Engaging Polarization, An Evening with Justin Giboney

On February 2nd, pastors and lay leaders gathered for a conversation with Justin Giboney, President and Co-Founder of the AND Campaign for a talk on Rethinking Mission: Engaging Polarization. An attorney and political strategist, Giboney and other leaders at the AND Campaign have become a resource and hub for Christians engaging in politics and advocacy during a time of polarization in our country. 

He opened up his time reflecting on the concept of power: 

Robert B Elliot, the first black congressman in the state of South Carolina in the 1870’s stated in a famous speech, “Our power will be our condemnation.” Though his audience at the time was recently emancipated, their freedom only stretched so far. Yet, their choices mattered and in this speech, he points to their agency. 

“In the same way, unless we arouse ourselves to our mission and responsibilities, our power will be our condemnation. Whatever power we have, God expects us to steward this power faithfully.” – Justin Giboney

Giboney challenged the room to, rather than critique those with power, acknowledge the power we ourselves bring into the world and steward that power faithfully. 

“We spend a lot of time obsessing over how much power other people have – how much power our opposition has. And how they might use that power abusively. We are experts in other people’s misuses of power. But let us also evaluate how we use our own power. Have we used our power to further the culture war? To perpetuate polarization? To show ourselves approved and validated by secular culture? Do we use our power to dehumanize our opponents? Has our power become our condemnation?”

Giboney pointed to the apostle Paul, a man who engaged with other systems of belief with integrity with the ultimate objective of spreading the Gospel. What Paul is doing in Acts 19:24-28 and in verse 32 is an extension of his faith. He uplifted the marginalized and brought his faith to the public square. 

For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship…Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.” 

Giboney uses this text to show that the dynamics of civic engagement are not new and resonate with the political temperament we see today. In businesses, organizations, institutions and individually, there is a fear of losing a good name amidst discourse – a fear of losing power. In the last verse, he points to strong emotions, confusion that seems to lead to anger, much like we see in conversation between opposing sides today. However, the greatest testament of this text is seeing Paul’s faith paired with action – it is not divorce of it. 

Giboney points to Paul’s faith undergirding his social action –
his social action frames his faith. And regardless of the outcome, our primary focus is to be faithful to the scriptures and our convictions therein.

“We are called to something much greater than the partisanship that we often limit our public witness to. We are called to something much more profound. Our public witness must be more than just a tally of political wins. It should profess the whole counsel of God, not just the justice, not just the compassion, but also the truth and moral order that we see in the bible. 
If our public witness debates and protests, but does not forgive,
if it votes and lobbies but does not testify,
if it bargons and barters but does not set an unconditional standard of justice, 
if it threatens and punishes but does not restore or redeems, 
then we are delinquent and our power will be our condemnation.”

Paul spoke boldly and persuasively. When we look at the polarization around us, can we be bold and persuasive and do it in a loving way? 

Paul goes into Agora, the marketplace of ideas, a place where philosophers and thinkers gathered to debate. This level of engagement required knowledge and preparedness. The ideas the came out of the Agora spread across the whole Roman empire. He would reason with them. He studied the culture and used their own rhetorical devices to make a logical case for the Gospel. And much like Paul, we are to be propelled into learning and awareness which leads to action because of our faith. 

Giboney closed the evening with this question: How do we end polarization in ourselves? 

    1. Steward our power: No matter who we are, we have some power. We must be ready to steward it in the right way. It is easy to use our power to bark at and critique the other side. However, consider using your power to challenge your side of the conversation. It is not brave to challenge those against us, getting pats on the back from our own side. However, if we are willing to point out the wrongs of people on our own side, we are engaging with intellectual honesty. When we engage in public discourse and can critique our own side, we gain credibility. However, what often happens is that we hear lies on our own side and say nothing. And those on the opposing side notice that we keep silent and this narrative speaks louder than our words. So, steward your power with speaking intelligently and addressing wrongs on your own side to improve your witness.
    2. Improve our media hygiene: Giboney challenged the room to seek out opinions different from your own – to diversity the voices that form our opinions. It is easy to listen to voices that confirm our opinions. Rather than basing our opinion on headlines, read the full article and then check other sources to see what narrative others are saying about the same event or issue. Regularly follow voices in the media that you respect, even if their stances or conclusions are different than your own. Look for people who are informed and astute even if their conclusions differ from your own. Challenge your own thinking regularly and allow space for growth. 
    3. Be civil: When you are passionate about an issue, be civil. We need to have respect and emotional maturity if we are going to be constructive in the public square. Incivility is anti-democratic and destructive. When engaging in public discourse, give someone the freedom to make up their own mind. As Christians, we should have respect for that. Frederick Douglass didn’t try to cancel people who were promoting slavery. He wanted a debate because he knew the merits of the case were on his side. True civility enables everyone to speak. 
    4. Read the Bible: The key to ending polarization is to pursue orthodoxy and orthopraxy – good doctrine and good conduct. Christians who change things for the better can’t tell where theology ends and the ideology begins. Christians who will change society are those who will love their neighbor despite it all. 

To learn more about Justin Giboney and the AND Campaign, check out their website and Justin Giboney’s book Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement

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