could be aimed the vitriol of a cultural battle on sexuality. The taking down of a little pizza joint in the name of equal rights for gays, or the supporting of its survival at any cost for the cause of a Christian culture, had become a source of ideological enjoyment. It did not matter whether such activity in fact had any real impact or relevance on the lives of gay people.

Also notable is, amidst all the Christians getting caught up in this frenzy, no churches (that we know of) actually discussed how they could engage the gay and lesbian people among them who were thinking through what it might mean to be married or not married. Was there any actual face-to-face engagements, actual discernments in people’s lives, any discerning of hurt, abuse, or marginalization? Any opening up of space among the actual struggles of peoples’ lives where God can heal? I suggest not. More likely, people on both sides walked away, calling it a day, and having made their point. Evidently, it was enough for everyone to experience some self-gratifying enjoyment over either (almost) closing down the pizza joint or knowing they had helped it make more money in one week than it had made in its entire history.

In all these ways. Memories Pizzeria is a metaphor for understanding how antagonisms work in our culture, both in and outside the church. In the book The Church of Us vs. Them, I call these dynamics the “enemy making machine.” As culture shifts around us, and Christians get presented with conflicts, we get caught up in this enemy-making machine. We react either defensively or with the hopes of trying to stay relevant to the culture. In the process we take sides. We get sucked into the angry swirl of the enemy-making machine via Facebook, cable news, and political gatherings. We get caught in one Memories Pizza episode after another. In the process, we lose our ability actually to listen, be present, discern what is happening in these challenges and struggles. And we lose our witness to the kingdom and what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ to heal and reconcile the world.

The Enemy-Making Machine

The “enemy making machine” is my label for how antagonisms work in a society that lives in autonomy from God. After World War II, there arose a field of study sometimes called the “critique of ideology” (or “critical theory”). Post-Marxists, living in Europe (or having fled Europe) in the aftermath of Nazi Germany, were asking could such a hideous politics could have happened? Sixty million people had been killed. Hundreds of cities had been demolished. They were asking not only why capitalism did not become communism à la Marx. They were asking how a Christian nation like Germany could commit such atrocities. How could thousands of Lutheran pastors say, “Heil Hitler”? How could people who said they were Christians get caught up in the antagonisms, vitriol, and hate of Hitler? Years later, this study of ideology can help us to decipher what is happening in our own culture and even in our churches.

There are several elements to this enemy making machine.

First there is the “banner.” A banner happens when a belief gets extracted from the practice of everyday life and becomes an identity marker. It becomes a cause around which people gather against those people who don’t believe in this banner. It could be a distinctive that a group of Christians discerned, that was powerful at the time, but then, years later, it becomes a rallying cry to define who we are over against those who are not like us.

Take, for example, the discernment in the 1920s by holiness churches not to drink alcohol amid the raging alcoholism that was destroying families at that time. This discernment (or belief) at this time was good and bore much fruit in the lives of people. But several years later, it gets extracted from the everyday discipleship of people’s lives and becomes a banner that says we are the people who don’t drink, over against those Christians who do drink. This banner of teetotalism becomes a marker of “Us vs. Them.” It defines us as different and separate from those other Christians who are not serious about holiness. It’s a cause we rally around.

Strikingly however, years later, it has become a legalistic mantra that is empty of any import in our everyday lives. Any church teetotalism policies have become a symbol of what we stood for. Most ordained pastors just ignore it with a wink and those who do follow the demand not to drink alcohol do it out of legalism, not out of any real discernment for how it affects their daily lives in Christ. This is the way banners work. They lose their meaning for everyday life and become an identity marker useful in defining us against them. In the field of critical theory these banners are called “empty-signifiers” for this very reason.

Today the church has many banners operating among our churches: The Inerrant Bible! Eternal Conscious Torment! A Christian Nation! Not Affirming/Affirming Same Sex Sexuality! As I try to show in The Church of Us vs. Them, in each case we have lost touch with what these banners mean in terms of everyday discipleship. They have become banners for many evangelicals in order to take sides. But in the process, we have become distracted from what God is doing in and among our lives via the Bible, or regarding the consequences of sin, justice in the world, or the sexual confusions of our day.

A second aspect of the enemy-making machine is the production of an “enemy.” Just as the Nazi’s needed “the Jew” to blame the German problems on, every banner needs an enemy to rally a people against. This enemy-making machine depersonalizes a person who isn’t like us, distances them from us, and turns them into an enemy. It enables leaders to gather a people against a cause. Many wonder if the gay or lesbian person, or the Republican or socialist, has taken on this role for Christian groups. It is how ideology works. It is the enemy-making machine.

A third aspect is that one’s very identity gets swept up in this being against an enemy. This is what poststructuralism has called the shaping of “subjectivity.” It is real. We become so identified by the cause and winning at all costs that almost any attempt to discuss rationally the issues is a lost cause. Nothing can disrupt us from our allegiance. In this exact way, when Donald Trump says, “I can stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters,” he is taking note of how the enemy-making machine works. If your very identity is at stake, you will believe anything blindly to hold it in place.

Sadly, in the midst of this enemy-making machine, we notice a perverse enjoyment when the other side suffers pain or defeat. We experience glee at the other side’s demise. This is a tell-tale sign of the enemy-making machine at work. And yet this is so against what Jesus calls us to: loving our enemies. It reveals how far the enemy-making machine can take us from being the church of Jesus Christ, his reconciling presence in the world.

Matthew 18:15–20—The Anti-type of the Enemy-Making Machine

In Matt 18:15–20 Jesus gives his disciples a practice that counters the enemy-making machine. He instructs them, for instance, when they have a conflict, to go directly to the person, and to point out the sin when you are alone (v. 15). If the enemy-making machine organizes us against the opposition by distancing us from the person and turning them into a detached object of disdain (an enemy), Jesus does the opposite. He says go to the person face to face, be present to the person, and test whether you will be listened to.

If the enemy-making machine works by rallying people as a group against a single cause or person, Matt 18:15–20 starts with the one on one relationship. If no agreement is achieved, do not rally a group of people against them. As v. 16 says, we are to take just one or two other persons with us, so that every word may be confirmed. There is no testifying against someone. We are there to listen and establish truth. Each time the conflict reaches no discernment, more are invited into the circle. The group forms not as a whole group of people against someone but instead slowly gathers in communal submission “in his name.” Agreement comes “when two or three agree in my name,” and his presence become known, the fullness of peace.

If the enemy-making machine works by absorbing our identity into the ideological cause, Matt 18:15–20 requires we come together, submitting one to another. We are to come together in his name (v. 20), which means giving up our identifying with the cause.

If the enemy-making machine works to keep us locked in a zero-sum game, where only one person wins and the other person must lose, Matt 18:15–20 moves us to new and unforeseen possibilities. Here in this space of mutuality, what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. We are being taken into God’s future, releasing the power of the kingdom to heal, transform, create something new.

This most basic of all practices illustrates how the new life in Jesus Christ frees us from the enemy-making machine. It frees us from its coercion, vitriol, and “stuckness.” In every way, it counters the Memories Pizza parlor episodes of our lives and invites us to bring the transforming power of Christ’s presence into all such episodes wherever we encounter them.

A Different Kind of Leadership

The practice of Matt 18:15–20 points us to a way of being in the world that resists the antagonisms of the world. Instead of inflaming the antagonisms via the enemy-making machine, we discern it and resist entering the world’s antagonisms on the terms dictated by it. By unwinding the antagonisms, allowing the violence and coercion to subside, we make space for the very presence of Jesus to heal, reconcile, and renew all things. In the midst of our strife-ridden culture, the church will need a unique kind of leadership for living in the world in this way.

Jesus provides us a model for this leadership in John 8:2–11. Here a woman caught in adultery is placed before the mob (“making her stand before all of them,” v. 3 NRSV). She has been made into an object, “the enemy,” for the enemy-making machine. In the ensuing discussion, the scribes and Pharisees talk about her as if she is not even present. They ask Jesus whether this woman should be stoned as “the law of Moses commanded.” A belief system, “the law,” something given for the good to be concretely lived out in the covenantal life of the Israel’s community, has become a banner to get behind. It is now used to pit one group of people against another, to define who is in and who is out. It has become an ideology of self-righteousness in which the Pharisee’s find their identity and feel good about themselves. There’s some self-congratulatory, perverse enjoyment going on as they are able to say she failed, but we are holy and we keep the law. The enemy-making machine is operating in high gear. Jesus is asked to enter into the middle of the enemy-making machine and take a side.

Strikingly, Jesus is silent. He stoops down to write on the ground. It is a stunning tactic in which he refuses to enter the violence on the terms offered to him by the ideology. Likewise, we too must become present to the conflicts of our churches (and the world) while quietly refusing to enter on the terms given by the enemy-making machines of the world. Jesus then directs, “Let he who is among you without sin, cast the first stone.” It again is a tactic, bringing to the surface the underlying contradictions at work. Banners, in the enemy-making machine, often cover over the contradictions at work in the conflict. By agreeing, and then taking the underlying assumptions to their extreme, this duplicity can be revealed. The perverse enjoyment in the Pharisees is exposed. The accusers disperse. The woman is left in the presence of Jesus, cleared of all the strife and violence and anger.

Only after the antagonism has been unwound, and the woman has been released from the violence of hate, does Jesus say you are forgiven, you are free. Now go in the way of righteousness, and choose sin no more. Work out what it means to become whole in the power of the Spirit (my paraphrase of the dynamics of John 8:11). Indeed, this is only possible for the woman now after she has been freed from the ideological enemy-making machine.

This episode is a picture of the church as the presence of Christ in the world of antagonisms we are living in. The question for Christians today is: Can the church be this Jesus? Can we become his reconciling presence in today’s world full of strife? Can we make space for his presence in our own lives and the lives of those around us? Can we be used by God to bring his healing, transforming power into the world? “For he himself is our peace” (Eph 2:14).

[Parts of this article were taken from The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies (Brazos Press, 2019).]

Posted Dec 04, 2019