Separation or Reconciliation: The Karate Kid and the Aim of the Spiritual Life

Columbia Pictures

Columbia Pictures

I recently watched The Karate Kid for the first time with my family.

“How come you never saw this?” my son asked.

I explained, “I was raised to be separate from the world, so I didn’t see many movies, or listen to much music, unless it was Christian.”

“But mom, why would you need to stay separate from karate?”

It’s not really about karate; it’s about how God wants us to live in the world. A fundamentalist movie review would flag Daniel-san for swearing, starting a fight, and kissing a girl without having declared courtship. By not watching it, I kept myself clean.

Similarly, religious conflicts over sex and gender are not just about sex and gender. They take us to the root of religion. What is the purpose of the spiritual life: to separate, or to connect? Is the Gospel about reconciliation, “all things holding together in Christ” (Col. 1:16-17), or about purity, the call to “come out from among them and be separate” (2 Cor. 6:17)?

The doctrine of separation requires distance from both worldliness and from other Christians persisting in unrepentant sin. Second degree separation requires separation from believers who do not separate properly.

This doctrine lies behind current conflict in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, where the “reconcilers” desire conversation to precede decision-making. The “purifiers” have left, or are threatening to, not because of the CCCU’s stance, but because the organization is not separating quickly enough from the two colleges who have liberalized policies regarding homosexuality.

Similarly, I hear concern from conservative groups and individuals over “dialogue” and “conversation.” The worry isn’t even over theology or ideas that may be expressed, rather, it is over the fact of dialogue happening. If one gets too close to difference, even by promoting one’s own view in a dialogue, one is tainted by association. Dialogue breaches the separate sphere, making contact with worldliness.

The doctrine of separation is alive and well, but it operates more like an assumption, a visceral fear of engaging difference, and of being seen doing so. Naming the doctrine, and the fears it engenders, may help us see separatism as just one way of trying to follow Christ, developed a few generations ago by faithful Christians navigating life in the early twentieth century. We should appropriate the best of their doctrines and practices, but do so knowingly and not unwittingly take up their burdens as our own.

There is much I appreciate about my fundamentalist heritage, including a love for the Bible and careful attention to individual moral duty. But the doctrine of separation? I’ve let it go, and have found nothing of the Gospel diminished. In fact, it seems bracingly alive in conversation, life, and conflict with people with whom I disagree, both within my religious group and beyond.

But enough about that. I smell popcorn popping, so I need to grab the best spot on the couch. I hear Ghostbusters is pretty good.