02 March 2017

Do we realize how we sound?

. . . and do we care?

Derek Penwell writes on The Huffington Post's site: "Dear Evangelicals, I Don’t Think You Realize How You Sound To Everybody Else." Most of the column gives examples of this main point:
... I’m not sure you realize that your moral (and often, political) tone comes off as censorious and unsympathetic to people who are suffering, people who are currently living in fear of what might become of them in this brave new world we all inhabit. I know not all of you, but certainly enough of you that it feels to almost everybody else like all of you.
The examples remind me of Dan Merchant's film Lord, Save Us from Your Followers, which highlights the incongruities between Jesus and the religion industry claiming to represent him in the USA. Penwell's article, written nearly ten years after Merchant's film was made, refers specifically to the way white evangelicals often deal with undocumented immigrants, refugees, Muslims, sexual minorities, and racism -- and contrasting those messages with what he believes Jesus would be "cool" with.

Penwell's indictment, at first reading, is ridiculously blunderbuss. For example,
They [LGBTQ people] hear you complain in high dudgeon about the invasion of privacy of underage girls when transgender people want to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, but then they see the white folks among you vote overwhelmingly for a man who is on record multiple times bragging about his ability to invade the privacy of underage girls.
One of the opening frames of Lord, Save Us from Your Followers.
Of course, addressing "you" with this "high dudgeon" charge may have absolutely nothing to do with you, dear reader; it's rhetorical overkill. But he is really saying that those who are accurately described in his indictment are in effect casting a shadow on the credibility of all evangelicals, including "you." Furthermore, he's pointing out (accurately) that our heroic righteousness can have devastating impacts for people in crisis.

I'd like to reframe these challenges in three ways:

Audience. When we Christians are at our most obnoxious in public, could we stop a minute and think honestly about what audience we're addressing? Are we actually speaking to the people we want to bless? Are we actually in direct contact with those who need the Good News, and can we make it our first priority to provide access to the community formed by that Good News?

What a privilege to have a chance to influence lives for eternity, and possibly subvert bondages! What will we do with this precious opportunity? Will we create relationships that can convey God's love and grace, before all else? If that bridge of relationship is weak or nonexistent, we can't cross over with the heavy freight of the claims of discipleship, especially if those claims involve sweeping changes in behavior.

Maybe, if we're honest, our audience really isn't "unreached" people at all. Maybe we're actually trying to impress our own communities. Maybe we're afraid of crossing our group's own thought police, a feature of far too many evangelical subcultures. Maybe we're actually addressing our individual selves, using conspicuous righteousness to compensate for our own unresolved addictions. These sorts of proxy audiences would explain a lot of the anti-evangelistic public messages that come from supposed evangelicals.

Territory. Abraham Kuyper said, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" This does not give Christians license to create territories where the rules of courtesy and the priority of evangelism do not apply -- that is, territories where we are allowed to treat others rudely under the guise of Christian witness. If a homosexual couple want to buy a wedding cake from you (assuming that you are the "you" being addressed by Penwell!), why would you want to associate the word "Christian" in the public mind with your refusal to serve them?

There was a time when Christendom sat high in the saddle in North America, and seemed to demand special deference. Now that this cultural dominance is all but gone, we have no alternative but to win hearts with the actual merits of the Gospel. Given this reality, what is winsome about defending "our" little bits of Christian turf by refusing opportunities to engage lovingly with people not like us?

There is no place that doesn't belong to God. There is no place where God's children are encouraged to be ungracious.

Trustworthiness. I have a theory that I'd like to check out with you: it is more important to create a trustworthy church or meeting than it is to have all our evangelistic ducks in a row and all our incongruous behaviors resolved.

A trustworthy church does not need to pretend that we all agree on controversies such as sexual ethics or immigration. I would like to think that newcomers are at least as smart as we are, if not smarter, and they will forgive disagreements if they are conveyed with love, honesty, and grace, and without hidden screens that sabotage our radical Gospel hospitality.

A trustworthy church doesn't have a hierarchy of sins -- that is, a hierarchy with the most prevalent sins unremarked and unconfessed. It practices a mutual accountability that seeks the good of all, and that helps us find our places of service according to our spiritual gifts, not our social status.

A trustworthy church does not panic when people grieve or doubt.

A trustworthy church practices truth in advertising. When someone claims the biblical promise that "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved," a trustworthy church doesn't slap asterisks on that promise.

Jesus didn't get crucified for writing a strongly worded letter to the Sanhedrin.
Because 21st century white Protestantism has turned Jesus' cross into an ahistorical mathematical formula, we don't think very often about what he did to provoke his crucifixion and whether or not we’re supposed to emulate his disruptive behavior.
Entertaining refugees, immigrants, Quakers from Bhutan, and suchlike angels.

When I was in high school, one of my heroes was the Chicago radio personality and oral historian Studs Terkel. Imagine my delight when I found that the BBC World Service series, The Documentary, is presenting a two-part program on Studs Terkel, featuring many voices from his decades of interviews. Part one is here.

One of the first programs I remember from all those years ago was this interview (in two parts) with John Henry Faulk.

It's been a while since I've posted a Hans Theessink video. Enjoy!

No comments: