De-Escalating Disciples: The Example Of Jesus In A Polarized World
De-escalation. It’s such a buzz word in our current culture, and yet it has such potent implications for followers of Jesus in the modern world. In a society that is deeply divided over just about every single possible topic - the task of finding common ground can feel almost insurmountable. Our entire society went through an incredible global pandemic, and somehow we managed to politicize it and draw lines where no lines were needed. When a movie hits the theaters or the latest viral video creates a new indy country music sensation - we have to wait to see if “our side” approves or disapproves of it before we can express ourselves. We are not split by a crack down the sidewalk, but by a grand canyon sized gulf separating the “us’s” from the “thems.” And into that divide come the Christians. As people who believe in one God, and hope for a future where every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess the same glorious truths about Jesus - we must find a way to span the divides of our world. Not just the latest training for frontline workers such as police officers and social services - de-escalation tactics are now the responsibility of every man, woman and child who wants to see our society improve.
If we want to be followers of Jesus in the modern world, then we must have a different set of priorities. We don’t just want to win arguments, we want to win souls. Our goal should be to dunk people in the waters of baptism, not just to dunk on our twitter enemies. And if we have different priorities, then we need to use different methods than the rest of the world. One of my favorite phrases from Jesus is when he would say, “You have heard it said… BUT I SAY TO YOU…” (see Matthew 5 for more details). If we’re going to follow the way of Jesus, we’re not going to do things the world’s way. The algorithm of social media is designed to put as much advertisement into our brains as humanly possible, and so it uses any tactic it can to keep your attention. The method produced from that priority is outrage-fueled. They know if they can push you to the poles and then tick you off - you will keep consuming their product. By this point it is WELL documented that those methods have had a deleterious effect on social order and societal norms of respectful behavior.
And so as Christians we MUST push back. In order to love our enemy, we need to learn common tactics of de-escalating conversations and actually seek to connect with one another. Whether it’s through a keyboard on social media, the pews of a church or your favorite coffee shop - followers of Jesus have to learn how to have hard conversations about polarized issues. De-escalation is a tool in our tool belt that will make us more effective at kingdom building. Now as it just so happens, most of these de-escalating tactics sprout straight from the teachings of Jesus. In the game of peacemaking we are not defenseless. Our Lord and savior did not leave us without guidance for how to push back the darkness with light. He made a regular practice of defining the terms he used, steel manning opposing arguments (instead of straw-manning them), and he never sought to win the fight if it would mean losing his soul.
De-escalation is a tool in our tool belt that will make us more effective at kingdom building.
So much of the polarization in our world comes from talking past one another, rather than talking to one another. If you choose to engage in a touchy subject, it helps to define the terms so that everyone is on the same page. Even in the church - we have different denominations that define the same words differently. Catholics have seven sacraments, but protestants only have two. Protestants still do most of the things included in the five missing sacraments, we just don’t call them sacraments. Elders and Deacons vary widely in job descriptions and qualifications depending on if you’re talking to a Methodist or a Baptist. That is something we see over and over in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus had a wonderful habit of taking someone’s question and flipping it around back to the questioner. Recall with me the moment with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37]. An expert in the law approaches Jesus and asks about inheriting eternal life, but the scriptures explain to us that the expert’s questions are for the purpose of “justifying himself.” He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” - hoping that he can use a definition that encompasses the good works he already does. If my definition of “neighbor” is just “friends and family” - well, then I already love them very well, and I don’t need to adjust my life in any way. But the funny thing about Jesus’ teachings is that he’s not in the habit of leaving loopholes for the legalistic. The whole thing, including one of the most famous parables of all time, is actually a revelation concerning the definition of terms. But we need to pay close attention to Jesus’s words at the start of the story. In verse 26, Jesus first responds by asking the expert in the law, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He starts by having the other person explain his understanding, before clarifying the definitions in his answer.
What if we were to take this principle from Jesus’ teaching and apply it to our de-escalating discipleship practices? It is a burden to my heart to wonder how many screaming matches could have been completely avoided by asking the simple question, “wait, I’m so sorry - what does that term mean to you? I’ve heard it used a bunch of different ways and I just want to make sure I understand you.” Or you could even use the direct words of Jesus and ask, “How do you read it?” The English language is tricky and we often have broad terms that can be defined in many different ways. You can save yourself a lot of grief if you clarify from the beginning by asking, “wait, what does that word mean when YOU use it?”
Of course, beyond definitions and terminology Jesus’ ministry was plagued by a number of other tactics the pharisees and religious leaders would use to polarize the conversation. One such tactic was to “straw man” an argument. A “straw man” is essentially when someone on one side describes the opposing argument, but their description is not the opposing person’s actual argument. It’s where someone intentionally misrepresents the other side to make them easier to argue with. They make up a fake bad guy in order to have something to aim at. It’s not the real argument, it’s a straw man. We see this type of thing with the woman caught in adultery or the leprous man healed on the sabbath. But perhaps the most famous version of a straw man argument is the whispers of the snake in the garden of Eden. God’s prohibition to Adam and Eve was to not eat the fruit of a single, particular tree, and yet the serpent twists things up a bit for Eve when he asks, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’” His deception begins with a misrepresentation of the facts. It’s not a real argument, and the only purpose of a “straw man” is to drum up support from those who already agree with you and further divide from those who already disagree with you.
On the other hand, to “steel man” an argument refers to the oppositions best arguments. You take the most charitable understanding and give them the greatest benefit of the doubt. When you “straw man” an argument you are creating a fake bad guy you know you can defeat. When you “steel man” an argument, you have a more difficult position to overcome - but if you engage at that level, you are respecting their position and trying to grapple with the issue instead of just “winning” the argument. Steel manning is much more difficult, but it is the far better method. Jesus never went for the straw man. He never needed deception or a weaker enemy to overcome. He would steel man every single argument, often with his questioners walking away speechless. Truthfully it’s a measure of how much confidence you have in the faith you proclaim. If you must rely on a straw man to win an argument, it demonstrates that your faith is in a weak God who cannot handle the real argument. But if our God is real, and if our position is truly right - then we should be able to be incredibly charitable with opposing arguments, and still follow the way of Jesus. Christians to not waste time on men of straw - we have better enemies to overcome.
When we believe someone is evil, they are bad, they are wrong - then we think the fruits of the spirit become optional
The tools of de-escalation have deep roots in discipleship. The teachings of Jesus, and truly the witness of ALL scripture is a compelling and powerful guide for how we can stand in the gap between the edges of our polarized world. One of the problems with modern discourse is that when we assume that when someone is fundamentally opposed to us - we think it gives us permission to not love them. When we believe someone is evil, they are bad, they are wrong - then we think the fruits of the spirit become optional. We think that gives us license to ignore the teachings of Jesus. We set our sights on winning, and forget that Jesus was a man who was all about the method. Matthew 16, verse 26 states, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” If you remember the context of that moment - Peter had just offered Jesus a violent method to save his life, but Jesus rebukes him. For Jesus, victory was never a doubt, but the method of that victory matters. Scorched earth methods might leave us on top at the end of the fight - but to what point and purpose? It is all too possible to be right in the wrong way, and to win while losing our soul.
An easy example of this is in our marriages. The closer you are to someone, the more vulnerable they are to your praise and to your criticism. Any husband or wife can tell you - it’s impossible to win a fight in a marriage. You might win the argument, but there are no actual winners. There are no winners when we fight in marriage and the same is true for the family of God. De-escalation often comes when we remember that the person on the other end of issue is a real life human being - created and loved as an image bearer of God, same as you. Whether it’s over turkey dinner on thanksgiving, or in the cesspools of twitter on a random Tuesday night - de-escalation begins when we remember that Jesus wanted our hearts more than our victory. So many people try so hard to conquer the world, as if we can bring that to the altar and tell Jesus, “I have brought you the world, who cares if I cut my soul (and some of your people) to pieces in the process.” But in moments like that we forget that Jesus was already offered the world in that way, and it didn’t work out for that guy either. We don’t need to conquer the world. Christ is our victory, and so it is our heart, mind and soul Jesus is interested in.
A Christians’ victory comes in submission and surrender to Jesus. Right smack in the middle of his famous sermon on the mount, Jesus gives a teaching that says - if we have a conflict with a brother or sister we should LEAVE our offering in front of the altar and “first go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” For many of us, we are so proud of the victories we can bring to Jesus as an offering. But Christ has overcome the world, and these victories mean very little if we are not reconciled. Before we can bring an offering to God, we have to embrace our brother or sister - and that takes humility. Repentance takes humility. There is a “holy humbling” at the core of the methods of Jesus which flies in the face of anything you might find in our culture. There’s an old anecdote about Dallas Willard that was shared with me recently. One time while teaching a college level class, he allowed a student to loudly contradict him and essentially call his ideas foolish. Willard in the moment had no response to the student; he simply thanked him and moved on. When Dallas was asked about it later, he replied that he was practicing the discipline of not having the last word! If Jesus Christ truly does come in final victory, and we as Christians have that hope - we do not need to strive so hard to have the last word, to win the world while losing our soul. We as Christians can (and must) let Christ’s victory be our victory, to surrender ourselves in humility - and keep our soul intact.
One of the best reasons for de-escalation is that when things escalate - we look less like Jesus. We must use every tool in the tool belt to turn down the temperature of a conversation so that we do not allow our anger to cause us to sin (Ephesians 4:26). In a world built on algorithms designed to push us farther apart, we Christians must push back. Let us be people who clarify ourselves, give the benefit of the doubt and engage with the toughest versions of our opposition’s position. And most importantly, let us win every contentious conversation with our soul intact. Following the example of Jesus, let us rebuke the methods of the world and seek to be come de-escalating disciples of Jesus.