The Dangers of Demonization and Polarized Thinking
By Loren Seibold | 11 October 2019 |
A few months ago, I received an article from someone comparing Elder Ted Wilson to President Donald Trump. The author saw in both of them an authoritarian streak (probably true) but then added numerous other less thoughtful comparisons. I admit that I was put off by it, even slightly offended. Donald Trump, whatever you think of his policies, can be described without exaggeration as a bully, a liar, an adulterer, a person lacking restraint and certainly not thoughtful.
Elder Wilson, on the other hand, is just a man whose theology and leadership priorities I profoundly disagree with. There’s a world of difference. Those who know Elder Wilson personally (which I don’t) describe him as warm, funny, pastoral and on a personal level, genuinely gracious. Because I trust the people who have told me that, I believe that of him.Further, I believe Elder Wilson loves the Seventh-day Adventist Church, probably more than anyone I know, and has nothing but good intentions toward it. I just happen to think that the direction he’s led us is bad for the church, and has been hurtful to a lot of people. But I have never for a moment thought that Elder Wilson has sinister motives. Unexamined, perhaps. Unaware or unconcerned about how much he’s hurting many, likely. Taking himself too seriously in his role, probably. Stuck in an imagined past rather than adapting to a changing future, undoubtedly. But I refuse to demonize the man and put forth that he’s something that he is not. What he is, is a good man who happens to be, in my opinion, just wrong.
It is human to make judgments along a simple continuum of good to bad, and to pin our opinions to the farthest ends of the line. When I grew up on the farm, my family had green John Deere farm tractors, not red International Harvester tractors. As a child, this seemed an important loyalty, and I remember arguing with my friend Keith about how bad their red tractors were compared to our green ones—an opinion for which, of course, I had absolutely no reason other than that my family had green tractors.
We have loyalties about people and ideas, and there, too, we tend to peg our opinions to the poles. In politics, many think one party is wholly evil, the other wholly good. Of course, that’s a harmful oversimplification. The officeholders themselves think in those stark terms, and so are unable to work together to govern the nation, to the detriment of all of us.
In religion, the pope was, for most of my life, wholly evil, a devil in white robes and a tall hat. If anyone should say that a pope did or said something good, the response was, “Yes, that’s part of the deception!” One of my friends recently pointed out that Pope Francis has been the most attacked of any pope in history, mostly because he seems nicer and more progressive than his predecessors; if you hate someone enough, even his being reasonable and kind is evidence that he’s manifestly evil.
Most of us don’t like floating somewhere in the gray, nuanced middle, between red tractors and green tractors, between the black and the white. Even facts don’t help: we interpret the data to support our more opinionated views. If green tractors break down, it’s unfortunate but unusual. If red tractors break down, that’s typical of that brand. If Roman Catholic clerics are caught in pedophilia, that’s a reflection of how thoroughly and irreversibly evil they are. If sexual malfeasance happens among our clergy, well, that’s just an unfortunate occurrence.
To some of my Adventist friends, everything Elder Ted Wilson does is sly, perverse, done from bad motives. That’s not only calumnious, but completely unhelpful. Demonizing people is always a bad idea, for reasons both moral and practical.
The Danger of Demonizing
I have some opinions that I have voiced frequently, such as these: that Adventists shouldn’t be defined by their hatred of Roman Catholics, that we rely too much on fear and conspiracy in eschatology, that our denominational structure is too big, that not enough is being done to keep small churches alive, that we shouldn’t marginalize people whether for race or sexual orientation or any other human characteristics, but that all of us sinners should be treated warmly and accepted into our church. At the top of my list of opinions: that faith is about God’s grace to us and our returning love to others, more than about food or doctrines or denominationalism.
Because these aren’t necessarily traditional Adventist points of view, I’ve discovered that I have enemies: people have written about me as though I’m some kind of demon in human form who wants to destroy God’s church. I find my Jesuit label somewhat amusing, but it also makes me sad for the people who live with such hatred and fear toward someone they’ve never met. What an unpleasant God they worship, and how miserable they must be!
These people have a right to their opinion about my theology and my religious priorities, but they don’t have the right to see me as wholly dark, malevolent and destructive. I’ve thought through my differences with the church carefully and prayerfully. And that includes my opinion of Elder Ted Wilson, who I think is a very good man, but one who I believe isn’t leading the church in a helpful and constructive way.
Furthermore, unlike those who demonize me, I admit that I may be partially wrong, and others partially right. I’m willing to listen, because at this point in my life I’m quite certain that nothing is ever as simple and clear as it seems at first.
And, neither will it help to solve any of the problems I’ve mentioned above if I demonize the people or ideas I disagree with. Problems aren’t solved best at the opinionated edges, but in the nuanced middle. (When they are decided at the opinionated edges, it often leads to schism or at least poor organizational functioning—some of which we’re experiencing right now.) Problems aren’t solved best by sticking to a black-and-white, love-it-or-leave-it set of priorities—one of the leadership methodologies for which I fault Elder Wilson. Problems are solved by constructive thinking and listening, not exaggerating fearful possibilities, not insisting that there’s only one solution, nor kicking your enemies to the curb. Generally, good problem-solving involves compromise. It involves trying to find win-win solutions—another thing, sadly, that seems to be poorly grasped by Elder Wilson. It involves listening to the Spirit as it works locally, not just getting a vote from a worldwide denominational structure that you can use to bully people.
I’ve noticed that often things change not because anyone set out to change them, but because with the passage of time the whole existential landscape shifts. The cultural and intellectual environment changes. Some influencers die, others take their place. Some priorities weaken, others become stronger. What was once very important becomes less important, and new ways of looking at the world emerge. Good leaders pick up on these currents, and take advantage of them to move their organization in constructive directions, rather than fighting to stay anchored in the past.
Yet organized religion tends to dig in at the opinionated edges, overstating the case for old points of view in the starkest and most fearful terms, until it loses credibility with the culture around it. It’s no accident that the most rapidly rising religious identity among the young are those who label themselves “none.”
Sadly, even though we can look back and see that, for example, a theology of separation of the races that most Christians once held is now discredited and believed only at the nutty fringes, we don’t seem to learn from our history that religion does, in fact, evolve as time passes. If we would remember that, rather than just digging in for the next fight, we might prepare ourselves for the next phase of our existence, rather than having to be dragged there with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
You’ve heard people talk about how an entertainer or company has been “reinvented” for a longer period of success. How many phases did Frank Sinatra go through to stay at the top his entire life? It didn’t happen by doing one thing and sticking to it forever. He made some silly music along the way—some of his adaptations of rock songs in an effort to be contemporary were pathetic—but at least he pushed on through and never quit trying, even becoming a reasonably good actor.
In the mid-1990’s a friend of mine sold his $10,000 worth of Apple stock because, he said, it was going nowhere. He bought IBM instead. But Apple reinvented itself and moved on, and IBM declined.
Reinvention isn’t accomplished by rigid, intractable opinions, or sticking to one way of doing things. Progress doesn’t come by demonizing one idea, and refusing to rethink others. Success comes from creativity, by listening, by understanding needs, by making changes, by taking chances and experiencing some failures. In the case of Apple some people had to go, others had to step in. Often the apparent solution isn’t the solution at all: Apple turned around not on their flagship product—computers—but on pocket-sized music players, which led eventually to a revolution in, of all things, telephones. Who would have thought? Someone did, and it paid off.
I doubt the innovators knew that everything they tried would succeed, but they knew how to take advantage of opportunities that came their way, and they didn’t scorn new opportunities in favor of things that could be left behind without loss. That’s what religions tend to do, though: to die while holding on manfully to things of doubtful value, while turning a blind eye to the opportunities of the future. Because if you were once right about something, the logic goes, you must be forever right about it, “progressive truth” be damned.
As the Seventh-day Adventist Church moves into the future, you’re going to hear a lot of polarized thinking. A lot of demonizing of people and ideas. A lot of predicting that unless we stick with one way of looking at the church, one way of understanding God or the Bible, we’re going to go down in flames. You will hear words like apostasy and heresy, about our failing to meet God’s expectations for us, about Jesus’ not returning because we’re not perfect. You’re going to hear, even next week at the General Conference Executive Committee meeting, attempts to lock down and enforce beliefs about Ellen White, the Bible, and the mission of the church in fairly uncompromising terms.
There seems to me little doubt that fastening the past in place more firmly, retrenching ourselves in our historical positions, crafting more regressive statements and policies and enforcing them with punitive intent, is not how we progress into a better future. Problems will be solved by rational, sensible voices. By the “word fitly spoken.” By quietly moving some people out, and other people in. By subtle evolution in thought that begin to be expressed first personally, then locally, then more widely. By identifying essential principles and building on them, rather than insisting on saving everything no matter how dubious its importance.
We are, right now, short of courageous, dynamic leaders with creative solutions. But again, please be understanding. What you’re seeing happening right now is the reaction of an anxious church, a worried and fearful church, one that is having serious doubts about itself. It doesn’t mean our leaders are bad men, but only that they are too fearful, too sclerotic in their thinking, to do anything but dig in where they stand. So let us be particularly vigilant that we oppose bad ideas, but that we don’t demonize those who have them. Exaggerated, polarized thinking works no better for progressives than it does for conservatives. We must recognize human leaders as flawed but well-intentioned people, even as we clearly and forthrightly call out mistakes and try to identify solutions.
What Elder Wilson has done to the church in the last ten years has been harmful, and I don’t blame the western church (North America, Europe and Australia/NZ) for being disappointed and even angry. But now more than ever we need the careful voices, the thoughtful thinkers, the problem solvers, those who aren’t afraid of the gray areas, the people who know how to work with policy and politics and above all with those with whom they disagree, to come up with answers.
And right now, we really need those people to be wholly courageous, rather than just muttering discontentedly in the background. So often I’m disappointed that those who know not only what’s wrong but how to fix it, refuse to speak up. (As an editor, I’m routinely refused by people who tell me they’re deeply worried about a problem in the church that they know intimately, and who have nothing to lose by speaking aloud—but who absolutely refuse to go on record to address it. Why not?)
Starting Sunday, I’ll be reporting from the Annual Council. I’m hopeful that at this Annual Council, and at next year’s General Conference session, articulate men and women will rise up on their oxfords and pumps, and speak thoughtfully, kindly and wisely about how to move our beloved church forward.
Loren Seibold is a retired pastor, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.