This summer, as I plan for the fall and spend time with family, I’m re-posting some of the more popular blog posts from the first half of the year. I’ve been blown away by the response as new readers find the blog and long-term friends revisit the conversation. Please read, enjoy, and share widely.
Your mouth is a big problem. So is mine.
One of the more difficult disciplines humans have to master is practicing the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. We are taught, “there is…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak (2:7b).” We can all attest to moments when we should have done one, but instead choose the other to our own detriment.
Over the last few days, many people have spoken publicly about a tweet sent out by John Piper. A week before that, Pat Robertson sounded off about infidelity and a week before that, Mark Driscoll had some interesting thoughts on driving an SUV. Each set the Christian blogosphere and cable news.
I’m not concerned with Piper, Robertson, or Driscoll’s words here, but rather the question of why so many responded to them publicly. For many people, highlighting Piper’s quickly deleted quotation from Job, and Robertson’s and Driscoll’s words, was unnecessary and divisive. It gave them more publicity, which accentuated the negative.
Likewise, many believe that whenever a publicly known celebrity pastor or Christian group, like Westboro Baptists, spouts unhelpful words, we should ignore it. Rather we do better to focus on our own theology and the good so many Christians are faithfully saying and doing around the world.
I get that. I understand the impulse to disregard, to sweep it under the rug, and let the our brighter lights shine. There is a place for that. My difficulty with this approach, though, is that in doing so allows the most dangerous, hurtful, and damaging words and ideas to implant themselves as the norms for Christianity. My desire here is not to convince anyone to take a particular approach to dealing with these upheavals, but to articulate some of the reasoning why those who publicly voice their concerns feel compelled to do so.
A Matter of Witness
When our family lived in California we were – not surprisingly – immersed in a far less Christianized culture than exist in Central, TX. Time and again, in conversations with non-Christians, the Christian witness our non-Christian friends knew best were the harshest and most mean-spirited ones. They formed their impressions from the general media and their personal experiences. Say what you will about the media, the problem exist nonetheless. The kind of statements they heard and internalized where the kind that have been made over the last few weeks.
Without other believers calling into question the actions and attitudes of the less-than-thoughtful words of some of our publicly known figures, these impressions concretize and make it more difficult to reach the very people Jesus commissioned the church to reach.
When Pat Robertson flippantly dismisses infidelity saying, “he’s a man” or “there’s a lot of temptation,” he is simultaneously telling the world that not only do Christians not really take our calling to fidelity seriously, but men are the victims of just too much temptation. Poor us.
In my experience with non-believers, the Bible, science, and theology are hardly ever the problem. Hardly ever! Thoughtless words by well-known Christians have been.
Folks like me, who grew up in the church, have an overwhelming number of positive, healthy Christian voices which greatly outweigh the merciless and distressing words of a few. When people make public statements of question or rebuke, they do so – partly – as a countermeasure on behalf of those searching for faith. For some, there are real people receiving the arrows of malicious talk. They want those people – oftentimes close friends – to know that the callous chatter of a few does not represent the Jesus we know. As helpful as an explication of our particular beliefs or doctrine may be, Christians minister in a culture of suspicion and hurtful statements make ministry to seekers more difficult.
A Matter of Compassion
John Piper’s tweet (which was likely more compassionate than it came across) was from the book of Job. As you probably know, Job is a tale of one man, selected by God to suffer the worst the evil one could throw at him. Job lost everything. In the immediate context of Job, he suffers, is visited by friends who offer poor theology, and then Job finally has his audience with God. In the greater context, which most of us miss, Job is wisdom literature along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Each establishing its own parameters for “wisdom.” Proverbs sets up a predominantly “if/then” world. “If you you X, God will do Y.” This is the worldview held by Job’s friends when they arrive at ground zero. After sitting with their friend for three days, Job’s friends begin to unwrap the wisdom they know, i.e. “if/then.” Only they are wrong. They are wrong because Job has done nothing wrong. Their “if/then” system doesn’t hold. And part of the greater lesson of Job is that God does what God wants to do, so shut up. Most Christians get that.
But the beauty of the story, and the beauty too many of us forget, is that Job’s friends initially did the right thing. They came over to sit. They didn’t say anything. They were just with Job. For days they just sat there. They were in the pain.
Whenever we – and by “we” I actually mean “we” – launch into explanation before sitting in the pain, it might reveal how unoccupied our hearts are with the sufferings of others.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but when people are in pain, unless we are asking, “How can I help you? How can I pray for you?” then we all should probably shut up.
Job discovers, from the mouth of God, that he’s not going to get an answer for his pain. Why do so many of us feel compelled to give the answer God chose not to give?
When people of good-conscious publicly admonish what they deem as harmful rhetoric, part of what they are attempting is standing on the side of the suffering. We can argue whether such attempts are efficacious or not, but I do believe that is the intent. Some want to stand in the face of heartbreaking rhetoric and rebuff, “I bet you wouldn’t say that to their faces. I bet you wouldn’t tweet that standing in what used to be the pulpit of the Moore First Baptist Church” or “in the living room of a wife attempting to forgive her adulterous husband.”
People speak-up for the sake of, and on behalf of, those whose sufferings prevent them from speaking. It’s intent is a means of “weeping with those who weep.”
Again, people will disagree as to whether this works, but better to be vocally supportive when the vulnerable are wounded than not. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies…but the silence of our friends.”
A Matter of Theology
Reform and division are two sides of the same coin. One of the great strengths of the Christian tradition is its ability to reform and restore itself. Sadly, the cost of reform is division, because we’ve historically reformed poorly. I won’t skim over the deadly, heart-wrenching cost of division. It has bloodied the bride of Christ. But what church would we have if Christians had chose quiet peace instead of reform; without The Reformation, The Radical Reformation, The American Restoration Movement, or King’s Civil Rights Movement?
Because theology is done by humans, theology is often wrong. Without vigorous, public discussion of theology and its outcomes, the church would be still be imprisoned by wrong-headed theologies. We cannot forget, abolition, Women’s Sufferage, the Civil Rights Movement, and many others campaigns for which we are grateful began as theological movements. Each held their first organizational meetings in churches!
A practical theology that said, “Let’s just focus on the good stuff we say and do,” would have blunted these movements at their onset and we’d all live in a vastly different world. In the same way Martin Luther King Jr, said “ Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” in the theological world, damaging theologies won’t simply wither on the vine, they must be uprooted. This is done, not to win ethereal debates, but for the betterment of all parties. The church is a body. And like a body the heart, muscles, and lungs must be pushed in order to grow stronger. Of course, this must always be done in the spirit of love, which I confess, is not always the case.
It’s Difficult To Know
It’s very difficult to know when to be a voice for the voiceless when others have been hurtful, misleading, or theological bankrupt. The fundamental question is whether or not we speak out of love. When love animates our words, those utterances are much more likely to be constructive. I’m certain I don’t always do that well, but there is a place for speaking out. A needed, reputable, and, yes, helpful place. Once more to King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”