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A Possible Path to Autocracy

At least three people have told me this week that they’ve realized that Russia’s war against Ukraine is affecting them way more than they understood. For so many people, this has been overwhelming, steps too far over the edge. We think we have compassion fatigue, and then an even more horrific thing happens, and we are overwhelmed again. In times where we didn’t get world news, we could handle this. Our bodies and systems are not designed to handle so much news and fatigue! Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote about this last year in a helpful column that many of us resonated with.[1] As I listen and try to be there for people, I myself get overwhelmed too, and then want nothing more than to withdraw and be silent, away from news and people and life.

As I took a walk this week and thought and prayed about my feelings and what was going on in the world, I remember praying this: “Lord, I cannot understand how anyone can believe that autocracy is helpful or good, except as fortification for their ego.” Then God showed me some things I wanted to shy away from, but since I had begun this conversation, I needed to look. As I continued to pray, here’s some of what I realized in my time with God.

Since I am a pastor serving a church, I know that pastors cannot please everyone all the time. It doesn’t keep us from trying sometimes, but we know that decisions that we and the governing bodies of our churches make are not going to be universally popular. We work the best we can to serve God first, and then the good of the people. Still there is a joke that as a pastor you can have a 95% job approval rating and still be run out by the 5% who are unhappy.

During the pandemic and with all of the political upheaval we’ve had, those job approval ratings have fallen severely. I’ve watched pastors face decision paralysis. I’ve watched pastors deal with governing bodies making decisions that were not what they felt was best for themselves, their staff, or their families. I’ve watched churches look to stand with other churches making the same decision so that they’re not alone. Conflict is everywhere – because not much of a majority has agreed on decisions in the last two years. Some people have left their church, and others have fought for what they wanted.

Since as a society we don’t tend to handle conflict very well, and perhaps we never have, there is a huge temptation for pastors and church leaders to simply say, “This is what we’re doing, and there will be no arguments.” It solves the problem, it provides stability, it relieves the conflict. It’s also a gateway to autocracy.

Once I realized this in my meditation time, I felt both relief and anguish. The relief came from the side of me that always tries to understand someone else’s perspective. I had found a path to autocracy that someone like me could be tempted to take, and now I understood it better. One of the gifts of autocracy is a lower level of conflict, and if the conflict rises, an autocrat can silence it by getting rid of people or punishing them. I could finally understand how someone could get there from where I am now.

The anguish came from realizing what a slippery slope we’re on, and how our democracy and our churches are in danger right now because of this same kind of thing.

We Americans don’t like conflict. We don’t like to be around people with different views and opinions than our own. We are actively dividing ourselves into camps and waging war on the ‘other’, whether it is by hindering the ability to vote or restricting rights that have been present for years. We are fighting a war in the media, a war in Congress, a war on the streets. Since we don’t like conflict, we are attempting to resolve it all by making the other people do what we want. Again, that is a possible path to autocracy. The party or group that wins can tell the other what to do, change our electoral process, and subject everyone to the rules they set.

Perhaps the reason this Russian war in Ukraine is so desperately painful for so many of us is that it reflects what we sense going on here but cannot quite bring ourselves to admit. It’s so much easier to look at other people and comment on their appearance and actions than to look in the mirror and really see what’s going on in our own world.

I would argue that there’s nothing our country needs more than some immediate training on how to handle conflict. We need ways to sit down with each other and understand why people feel the way they do, even if we’re not the ones responsible for making them feel that way. We need to remember or learn how to apologize and seek forgiveness when we have wronged someone else. We need to get to the place where we can recognize and honor other people’s feelings and thoughts as right and valid for them even when those same feelings and thoughts aren’t right and valid for us.

Churches – heads up. This is the gospel too. Jesus cared about the feelings and thoughts of other people, especially those on the outside. Jesus sat down with paralyzed men and with women caught in compromising situations and with children and with people with leprosy and with the Pharisees and Sadducees… and He listened in order to understand and meet them where they were. He didn’t exactly agree with Nicodemus or with the woman at the well, but he listened to both and challenged them to grow. (John chapters 3-4). Have we realized that churches could have a very relevant role in society by stepping in and helping to teach and live positive skills for listening and resolving conflict? Or maybe we’ve looked in the mirror and realized we need to learn it ourselves first?

I’m gazing into that mirror pretty steadily. I’m sensing a call to come alongside pastors who are struggling and churches in conflict and help. At the same time, across my denomination, I don’t see a job for that. I don’t see a way to earn my living trying to make a difference like this, and that dissonance is hard for me to resolve. It’s what I believe is the most pressing issue of our time, and we haven’t made it a priority yet. Nor has the church at large or society in general.

What will it take to get us to look in the mirror and deal with what we see? The Russian war in Ukraine might help some of us to get there… and let’s work together once we see what’s there.

[1] If you can't take in anymore, there's a reason (substack.com)

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