A Strange Land: Christian Rhetoric and Behavior in Times of Political and Cultural Polarization

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Date

2021

Authors

Johnson, Steven Dewayne

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Hall, Amy L.
Willimon, Will

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Abstract

Serious divisions within the United States currently threaten our social fabric. These divisions are acutely on display across the political arena and permeate many aspects of American society. Alarmingly, Christian convictions are contributing to this upheaval. Many conservatives and liberals across the ideological spectrum believe they are following not only the Constitution of the United States but also biblical principles when they engage in inflammatory rhetoric against political rivals. Predictably, justifying political positions with biblical principles has caused many Christians to embrace partisan identities and adopt divisive behaviors. Furthermore, the present political divisions are severely harming American churches at the local level. The kind of rhetoric emanating from pulpits, pews, and Christian publications across most denominations pose a direct challenge to how the church has traditionally understood the Christian life and its bearing upon our relationships with one another. The issue of immigration is a particularly acute example. The tearing apart of family structures, the constant threat of deportation, and the frequent use of dehumanizing rhetoric are stances that some Christians have unapologetically supported. It is my attempt to show how in this time of intense partisanship Christians desperately need to practice right speech and embody Jesus’ commandment to love one’s neighbor. Using the issue of immigration as a case study, I argue that the way we talk about people influences how we treat them.

A careful observer of the current political dynamic in America will understand its precarious position. Following the presidency of Barack Obama, a tide has clearly turned across the country. The sounds of hope, optimism, and progressive change have been replaced by a boisterous quest to “Make America Great” again by restricting U.S. borders, re-visiting trade agreements, limiting access to health insurance, retreating from nuclear treaties, as well as dismissing and altogether denying climate change. Where a warm cultural embrace once stood, profound xenophobia now rests; diversity has gone the way of division. Lost in the shuffle of this dynamic however is the human element of communal relationship with one another. For individuals and institutions that claim allegiance to Jesus Christ, the political speech and actions witnessed across the United States challenge the very nature of Christian identity. Among many Christians there is a dichotomy between the Christian ethic portrayed and the one practiced, a disconnect between what is offered in the Holy Scriptures and reality. If the case can be made that the political dynamic in America is on precarious footing because of the role Christians currently play guiding the nation forward, it too means that Christian identity in America is subject to that same dynamic. When political policy in America is dressed up and disguised as proper Christian action, and supported as such by many Christian adherents, then the very nature of the Christian faith as practiced in America is threatened. This thesis will examine how recent speeches and comments made by political figures on various aspects of immigration law and human rights compel Christians to reflect upon right speech considering the teachings on speech found in the book of Proverbs. For Christians to blindly and unequivocally label immigrants “animals,” “rapists,” and “criminals,” presents a ripe and necessary opportunity to hear the guidance, wisdom and chastisement of the Proverbial writer. A rediscovery of speech that could be considered “Christian” and a recommitment to embodying such speech, is ultimately incomplete, unless it results in right Christian action. Examining the parable of the Good Samaritan in its wider context (Luke 10:25 – 37), I will display how it might inform our Christian praxis. Early followers of Jesus and the historic church have understood this commandment as a necessary component of the Christian life. Noting key textual observations from theologians and Bible scholars including Joel Green , the project will show how aspects of the text speak to contemporary Christian praxis. The research of this thesis will be designed to build upon existing theological literature concerning the role of Christian speech and action and placing these distinct roles in conversation with current political affairs. I argue that in an era marked decidedly by extreme political and cultural polarization, Christians, and by extension the Christian church, must rediscover the role of speech and behavior in the workings of everyday life and the shaping of a more just society for all.

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Theology

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Johnson, Steven Dewayne (2021). A Strange Land: Christian Rhetoric and Behavior in Times of Political and Cultural Polarization. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/24469.

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