Sometimes the conflict between keeping the peace and truthfully stating what we believe is agonizing.
In February 2006, I became semi-famous for writing an article in Christianity Today arguing that torture is morally wrong and that no American Christian should support it.
That fall I was invited to speak at a conservative Baptist university in the Southwest. I’m pretty sure I did not lecture about how the administration of George W. Bush was torturing people and how very wrong I thought it was.
But that subject was certainly on the mind of one of the students who questioned me after my talk. Standing up, holding a copy of my article, this young man was quivering with rage. As I looked in his eyes and listened to him, I became genuinely frightened.
He said, evenly but angrily: “I support doing whatever we have to do to protect our country from these terrorists, including torture. And I am indeed a Christian. I challenge you to look me in the eye, right here in front of all these people, and tell me that I am not a true follower of Jesus.”
There was something about the demeanor of this student that made it me clear I needed to be very careful in what I said next. I did not want to back down from what I believed. A lot of young eyes were on me. This was a matter of integrity for me. But I was afraid. There are a lot of guns in this country.
I gulped hard and said something like this: “I do believe that followers of Jesus Christ should not support torture. But I do not put myself in the position of being the judge of your relationship with Christ. That is between you and him.”
“It would be nice if Christian moral obligations never conflicted with each other. But right now, these two seem to clash just about every day.”
I wonder what you think about how my response navigated the treacherous terrain between keeping peace and telling the truth. I was not fully satisfied with it. I worried that I had given up too much in that fearful moment.
But I made it out of the room in one piece, so that’s something.
Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Ephesians 4:25 says, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.”
It would be nice if Christian moral obligations never conflicted with each other. But right now, these two seem to clash just about every day.
Looking back, I would say that awkwardly toggling between trying to be a peacemaker and trying to speak the truth has characterized my entire career. Perhaps I am not alone in this. It is exhausting.
Consider the peacekeeping vs. truth-telling dilemma in relation to full LGBTQ inclusion in churches.
Maybe you are a pastor and are convinced that churches need to revise their traditional rejection of LGBTQ Christians and their relationships. But you know that your church is “not quite there yet.” You want to keep the peace, so you are mainly biting your tongue. This takes a toll on your conscience. And you are fully aware that it takes its toll on your community’s LGBTQ people too.
In such situations, is cautious silence (for now, for a little while, just a bit longer) the right approach, in the interests of congregational peace? Or is it instead an abdication of moral responsibility? Whose voices are most influential when a pastor thinks about this dilemma?
In this election year, I have been saying quite openly that precisely as a Christian I oppose Donald Trump, both the man and the policies, and I am working hard for his defeat. I don’t really care who is offended. I am stating my opinion. Truth over peace.
But when I was serving as interim pastor of a large moderate Baptist congregation in 2017-18, I was not quite so direct. I talked about the new president as little as possible. I mainly visited the sick, buried the dead, planned an educational program, and wrote sermons about all kinds of things other than Trump.
In that pastoral role I was attempting to keep a fragile congregational peace, take seriously my ministerial responsibilities and leave the prophetic denunciations to others. It seemed appropriate to the role and necessary for the church’s well-being.
“What if you believe that preaching Jesus and making disciples requires talking about real-world political events?”
Some congregants think this is exactly what all pastors should do. I have certainly heard church members say quite vehemently that if people want politics, they can access politics, 24/7, any day of the week, but at church, they should hear about Jesus. The role of pastors is to preach the gospel and grow disciples, not harangue people about politics.
Well, maybe. But what if you believe that preaching Jesus and making disciples requires talking about real-world political events, even down to how people vote? Are there at least moments when telling the truth as we see it is worth risking everything? And how do we know when that time has come?
Today we look back on the quiet white pastors and white churches of the 1960s, holding their worship services and doing their pastoral care while their Black Christian sisters and brothers were getting beat up on the streets outside for seeking basic dignity and freedom. Most of us now are quite sure that the white pastors’ silence was not OK. But the same considerations that kept them quiet keep many just as quiet today, as our streets are again filled with protesters.
And yet, does the obligation to tell the truth, take a stand, fight injustice, speak up for what is right, ever end? Are we doomed to perpetual moral conflict? Are there times and spaces where we just call a truce, at least for a while?
What about at Thanksgiving with Uncle Bob, or with Mom and Dad, or Brother and Sister-in-Law? Somebody says something offensive, and it’s off to the races. Or is it? Many of my students shudder as they tell me about this painful dilemma at #EverySingleHolidayDinner.
Is there an overall solution here?
Zechariah 8:16 says: “Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace.”
Ephesians 4:15 says: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
Together, these texts suggest that truth-telling ultimately is the path to communal peace, and that speaking the truth in love is the way of Jesus.
That rings deeply true. But the complexities don’t go away.
Speaking the truth, even in love, may evoke fierce and costly conflict before it yields true peace — if it ever does. When our words yield conflict, it may or may not mean we have failed to speak the truth in love. And when we have managed to keep the peace, it may or may not mean we have met our obligations to Christ.
Jesus blazed this trail long before us, and all we can do is our best to follow his lead.
David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the past-president of both the American Academy of Religion and Society of Christian Ethics. He is an author or editor of 25 books. His most recognized works include “Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust,” “Kingdom Ethics,” “The Sacredness of Human Life,” and “Changing Our Mind.” He earned the Ph.D. from Union Seminary. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta.