Contributing authors: Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin and Pastor Tom Breeden
At the One America Movement, we work with experts in the field of neuroscience to help us teach others how to fight toxic polarization in our communities. In-group moderates are one of the important aspects about which we educate others.
Let’s make one thing clear: when we say in-group “moderate,” we aren’t talking about being politically or socially moderate, compromising your values, or changing who you are. Being an in-group moderate means that you are willing to speak out when members of your community (your friends, your family, your coworkers, your congregation, your political party) behave in a way that contradicts your values. This act of speaking up can look like pulling someone you love aside to explain to them how concerned you are about their words or actions.
It can look like this: “I disagree with your viewpoint. I think it’s damaging to the kingdom. And because you are my brother in Christ, I can’t just 240-character tweet you into a corner, isolate you from you and condemn you. I have to do something different.” This boldness can be incredibly hard, but in-group moderates are the key to reducing toxic polarization in our faith communities, especially when that boldness is done in a genuine effort to love your neighbor well.
In-group Moderates: A Perspective from Christianity
Nehemiah believed so strongly about his role in rebuilding the Jewish temple; he became a fantastic leader and organizational manager who was unafraid to do hard things with loving direction to accomplish the goal of a newer, better temple than the one which had been destroyed. He was an in-group moderate for his time. In Nehemiah 1: 17- 18, Nehemiah said to the Jews, the priests, and the nobles, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.”
Even as some in his group (Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem) started to push back and bully those who were in favor of building the temple, Nehemiah quickly responded (v.20): “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.”
Nehemiah was also extremely fair–he didn’t play favorites. All the economic classes of the day were included in the rebuilding–he had a job for all of them with no special treatment for one over the other.
In-group Moderates: A Perspective from Judaism
The Torah portion Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-22:24) contains dramatic scenes within gripping stories. In this parashah (portion), we find the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God is troubled by the behavior of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah. The following conversation ensues between Abraham and God:
“Then the Eternal One said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on to Sodom while Abraham stood before the Eternal One. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:20-25)
The conversation continues like this for the next several verses as Abraham implores God to think of the innocent, even if only a few exist. Ultimately, God denies Abraham’s pleas and destroys Sodom and Gomorrah.
Nonetheless, Abraham’s actions come to teach us an important lesson. God tells Abraham his plan to carry out extreme measures leading to mass death and destruction.
We, too, may encounter extreme ideas or people who make extreme statements. What will we do if this happens? Though the Torah does not tell us how Abraham feels as he argues with God, we can only imagine his trepidation. If our great ancestor Abraham could have the audacity to speak up to God, all the more, may we find the courage to follow Abraham’s example as a courageous in-group moderate.
Toxic forms of polarization tempt us to be our worst selves. If we remain silent, then these negative tendencies have room to spread and affect everyone. But when we stand up against these things, especially within our faith communities, we can better keep at bay those who aim to derail our peacemaking efforts. Through that hard work, we’re finding people working together closely, more spiritually, more relationally, and transformative, rather than just resolving the issue and moving away from it.
When we engage in conflict faithfully, we can actually learn from each other and be better together. Take courage in knowing one brave person can make a positive and noticeable difference.