I want to season this piece with grace, if possible. So I am going to ask your pardon upfront if it sounds like I am being dogmatic or bitter. That is not my intention. I don’t want to go on a crusade against certain types of Christians; that said, I do have serious reservations about certain Christian ways of thinking and being, and it is very hard to critique those without any reference to people who display the types of thinking and behavior I find problematic. Please understand that I am convinced that while these Christians act from hearts that long to please God, and while I trust that they are motivated by good intentions, the fact remains that many of history’s greatest atrocities, of humanity’s most despicable actions, have been birthed in good intentions. Child abusers often feel they are doing it to discipline their children; xenophobic violence is often carried out under the banner of restoring economic stability or social cohesion; parents murder their families because they believe that it a better alternative than living in a broken world. Good intentions are not enough. So please understand that while I recognise the good intentions of these people, it nevertheless saddens me greatly that many of the most unpleasant people I deal with, whether at work or online, are Christians. And very often, the ugliness arises from the fact that too often Christians do not know how to handle it when people do not agree with them.
So to all my fellow Christians, whether our theologies are in alignment or they profoundly differ, I offer these observations about how to disagree with people in a Jesus-like way. I hope that whatever else we may disagree on, we agree on the centrality of Jesus to our faith.
My first observation is this: the Jesus way of disagreeing with people never involves a crusade. The Jesus way seeks reconciliation always:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24).
I like this teaching for so many reasons. First, its default position is not to adopt the moral high horse. Jesus does not say “if you remember that you have something against your brother or sister…”. Instead, Jesus insists we see the conflict from a perspective other than our own. And – whether or not that grievance is justified – we seek reconciliation. And that reconciliation always takes precedence over religious piety. Sadly, I seldom see this modelled in Christian responses to offense .we do not always model the requisite self-reflection and empathy. We avoid asking why other might feel hurt by the church, or rejected by the church, or marginalised by the church. We seek justifications of our treatment of them instead. We find it easier to justify our unloving actions than to face up to them and seek reconciliation.
What I don’t see Jesus doing ever, despite his daily life unfolding within the context of a Roman imperialism that is the complete antithesis of his inclusive pacifism, is organising protests. I don’t see him advocating for armed insurrection because his rights as a Jew were being trampled. I don’t see him writing angry letters of protestation to the regional Roman authorities, and threatening court cases (not that the context would allow for that, but I see little that would suggest that this would have been his modus operandi even if it did); I don’t see him gossiping about the Roman ways of being with the disciples and retreating into a sort of exclusive Jews-only club. I see this:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)
It is another quite subversive teaching, which refuses to buy into the traditional religious wisdom that God blesses those who are obedient and curses those who are not, and which therefore allows us to justify our marginalisation of those we deem unclean. Treat everybody, it argues, with love. And why? Because that is what God does – whether they are righteous or unrighteous. That, Jesus declares, and not personal holiness, is what it means to be perfect like God. Let that sink in.
So when I see Christians protesting outside abortion clinics, or angrily protesting that some artwork or novel has offended their sensibilities, or trolling out homophobic mantras as if was their Christian duty, I become incensed. Those responses contradict everything Jesus taught about reconciliation first, about loving others.
Second, we are always to forgive those who offend us. Not only if they repent, not only if they first accept that they were wrong and ask forgiveness. Always. And not just once either. Seventy times seven (in other words, Every. Single. Time). We forgive because Jesus not only had it at the heart of his teachings, but he set the example countless times. If we cannot reconcile and forgive, we have not understood Jesus’s teachings. Full stop.
Jesus told the accusers of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) that only the one without sin had the right to cast the first stone, and he – despite being sinless – refused to condemn her. If even Jesus does not condemn, what makes us think we have the right?That is not what I see in our churches, though. We love a good stoning. Just let an artist’s work appear to us as sinful or a book be seen to endorse anything carnal, and we start looking around for rocks. But when Jesus was publicly humiliated, tortured and left to die, his response to the patent injustice was not righteous indignation. He did not issue a rallying call for his disciples to do battle against the offenders. Instead, he left us with a legacy that we simply do not know how to, or – worse – are completely unwilling to follow. He gently showed us how to respond to offense by recognising that people act from forces usually utterly beyond their comprehension if not their control: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Sadly, I don’t see a lot of forgiveness in our churches. I see bullying of those we see as fallen, I see abuse, I see condemnation and condescension, I see hurting people trampled beneath the frantic hooves of moral high horses. But then I suspect that people have always found it less threatening, easier and more satisfying to parade moral piety than to humble ourselves to grace.
Last, just love. Love is, by Jesus’s own admission, at the heart of all the Law. The mark of Jesus’s disciples is not our moral purity, nor our zealous defense of a creed, not the amount of money we give to the church, nor how much evil we expose or avoid. You will find nothing of the sort in Jesus’s teachings. No, the mark of Jesus’s disciples is to be our love (John 13:35). Radical, self-sacrificing enemy love, where everyone, even the modern day equivalents of the Pharisees and the Samaritans and the Romans, are our neighbours, are God’s children, and worthy of our love and respect, regardless of whether or not we think they deserve it.
It is not simple, I know. I struggle with it. And I am struggling with it a great deal today, in the light of Christian responses to various issues in our country this week. I am battling to love, to forgive, to reconcile. At times like this, I find it helpful to meditate on Paul’s famous definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
And I look at my responses to these people, and I see just what a mammoth task it is for me to will myself to love. I simply don’t know how. So there is a part of me that really resonates with the very impulse to judge that I so deplore in fundamentalist Christianity. But I must find a way. After all, love is the heartbeat of the gospel of the Jesus I profess to follow. How can I do otherwise?