The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom From a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies
David E. Fitch
Review by Gil Dueck
Why this book?
Like many others, I have become alarmed by the trend toward polarization in contemporary life. We seem increasingly divided and prone to seeing our divisions in totalizing, “all-or-nothing” categories. Social media seems to have revealed and amplified some of the darker and more tribal aspects our nature. We now have unprecedented access to the diverse thoughts and perspectives of others (marketed to us under the banner of “community” and “connection”), yet we are more anxious, less patient, and more prone to consign those who disagree with us to the category of “irredeemable enemy.”
With this cultural backdrop, a title like The Church of Us vs. Them seemed both timely and welcome.
Who is the author?
David Fitch teaches theology at Northern Seminary in Chicago, Ill. He is also a pastor, church-planter, podcaster, and youth hockey coach. Over the course of his career, he has combined excellent scholarship with the very practical concerns of everyday church life.
His roots are in southern Ontario, so he brings a good awareness of the differences between U.S. and Canadian contexts.
I see Fitch as an important voice because he’s an evangelical-Anabaptist who sees this perspective as uniquely relevant for the church in a post-Christian context.
Fitch is a careful student of the way that ideology and antagonisms function within human psychology. He shows us the mechanisms by which we become deeply invested in ideas or causes that serve to identify who is on our team and who is not. In this, he makes an important point – often the ideas we spend the most time defending are mainly about securing our own identity and security against some perceived threat.
To illustrate this link between ideology and identity, he uses specific examples from within the recent history of the evangelical church – things like our views on the Bible and how we understand decisions for Christ. In both cases, he shows how a conviction about something genuinely important can mutate into an ideological signifier that doesn’t do any real work other than articulate our position on a spectrum and perhaps signal to our teammates that we’re still on the same side.
In contrast, Fitch argues that Christians need to seek a space “beyond enemies” through the presence of Christ who calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. For Fitch, this is not a middle space of compromise on a spectrum between two perspectives. This space beyond enemy-making comes as a gift from God.
Where the book fails
Early in the book, Fitch asks:
Is it possible to discern a good distinctive from an identity marker that makes enemies?
In my view, this is exactly the right question. Unfortunately, it’s not a question that he gives much attention to in the pages that follow. He tends to treat all differences under the heading of the “enemy-making machine” without giving much guidance as to how to articulate real differences in ways that don’t become ideological or create antagonisms.
- How do we hold identity-constituting convictions as churches without making enemies of those who do not share them?
- What kinds of virtues and practices are required for this kind of posture?
There are plenty of answers that can be inferred from what Fitch writes, but the book would have been stronger if he had made them more explicit.
Fitch sees any kind of belief that is dislodged from local relationships and practical discipleship within the church as vulnerable to being co-opted by the enemy-making machine. In this, he is partly correct. But this also makes him a bit reluctant to tip his hand on some of the more contentious issues that he uses as illustrations throughout the book. This will seem evasive and frustrating to some readers.
His motivation for this is clear – he wants to preserve space for actual people in actual relationships to talk to one another. Premature conclusions can often short-circuit this process and stop these conversations before they start. I think this is broadly a good motive but there are surely points at which simple and straightforward clarity is also a benefit to healthy and productive conversations.
In addition, Fitch is not attentive enough to the way his argument will be heard within a cultural climate that is already predisposed to functional views of religion that trivialize and erase meaningful difference. Because of this, it is easy to imagine Fitch being misunderstood or misrepresented from both ends of the spectrum.
Who should read it?
Church leaders should pay attention to this book.
Fitch is a perceptive voice who asks important questions. It is important for church leaders to model non-anxious leadership as they navigate an anxious and antagonistic culture. Fitch is a good guide for mapping this terrain.
In The Church of Us vs. Them, Fitch describes a decisive challenge for the church at a particularly fraught cultural moment. He wonders, “How can the church be known as a people of reconciliation and renewal in a culture of antagonism?” This is an important question that we need to be asking in 2019.
Any who are interested in digging a bit deeper should read Fitch’s 2011 work, The End of Evangelicalism which is his more academic treatment of many of these themes.
“When distinctives become less about daily living and more about what differentiates us from other people, they in essence become banners to be waved around signaling who is in and who is out of our group.”
“In looking at our enemies, we always learn more about ourselves than about who we fight against. In sitting with them, we open space for Christ’s presence.”
“The way God works to change the world is to first inhabit a people with his justice, showing the world what it looks like, and then engage the world, challenge the world, and invite them to do the same.”