These are interesting times. Never has it been so easy for any one person to have a platform for free speech. In our country, that’s a sacred right. I’m grateful for it. My entire ministry, in fact, wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for the ability I’ve had through the years to share thoughts, engage dialogue, and develop relationships through social media.
It’s really remarkable. My voice can be heard around the globe from my home office in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t have a megaphone or a printing press or a television station, but my voice can be heard.
My voice, though, isn’t the only voice. And my opinion isn’t the only opinion. Or, more precisely if I’m being honest, my version of the truth isn’t the only version of the truth. Just about everyone has a platform now, and everyone’s voice is amplified. Everyone is speaking, but very few of us are listening.
Free listening isn’t valued as much as free speech is.
The listening challenge has been around for a long time. What seems to be fresh, though, is the lack of civility we have towards people who embrace a different version of truth. We don’t just disagree with people–we despise people who think differently than we do. We don’t just despise, though, we view those people with different perspectives as evil. They are our enemy.
“We don’t just despise, though, we view those people with different perspectives as evil. They are our enemy.”
I hesitate to share what I’m about to share, because the person who said this may be one of your enemies. You may disagree with his version of truth. For a moment, try to block out who is saying it and the specific context for his saying it.
“[M]aybe it’s because of my background and where I am surrounded by people that have lost freedoms in places where they are not allowed to speak. One of the great traditions of our nation is the ability to come forward and have debates. But the founders and the framers and those who established this institution and guided it for over two centuries understood that that debate was impossible if, in fact, matters became of a personal nature…
“I want people to think about our politics here today in America because, I am telling you guys, I don’t know of a single nation in the history of the world that has been able to solve its problems when half the people in a country absolutely hate the other half of people in that country…
“In this country, if you watch the big policy debates that are going on in America, no one ever stops to say, ‘I think you’re wrong, I understand your point of view – I get it. You have some valid points, but let me tell you why I think my view is better.’ I don’t hear that anymore. Here’s what I hear, almost automatically, and let me be fair, from both sides of these debates. Immediately, immediately, as soon as you offer an idea, the other side jumps and says, ‘The reason why you say that is because you say you don’t care about poor people, because you only care about rich people, because you’re this, or you’re that or you’re the other. And I’m just telling you guys, we are reaching a point in this Republic where we’re not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues because everyone is putting themselves in a corner where everyone hates everybody.”
That’s an excerpt from a speech that Marco Rubio, US Senator from Florida, gave last week. Again, let’s be fair. Rubio has contributed to the discord in the past. We don’t have to search long to find some comments he made during the recent Republican primary season when he, too, let the debate take on a personal nature. What he shared on the floor of the Senate, though, is spot on.
For whatever reason, we’ve arrived at a place in our society where differences of opinion establish permission to hate another person.
When Christians Are the Perpetrators
What’s alarming to me, though, is that it isn’t just a phenomenon for those outside the Christian faith. We Christ-followers are just as much to blame. In fact, there are instances when we may be the biggest perpetrators. On any numbers of issues, our version of truth looks different than the version of the truth that the world around us embraces. I’m not writing to argue about whose version of the truth is right. I’m more interested in addressing how we perceive and then treat people who embrace a different version of the truth.
Facebook and Twitter don’t help us. We get to choose our friends on social media. Generally, we tend to choose people who think like we think. They share experiences that we’ve experienced. They live life like we live life. In fact, the more vociferous we are in making our case for truth, the more “likes” and “retweets” it will generate. That only reinforces our perception that our version of the truth is correct.
The media doesn’t want to solve this problem because disagreement, hate, attacks, and enemies pitted against each other…those things capture more attention. We lean in when we hear someone in the media espousing our perspective and we cheer them on when they attack the person who disagrees with our position. We want to know if “our team” is winning. We’ll pick the channels that reinforce our perspective that our team is winning. That engagements sells. Divisiveness fuels uncertainty, and the media wants that so that we’ll tune in.
The politicians aren’t going to fix this problem. It’s not in their best interest to do that. The more polarizing they are, the more receptive it is to their political base. Civility doesn’t generate money and votes. Healthy discourse doesn’t generate money and votes. Compromise doesn’t generate money and votes. In our two-party system, the politicians are rewarded when the divide is well-defined and each side views the other as the enemy. That generates money and votes.
“It’s been a decade since Barna published its research in UnChristian that told us 75% of young non-Christians perceived Christians to be judgmental, too political and sheltered. I’m pretty confident that perception hasn’t been changed for the better in the years since.”
We are being played. All of us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And that brings me to the inconvenient truth. Well, it’s at least my perception of the truth as I understand God’s word.
An Inconvenient Truth
Let me tell you about a time when there was a disagreement. Two groups of people were on very, very different sides of an important theological debate. We see this play out in Acts 15. Some of the religious leaders in those days believed you couldn’t be saved unless you were also circumcised. Other leaders including Paul and Barnabas disagreed with that, and in the New Living Translation it suggests that they disagreed “vehemently.” This is one of many examples through the centuries when people who were Christ-followers, teachers and religious leaders disagreed on theological positions.
Rather than let that disagreement divide the church, they elected to send representatives to Jerusalem to talk it out. Paul and Barnabas were “welcomed” by the leaders who espoused a very different view on this…well, let’s just say… delicate matter. They listened to what Paul and Barnabas had to share, including the stories of people impacted through their ministry.
After Paul and Barnabas finished, the religious leaders who took the opposite position took a turn at presenting their case. After which they came together to resolve their differences. There was a lot of discussion.
Then Peter stood up and contributed to the debate. He reminded everyone that God called him to spread the Good News to people who did not grow up in the Jewish faith. It’s one of many instances where we see God’s desire to redeem all people, not just people from a certain race or faith background or place in life. Peter explained that only God knows the heart of a person. He talked about how God accepts people. The religious leaders were trying to add rules and burdens but Peter acknowledged God was trying to remove them.
When everyone had finished making their case, James rose and brought the discussion to a close. He stated, “My judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19, NLT). After weighing both sides, he concluded circumcision wasn’t a requirement for salvation. Then everyone unified behind that decision. They chose delegates and drafted a letter outlining their decision to go with Paul and Barnabas to report on the news back in Antioch of Syria.
Of course, when the news was received back home, it says “there was great joy throughout the church that day as they read this encouraging message” (Acts 15:31). “Great joy.” If you are an adult male who desires to become a Christian, that may be the biggest understatement in the entire Bible.
Let me share a few observations that jump out to me from this passage:
1) People with whom we disagree are not the enemy.
We just disagree. Frankly, even if they are our enemy, God teaches us not to condemn them, but to love them.
“Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” (Luke 6:27-28, NLT)
Am I praying for those with whom I disagree?
2) It’s appropriate to speak the truth, but God expects us to do that in love.
In Ephesians 4, Paul explains what that looks like:
- “Don’t sin by letting anger control you.”
- “Don’t use foul or abusive language.”
- “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.”
- “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander.”
- “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.”
Do my words and actions express love towards the person with whom I disagree?
3) God’s bias is for accepting people and for unity to prevail.
He doesn’t expect people to follow the rules before he enters into a relationship with them. He doesn’t expect people to have all the right positions on societal and theological issues before he enters into a relationship. He just wants our heart. The renewing of the mind will follow. Thankfully God helps us “live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5, NLT). And that helps us “accept each other just as Christ has accepted [me]so that God will be given glory” (Romans 15:7, NLT).
Do I know the person with whom I disagree well enough to also accept them?
4) We never change our mind unless we first have a change of heart.
That should make all of us think twice before we post something on Facebook or Twitter. That should cause us to consider whether it’s really worth our time to sit and watch grown adults argue incessantly on prime-time television about competing political positions.
- My blog article on my position regarding the health care law is not going to change anyone’s mind. (I tried that once and it didn’t work.)
- My retweet of an article ridiculing or supporting Donald Trump is not going to change anyone’s mind.
- My Facebook post on straight or gay, open borders or tall walls, life or choice, rich or poor is not going to change anyone’s mind. It’s certainly not going to help me get to know the person with whom I disagree. It’s not going to help me understand their position. It’s not going to produce any movement toward us reaching agreement where we are unified and pulling together.
I’m wrestling with these words:
“Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth” (2 Timothy 2:23-25, NLT).
Am I trying to change the heart of the person with whom I disagree rather than letting God make that change? Am I the one who needs the heart change?
Why This Matters For Your Church
Hating people who don’t agree with us is not working. It’s not working in the political world and it’s not working in the church. As the divisiveness in our country grows, though, I see opportunity. I think this is a time when the church can take the lead. Since we are the church, it really begins with you and me.
It’s been a decade since Barna published its research in UnChristian that told us 75% of young non-Christians perceived Christians to be judgmental, too political and sheltered. I’m pretty confident that perception hasn’t been changed for the better in the years since.
- What if Christians were known for bringing people together for constructive conversations?
- What if Christians were known for getting to know and really love people who see the world differently?
- What if we could be friends with and maybe even learn to like people who don’t embrace the same truth we embrace?
If we just live out who God designed the church to be, it would be a very distinctive and refreshing alternative to the divisive world around us. Our culture needs that. I believe our culture is craving it.
Are you willing to do what it takes to be that church?