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Evangelization in a polarized culture

Published: October 16, 2023   

In his book "The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World," Fr. Aaron Wessman tells us that one of the biggest challenges in both American society and our Church is polarization. This polarization is affecting the way we relate to our closest relatives and friends and is undermining the Church’s fundamental task in the world - evangelization and catechesis. 

In the last 50 to 60 years this dynamic has gradually created two mega-groups in the US associated with the ideologies of the two political parties, the conservative Republican and the liberal Democrat. Politicians have driven this polarization to solidify their bases to give voters clear, obvious choices with little ambiguity in the middle. Fr. Wessman illustrates how this has shaped our relationships looking at statistical data from 1960, where 5% of Republicans would have been upset if their children married a Democrat. This percentage rose to 27% in 2008 and 49% in 2010.

From the other perspective, 4% of Democrats would be upset if their child married a Republican in 1960, while that rose to 20% in 2008 and 33% in 2010. 

A process of sorting, homogenization and intensification of these mega-groups has also occurred in this period. Consequently, many people associate their personal identity with the political party so much that if an election is lost, they feel they’ve lost everything. With time, this sorting process creates so much harmonization of thought and values within the mega-group. This is also a consequence of geographical homogenization. Fr. Wessman reports that in 1992 only 38% of American voters lived in the so-called landslide counties, where the spread between the two political parties is greater than 20%, compared to 60% in 2016. Lastly, the use of war metaphors and social media has intensified the tension and hate speech between the two mega-groups. 

Given this widespread cultural polarization, Fr Wessman identifies the primary challenge to the Church’s evangelization as the ability to see someone not in one’s mega-group as a person, with a soul, a life history, wounds and hopes, knowing that the church's goal is to offer a salvivic encounter. An additional challenge comes from the homogenization process. Culturally we have lost the ability to think outside a small set of parameters of the mega-groups, so when we meet people from other groups we may react and speak with the language that is typical of the mega-groups, often with packaged answers. 

This brings us to the theology of crossing over, learned from Jesus. Most of his encounters in the gospels are examples of crossing over to the outcast, to people from outside groups and often at the extreme margins of society. A key element of crossing over is to approach someone with an internal disposition of openness and curiosity to learn more about the other person, while prudently determining the right way to interact. Jesus teaches us that there is not one way to deliver the truth. Jesus was flexible; he adapted his method of evangelization to the specific person and situation. He taught, healed, listened, challenged, was quiet, sometimes avoided the encounter, sacrificed and humiliated himself for the sake of bringing a salcivic moment. 

Evangelization requires flexible pastoral approaches to bring a salvific moment. The school of this flexibility is the Gospel.


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