Mennonite leader offers approaches to polarization

Review of Stuck Together: The Hope of Christian Witness in a Polarized World.
J. Nelson Kraybill. Herald Press, 2023, 240 pages.

Barb Draper | Books & Resources Editor

J. Nelson Kraybill bluntly states that his book has no special formula that will save the church or the world from destructive polarization. Instead, it offers guidance on how individuals and congregations can navigate in the midst of conflict, using Jesus as the prime example.

Kraybill is a highly respected leader in the Mennonite church. As well as being a former pastor, he is the past president of Mennonite World Conference. From 1997 to 2009, he was president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and program director of the London Mennonite Centre in England before that. Currently teaching and writing in Israel and Palestine, he leads tours to biblical sites in the Holy Land.

“The world should know Christians by our gracious hope, not judgmentalism or sarcasm,” writes Kraybill. “If Christians do no more than engage those with whom we disagree with gentleness and reverence, it will make a difference in the world.”

He points out that Jesus also lived in a polarized world in which conflict was common. Jesus was known to argue, and even rebuke, but he did so with respect and love. He taught forbearance and the importance of relationships. Our goal should be to follow Jesus’ example.

At the same time, there are tensions and ambiguities within the Bible. Kraybill explains how the Apostle Paul and John of Patmos had very different views of the Roman government, resulting in very different ethical and theological understandings. We should not be surprised that people disagree about how to interpret the biblical text. Kraybill writes, “Do not be disheartened by diversity in scripture; it is a gift.”

This diversity in scripture can also be a challenge, as there are times when theological or ethical disputes can threaten the foundations of a faith community. When it comes to matters of church discipline and accountability, we need careful discernment, and we need to expect that not all faith communities will agree on how or where to draw the boundaries.

“In polarized groups or communities, the most common problem is the failure to listen well,” writes Kraybill. We need to pay close attention and convey respect when listening to those with whom we disagree. The goal is to understand another’s point of view without negative judgment. He gives specific suggestions of how to listen well when relationships are strained.

Kraybill reviews the story in Acts when the Jerusalem Council dealt with a contentious issue, saying that the church leaders compromised and reached consensus. An important part of the process was gaining new insight into scripture after listening to each other tell stories about life-changing experiences with the Spirit of God. The church today should follow that pattern where discernment rests on tradition, scripture and experience taken together.

“If we let go of the idea that God’s people must always agree, we can rest in the confidence that God’s Spirit will continue to guide,” Kraybill writes. And over the centuries there are examples where the church has shifted its view on issues, often over a long period of time.

Kraybill encourages Christians to be respectful and gracious with others, saying, “Christians should be slow to judge or condemn.” Although firm convictions about faith and practice are appropriate, “perhaps we can relax a bit about relating to others who disagree with us; perhaps we can be willing to learn.”

The title, Stuck Together, refers to the need for Christian unity in spite of differences. This idea is reinforced by the symbol on the cover—a cross made up of various colours, shapes and sizes, all stuck together with decoupage.

Although it is not a serious flaw, in some places the book feels a bit stuck together and would have been improved with a tighter structure. Each of the 12 chapters ends with thoughtful questions, making the book a possible resource for discussion groups.

Kraybill offers no easy answers, but his book reminds Christians not to be defensive. We should always be ready to listen to how others experience God and be open to God’s leading. Anyone who feels unsure of how to deal with destructive polarization should find this book helpful. 

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