In 2009 journalist Bill Bishop wrote a compelling book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart. Bishop makes the case that over the past several decades people have been living, working, worshipping and vacationing in places where other people are more and more likely to think and vote the same way. He demonstrates that the gulf between different perspectives is growing wider – and people are less willing to understand one another, making it easier to cancel the other side out. If there is no relationship, there is little pain.
Within the dynamic of cancel culture is the pride in being “woke”, which is receiving more attention these days, particularly in the political arena. Woke refers to being awakened to the realities and injustices suffered by others. I am more familiar with woke from the progressive side, but it also exists on the conservative end. Conservatives by and large acknowledge the scourge of slavery and racism, but have become woke to what they portray as an insidious attempt by progressives to rewrite America’s past by force-feeding what they consider a skewed history called critical race theory to its students.
Woke progressive people make the claim that they can see systemic racism, white privilege, and the urgency of climate change while others can’t or won’t. Addressing systemic racism, white privilege, and climate change are laudable and necessary enterprises, but embedded in the language of “woke’ is an arrogant belief that some are awake and others are asleep. Implicit in woke language is that non-woke people need to think speak, and see as the woke do. To the non-woke, woke is a poorly disguised prejudice against people who aren’t.
In my mind, woke is an unlikely bookend to another metaphor that has had widespread use over the years: “born again”. Born again refers to people who have been born into a new relationship with Jesus, which is accompanied by a more robust faith. To others, born again has become a poorly disguised prejudice against people who aren’t born again. Taken to an extreme, which woke and born again people both tend to do – there is a misguided conviction that “I have arrived — and you haven’t; I am in – and you are not; I know – and you don’t.” Embedded in born again and woke is an aggression, which for people who don’t claim to be either woke or born again, is deeply infuriating and offensive. This dynamic, which is fed by the continuous cacaphony of conflict entrepreneurs, reinforces the big sort – keeping us at odds from one another. In our current polarized culture, woke and born again have become weaponized. Instead of opening people up to new insights and a deepening awareness, they have the unfortunate effect of shutting down the minds and closing the hearts of those who don’t subscribe to being woke or born again.
I try not to claim being “woke”. That said, I acknowledge that I am continually awakening – especially to prejudices I didn’t know I had, and paradigms that I wasn’t aware I subscribed to. It is an ongoing process, which requires commitment and courage – and a willingness to listen. There are many days when I would rather stay asleep than awaken to things I have done or said – or didn’t do or didn’t say.
Similarly, I cannot point to a moment or experience when I was born again. I find myself being born continually to new ideas, new perspectives on life and on faith – and who we are with each other. It requires commitment and courage – and a willingness to listen. And to trust that the many dark nights of the soul, and several seasons when I have been enshrouded in the fog of confusion and despair, can give way to an awakening.
Locking concepts in – as many have with both woke and born again, ends up providing more fuel for prejudice, and — to draw from the title of Bill Bishop’s book, threatens to tear us apart. We would do well to listen more – to each other, yes, but to the deeper meanings and intentions of the words and metaphors we use. Waking up to new insights and perspectives is an ongoing journey.