By Tom Krattenmaker
Who wants to be in “the middle”? Not many. Or so you might think after a quick tour through cable news, talk radio and the Internet, or after a look at one of those red-state, blue-state maps. Political analyst Michael Barone writes for many when he observes that we have two Americas now and they are not on speaking terms.
Given the stark differences between Red America and Blue America, between Christian America and secular America, the claim bears truth. But it’s heartening to know that in between the culture camps, there’s a space where envoys from the divided Americas are not only speaking but also forming partnerships. And they’re doing so not in spite of their passionately held convictions but because of them.
Welcome to the “radical middle.” Having visited this metaphorical space in my own city of Portland, I am moved by what I’ve witnessed. I’ve seen displays of decency and humility by evangelicals who have entered secular realms not to convert the heathens, or win at politics, but to team up with their supposed adversaries to tackle the community’s problems. I have seen liberal secularists set aside their suspicion of evangelicals and go to work with them to improve public schools and bring health care to the poor.
Portland Mayor Sam Adams is someone you’ll find in the radical middle. Given that Adams is gay, and that evangelical Christians have led the resistance against gay rights, “hell no” would have been a predictable response when evangelical churches approached Adams about joining forces to serve the city and its poorest residents. Adams let a different criterion guide his decision — the city’s near desperation for resources and people to meet the unmet public need. He said yes, and dove in.
You’ll also find people such as Ben Dudley, a Christian who directs a soccer, service and learning after-school program in a no-evangelism zone: the elementary schools in Portland’s poorer ZIP codes. For Dudley, director of AC Portland (whose board I serve on), the prohibition on proclamation is no problem; Dudley is an evangelical who is more than willing to let his service do the evangelizing.
Then there’s Tony Kriz, who models the radical middle with an earnest audacity few can match. Kriz, author of the new book Neighbors and Wise Men, did Christian ministry work in the predominantly Muslim country of Albania when he was fresh out of college. Later, Kriz was part of a hardy band of Christians who worked with students at Portland’s ultrasecular Reed College. As told in Donald Miller’s best-selling book Blue Like Jazz, Kriz — known in the book as Tony the Beat Poet — hatched a crazy way to connect with the more-skeptical-than-thou Reedies: a confession booth. No, the Christians didn’t hear confessions in the makeshift wooden booth they erected at the year-end campus festival. They made them. And that act of disarming vulnerability set off one bridge-crossing conversation after another.
No monopoly on truth
“Love” and “sacrifice” are the words Kriz uses to describe his approach to other people, and they well describe the price of admission to the radical middle. One of its truly radical features is that people enter with a willingness to surrender the arrogant notion that they have a monopoly on truth and virtue, and that the “other side” is all bad and only bad.
What’s also radical about this middle is that people go there with their beliefs and passions fully afire — passions that drive them to think the best of, and want the best for, “the other,” however they are defined.
“In our day,” says pastor Bruce Reyes-Chow, “it is radical to see the political or ideological other as a full and complex human being, a child of God. And then treat them as such.”
This is clearly not a safe, boring “mushy middle.” Today, the middle is more like a no-man’s land. It’s risky, with exposure to fire from both sides, but full of bracing fresh air for those who can handle some new company and the sound of the occasional missile passing overhead.
You won’t find a poll on the size and demographic makeup of this emerging radical middle. This is not the group to whom the political parties and candidates pander. But it’s good to see more people showing up there, offering an auspicious alternative to the stalemates and culture wars that plague our time. Let’s hope the politicians start following them.
Tom Krattenmaker is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know, to be released in April.