I prefer civil interaction and reasoned discussion, but every year, the ugly contentiousness of our election process bothers me more. I usually turn off the most offensive political ads, the ones most filled with venom, innuendos, and outright lies. In them, I see signs of Americans becoming more individually isolated and less tolerant of the opinions of others. I see the same attitude among Christians, certainly between groups holding diverse beliefs but even within a single congregation. People object to war in places like Vietnam and Iraq, but our words reveal a war here at home that is, in many ways, just as destructive and deadly.
When people hate a President or compare any leader to Hitler, they display a nastiness in themselves. One could assume that they are merely ignorant of history and unaware of just how terrible Hitler and fascism were, but that’s hard to accept. Maybe they never learned about the book-burnings and secret police, but everyone knows about the Holocaust. One common excuse for this sort of slander is to say, “It’s just exaggeration, a common campaign practice,” except that their hatred is often genuine. What happens now, with a Democratic Congress, may make that even clearer.
When Christians engage in hateful, dishonest, or judgmental speech, we bring dishonor to the holy name we bear. It’s the sort of thing that tears a family apart, and Christian believers are spiritual siblings in God’s family. We may take opposing positions in the ideological wars in our country, but we may not attack, kill, or maim our opponents, especially our brothers and sisters. We ought to engage in the battle of ideas, but we must do it in a way that persuades people and wins them, not just to our position, but to our Lord and Savior. Many Christians have lost sight of that. In doing so, we invite non-Christians not only to disagree with our positions but also to despise our beliefs and our God. Something needs to change, and only we can do it!
I have never appreciated the labeling that has become common in our culture. I was part of both E.U.B. (Evangelical United Brethren) and German Reformed Churches, as a child, but I settled in a G.A.R.B.C. (General Association of Regular Baptist Churches) congregation as a college student. I was forced to learn about terms like modernism and fundamentalism. At the same time, my baby-boomer peers were rejecting authority and embracing “free love.” We are still living with the results of those controversies.
Fundamentalist was a derogatory insult that became a badge of honor. I have read some of the essays called The Fundamentals, and I basically agree with them, but “fundamentalist” has become an even worse slur today, implying extremism, ignorance, and even an acceptance of terrorist activities. Often we hear that Christian fundamentalists are as bad as Islamic terrorists, an comparison as illogical and uninformed as calling workers at the World Trade Center “little Eichmans.” I understand why an atheist might see the similarity, but I am disappointed when it comes from supposed Christians.
New words, like “Christianism” and “theo-con,” disparage anyone who publicly asserts an evangelical faith or seeks to preserve traditional values. Those who use such words assert that we, for certainly I must be one, want to turn the United States into a Christian theocracy and impose strict morality upon everyone like Muslims impose sharia law. We might ban abortion and gay marriage, if we could, but we would merely restore the way things were for most of U.S. history. Indeed, that is what most of us want, a return to the liberties and values that shaped America, made it a lighthouse of liberty, and are responsible for its greatness.
Christian leaders and people take ideological positions, some having little Biblical merit, and then attack their brothers and sisters. I find it difficult to support feminism, abortion, or gay rights from Scripture; it would have been even more difficult to originate them. In the case of slavery, for example, Christians led the way, just as they did in the very founding of American constitutionalism. Many of the basic ideas you read in the Declaration of Independence came from the Bible. Today, by contrast, Christians often follow secular movements. Regardless of where they start, voicing the wrong position, in almost any Christian group, can quickly alienate a person. I have participated in fellowships of fundamentalists, evangelicals, charismatics, and more mainline groups; and, because I watched what I said, they all generally welcomed me. I just wish I could express honest opinions and convictions without fear of excommunication.
I have invested nearly 25 years into what I understand to be Biblical peacemaking. As such, too often one side has called me liberal and the other has called me fundamentalist. So volatile are even basic Biblical terms that I have had to avoid them or be quick to define them although reactions often lead inhibit listening. Who would imagine that “Blessed are the peacemakers” would rub Christians the wrong way? One church even stopped inviting me to speak regularly because they didn’t like what I said about love!
Ironically, I am filled with my own contradictions. I hate war, but I support our “War on Terror.” I am a peacemaker, but I’m not a pacifist. I am a peacemaker, but I believe sometimes I must be a troublemaker. I oppose open borders and illegal immigration, but I tutor young people who have come here illegally. I worry about terrorist cells here in America, but I have Muslim students from places like Yemen and Afghanistan, places that produce terrorist young people. I believe we must help the poor but oppose socialist, big government programs. I believe in capitalism and free markets, but I don’t trust huge international corporations; but then I don’t trust our own huge, over-funded American government. I could make a much longer list.
To do individual peacemaking, people have to talk. They must be civil, and then they can negotiate, forgive, and resolve their differences. A third party may mediate, but only if people respect each other and allow the tools of mediation to operate. Rational debate can be informative, but irrational, disrespectful arguments are far more common; both seek to win. Peacemaking aims to find mutually agreeable solutions, outcomes we rarely see or experience.
To discuss explosive, controversial issues, people also have to talk. Many have become so extreme in their views and so intolerant of disagreement, that they have embraced “correct” speech, a concept strictly opposed to free speech or the free exchange of ideas. In one sense, it is nothing new; it is a concept articulated in the words, “You can’t say that!” Christians have practiced “spiritual correctness” for years by “excommunicating” or ostracizing people who express inconvenient opinions, sometimes formally but often informally. “Political correctness” has turned universities, once safe havens for intellectual freedom, into repressive, often anti-American, communities intolerant, in the extreme, of those who voice the wrong opinions.
Even off-campus, some treat incorrect positions with intolerance, mockery, and disrespect. Those who support abortion on demand, even when a live, healthy child is viable, allow no reasoned discussion of pro-life views. Evolution, improvable in a laboratory except to demonstrate the existence of a creator, is deemed fact, and the questions that hint more and more at a designer are arrogantly rejected. At the same time, environmentalists assert evolutionary beginnings but then reject the activities of the most highly evolved, or at least the most powerful of all evolved creatures, man.
To be fair, it works both ways. Pro-life advocates, creationists, and traditionalists can be equally intolerant of those who voice contrary opinions. As a radio talk show host, I interviewed a freshman Democratic legislator in regard to a program she was sponsoring for farmers. She was a small town businesswoman, and her first piece of legislation limited topless dancing, as I recall. I later learned that she had asked a local pastor to explain the pro-life position because she didn’t understand it. She wasn’t a typical liberal, even if she was a Democrat. I had 3 callers who insisted on berating her for not being pro-life, despite my repeated reminders that they were off-topic. I also learned that a group supporting an anti-pornography bill forced her to view a distasteful video, an act that was probably unnecessary since she was already sympathetic. She was so offended that she ended up opposing a bill she might otherwise have supported. Christian intolerance isn’t Christian, and it is counter-productive.
As I indicated above, we need to change, and I believe Christians and conservatives need to lead the way. I have written previously about winning the war the right way. Let me explain in both realms. In our culture, we must reject highly polarized and disrespectful condemnations of those who disagree. I don’t care to listen to leaders gloating when they have power, and I find angry contentiousness equally distasteful; I suspect many others share my opinion. More to the point, no one wins converts to their position by attacking those who differ. Let’s face it; most of that kind of talk is for the benefit of those who already agree. Those who are attacked tend to dig in even deeper. I react strongly to being criticized, don’t you?
Furthermore, whether secular political issues or religious doctrinal issues, most problems are more complex than the simple positions people often take. At times, they may convince those concerned to move to one position or the other, but their decision will come from true agreement. At other times, collaboration, mediation, or peacemaking will create something better than win, lose, or compromise; the process, one possible only when people will listen, is capable of finding solutions better than any held at the outset. I have often wondered what might have happened if Martin Luther and John Calvin could have met to discuss their understanding of Scripture. I also wonder what contemporary theological controversies might be resolved if Christians loved each other like family and talked to each other instead of about each other as if we were enemies.
As a person committed to peacemaking, I have tried to express simply a clear vision. I avoid great words like love, forgiveness, and peace. Thus our mission was “to create respect among Christians, harmony in their relationships, and credibility in the broader community,” and I believe that is the essence of what we must do today. Our nation needs a better way, and our Lord has commanded us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Speak the truth in love.” “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”
For believers, the final test will not be who got it right. As concerned for truth as we must be, being right isn’t the most important thing. The Great Commandment of our Lord is not “Be sure to hold the right doctrine, and make sure your neighbor holds it, too.” Rather, it is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul reminds us, in the oft-quoted I Corinthians 13, that anything, however worthy or spiritual, done without love is thus rendered worthless.
What is love, you may ask? It certainly isn’t sex or romance. I have already made one suggestion, respect. Here’s another: “Listen, understand, respond appropriately.” A lot of unpleasant words would never corrupt the air if we weren’t so full of ourselves. I won’t say it’s easy; many will permit us to listen while they use our silence to talk, berate, and condemn. As a radio host, I could turn off their mike, but we can’t do that in everyday situations. We must entice, encourage, and invite our adversaries to listen, hopefully by becoming model listeners ourselves. At times, we may have to discourage their talk by simply walking away.
I’ll tell you a secret. We cannot keep going the way we are going now. Radical Islamic terrorists won’t just go away, and we cannot kill them all. We have to win them over, in some manner. I don’t think we will defeat our enemies unless we learn to love them. I think of conflict, in this discussion that’s contentiousness, as the devil’s turf. When we fight; he wins. When we argue, he wins. When we hate those who disagree with us, he wins. When he wins, we get more conflict. I don’t think we will find peace in this world unless we learn to be civil among ourselves. I don’t think we can “win our brother” without “conversation seasoned with grace.” I don’t think we can love our enemy until we learn to talk with him. Do you?