Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Problem with Being a Centrist

Does calling for a radiant center in politics mean that people of good will should be, or seek to be, centrists? Is being a centrist always a positive thing? Is there anything negative about being a centrist? These are some of the questions I began to think about after posting my Feb. 8 blog article and reading the thoughtful comments made about it.
Assuming that being in the “radiant center” as proposed in that blog article makes one a centrist, the positive things about such location must be considered.
Centrists are persons who don’t like extremism and want to live in peace and harmony with all people as much as possible. That’s good.
Centrists are persons who want to accept, and be accepted by, people who disagree with them and who promote inclusion over exclusion. That’s good.
Centrists are persons who appreciate and affirm truth, beauty, and goodness wherever it is found, no matter the label or the location. That’s good, too.
Sometimes being a centrist is not a good thing, however. That is particularly true when, or if, centrality means neutrality in the face of injustice.
In one of his oft-quoted statements, Desmond Tutu said, 

In the 1930s, what benefit was it to the Jews for many (most) Germans to be centrists rather than being on the left opposing Hitler and the Nazi fascists?
In the early 1960s, what benefit was it for many (most) white Americans to be centrists rather than being on the left opposing the Jim Crow laws supported by the segregationists on the right?  
In the 2010s, what benefit was it for many (most) “straight” people to be centrists rather than being on the left supporting the civil rights of LGBT people buffeted by prejudice and discrimination by those on the right?
And looking toward the future, if human habitation on this planet is in jeopardy because of effects of global warming, as it most probably is, what benefit is it for citizens of the world to be centrists rather than being on the left and in vocal opposition to the global warming deniers on the right?
If being a centrist means not taking a stand against injustice and against the mistreatment of people or the environment, then clearly that is not good.
Soon after posting the Feb. 8 article on the radiant center, I realized that I had mixed metaphors in talking about the center. That realization was partly due to reading Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud’s Feb. 7 blog article titled “The Left/Right Schema Must Go” (see here).
Grimsrud stressed the importance of holding to “core values.” This means that the center is the core, not the position between the right and the left on a linear spectrum. This is what Easel Roberts was suggesting, I came to realize, with the image of the merry-go-round—and what I had missed by staying with the right/left schema.
So, moving toward the center, which represents core values, is another way—and a good way—to be a centrist.
But, alas, that doesn’t seem to solve the problem of the division (“polarity”!) so prominent in contemporary society. Why? Because people disagree on core values. For example, conservatives (people on the right) see their opposition to abortion (“killing babies”) to be an immovable core value. But people on the left see women’s reproductive rights (“pro-choice”) as an important core value.
So, being this kind of centrist is also a problem.


  1. This cynic does not see radiance. I see people who do good across the spectrum. Maybe that is radiance - 1000 points of light. But the closer to the polarities the more evil behavior one finds. I have encountered too much evil in the name of "justice". I'll stick to the center, with friends across the spectrum, and try to do good where I am.

    (I could not locate myself on Craig's chart, only where I'm not.)

    1. Thank you for checking out the chart. It is a thought experiment, more a question than an answer. I was looking at various scales people use to evaluate the Bible, and where that might place different viewpoints. Other scales also impact us, such as where we are between competition and cooperation. My main point was just to illustrate the alternatives to a simple left-right dividing line. People are actually all over the map.

      Brian McLaren explored a similar challenge in "A Generous Orthodoxy" (Zondervan 2004). This was well before I made my chart, although I did not read his book until after the chart. Let me just quote the subtitle of his fascinating book, "WHY I AM A missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN." He obviously went places I did not try to map, and he further tries to be all of them! He argues that you can map various theological positions onto different parts of Jesus' life and ministry.

      Let me close with one caveat on my chart, in 2011 I thought I was creating a new theological term in "neo-liberalism." I have since been painfully learning more about economics, and I would not try to impose a new theological meaning on a word already so overused in economics. I did feel a glow reading McLaren's chapter "Why I am Green."

    2. Thank you, Craig. I have read McLaren as well. I identify least with all but the emergent/calvinist/anabaptist theologies, but the others seem to fit. I probably feel most at home with the conservative Lutherans and conservative Anglicans with some Orthodoxy thrown in - none of those how I was raised. In the last election I voted Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian, and independent - don't think I fit much of a mold. At heart, I'm probably closest to the Whigs. I appreciate your insightful thinking.

    3. My apologies, that does not flow well. I do not identify with the emergent or calvinist or anabaptist theologies. Obviously the Lutheran, Anglican, and Orthodox all have their own historic issues as well (as do most, including evangelicals and Catholics). But at some point, one must decide what foundations must have, and how far one can accept historical and practical variance. As the Orthodox put it, "We know where the Church is, but we do not know where it is not."

  2. The center, especially politically, has shifted so far to the right that being a centrist on the right-left schema is to be pretty far right say forty years ago. Reagan would be a centrist now. And I don't think we can completely rid ourselves of the right-left thing. As you pointed out in your penultimate paragraph, what is a core value for some is an abomination for others. There's a FB post today about how Trump supporters are loving people who just got hoodwinked into believing Trump was going to bring back good jobs etc. Alas, how I wish it were so. I wish "evangelicals" of the political right would read Alan Bean's FB article about N. T. Wright's version of the gospel. Actually, it's the gospel version of the gospel. N.T. Wright is its gospelizer. TF Charles Kiker

    1. Thanks for your comments, Charles. I still need to read Alan's comments more carefully (I have just glanced at it to this point), but I have long been a "fan" of N.T. Wright and have long wanted to write a blog article about him--which I assume I will do at some point. I may want to comment more about Bean/Wright after I read the article carefully (I just got home late last night and am catching up on stuff today), but I appreciate you making reference to it here.

  3. Regarding polarity around the issue of abortion, could both "sides" share a core value or centered goal by working together to support endeavors (and laws) that aim to create a society & culture where women enthusiastically choose to have children? (For example: longer paid leave for both parents & universal access to affordable, quality health care, housing and nutrition.) As I understand from conversations with loved ones, both "sides" care deeply about the wellbeing of children, women and men. Where do we see these bridge-building conversations happening? How can we facilitate more shared, mutual, "central" understandings around the root causes behind why many women choose abortion & what can happen to women & men when abortion is criminalized? And once those central understandings have been established, how can both "sides" work together to achieve their common, central, shared goal of creating conditions that incentivize women & men to intentionally & joyfully bear children?

    1. Thanks, Kimberly, for your significant comments about abortion. Let me share similar comments made by Ted Grimsrud in his response to comments I posted on his blog article (linked to above). Your comments and his comments are helpful, I think, in moving people with conflicting viewpoints toward the radiant center.

      "Let me focus on abortion. Maybe what I will suggest actually is the kind of approach that you would see being part of the quest for a 'vibrant center.' But what I think is that we should focus on elements of the issue that we feel clear about at core truths--that unwanted pregnancies should be reduced at much as possible (with one consequence being fewer abortions), that we affirm the preciousness of all life (including, unequivocally, the lives of pregnant women), that the pin-pointing of when 'human life' begins (in the sense of being endowed with full human rights) is a philosophical/theological and not scientific determination (that is, is something that fallible human beings subjectively decide and can reasonably disagree about, not simply a 'fact'), that in our contemporary world the nations with the lowest abortion rates are those with the strongest safety net/support system for pregnant women (and where also abortion is legal--e.g., countries in Western Europe)."

  4. Searching for core values can lead to what is commonly perceived to be an extreme position. I love Kimberly's suggestion in the post above to strive toward a society & culture where abortions wouldn't be needed or wanted. To achieve this world would require what some may consider to be "socialism." OK with me, but probably extreme to many.

  5. There is nothing absolute under the Sun, right, left or center. I find myself mostly on the left, but I am holding conservative values sometimes. I like the center because I don’t like extremism and want to live in peace and harmony with all people as much as possible.

  6. "With regard to the current occupant of the white house the center does not exist for me. Resistance is my choice" -- (terse words from local Thinking Friend Ed Chasteen).

    1. Here is a brief response by Thinking Friend Easel Roberts: "An alternative way of saying this is compared to the 'current occupant of the white house' the center IS a position of resistance."

  7. Here are pertinent comments from Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas

    "A thought I have had on my mind lately, and your 'center' piece amplifies it, is that even if we could somehow identify a 'center' quantifiably on a linear integral evenly proportioned scale, the right is skewed so far right that there is a seeming vacuum center right. Hence, the acceptance and participation of the Alt Right, Skinhead, KKK, etc. extremists in the Republican party.

    "The left or progressive side is more evenly distributed as it is still common to find persons divided in even their own personal beliefs that would seem contradictions to non-progressives. For example, it is not uncommon to find a progressive who supports social and environmental rights as well as gun rights, etc. This explains why progressives in the past have rejected the far left agendas of communism and socialism.

    "This is not to say that one cannot find left extremists at all. They are just not enough in number (no critical mass) to shift the progressives that far left. The same cannot be said of the right which has tacitly accepted and embraced the farthest right expressions, to the point of being included in Trump’s administration in high ranking positions of influence.

    "My point is that among liberals/progressives there is still admixture along the full scale of what is considered moderate left and center left, while the right is not as heterogeneous and is more aggregately farther right."

  8. In addition to abortion, gay rights / same-sex marriage is another very divisive issue that makes it hard for people to come together in the radiant center. Here are significant comments in that regard by Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "Thanks for another though-provoking blog regarding the 'centrist.' I consider myself to be a centrist in most areas but the Scriptures draw clear boundaries on most ethical and moral issues.

    "For example, you use the LGBT lifestyle as one of those gray areas. I have never been able to accept homosexuality as normal. Now let me explain. I do not believe homosexual people can help their condition anymore than diabetics or people with any other physical abnormality can help what they were born with. Any area of the human body can be born abnormally and that is not the fault of the person affected. That includes gender. We try to correct those areas medically if that can be done but we don't consider them normal or try to normalize them by denying their reality.

    "The homosexual person can't help their gender but they can control their behavior. It is not a sin be born with any abnormality but it is a sin to behave sinfully as concession to that condition. The homosexual person should be treated with dignity and respect and have all the human rights as straight people but their sin is in giving in to a sinful lifestyle encouraged by their faulted nature.

    "All of us have a proclivity to various weaknesses but we don't build a life around acceptance of that proclivity and call it normal. I have a family member who has this disability and I couldn't love him more but I don't support his lifestyle.

    "We have let the gay community call the shots on this one when the Scriptures leave no doubt about the immorality of this behavior. The sad thing about this is that much of the Church has given in to this evil in the name of inclusiveness and acceptance. What sin will it next approve of?

    "As you can see I'm not a centrist in this matter but I am following my conscience and my understanding of Scripture."

    1. Truett, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts/beliefs about LGBT people, and there is much I would like to say in response. But I have dealt with most of the issues you raised in my book "Fed Up with Fundamentalism," if you (or others) would like to know my thinking on this matter, which is quite different from yours, I recommend reading the section on Homosexuality in that book.

  9. Well, I just stumbled across another vision of the radiant center, in the form of a discussion about the history of debt slavery, and it's release. And it really does have a center, as it is based on a talk by an economics professor just down the road at UMKC! See link:

    Let me also add a second link, to David Graeber's book, "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" which is available free as a PDF file online: