Coming Together In Polarizing Times…Is It Possible?
(Featured in photo: Pastor Wayne Francis of Authentic Church, White Plains, New York)
You can safely assume
that you’ve created God in your own image
when it turns out that God hates
all the same people you do.
—Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
I am tired.
Tired of taking sides, that is.
Are you tired of gossip and negative caricatures? Are you tired of labeling and being labeled? Are you tired of political caricatures and talk-show outrage? Are you tired of opinions being presented as facts? Are you tired of critiques and condemnations that forego listening and relationship? Are you tired of indignant blog posts and tweets and Facebook posts that take a stand against everyone but that persuade no one? Are you tired of divisions over silly and secondary things? Are you tired of racism, classism, sexism, generationalism, nationalism, denominationalism, doctrinalism, and all other isms that stem from the ism that feeds them all: elitism? Are you tired of the glass being half empty? Are you tired of the endless quest to find something to be mad about? Are you tired of us against God, us against them, and us against ourselves?
Are you tired of the ways that you, too, have succumbed to the against-ness of it all?
Political cartoonist and New York Times op-ed writer Tim Kreider, who concedes that his job requires him to be “professionally furious,” describes a modern epidemic that he calls “outrage porn:”
So many letters to the editor and comments on the Internet have this . . . tone of thrilled vindication: these are people who have been vigilantly on the lookout for something to be offended by, and found it. . . . Obviously, some part of us loves feeling 1) right and 2) wronged. But outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but, over time, devour us from the inside out. Except it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer to think of it as a disagreeable but fundamentally healthy reaction to negative stimuli, like pain or nausea, rather than admit that it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again. . . . [It is] outrage porn, selected specifically to pander to our impulse to judge and punish, to get us off on righteous indignation.
The commitment to feel 1) right and 2) wronged is a fairly common phenomenon. But is this a fruitful way for Christians in particular to engage in public conversations about the issues of the day? Jesus taught us a different way:.
Tim Keller says that tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you. This is where biblical Christianity is unparalleled in its beauty and distinctiveness. I am not talking about distorted belief systems that pretend to be Christianity, yet are not. I am talking about the true, pure, undefiled, unfiltered, and altogether biblical and beautiful system of belief—the one that leads people to trust God and have hope for humanity, to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, to love neighbors who are near and who are in need, to extend kindness to enemies:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? (Matthew 5:43-48)
Jesus did not merely speak these words as an edict from on high. He became these words. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). While we were running from him, while we were passively resisting him, while we were actively opposing him, while we were his enemies, Christ, compelled by love, died in our stead.
Do we need any more reason than this to extend kindness to those who don’t see things as we do? Having received such grace, Christians have a compelling reason to be remarkably gracious, inviting, and endearing toward others, including and especially those who disagree with us. Are we known by what we are for instead of what we are against? Are we less concerned about defending our rights—for Jesus laid down his rights—and more concerned about joining Jesus in his mission of loving people, places, and things to life?
When the grace of Jesus sinks in, we will be among the least offended and least offensive people in the world.
Jesus loves the element of surprise. He loves to meet us in places where we least expect him—in places that contradict our assumptions and sensibilities, in places where we are least likely to be looking for him. One of these places is in the lives of other believers with whom we disagree on important, but less-than-essential beliefs.
I am told that the theologian R. C. Sproul once gave a talk at our church, Christ Presbyterian in Nashville, Tennessee, on how God and people come into relationship with each other. On this particular subject, Dr. Sproul is known to emphasize the sovereign, electing grace of God. Others like Billy Graham are known to emphasize human free will. While Dr. Sproul would say we choose God only because God first chose us, Dr. Graham would say that God chose us based on his prior knowledge that we would someday choose him. This is an intramural debate between believers. It is an important issue, but it is not a determining factor in anyone’s eternal destiny.
During the question-and-answer time after Dr. Sproul’s talk, someone asked him if he believed he would see Billy Graham in heaven, to which he replied:
No, I don’t believe I will see Billy Graham in heaven. (Gulp!) Billy Graham will be so close to the throne of God, and I will be so far away from the throne of God, that I will be lucky even to get a glimpse of him!
R.C. Sproul demonstrated that sincere believers can disagree on certain matters, sometimes quite strongly, and still maintain great respect and affection for one another. What’s more, they can find glimpses of Jesus in one another—glimpses that may not be as evident within the confines of their own theological tribes.
The longest recorded prayer we have from Jesus is his famous High Priestly Prayer (John 17), in which he asks that his wildly diverse communion of followers be united as one. It is no coincidence that the apostle Paul begins most of his letters with the two-part salutation “grace to you”—the standard Greek greeting—and “peace to you”—the standard Jewish greeting. It is no coincidence that he insists that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people, men and women, live together as one through Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28). All three pairings represented the deepest forms of relational hostility to the first-century reader. Jews looked down their noses at Greeks, and Greeks despised Jews. Men were dismissive toward women, and women were embittered toward men. Free people saw slaves as sub-human, and slaves resented free people. Paul calls for an end to such divisions because Christians are in many ways a band of opposites, who over time grow to love one another through the centering, unifying love of Jesus.
But there is more to unity than the cooling down of hostility. Christians from differing perspectives can learn and mature as they listen humbly and carefully to one another’s perspectives. I treasure the fact that some of my closest “pastor friends” are from traditions other than my own. Besides being excellent company, these friends are meaningful and necessary for my own development as a minister and as a follower of Jesus.
What’s more, I don’t know where I would be without the influence of others who see certain non-essentials differently than I do. I need the wisdom, reasoning, and apologetics of C. S. Lewis, though his take on some points of theology are different than mine. I need the preaching and charisma of Charles Spurgeon, though his view of baptism is different than mine. I need the resurrection vision of N. T. Wright and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, though their views on church government are different than mine. I need the passion and prophetic courage of Martin Luther King Jr., the cultural intelligence of Soong-Chan Rah, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, though their ethnicities are different than mine. I need the justice impulse and communal passion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though his nationality is different than mine. I need the spiritual thirst and love impulse of Brennan Manning and the prophetic wit of G. K. Chesterton, though both were Roman Catholics and I am a Protestant. I need the hymns and personal holiness of John and Charles Wesley, though some of our doctrinal distinctives are different. I need the glorious weakness of Joni Eareckson Tada, the spirituality of Marva Dawn, the trusting perseverance of Elisabeth Elliot, the longsuffering of Amy Carmichael, the transparency of Rebekah Lyons, the thankfulness of Ann Voskamp, the Kingdom vision of Amy Sherman, and the integrity of Patti Sauls, though their gender is different than mine.
As Saint Augustine said, “In non-essentials, liberty.” To this we might add, “In non-essentials, open-minded receptivity.” We Christians must allow ourselves to be shaped by other believers. The more we move outside the lines of our own traditions and cultures, the more we will also be moving toward Jesus.
Jesus made the audacious claim that he has the truth and that he is the truth. He declared that anyone who knows and receives the truth is going to be set free. But he went further than this. In his most famous sermon, Jesus said that any claim or idea—no matter how sincere—that contradicts him or his teaching is false and, if not forsaken, will lead to disastrous consequences:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it (Matthew 7:24-27).
Jesus drew a line in the sand. Whether or not our hearts and minds resonate with, respond to, and surrender to the message of his life, death, burial, and resurrection will determine eternal outcomes for us. Our movement toward him in faith or away from him in unbelief, our saying to him, “Thy will be done” or “My will be done,” will indicate whether he has graciously drawn us into his Kingdom or justly left us outside of it. We are either part of his family or not part of his family.
In this sense, as far as Jesus is concerned, everyone will ultimately “take a side.”
Yet Jesus gave so much of his time, attention, and love to people who did not side with him. A journey through the gospels shows that he was especially tender toward people who did not believe in him or follow him.
What does this mean for us today? What does this mean for how we Christians, in particular, should relate to those who do not believe as we do?
This excerpt from an essay written by a chaplain at Harvard addresses these questions:
The divide between Christians and atheists is deep. . . . I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with . . . atheists, Christians, and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do. . . . My hope is that these tips can help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversations across lines of difference.
The Harvard chaplain’s name is Chris Stedman.
He is an atheist.
Is it possible for those who believe and those who do not believe in Jesus to disagree with each other on sensitive subjects and still maintain meaningful and even loving friendships with each other? As an atheist, Chris Stedman believes it is possible. As a follower of Jesus, I believe it is not only possible, but that it is an essential part of Christian life.
In theory this sounds reasonable, but in real life it is difficult. As Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, love in practice is a dreadful thing compared to the love in dreams. In real life, disagreeing about sensitive subjects can reveal pain, sorrow, and complexity. It is with this truth in mind that Christians must navigate the complex and often paradoxical waters of conviction and love.
Is it possible to profoundly disagree with someone and love that person deeply at the same time? Is it possible to hold deep convictions and simultaneously embrace those who reject your deep convictions?
Jesus tells us the answer is yes. And he shows us the answer is yes.
Are you familiar with Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man? Jesus told the man to sell all of his possessions, give to the poor, and then follow him. The man then turned away from Jesus because he had great wealth. There are two incredibly significant details in this account that we may overlook. First, Jesus looked at the man and loved him. Second, the man walked away from Jesus feeling sad. Not judged. Not ticked off. Sad. He walked away in the tension of paradox—enslaved by his affluence, yet sensing that by walking away from Jesus he might be forfeiting an even greater, more life-giving form of wealth (Mark 10:17-27).
What matters more to us—that we successfully put others in their place, or that we are known to love well? That we win culture wars with carefully constructed arguments and political power plays, or that we win hearts with humility, truth, and love? God have mercy on us if we do not love well because all that matters to us is being right and winning arguments. Truth and love can go together. Truth and love must go together.
Peter wrote these words into a climate in which Christians were routinely criticized, marginalized, and persecuted:
In your hearts honor Christ as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Peter 3:15-16).
Slanderers and persecutors put to shame . . . through gentleness and respect.
I believe that Dan Cathy has been listening to Peter. Dan Cathy, the President of Chick-fil-A, is a Christian who was thrust into the public eye after answering a reporter’s question about his beliefs about gay marriage. Cathy, wanting to be true to his understanding of what Scripture says about the issue, stated simply that he believes marriage is designed for a man and a woman. What followed was an organized and highly publicized protest against him, his commitment to the Bible, and his business, which was boycotted by many.
In response to the boycott, scores of Cathy’s supporters rallied for “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” buying millions of chicken sandwiches as a show of solidarity—a protest against the protest.
Dan Cathy did not personally affirm or join in the protest against the protest.
Instead, he quietly reached out to one of his strongest critics, gay activist Shane Windmeyer, who eventually shared these words in an essay that he submitted to The Huffington Post:
It is not often that people with deeply held and completely opposing viewpoints actually risk sitting down and listening to one another. We see this failure to listen and learn in our government, in our communities and in our own families. Dan Cathy and I would, together, try to do better than each of us had experienced before.
Never once did Dan or anyone from Chick-fil-A ask for Campus Pride to stop protesting Chick-fil-A. On the contrary, Dan listened intently to our concerns . . . he sought first to understand, not to be understood . . . Dan and I shared respectful, enduring communication and built trust. His demeanor has always been one of kindness and openness . . . Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-A, but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage or Christianity.
Deep disagreement and no apologies for what he believes.
Love, respect, listening and friendship.
At the same time.
A way forward for those who are tired of taking sides
Are you looking for a way forward in which more bridges are built and fewer are burned? Do you want to express your faith in ways that move beyond stereotypes and that are coherent, beautiful and true? Do you want to be known for the people, places, and things that you are for instead of the people, places, and things that you are against? Do you want to overcome the tension of wanting to be true to your beliefs and engage the culture? Are you ready to move away from polarizing conversations and towards Jesus and your neighbor?
This is our journey.
It’s a journey that Jesus invites us to embark upon.
It’s a journey outside the lines.
NOTE ABOUT THIS ESSAY: The essay above is the introduction for my first book, Jesus Outside the Lines, which is being made available until August 13 at the almost-free price of $3.99. You can click here if you’re interested in reading a book summary and endorsements from Tim Keller, Ann Voskamp, Scotty Smith, Matt Hasselbeck, Katherine Alsdorf, Keith Getty, Rebekah Lyons, and others. I’m grateful to Tyndale House and several online retailers for making the book so accessible via this temporary price drop.
Click here for a $3.99 copy of Jesus Outside the Lines (ends August 13).
Click here for a free download that includes chapter 1, entitled, “Red State or Blue State?”
Click here for a free download of chapter 1 of BeFriend (releases in October).
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