We all know Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Or, at the least, we know it in our relationships. Family Systems theorists have argued for decades that a principle of polarization exists in families. When one person acts extremely, another generally reacts to the opposite extreme. Let’s take the Smiths. When Mrs. Smith decided to take a day at the spa, Mr. Smith was angry. As the breadwinner, he works hard for the money. Frustrated and motivated by not-a-little self-pity, Mr. Smith decided to work longer hours that week. In turn, Mrs. Smith bought a $150 pair of jeans. Late that week, a fight broke out between the two. Mrs. Smith was angry with Mr. Smith’s distance. Mr. Smith was angry with Mrs. Smith’s selfishness. An exercise in missing the point.
The two wanted intimacy, closeness, connection. Their polarized argument may have revealed grains of truth (Mr. Smith does work too much and Mrs. Smith indulges too much), but missed the real point.
Our family dynamics as Christians are similar. Our fights don’t often reveal our real issues.
Now, our polarizations may include real and important differences (I wouldn’t deny objective differences among, for instance, those who deny Christ’s deity and those who do). But, healthy families talk about differences. Sometimes, differences lead to separation. But separation, itself, marks a commitment to the healthiest relating possible amidst difficult circumstances.
However, unhealthy families explode in the midst of difference, often clouding real issues and failing to talk about what is most important. Factions polarize. Smaller issues divide. Mountains are made out of molehills. And in our anger, it’s so hard to see the real struggle. Let’s be honest, we’re all guilty of it. Polarization began in the Garden. “She did it! No, he did it!”
Having taught courses in a conservative, evangelical and confessional seminary and also in a liberal, progressive, and constructive seminary, I see these features in both. Caricatures dominate. In the liberal seminary where I taught a course, I recall becoming very defensive when a student challenged the notion of “God’s Kingdom” as a patriarchal and inherently violent term. Internally polarized, I reacted with some anger. What did I miss, though? I missed an opportunity to hear the student’s story. Later, I checked in with her. My student (who was a minority, herself) was not, in fact, opposed to the language, but to a religious philosophy that champions the dominant group over the minority group. I validated that. And then I explained that the Kingdom of Jesus is an upside down Kingdom, where the weakness of the Suffering Servant paves the way for the redemption of broken, needy, sinful men and women. She teared up. “I like that Kingdom,” she said. A new journey began for her.
Likewise, a conservative student was flustered when he found out that I was egalitarian. He began arguing with me on the data. But this time I stayed centered, not giving in to my propensity to argue, caricature, polarize. I told him my story, a story which includes influential conversations with my former professor, a great Reformed theologian who taught at Gorden Conwell and RTS named Roger Nicole, lauded even among ardent complementarians (clink on the link). He saw that I studied the Bible, and that my journey was not guided by some “misguided feminist agenda,” as he called it, but by “thoughtful study.” He relaxed. And so did I. Polarization AVOIDED.
What if our family could move in this direction? What if we asked one another more about our stories than assuming some slippery slope, or some arrogant agenda? Let’s talk.