If you’re a politician, condemning ISIS is about as risky Lois Griffin’s “9/11 was bad” campaign speech.
Still, there is something remarkable about the resolution that passed Congress this week—one of the few things to pass Congress lately, much less with bipartisan support—and the declaration made by John Kerry, accusing ISIS of genocide.
Both statements mentioned a number of groups who’ve been persecuted by ISIS: Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, and others.
Take Christians, to start. What ISIS has done to them is beyond horrible. The Christian community in Mosul—which goes back centuries—is no more. Some fled. Some were killed.
Then there are the Yazidis, a small ethno-religious minority living in the northern part of the country. Their treatment at the hands of ISIS has been, if anything, even more brutal. They weren’t given a chance to leave. There are mass graves filled with the bodies of slain Yazidis. I have friends who have seen them, who have stood over the remains of slain Yazidis and wept. In addition, thousands of Yazidi women and girls were sold as sex slaves.
Then there are Shia Muslims. They’ve been targets of ISIS, too. In fact, the majority of ISIS’ victims are Muslim.
It’s normal to be drawn toward those we most easily identify with.
But the real test of our faith is not how well we love those who are most like us, but how we love those who are least like us.
Are we able to do what the religious expert in Luke 10 could not? Are we able to see those who are different from us as our neighbor? Are we able to call them by name?
The religious expert could not even bring himself to say the name Samaritan.
Love your neighbor as yourself. Not just the neighbor who looks like you. Not just the one who shares the same faith as you. (Jews in Jesus’ day almost certainly didn’t think of Samaritans as sharing the same faith.)
The true test of our faith is how well we love “the other.”
Jesus didn’t just say, “Love your neighbor.” He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In other words, the measure by which you love yourself—by which you love your own “tribe,” whoever that may be—that’s the measure by which your love of “the other” will be judged.
Do we really love “the other”? The outsider? The one we can relate to least? The one we are most likely to write off, dismiss, and marginalize?
Imagine a church that did not just speak up for the suffering of its own people, but for the suffering of those who aren’t even part of this body.
I had just graduated college, and I didn’t know what to do next. I’d spent four years earning a degree in political science, thinking I would go off to Washington, D.C. and join the front lines of the culture wars.
But one year during college, I got a taste of the action, working for a conservative religious lobby a few blocks from the White House. After that, I wasn’t sure I wanted another taste—for many reasons, one of which I wrote about here.
It was a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who showed me another way—or at least, helped me to imagine another way.
After graduation, I had a job offer from the lobbying group I had worked at two summers before. That’s when I read a book called Blinded by Mightby Ed Dobson (co-written with Cal Thomas). Ed was the pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids and a former assistant to Jerry Falwell, chief architect of the Religious Right.
Ed argued that he and his fellow Christians were wrong to get sucked into the culture wars. We were wrong, he suggested, to automatically assume God was on our side.
Ed was bold enough to say what most of us didn’t want to admit: our activism was less about building the common good and more about accumulating power for ourselves. He urged the church to relinquish its addiction to power so it could become the church again.
I still have Ed’s book, along with a letter James Dobson (no relation to Ed) wrote, attacking him for challenging the infallibility of the Religious Right. (It should be noted that Ed’s personal views at the time were not much different from the other Dobson’s. Instead, the two differed on something bigger: the mission and identity of the church.)
Ed’s book convinced me to give up what would have been a self-serving career in politics. I opted for seminary instead, partly so I could buy more time to figure out what to do with my life. I spent the next three years studying theology at a school across the street from Ed’s church.
I only met Ed once, when I thanked him for writing his book. But his influence helped reset the trajectory of my life.
Having spent the better part of those 15 years in Grand Rapids, I’ve followed Ed’s journey from a relatively short distance. His journey did not end when he walked away from the Religious Right. It did not end when he was diagnosed with ALS. It did not end when illness forced him to retire as pastor of Calvary Church.
Ed did things most evangelical pastors would not. He joined hands with the LGBTQ community to fight AIDS—at a time when most pastors offered them nothing but hate and condemnation. He worked to bridge the racial divide in the church and beyond.
When evangelicals leapt on Rob Bell for his controversial book Love Wins, Ed refused to take pot shots at the pastor he had once mentored. Instead, he responded simply by quoting Jesus’ words in Luke 9: “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”
When Ed’s son came out, telling his parents, “I’m gay, I still love Jesus, and nothing else changes,” Ed responded, “We still love you, and nothing else changes.”
As his ALS progressed, Ed’s “parish” shrank in some ways—in ways that might seem important to some. But it grew in other, more significant ways. Ed ministered to people on a more intimate scale. His shared his story to encourage those who were walking through their own darkest valleys.
All things considered, the book Ed wrote in 1999 is probably one of the smaller parts of his legacy. But I would not be where I am today if not for that book. I would not have been given such a powerful example of how to live like Jesus, if not for Ed’s story.
Here is the full quote from Yale New Testament professor Dale Martin:
I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love.
To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion—as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love.
But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modernist historicism.
We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?”
Martin demonstrates convincingly (for me, anyway) that modern scholars read too much—or perhaps too little, depending on your perspective—into the meaning of these words. But at least in the case of malakos (unfortunately rendered “sodomites” in the NRSV),the correct meaning is no less troubling. It introduces just as many interpretive problems as it solves.
(Spoiler alert: Martin argues the correct translation of malakos is “effeminate,” adding weight to accusations of misogyny laid at the apostle Paul’s feet.)
In the end, Martin concludes that we can’t resolve every interpretive difficulty in Scripture—nor should we try. No matter what our view, conservative or progressive, and no matter what our approach to Scripture, fundamentalist or historicist, we all run into difficulties when reading and applying the Bible. It doesn’t always work to just “do what the Bible says.” It’s not that simple. Which is just as well, because sometimes the Bible says to “annihilate” people.
Nor do interpretation and application suddenly become easy once we cross from the Old Testament into the New. We are still 2,000 years removed from its context. We are still listening in on one side of conversations that took place in a much different world.
The good news is, the apostle Paul (yes, the same Paul who rather unfortunately suggested that “effeminate” people will not inherit the kingdom of God) gave us the key to answering the age-old question, “How should we live?” And the answer is not, “Line up as many Bible verses as you can find on a given topic and try to make them all say the same thing.” Because sometimes that doesn’t work.
The answer, according to Paul, is to obey the one command that fulfills all the other, sometimes conflicting commands:
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
He also says, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other,” proving that sometimes, the application of ancient Scripture to our context IS rather straightforward.)
Another way to put it is, as Dale Martin did, is to always ask one question, no matter the issue: What is the loving thing to do?
In his remarks at this year’s Presidential Prayer Breakfast, President Obama talked about violence done in the name of religion:
Remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India—an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity—but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs… So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.
His comment about “terrible deeds [done] in the name of Christ” were met with unsurprising outrage and protestations of innocence.
A former Virginia governor called them “the most offensive [comments] I’ve ever heard a president make.”
Bill Donohue of the Catholic League undertook to rewrite history, arguing the Crusades were justified and suggesting the Church was barely involved in the Inquisition.
Ravi Zacharias, a respected Christian apologist, called Obama’s remarks a “presidential blunder” demonstrating an “absence of wisdom” the likes of which he’s never before seen:
The president obviously does not understand the primary sources of [Christianity or Islam] to make such a tendentious parallel.
Yet the president could’ve gone further. He could have mentioned Rwanda, where the church was complicit in one of the worst acts of genocide since the Holocaust. He could have invoked Srebrenica, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered at the hands of professing Christians. He could have highlighted the colonization of Africa, which was steeped in an imperialistic, racist brand of Christendom.
Obama’s aim, however, was not to pick on Christianity but to demonstrate how “religious faiths of all types” are vulnerable to distortion when they are used to justify violence and discrimination against others.
If we don’t recognize this, they maybe we’re the ones who need to spend some more time with those “primary sources” that Ravi Zacharias mentioned. It’s worth noting that both Christianity and Islam have their problem texts in their primary sources, the Bible and the Quran. Both contain passages that seem to allow or even encourage violence.
Read the texts below and see if you can guess which holy book they come from—the Bible or the Quran. (The answers are given at the end of this post. No cheating!)
One note: References to God and/or specific people have been generalized where necessary)
1. We took all his cities at that time, and we utterly destroyed the men, women, and little ones of every city; we left none remaining.
2. When we resolve to raze a city, we first give warning to those of its people who live in comfort. If they persist in sin, judgment is irrevocably passed, and we destroy it utterly.
3. So he made a vow to God, and said, “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” God listened to his voice.
4. When God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.
5. Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.
6. You shall destroy all the peoples whom God delivers over to you; your eye shall have no pity on them.
7. Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors.
8. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms; He will thrust out the enemy from before you, and he will say, “Destroy!”
9. He left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as God had commanded.
10. Do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
11. Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you.
12. True believers fight for the cause of God.
13. This charge I commit to you, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare.
14. Let those who would exchange the life of this world for the hereafter, fight for the cause of God.
Were you able to tell the difference? What similarities did you notice between passages from the Bible and the Quran?
As Christians, we would argue that context matters when reading the Bible’s more violent texts. However we make sense of these passages, most of us agree they do not permit us to commit comparable acts of violence today. And we don’t like it when people use them as weapons to try to discredit or disparage our faith.
Which is kind of the whole point.
Muslims can say the same about their so-called problem texts. And we should give them the same benefit of the doubt that we expect others to give us.
We don’t get to decide what someone else’s holy book teaches—especially when most of us have read even less of the Quran than we’ve read of the Bible.
I don’t get to decide what the Quran says based a handful of proof texts I’ve heard quoted out of context.
I don’t get to decide what it says based on what a handful of extremists do with it—no more than others get to decide what the Bible teaches based on what white supremacists have done with it.
None of this is to encourage us toward religious relativism. The Bible is my holy book. This is about simple human respect—or, as President Obama put it, “basic humility.”
Yes, we should push back when others try to distort our faith. But we should let the experience remind us not to disparage or misrepresent someone else’s faith.
1. Bible (Deuteronomy 2:34)
2. Quran (17:16)
3. Bible (Numbers 21:2-3)
4. Bible (Deuteronomy 7:2)
5. Quran (9:5)
6. Bible (Deuteronomy 7:16)
7. Quran (2:190)
8. Bible (Deuteronomy 33:27)
9. Bible (Joshua 10:40)
10. Bible (1 Samuel 15:3)
11. Quran (2:191)
12. Quran (4:76)
13. Bible (1 Timothy 1:18)
14. Quran (4:74)
“Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” That’s what I’d say. —Stephen Fry
It is right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs. So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing. —John Piper
Stephen Fry clearly struck a chord with his impassioned denunciation of God. It’s fast approaching exceeded five million views on YouTube. There’ve been no shortage of responses, either—even Russell Brand weighed in with a video rebuttal… before he had time to make his bed, apparently.
For me, however, the response that resonated most deeply was not a rebuttal. It was my friend Ian’s heart-wrenching story of how he can relate to the anguish Fry articulated, even though (unlike Fry) Ian identifies as a Christian.
Other responses, for the most part, fell more clearly into the “rebuttal” category. Many expressed surprise or bewilderment at Fry’s depiction of God. That’s not the God we know, they protested. Where did Fry get the idea that God is the author of eye-burrowing parasites or bone cancer in children?
It turns out, we don’t have to look far to find the answer.
According to this view, God is the author of both. Such a God is every bit as capricious and unreasonable as Fry says he is, because he does not operate according to a consistent or predictable ethic. Whatever this God decides to do is, in that moment, “right and good”—for no other reason than he chose to do it.
Such a God provides no credible standard of morality for us to live by. Such a God cannot be trusted. Such a God cannot be said to be “for us” in any meaningful sense. Such a God exists purely for himself, for his own glory. And if this God decides that slaughtering a million children is the thing that will bring him the most glory, then according to Piper, he is entirely right to do so.
None of which is to pick on Piper per se, rather to point out that there are lots of Christians who hold the same view of God, even if they haven’t been as diligent as Piper in unpacking it full implications. (I disagree strongly with Piper, but I respect him for following his theological convictions to their logical end.)
Indeed, you can build a case for Piper’s view of God through a selective reading of Scripture. Isaiah 45 says God brings both prosperity and calamity. “When disaster comes to a city,” another prophet asks rhetorically, “has not the Lord caused it?” Both statements ought to be read in their immediate literary and historical context, but it’s far easier to universalize them.
And of course, there are a number of places in the Old Testament where God appears to orchestrate, even command, precisely the sort of atrocities which Fry laments and Piper accepts as normal divine behavior.
Now, I happen to believe there are other explanations which make better sense of the full sweep of Scripture. I happen to believe this is one of many reasons why we shouldn’t treat everything in the Bible as “a list of normative behaviors” (to quote Zack Hunt).
I happen to believe that Jesus is the primary lens through which we see and understand God rightly. Everything else we might say about God—including everything else the Bible might say—must be filtered through this lens. (Note: not discarded or dismissed. Filtered.)
I happen to believe the image we get from Jesus is of a God who emptied himself of power instead of using it against us—something that Giles Fraser pointed out in his response to Stephen Fry. I believe in a suffering, vulnerable savior who set out to right all the wrongs that Fry listed—and I believe this is the most definitive, tangible image of God we have. Not the God who slaughters children at a whim.
But that’s not really my point. The truth is, it’s easy to get up in arms at what Fry said about God. It’s easy to take offense—and then go on the offense. It’s easy to ostracize those who see reality differently than we do.
What’s not so easy is to listen—in this case, to acknowledge that Fry was not attacking a straw-man version of God. He was describing precisely the kind of God that many Christians believe in and worship.
If we do not allow Jesus to fully shape our understanding of God, we will end up with exactly the kind of deity that Stephen Fry so forcefully denounced.
It was a crucifix that caught my daughter’s eye during ArtPrize this year.
There’s no shortage of crucifixes to be found at the annual art competition. From the 2011 popular vote winner, depicting a bored looking, white American Jesus backlit by a Kinkade-esque sunset, to one of this year’s installations, “The Moment, Endured,” a more severe portrayal made entirely from nails.
“The Moment” was actually one of two crucifixes displayed outside St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, one of the venues for ArtPrize. But it was the other one, a piece called “Love Does Not Harm,” that made my 4-year-old ask me to stop the car as we were driving by a couple Saturdays ago.
We circled the block a few times until we found a place to park. The sky couldn’t make up its mind between “partly sunny” and “vaguely apocalyptic,” so I put her in a stroller and we made a run for it.
“Love Does Not Harm” is the work of a local designer named Timothy Gabriel. His crucifix doesn’t exactly play on subtlety. If Mia Tavonatti’s “Crucifixion” pandered to a deeply religious West Michigan audience, “Love Does Not Harm” poked it with a stick.
The silhouetted figure is made up of anti-gay slogans. It hangs from a cross comprised of similar rhetoric. The entire scene is draped against a rainbow banner declaring that “Love does not harm.”
The piece drew attention for the political statement it made (and because the artist claimed it was vandalized during ArtPrize). But I wish we’d focus less on the controversy and more on the scripture Gabriel featured. Romans 13:8-10 is, I believe, one of the seminal texts of the New Testament.
“Love does no harm to a neighbor,” Paul writes. Every other law there is—don’t murder, don’t steal, etc.—is summed up in this one command: love others. Do not harm.
Paul is not breaking new ground here. He’s echoing one of the most pivotal teachings of the gospels, in which Jesus declared that “love God” and “love your neighbor” are the two greatest commands in the Bible—and that they are two sides of the same coin. The way you demonstrate love for God is by loving your neighbor. You cannot do one without the other.
Would any of us like to argue that we’ve kept this law perfectly? When have we ever been good at “doing no harm” to those who are different from us?
Gabriel’s piece does not major on subtlety or nuance. Nonetheless it invites us to consider one of the more central teachings of the New Testament and its implications for us today. Regardless of how we may think about sexuality or marriage, “love does no harm” is an idea that should make us pause and reflect.
Of course, I didn’t get into all this with my daughter. She’s too young to read the words that made up the silhouetted figure. But she recognizes a picture of Jesus on the cross when she sees one, even when it’s abstract. Her eyes were especially drawn to the colorful words behind the crucifix, so I told her what they said.
We talked about “love does no harm” and what this means. We talked about how we should treat those who seem different. We talked about how this is part of what it means to love others the way Jesus loved us.
And then we went home and had lunch.
A week later, we made one more visit to ArtPrize.
As we were driving, out of the blue my daughter asked if we could see Gabriel’s piece again. “The one that says, ‘Love does not harm,’ ” she explained. Then she told me what it means—how we should accept others, no matter how similar or different they are. She remembered our week-old conversation almost perfectly.
Artistically, it may not have been the greatest piece at ArtPrize this year. It may have struck some as heavy-handed. And of course, many will find it divisive. But the core idea, “love does not harm,” shouldn’t be controversial. Gabriel’s piece helped my daughter grasp something central to the Christian faith—how we are called to love as Jesus loved.
If you read the title of this post, then you know the not-so-surprise ending: Timothy Gabriel is an atheist. In his official ArtPrize bio, he refers to himself as a proponent of secularism. And I am eternally grateful to him for teaching my daughter something important about Christianity.
When we stop viewing those who are different from us—whether it’s in their orientation or their beliefs—as enemies, we might just find they have something to teach us.
What have you learned about your faith from surprising sources?
Last week was VBS at my church. It was the first time my daughter was old enough to participate. I filled in as a backup crew leader. Think small group leader, but with more herding kids from one activity to the next. Also, pretending to know the motions to the songs, which occasionally meant spinning in circles while everyone else was jumping up and down.
The curriculum we were using* was all about God’s unconditional love. Which is a great theme to highlight, especially when you’ve only got a couple hours a night to engage kids, many of whom have no other connection to the church. If I could choose just one message to share with kids, this would be it. (Even if I can’t get the hand motions right.)
One night, we were supposed to talk about the fact that God loves us even when we do wrong. The curriculum did a nice job walking through the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. It also had a few suggestions for how to explain why Jesus died. One of them was to share some examples of sin that kids can relate to.
Like not cleaning your room.
Why did Jesus die? Answer: because your room is a mess and you didn’t tidy it up like you were supposed to.
I get that we have to keep things simple for kids. But is this really the best way to explain Jesus’ death? Is there no other way we can unpack for kids the idea that the world is broken and in need of rescue and repair?
Do we trivialize the gospel when we make it about “sins” like not cleaning your room? Do we sell our kids short by not telling them a more meaningful story?
Later that night, I saw proof that the kids in my group were itching for a better story, that they didn’t need a trivialized, oversimplified concept of sin in order for the gospel to make sense.
The makers of the curriculum wanted to address real issues that kids face, and they wisely included bullying as one of the featured topics. During the discussion time that evening, the change in my group was palpable. Suddenly, these kids—who wouldn’t take anything seriously all week, who spent the whole time cracking jokes and posturing for each other—got very serious. They listened. Each had a story to tell. Multiple stories, actually. You could see the hurt in their eyes. Each of them had been bullied at some point. Heck, they even wanted to know if I had been bullied as a kid. (Asking me a serious question—that was a first.)
Our kids understand the world is not how it should be. They don’t need us to soft-pedal it for them. They don’t need to be fed trivial examples of sin in order to understand Jesus’ death.
We don’t need to treat our kids as if they’re porcelain china, as if they’ll shatter into a million pieces if we’re honest about the way the world really is. Just ask them if they’ve ever had a run-in with a bully, and you’ll realize: they know what sin is.
They deserve a gospel that makes sense in the real world. And that, I think, is the main shortcoming of a primarily legal or transactional approach to the gospel. It reduces sin to a theological abstraction, one in which not cleaning your room is every bit as serious as murder or rape or bullying. It says naively that “all sin is sin,” when all sins are not, in fact, created equal. (For more on the problems of equalizing sin, see this post by R.L. Stollar.)
This, by the way, is one reason why I’m increasingly drawn to the Christus Victorview of the atonement, why I believe it makes the most sense of what Jesus did on the cross (knowing that the significance of Jesus’ death cannot be reduced to a single theory of atonement), and why I think it opens the door to sharing a better gospel story.
Christus Victor says we are captives of a broken world. Yes, some of that darkness resides in us. We are both victims and culprits. We are trapped in a cycle of sin and death, but we also contribute in ways both small and large. Christus Victor says that Jesus’ sacrifice was God’s victory over sin and death, as opposed to appeasement for the trivial “sins” of a 4-year-old who doesn’t clean her room.
Our kids deserve a better story.
(Although, if it will get my almost-4-year-old to clean her room…)
*In case you’re wondering, the VBS curriculum we used was Weird Animalsby Group Publishing. There are many, many good things about this curriculum: the way they tied in stories of impoverished kids in other parts of the world (and respected the dignity of those kids)… the way they highlighted God’s unconditional love… the fact that they created a music soundtrack that won’t drive parents batty. (No, really. My daughter is STILL singing the songs.) But when it comes to telling the redemptive story of the Bible, I think we can do better.
Last week, the Pew Research Center shared their findings from a 20-year study of polarization in American politics. The short version: it’s getting worse. But polarization is not just a political phenomenon. It’s a religious one too.
Polarization is more than just disagreement with someone. It’s the tendency to view that person as your enemy, as a threat to everything you hold dear. In a Christian context, polarization manifests itself in rejecting the validity of someone else’s faith, or by saying things like, “If you accept X, then you’ve undermined the gospel, the Bible, Christianity, etc.”
We don’t have to look far to find those who’ve been impacted by this kind of polarization, whose humanity has been reduced to an abstract “other” so we can more easily marginalize and dismiss them.
Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. The question is, can we have our differences and still find a way to live together?
Al Mohler has said quite forcefully there can be no “third way”—at least not when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. And as he pointed out, Tony Jones has said pretty much the same thing from the left. In response, Zach Hoag has written a couple of posts (here and here) defending the idea of a third way.
Some have said the third way is at best a temporary stopping point on the way to something else. The idea of a third way—making room for people on both sides in your church—sounds good in theory. But what do you do, for example, when a same-sex couple asks you to officiate their wedding? What do you do when you finally have to choose one side over the other?
Is a third way about allowing for time for discernment and reflection together—with the assumption that the clock is ticking and we’ll have to come to some kind of resolution eventually? Or is it a commitment to live in community even if we never come to agreement? Is that even possible?
I don’t have good answers to these questions. I’m still wrestling. I have some doubts about the viability of a third way, partly because I like things to be black and white.
The truth is, I always have…
I’ve never been good at negotiating a third way, regardless of which side of the ideological spectrum I sat on. In my college days, I was one of the more conservative kids on a conservative evangelical campus. I would argue loud and long with my comparatively more “liberal” friends. Politics, women’s ordination, homosexuality. You name it, we argued it.
What I didn’t realize until years later was they were modeling a third way in how they responded. They never rejected me as a person. They never questioned the validity of my faith, even though I’m quite sure they found some of my views (and how I expressed them) repugnant.
Even when my arguments crossed the line from debate to personal attack, even when I demonstrated precisely zero interest in what they had to say (which was often), even when they got so frustrated with me they had to get up from the table—we always came back together the next day. They always welcomed me back to the table. We didn’t soft-pedal our disagreements. But we found a way to live together in the midst of them—which was almost entirely to their credit and not mine.
Since then, some of my views have shifted—in part due to the example of those who refused to write me off. I don’t care for the term “liberal” because it carries a certain stereotype of someone who says the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed (if they say it at all). That’s not me. Nevertheless, not all my views are as cut-and-dry as they once were.
But I’ve held onto my old polarizing tendencies. I’m still a fundamentalist at heart. (Yes, progressives can be fundamentalists.) Whichever side I take, I still have an ugly habit of viewing those I disagree with as enemies. As “other.” And this kind of polarization is an inherently dehumanizing force.
Whatever the merits and limitations of a third way, if it’s just about being superficially nice, then it’s not worth the effort. Benjamin Moberg argues that civility and respect are important, but eradicating injustice matters more. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a threat to the church, not by a long shot. But some may pose a genuine threat—to the church and to those who seek shelter within its walls. There are some whose very notion of the way of Jesus seems diametrically opposed to the man himself…
Those who insist on shutting certain people out.
Those who make exclusion a badge of orthodoxy.
Those who harbor abusers and blame their victims.
Those who cannot see the dignity and worth—or faith—of those who are different from them.
The third way, as I understand it, isn’t about trying to please everybody. If you don’t want to sit in the same pew as people who are different from you, then the third way is not for you.
If the thought of receiving communion from a priest who is gay makes you cringe, the third way may not be your thing. If you cannot share the peace of Christ with those who don’t share your views on same-sex marriage, then you may have to find another way. “Fundamentalism won’t fly,” as Zach Hoag writes. “Movement will be required on both sides.” That is, movement toward each other as fellow image bearers and, yes, as fellow Christians.
That’s because the third way is about affirming the genuine faith of [insert your favorite scapegoat here]. When you can do this, what you’re really affirming is that you and they are part of the same family. You are bound to them, and they are bound to you.
That may be as far as the third way can take us. But even that might be enough to blunt the worst effects of polarization on the church.
The third way that Zach and others have proposed is not a solution to all our problems. But I don’t think it’s meant to be. Like I wrote near the beginning of this post, the limitations of a third way become evident the moment a church is asked to bless a same-sex marriage or hire a female priest or take any other action that forces it to favor one side over the other.
Choices have to be made. What makes the third way compelling is not the avoidance of choice but the refusal to be enemies in the midst of making that choice. Others may choose to see us as their enemy, and we can’t help that. But we don’t have to return the favor. We can offer a hand to anyone who’s willing to walk with us, even as we wrestle with our differences, as we try to discern together where the Spirit is taking us.
The third way is the stubborn refusal to put ideology ahead of people or theology ahead of love.
Polarization wants to convince that ideas matter more than people. The third way doesn’t mean ideas don’t matter. It’s means we don’t forget that people always come first.
As Christians, we like to have the answers. It’s the whole “asking questions” part we’re not so sure about.
Take a look at how much energy the evangelical industrial complex devotes to giving answers. If you search for products with the word “answer” in them, one Christian retail site has more than 16,000 results. The Jesus Answer Book. The Bible Answer Book. The COMPLETE Bible Answer Book. The Big Book of Questions and Answers. The Big Book of Bible Answers.
We have Answers in Genesis to allay our nagging concerns about the origins of the universe. We have our very own Bible Answer Man. We’ve outsourced questioning so that others can come up with the answers for us.
But what’s the underlying motive to this preemptive strike on questions? Is it fear? The fear that if you ask one wrong question — or one too many questions — the whole edifice of faith will come crashing down?
If you take a closer look at the scriptures, you begin to see just how little they resemble our modern-day obsession with answers. The biblical story is full of unanswered questions.
The whole book of Job is an exercise in asking hard questions, a reminder how little we know, how little we can be sure of. What’s even more amazing about this story is that God is summoned to give an account to account by a riches-to-rags alleged miscreant.
The better part of Job is taken up by his friends’ attempts to silence his questions. They accuse him of wrongdoing. They insinuate that he’s guilty of heresy and blasphemy. They posit canned answers to Job’s complex questions.
Yet Job persists.
You have to give him credit. Job was bold. He assumed the right to question God. The language of his complaint is that of a lawsuit, of someone taking their adversary before the judge — except, for Job, his adversary and judge are the same person.
In other words, Job just wants his day in court. He wants permission to ask the hard questions.
And he’s convinced that God will be OK with that… if only God would show up:
If only I knew where to find him;
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.
When God does finally show up, Job doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for. Only more questions, a stark and humbling reminder that the universe is big and mysterious and that our knowledge — our answers — don’t even scratch the surface.
But Job was not condemned for asking questions. Job was vindicated. His friends, on the other hand, were rebuked for trying to shut him up, for trying to silence his questions with hastily contrived answers.
How many of us could stand in for Job’s friends? Afraid to ask questions. Desperate for airtight answers to supress our nagging doubts.
It’s not that answers are bad — when there are some to be had. It’s what kind of answers we seek. If the answers you give (or receive) are meant to end the conversation rather than nurture it, they are probably the wrong kind of answers.
To follow God is to ask a lot of questions, including some that can’t be answered — not even by all 16,000 answer books at your Christian bookstore.