“We need more tenderness now.” Elder Frank Fugate speaks those words in a documentary entitled In the Good Old-Fashioned Way. It’s a film about Old Regular Baptists, a Calvinist-oriented denomination based primarily in America’s Appalachian region. Made in 1976 by the Kentucky-based production company Appalshop, the half-hour film opens with an outdoor baptism, moves to a congregational foot-washing and Holy Communion, then interviews folks at a church homecoming and dinner-on-the-ground before concluding with open-air preaching at a memorial service conducted in a mountainside cemetery.
Even after showing it for years in a variety of schools and classes, I never tire of the rhetoric of the Old Regular Baptists (“Oh, them feet-washing Baptists, we’ll be here till the Lord comes again!”). I’m still taken with their rituals (“I wouldn’t take the bread and the wine if I didn’t wash feet!”). And I remain fascinated by the names of their churches, like Little Dove, Indian Bottom and Defeated Creek. (I’ve known many Baptist churches that should have assumed that last one). Their spiritual insights remain in my head and heart.
“We need more tenderness now.” Elder Fugate speaks those words while sitting in a rocking chair in a cornfield in Knott County, Kentucky. Dressed in a flannel shirt, with suspenders holding up his britches, the Old Regular Baptist preacher “takes the stand” to talk about gospel tenderness:
We need more tenderness now. We need people with more [for]bearance, more prayer and [for]bearance with other’s weakness and it’s forgiveness and it is respect and honor for others and not being eager to condemn others and to always take time, because everybody’s entitled to be heard.
These days, most Americans inside and outside the church recognize that Elder Fugate’s brief description of tenderness seems in short supply in our badly fractured culture. Indeed, our entire society seems to have made denunciation, diatribe, invective and tirade normative in our national and interpersonal communication. Yet, in our better moments, we also acknowledge that we need more tenderness, not simply in our personal and family lives, but also in the way we tweet, text, email, blog, post, broadcast, report, write and yes, preach.
“Truth is, anger – and not necessarily the righteous kind – is rampant in our world.”
At the same time, tenderness must not be romanticized. Indeed, in chapter four of Ephesians, the writer clearly acknowledges the need for “tender-heartedness” in the 1st-century church and community. He also admonishes readers: “You do well to be angry but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. . . . And don’t stay angry” (4:26-27, Message translation).
In The Heart is a Little to the Left, the late William Sloane Coffin, Yale University chaplain and Riverside Church, New York City pastor, helps us cultivate “righteous anger” amid all the layers of emotion and injustice that can overwhelm us. He writes:
When the powerful do as they will, and the poor suffer as they must, it’s easy to become bitter. In fact, it’s comforting to be bitter. But it’s not creative, bitterness being such a diminishing emotion. Far more productive is anger, which, if focused is spiritual nourishment for those perishing alive for want of it (emphasis mine).
Sloan Coffin frets that many people, particularly liberals, allow their concern for “tolerance” (dare we say a romanticized tenderheartedness) to become “passivity,” a response he calls “a deadly combination.” Such passivity simply allows us “to tolerate the intolerable, [and] to ignore the power of anger in works of love; for if you lessen your anger at the structures of power you lower your love for the victims of power” (emphasis mine).
Like Ephesians, Sloan Coffin sets boundaries on our righteous anger, noting:
We have to hate evil, else we’re [simply] sentimental. But if we hate evil more than we love the good, we become good haters, and of those the world already has too many. However deep, our anger must always and only measure our love (emphasis mine).
Righteous anger compelled Roger Williams to tell colonial Puritans that there are no Christian nations, only Christian people, bound to Christ by faith, not citizenship.
Righteous anger sent Harriet Tubman six times into the slavery-infested South guiding black sisters and brothers to freedom.
Righteous anger sent Fanny Lou Hamer into Mississippi court houses and jails in the fight against Jim Crow voting laws.
Today, righteous anger has sent interfaith clergy and laity to the Texas-Mexico border to protest the separation of immigrant children from their parents.
Individuals like these help us discover the wisdom to distinguish righteous anger from the self-righteous kind, and gospel tenderness from condescension.
Truth is, anger – and not necessarily the righteous kind – is rampant in our world. Recently, I’ve been caught up in Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present, a book filled with hopeful pessimism. He asserts that western democratic, capitalistic idealism made promises to global populations that it could not keep, disappointments that elicited fear from the educated middle classes, rage among the dispossessed and indifference among the plutocrats, producing an “everyday culture of cruelty and heartlessness.”
Mishra insists that this “global civil war” of rage compels us to examine our own role in the culture that “stokes unappeasable vanity and shallow narcissism.” Thus, “to make the future less grim,” we must learn to interpret “a world bereft of moral certitudes and metaphysical guarantees.”
“Above all,” he writes, “we need to reflect more penetratingly on our complicity in everyday forms of violence and dispossession, . . . [our] callousness before the spectacle of suffering.”
“Remember that such whole-hearted tenderness got Jesus crucified.”
How should we Christians seek to navigate between righteous anger and gospel tenderness in a Church that often seems too divided, too weak and too panicked to respond to such challenges? Maybe we’d best run to Jesus as fast as possible – to the Jesus who demonstrated righteous anger in response to racist disciples, manipulative moneychangers and arrogant religionists; but also to the Jesus who mirrored a gospel tenderness in his response to the disabled, the exploited and the stranger, pointing them (and us) to the God who won’t give up until the last sheep has been found. And lest we think that’s pious sentimentalism, let’s remember that such whole-hearted tenderness got Jesus crucified.
In a 1959 sermon entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” Martin Luther King Jr. declared that the gospel “combines tough mindedness with tender heartedness. It is tough minded enough to resist evil. It is tender hearted to resist [evil] with love. It avoids the complacency and the do-nothingism of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hard hearted.”
Along the Jesus Way, perhaps the rest of us can keep our minds tough and our hearts tender, our anger righteous and our compassion unfettered, endeavoring, where possible, not to get ourselves crucified.