A dear friend died who worked tirelessly for social justice during his life. Being a passionate person who relentlessly pursued what he thought was right, he caused more than 1 controversy in his life. He also helped people all around the world. As his friend, I sometimes meet a few people who had more disagreement with him than agreement. When they discover our relationship, they say things like, “I’m sorry (insert name) died, but …” and then they list their grievances. Although there are thousands more thankful for his life, to be honest, it stings.
Condolences should not come with the word “but” attached. There are multiple lessons that could be learned from such an experience with perhaps the first being that sometimes even those in Christian leadership don’t always have the best understanding of grief and what is appropriate in such circumstances. The second might be some sort of lesson about how those who are prophetic voices always attract opposition, even as they help many others. Perhaps I should hope that when the time of my own death comes, I’ll also be known as just a bit controversial?
The lesson I want to us to take away, however, is one about conflict and public civility. Something is very wrong in our discipleship when we carry our conflicts with people even past the grave and express them even to those who are grieving. Yet, to be honest, such a vitriolic, self-focused tone surprises me less and less in our culture. Turn to any news page and one only has to read the comments section to watch people tear one another apart—often in an ill-informed way. More and more of my Christian students—who generally are kind-hearted, passionate people for Jesus—feel that there is no solution to this problem other than to remain silent in public discourse.
Can one blame them when Christians are often just as vitriolic towards their opponents as anyone else, whether in public or private matters? And yet, when we act in such anger that we cause others to withdraw, we also miss out on the voices of some of the kindest people I know—voices that could offer crucial insights in public discourse and civility in the wave after wave of vitriolic shouting we call politics.
America is already gearing up for another presidential election. Candidates are making their announcements. The issues we are most passionate about will once again rip citizens apart along party lines. Christians will often be the least civil voices in the debacle, attacking those with whom they disagree, rejoicing in a gleeful way at others’ disappointments, calling those with whom we disagree names, and even questioning the spirituality of those who don’t line up along our party lines. Sometimes, some voices will even wish for the death of their opponents.
Generally speaking, if the immediate past is any indication, we will follow our fallen, sinful human nature much more than we follow our Jesus who taught us to cut off conflict at its roots, to be reconciled with others (Matthew 5:21-26) and to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-47). (For more on that, read Kingdom Ethics by David Gushee and Glen Stassen).
Does it have to be this way? Jesus defended his followers against the powerful voices of his day—even protecting the poor, healing those marginalized by sickness or disabilities, and defending the voices of children in the Temple (Matthew 21:12-17). He spoke out against injustice—often sternly. Certainly, he upset people or he would not have been crucified. His followers were known for turning the world upside down in Acts 17:6. That’s an important part of the Christian tradition.
It’s not the same as what we see presently when Christians often sacrifice a reasoned faith seeking the common good for party loyalties–elevating one party or the other as an idol, while pushing people away and calling those they are called to love names instead of inviting people into the kingdom of God. It’s very different from an ethic that more often than not repeats cultural, often partisan understandings of issues, making claims about Jesus that fit our image of him, rather than allowing that image to be deeply shaped by the God of Scripture. Christians who take Jesus seriously should have relevant words to say on crucial moral issues—yet those words need to be shaped by Jesus to draw people to him, rather than reactionary grumblings based on our favorite political party.
We should be prophetic voices looking out for the common good and those most hurt in our societies, just as Jesus and looked out for the poor, the sick (Luke 14:12-14), children (Mark 10:13-16), marginalized women, and those outside his own cultural identity (John 4).
Crucial issues will always be at stake in every culture and society. However, rather than adding to the unproductive shouting or silencing ourselves out of despair, maybe, just maybe we could associate Christlikeness with the Jesus revealed in Scripture, rather than either political party’s agenda. Maybe, just maybe, we could pray for our opponents. And maybe, just maybe, we even could learn when it’s appropriate to argue and when it’s more appropriate to just show love to the hurting person in front of us.