Christian Witness in Trying Times

Stephen W. Rankin

One of the most important ways Christians can witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially in these contentious times, is by showing how to have an argument “Christianly.” In these times, The United Methodist Church suffers dramatic polarization. As we watch and sometimes participate in the debates roiling us, now is an especially good time to consider how to engage in civil discourse with opponents. How do we go beyond “civil” to “charitable” (in the term’s best Latinate sense) and thus act as salt and light in the world?

Even though it has been the better part of three decades since I served my first United Methodist pastorate, I vividly remember my initial encounters with contentious church meetings. They were often followed by what I quickly came to call “the meeting after the meeting.” It looks something like this: The scheduled meeting begins. While the chair dutifully works through the agenda, discussions are laced with pregnant pauses, awkward comments, and hesitant votes. Strangely, as the meeting ends, the room is suddenly filled with new energy. Participants split into little knots scattered about the room talking animatedly, sotto voce. “Something is up,” I realized and often what is “up” is that whatever decisions were just made in the scheduled meeting are now being second-guessed and sometimes effectively undone in the “meeting after the meeting.”

It isn’t just church meetings where this phenomenon occurs. As a visiting professor in a United Methodist seminary some years ago, I saw it happen regularly in faculty meetings over the course of a year. These meetings mystified me. They were long – usually four hours. They were filled with extended periods of silence. The atmosphere was sometimes so thick it really did seem like you could cut it. Very little got done. It often seemed impossible to get anyone even to make a motion so that a vote could be taken. I did not know the history that led to such excruciatingly awkward impasses, but I could tell something was deeply, dreadfully wrong. Faculty have offices in which to have the academic version of the meeting after the meeting and I learned that colleagues had often exchanged harsh words behind closed doors.

What is the best Christian attitude and demeanor at these moments? How do we handle our own feelings, stay focused on the important concerns, and make progress in understanding?

I’ll try some tentative suggestions to answer that question, but let’s add one more observation before I do. Both my examples have to do with face-to-face encounters. The call to civil discourse extends obviously to the written word as well, especially in light of the Wild West of social media and blogging, where honor is easily offended, where people throw down at the slightest grievance, and where they can push the envelope of propriety in the relative anonymity of the Internet.

An example: Steven Salaita recently had a tenure-track job offer rescinded at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana over comments he made in tweets about Israel. (See here.) The fact that he lost the job has been big news inside the higher education world. Looking at his Twitter feed, you’ll see that many comments, though harshly critical of American foreign policy or Israeli government tactics, would be widely regarded as within the realm of “civil.” But what about this example: “If you’re demented, amoral, dimwitted, and have sociopathic tendencies, might I suggest applying for a job in the [Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs]?” This one, in my view, hits below the belt.

Some people rather enjoy a good scrap (I admit, I occasionally do) and I can imagine one objecting that Salaita’s comments are simply the normal give-and-take of polemic. No big deal and certainly not a sin. The rest of us need to grow thicker skin. There is far too much “making nice” and the issues facing us are far too important to limit our discourse to mealy-mouthed vagaries. But is aiming at civility in controversy simply a matter of making nice? Of course not. Most assuredly, one can state one’s opinion forcefully, making use of a large palette of rhetorical devices without lapsing into meanness. Some of the best writers use satire or sarcasm to illustrate human foibles, but manage also to recognize the common humanity they share with their opponents. For example, in his book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013), David Bentley Hart takes on the concept of memes developed by the famous evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. Hart does not think much of memes:

Now, as an ironic metaphor, meant as a slightly caustic comment upon the human tendency toward conformism, talk of “memes” might be either a fetching or an annoyingly cute way of describing the genealogy of popular culture. As a serious proposal regarding how consciousness works — how it acquires its “programs” or its mental intentions — it is pseudoscientific and pseudophilosophical twaddle. (p. 224)

The reader can see from this sample that Mr. Hart does not brook fools kindly. Though he sometimes wields a pen with wicked wit, he doesn’t hits below the belt. He does not engage in personal attack. Admittedly, if I were on the receiving end of this kind of scathing critique, I would wince and might react puckishly. But the point remains: Hart has made fun of an idea, not of a person.

As Christians, it can feel like we’re trying to hit a moving target with regard to faithful witness (civil discourse) in contentious situations. Where is the line we are not to cross? How hard is too hard? How forceful can we be, how colorful our characterizations? Do we make judgments about that boundary on the basis of how people act, or how we anticipate they will act? Is their subjective response to our comments the measuring rod or does it lie elsewhere? In other words, if I make someone angry, have I stepped over the line? Hardly. Yet, these questions have no lockdown answers. As Christians we are called, we have obligation, to bear witness to the truth as we see it and to do so vigorously. It takes wisdom and self-awareness. It calls for the wiliness of the serpent and the innocence of the dove.

Going to Our Sources

As we practice thinking about civil discourse, what biblical and theological resources come to mind? The temptation to ask, “What would Jesus do?” I cannot resist, so let us see what we can find by looking at the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount, we hear of the blessedness of meekness, of mercy, of being peacemakers. Later, in Matt 5, we read Jesus’ injunctions about how we express anger and to reconcile quickly with our opponents (5:21-26). Yet this same Jesus in the same Gospel refers to those religious leaders who opposed him as hypocrites, white-washed tombs, and snakes (ch. 23). It is not so easy to get a clear and unambiguous picture from scripture as to how to engage in conflict with opponents.

By today’s standards, would the Apostle Paul be guilty of “uncivil” discourse? Consider his recounting his confrontation with Peter in Gal 2:11, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face” (NRSV), and he goes on to explain what he saw wrong with Peter’s action around Gentile Christians. The whole letter to the Galatians shows Paul’s alarm and he uses, at times, very colorful words to issue his warning. Paul could be one tough customer!

We do not find, therefore, a simple rubric for engaging in civil discourse, yet we need scriptural guidance. In my own practice, two passages stand out. Romans 12:14-21 is full of gentle wisdom, especially v. 18: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (NRSV). “If it is possible….” Sometimes it isn’t possible. You cannot control the other side of the debate. All you can do is be responsible for you. But this is where the other injunctions found in this passage come into play: Don’t repay evil for evil (as in railing for railing). Leave vengeance to God. Overcome evil with good. And, to go back to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44, NRSV). If I can manage to follow these points, I’ll do well in conflict.

The second passage that consistently comes to mind as I contemplate the goal of civil discourse is Eph 4, especially v. 15: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (NRSV). As with Rom 12, this passage addresses a community of Jesus’s followers, and a particularly relevant one for our consideration. Ephesians 2 shows that this congregation is made up of Jew and Gentile, culturally distinct and often suspicious of each other’s backgrounds – a breeding ground for hostility. The immediate context of ch. 4 speaks to the link between sound doctrine and growing to maturity – to the full measure of the stature of Christ. The larger and narrower contexts strike me as especially relevant for thinking about our contemporary problems in United Methodism. In truth, we disagree on a significant range of theological and ethical questions, no matter what our denomination’s official stances may be. We, likewise, must with courage and gentleness engage the core issues of the faith, around which we commit to the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This desired aim takes work, persistence, courage, and epistemic humility. The Ephesian Christians – made up of Jew and Gentile alike – had to do the same kind of work.

What from our own theological tradition can we glean on this topic? What of Mr. Wesley? His published letter to the Bishop of London in 1747 offers an example of a Christian engaging a whole range of contentious matters and doing so with both charity and bold truth-telling. This letter originated relatively early in the movement when there was much suspicion and animosity toward the Methodists. The Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, had written a document known as the Bishop’s Visitation Charge, to which Wesley’s letter was a point-by-point rebuttal. It dealt particularly with misunderstanding over the doctrine of Christian perfection, but more broadly, the practices of the Methodists (including allegations of extreme abstinence regarding food and drink). Among other allegations, the Bishop accused Mr. Wesley of advising Methodists to stay away from parish worship and to forego confession of sin prior to receiving the Eucharist. While maintaining a respectful tone throughout the letter, Mr. Wesley wrote plainly, challenging the bishop and even chastising him at certain junctures.

Anyone who has read much of Wesley’s writings knows that he spoke and wrote in a strong voice, that he was most of the time very sure of his positions. But he also regularly left the door open for correction. For example, after addressing certain prejudicial descriptions of the doctrine of Christian perfection, Wesley asked Bishop Gibson, “I conjure you, my Lord, by the mercies of God, if these are not words of truth and soberness, point me out wherein I have erred from the truth; show me clearly wherein I have spoken either beyond or contrary to the word of God.” In Wesley’s polemical writings, one can often find this sentiment, challenging others to point out the flaws, but also acknowledging his openness to changing his mind, if the opponent could offer sound and convincing reasons. This response was more than rhetorical flair. Wesley actually meant his willingness to be corrected.

At the same time, if he believed he stood on solid scriptural and doctrinal ground, he was not above directly and frankly challenging those in authority. He spoke in such terms to Bishop Gibson, whose charge of proselytizing (that Wesley “seduced their flocks” from parish priests) especially stung Wesley. His reply is a long one, but hopefully, this truncated version illustrates his frankness:

Give me leave, my Lord, to say, you have mistook and misrepresented this whole affair from the top to the bottom. […] It is not our care … to proselyte any from one man to another; or from one Church, (so called,) from one congregation or society, to another. […] Our one aim is, to proselyte sinners to repentance; the servants of the devil, to serve the living and true God. If this be not done in fact, we will stand condemned; not as well-meaning fools, but as devils incarnate. But if it be [their aim] … then, my Lord, neither you nor any man beside (let me use great plainness of speech) can “oppose” and “fortify people against us,” without being found even “to fight against God.” (“A Letter to the Right Rev. The Lord Bishop of London; Occasioned by His Lordship’s Late Charge to His Clergy,” ¶19; emphasis added)

Plainness of speech indeed! Though caught up in polemics, John Wesley’s response to Bishop Gibson demonstrates civility and propriety (even concern for the opponent), and boldness and candor, in controversy.

It’s Time to Practice Christian Love on Contentious Topics

Admitting that we are talking about trying to hit a moving target with knowing what “civil” is in civil discourse, let’s go ahead and make a try at how to practice. As I’ve already noted, we face an enormous task. We are a polarized connection. Although most of us likely feel caught in the middle (the left, right, and center/middle construal is not helpful, but that’s another matter), we are effectively being forced to have an opinion about serious matters. We all have Facebook friends who post unguarded and sometimes cruel comments. How do we manage?

In practicing charity we start with questions for ourselves: do we understand what is expected of us – even required – in leadership positions, whether pastoral, administrative, or academic? Do we exhibit moral courage and a willingness to risk even as we demonstrate humility? Do we remember that we never take a day off from representing Christ? Prayerful self-awareness, therefore, is crucial: am I emotionally agitated in the heat of the moment? Do I recognize the trigger situations that tempt me to lose focus? I need a “conscious void of offence” (Acts 24:16, AV) in these matters. Here we realize a twofold call. We listen to the discipline of the Holy Spirit in terms of our conscience, but also we listen to the same divine voice through our sisters and brothers in our community who can remonstrate with us about whether  we have stepped over the line. I can tell you, I need to listen to these voices! I have strong opinions and a sharp tongue.

After checking our hearts – and asking trusted colleagues to help us in this matter – we  then ask two categorical questions:

1. What do I believe (about the matter under dispute)?
2. How do I feel about and treat people who disagree with me?

With these formal questions constantly at hand, we then ask others:

3. What is my goal in this particular conversation? Clarity? Understanding? Perhaps reconciliation and strengthened commitment to unity? But if clarity reveals division so deep that unity (in thought or organization) is not possible, then the clarity helps people understand where they stand in deciding next steps. Can we live with the differences of opinion? If not, what do we do?
4. In a book I read some time ago and found very helpful, the authors argue that at the heart of productive dialogue is a pool of shared meaning, around which there needs to be sufficient safety for people to risk engaging the difficult conversation (Kerry Patterson et al., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High, 2nd ed. [New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011]). We have to work at finding this pool of shared meaning. How do we get “on the same page” with each other? What are the most important and contested terms that arise in our debates? If opponents constantly talk past each other (using same terms but meaning different things) no understanding will come, and the possibility for resolution becomes miniscule. On the other hand, if we make searching for common meaning in the terms we agree to use, taking this step – though seemingly laborious – helps the conversation at least clarify, if not progress.

Always Representing the Lord

Inevitably, as followers of Jesus we will either cast him in a good light or a bad one. Our goal must always be to represent Christ faithfully, especially in the heat of the moment: to love our enemies and pray for those who might spitefully use us, even while we speak the truth to them.

On this point we take a page from the training that civil rights workers of the 1950s and ’60s often went through as they prepared to face the mobs. Prior to engaging in demonstration, usually in a church, they would practice peaceful, though direct, responses to threats, epithets, and violence. They would roleplay by having coworkers scream and threaten and shove them as if they were the mob. And they would pray in preparation for the struggle. We can learn a lot from studying how people handled these kinds of situations. In our debates, we should do no less.

Civil, charitable engagement on difficult and risky topics is truly one of the most difficult challenges for Christians to undertake and one of the most important. As my old mentor, Robert Tuttle, told me years ago when I was one of his graduate students, “The worst thing in the world is to mean well and be misunderstood.” It’s hard to keep our heads when we are laboring to speak rationally and act sanely, when it seems that no matter how hard we try, others take offense. Here is all the more reason to go back to our Lord’s guidance, both in precept and example. Speak the truth as you see it. Check your motive and speak in love. Live peaceably with all people so far as it depends on you. Leave the vengeance to God.

Posted Feb 04, 2015