A Third Way: Beyond Hunting Heretics or Seeking Converts

“There are two kinds of movements:  those which seek converts, and those which hunt heretics.”    I read these words  in a recent op-ed by David French, a more conservative opinion writer for the New York Times, quoting his more progressive colleague, Michelle Goldberg.  It is an important distinction, first identified in the commentariat by the late political analyst Mark Shields in 2010.  But its roots go back much farther than that, to the bloody theological battles surrounding the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, and in the centuries since.

Those hunting for heretics are looking to condemn.  So they can either dismiss or destroy.  An early heretic was Joan of Arc, who had a series of visions from Archangel Michael,Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret.  Trusting her visions and leadership, the French King chose Joan to bring hope to the beleaguered French army, in the hundred years’ war with the British.  This led to some early victories.  Some defeats followed, and Joan fell out of favor.  Joan was handed over to the British and tried for heresy by the church.  Her visions were considered to be demonic, and therefore dangerous.  Joan was condemned to death, and was burned at the stake in 1431.  She was nineteen.  Twenty-five years later an Inquisitional Court reversed the heresy decision, and declared Joan a martyr.  In 1920 she was renamed St. Joan d’Arc, and since then she has become one of the patron saints of France.

We would like to think that the inquisitional era is over.  That we should have learned, as several theologians have pointed out in recent years, that many of yesterday’s heresies have often ended up being today’s orthodoxy.  St. Joan is just one of many examples.  But the hunting for heretics continues.  Earlier this year a gunman was arrested as he hunted down Justice Bret Kavanaugh for his heretical (to the gunman’s view) position on abortion.  A woman in Texas was arrested a few weeks ago for her threat to kill Judge Tanya Chutkan for what she considered to be the judge’s heretical role in presiding over one of Donald Trump’s trials.

These threats of violence are no longer one-off events.  Hunting heretics is becoming a national pastime.  Former Commander in Chief Donald Trump has become America’s Heretic Hunter in Chief.  His bluster and verbal brutality kindles a similar impulse in most, if not all, of the rest of us.  The result is a growing nastiness – “who can I put down?”;  and a paralyzing fear – “who do I need to stay away from?”.  More and more people — on both sides of the political divide, are following the Heretic Hunter in Chief’s lead.

While those hunting heretics are eager to condemn, those who seek converts are looking to correct.  Correct behavior or thinking.  Bring converts into the fold, where people can think and believe alike.  There is an invitational dimension to movements that seek converts (as opposed to the condemnatory energy of movements that hunt heretics), but in our polarized world convert seekers can easily become overly rigid – and end up being unwilling to acknowledge or honor different positions or practices.  I have been a practicing Christian my entire life, but I occasionally come across some fellow Christians who consider my belief system suspect, if not inadequate; and seek to bring me into their theologically secure circle.  I end up feeling demeaned, if not condemned.   I would like to think that I haven’t acted similarly, but I know that in anxious and exhausted moments I have resorted to a spiritual arrogance and intellectual haughtiness toward others.  I know I am not alone.

What is disturbing to me about these two movements is that both are built around people’s ideas or positions.  They are constructed around people’s religious or political exoskeletons.  Neither connects to the fullness of the person who lives underneath.  In my experience, movements are generated not by hunting heretics or seeking converts, but by building relationships.  Telling and hearing one another’s stories.  Listening to each other’s fears, hopes, values and dreams. Taking the risk of trying to connect with someone else at a deeper level, particularly a person whose political carapace seems so different. Providing space so that give and take can happen, and so that learning can follow.  A movement can be created out of common understanding and mutual respect.  And instead of hunting heretics or seeking converts, we can be using a developing solidarity to correct – not behavior, but injustice.  And become apostles of a movement of hope.

It is enormously hard work.  It is what lies before us.


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