From the moment God breathed his life into humankind to complete our creation in his image, we all have been inherently relational and purposeful, just as God is. Indeed, we were created for relationship with God and with other persons who, like us, are made in the image of God and are part of his ultimate purpose. So naturally, the first thing that Eve did in the garden of Eden, after deciding that she wanted to be her own leader instead of following God, was to invite Adam to join her.
Adam grasped immediately that if he did not join her, they would be fundamentally separated, incapable of living and acting together, paralyzed by moral and spiritual polarization, hapless victims of “polarysis.”
It is human nature that we do not want to go alone. Like Adam, we sense absolutely that we cannot survive in isolation. We must have the company of other like-minded people. We need people who share our desires with whom we can work on shared purposes based in shared values, language, and ultimately all the elements of what we broadly call a culture with societal norms. These commonalities allow us to live together peacefully and productively.
But we are imperfect in the image of God. The temptation proposed in Eden was not for Eve to follow the satanic snake, but simply to be her own leader instead of following God’s guidance. Adam sensed that he had no future alone. Without any apparent alternative, he needed another person; he chose Eve instead of trusting Gd to meet his need for others like himself. Our predilection to lead ourselves rather than to trust and follow God’s leadership, combines with our need for other humans who are like us.
Our God-like and God-given freedom to make choices combines with our imperfection. The result constantly calls us to trust and obey ourselves and those like us, rather than trusting and following our Creator and loving those who are different. We instinctively choose people who are like us. It is often called tribalism. It is essential for human life. Without divine intervention, we move away from those who are different and toward those who are like us. We choose competition instead of collaboration and hate instead of love.
When one of us or some of us together want something that others want, opposing desires erupt. We agree within our group on how to resolve such differences. The controlling priority is to survive by preserving the tribe of shared desires. We organize ourselves to obtain and protect what serves or satisfies our shared felt needs. We separate from those who compete with us for something we both want, or who claim that what they desire is better than what we want. But ultimately, separation alone is not an adequate strategy, and it is not practical on every detail.
So, we find ways to fit in and feel safe, to live, work, play, or worship with people who are similar on various indicators of sameness in subgroups of various larger groups. We decide how much each factor matters so we can simultaneously agree to allow (tolerate) certain differences within a group that we identify with, and to reject other differences.
However, sometimes—often out of fear--we choose to not merely separate but to actively demean, disparage, oppose, or even punish or eliminate those who are not like us in what we believe, value, desire, or purpose. To know who safely shares our identity, we look, speak, dress, and act alike, including what makes us laugh or cry, whom we love as our neighbor or reject as the enemy. The mimetic model excludes what looks different. We polarize. And any good thing that requires acting together for mutual benefit becomes the unachievable fruit of polarysis, paralysis from polarization.
In a macro-context dominated by mass media, celebrity influencers, and two-party electoral politics, fear and hatred are much stronger and more easily aroused motivators than faith and love. Negative messages crowd out positive information. Bad news beats good news. The result is polarization by exclusion. It is more effective to blame, criticize, and demean the other group, than to praise and encourage your group to serve all people and to call everyone to love and serve others, even your “enemy.”
When both parties resort to the self-protective top priority of gaining and maintaining power over their malevolent and ignorant enemies, the result is “polarysis,” paralysis by polarization. Polarysis is the inability to act caused when each party involved only values what they want, without regard, respect, or recognition, or even concern for those on the other side. Polarysis denies the existence of common cause or shared beliefs or foundational values to accomplish what is possible for the common good and a higher calling. It refutes the call of Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself.
In marriage and family polarysis prevents compromise and accommodation to benefit members who have less power. In the church polarysis prevents collaboration by those with different interpretations of Scripture for spreading the gospel of reconciliation with God through Christ. Polarysis silences the call of Jesus to seek first the Kingdom of God in all things and for all people. In business polarysis prevents a just balance between the welfare of the employee followers and the customers and the wealth of the organizational leaders. In legislative and executive governmental bodies polarysis prevents sharing the credit for wise bipartisan public policy.
God takes creator’s pleasure in the variety that results from our freedom to choose. But God does not need or want us to force the shared beliefs, desires, or purposes of our group on others, and especially not on those who have not been reconciled to God through Christ. Don’t blame or credit God for tribal polarysis. In organizations and relationships where people wisely and effectively seek first the Kingdom of God, there is no polarysis. There is instead a shared blessing, with tolerance for each other’s faults and differences and the bounty produced by mutual following and leading together.
Order Richard Kriegbaum's new book Heads & Tails: Following and Leading in Kingdom-Formed Organizations.