Jan. 6, 2021, was an epiphany of sorts for Americans who watched in horror as a mob breached the U.S. Capitol, assaulted police and vandalized offices. It was both shockingly unexpected and shockingly unsurprising given growing extremism, a polarized electorate and the relentless marketing of allegations that a huge, if unproven, conspiracy had stolen the election.
This has been an age of conspiracies, so the soil has been well prepared by such weirdly gnostic phenomena like “Q,” and outrageous allegations of perversion and murder on the part of political opponents. Was anyone surprised that almost as soon as the Capitol was cleared, voices on social media were asserting that antifa — the anti-fascist bête noire of various nationalist and white supremacist factions — had cleverly engineered the debacle?
Yet what unfolded before our eyes was obvious and terrible: Confederate flags waving from the halls of the Capitol. Signs reading “Jesus saves” being held above the rioting crowd. Attackers battling the police and committing acts of vandalism while lawmakers cowered. At times it had the eerie look of a zombie apocalypse movie.
Those cowering lawmakers and their parties, collectively, bear some of the blame for the state we find ourselves in. Many Catholic leaders and others have been warning of the perils of polarization. As each side demonizes the other — making dialogue, compromise or even mutual understanding impossible — the gulf between us has grown.
With it is added a toxic mix of self-righteousness and victimhood. Because we believe ourselves both in the right and unfairly treated, we confer on ourselves a special status that obviates any need to understand, much less compromise with, those we believe are to blame.
The attack on the Capitol was both the nadir of this polarized state that imprisons us and a foretaste of how bad it will become if we don’t commit to a different path.
Unfortunately, if we look to social media for this different path, we are unlikely to find much solace. Social media has become the psycho playground of the nation’s id. The level of discussion is not much loftier than two kids yelling at each other: “You started it!” “No, you did!”
If we continue to frame every issue in apocalyptic terms, we leave no room for anything other than an apocalypse. It is the antithesis of what a democracy should be, and it is the antithesis of Christian dialogue and charity.
Despite the hand-wringing, despite President-elect Joe Biden’s stated intention to unite not divide, the forces of greed and division seem stronger than the pull of unity.
There is money to be made in extremism, not moderation or dialogue. Feeding the sense of entitlement or grievance pays. Too many people across the ideological divide are too financially committed to division. In a universe of facts and alternative facts, too much money is being made reinforcing the prejudices and base instincts of their audiences.
The church is being subjected to these same gravitational pulls. We have our own extremists on both sides, well-funded and willing to challenge anyone from pope to pastor with whom they do not agree.
And the line between political and ecclesial extremism is blurring. The conservative and liberal political agendas are driving church agendas, and the same apocalyptic rhetoric is being adopted as well.
This is a tough time to be a leader in the church, whether pope or pastor or parent. Yet we need those who can speak for humility, for selflessness and for the common good. We need to focus on those in need, not those aggrieved, and we need to find ways to dismantle the barriers so many of us have helped erect.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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