Social Myopia and the Church

We have been attending churches in Salem to find our new home church but also to familiarize ourselves with the tenor of the spiritual community here in Salem. A comment in this Sunday’s sermon at Brand X church with a history dating back to the Second Great Awakening caught my attention.

The speaker’s aside about his property taxes caught my attention. He noted two things. First, he had adopted gratitude over his taxes noting their distribution recognized his contribution to the community. Second, he made a rather odd statement, “I can control what I pay, but I have no control over how the money is spent.” Everyone in the audience chuckled. I was disappointed in the statement. Voting is the way we influence how our tax money is spent. It is the first step of stewardship with our form of government.

It seems to me that Evangelicals are often wimps when it comes to community engagement. There is a lot of bemoaning about the direction of the country, a longing for “family values,” a longing for a return to an unspecified period of greatness, and a rather odd lament that the church is facing horrendous persecution. Concerning the latter what passes for persecution here in the United States would be laughable except I know individuals in the global church who do face persecution, the risk of their lives for their faith. What we face here in the United States, i.e., people who disagree with us and who are at times hostile in their initial encounters with us, is not persecution it is social interaction.

For as long as I have been around the Evangelical world, the Evangelical church has suffered from social myopia. They simply cannot see what is right in front of them and hide behind platitudes, fear, and legislative sticks. In my first pastoral assignment, I remember being instructed by members of the congregation to steer clear of certain places in the city because people there were ready to persecute any Christian they happened upon like a cougar stalking unsuspecting deer. I went to those places in town, and I found people who were trying to live their lives, people who struggled to make sense of their experience, and people who had questions and wanted to engage those questions without having preconceived formulas framed as “answers” thrown at their situation. My conclusion then, and still today, is that enemies have no faces. Once you give face to an enemy it is much harder to reduce that person to an object of scornful suspicion. These alleged enemies transformed into names, Bill, Sue, Wally, and others I got to know.

On the one hand, Evangelicals act like they should dominate all political discussions and suppress any dissenting voices. This assumes that Evangelicals have comprehensive knowledge and experience in all matters of personal and public policy – they don’t. On the other hand, Evangelicals talk like they are victims of some large far-reaching leftist conspiracy – they aren’t. Perhaps a few lessons on how to be involved in our civic process would be in order. So, let me offer a couple of suggestions for engaging people who may hold opposing views.

First, approach your community with a commitment to service rather than dominance. If Jesus came to serve, and if Jesus commissioned us to fulfill his incarnational ministry, then it behooves us to be humble listeners. It can be difficult; I have been loudly told off for simply walking into a room. I remember volunteering to sit on a curriculum review committee at a local school district. I walked into the room, introduced myself, and was immediately cornered by an angry district employee. “I am sick,” he shouted at me just inches away from my face, “of you holier than thou Christians coming to these meetings to tell the rest of us how to live.”

He carried on with a few other raw emotive statements while the room stood awkwardly transfixed by his rant.

“I am not here as a Christian telling you how to live your life,” I began when he finally took a breath. “I am here as a father who has the best for my sons and the children of the district at heart. If you’d like me to take an antagonistic approach, I can mobilize the entire church community in a matter of hours, I can make calls that will plant television and radio media at your doorstep along with an army of demonstrators. Would you rather I contributed to making your next two weeks a media circus or may I participate as one voice, the voice of a father, a parent, or a volunteer, and work with you in designing a curriculum that will give our children the greatest opportunity for success?”

At this point an administrator had sided up to me, “The latter,” he interjected, “We appreciate you taking your time to work with us.”

What happened to the angry guy? He learned over the course of the next couple of hours that enemies have no faces. Once one gives a face to an enemy, they often become friends. He and I didn’t become great friends, we did, however, learn to appreciate each other’s point of view.

Second, get involved in the political process. It may be obvious, but the first level of involvement is voting. I shouldn’t have to list this but, as I learned in 2016, some Evangelicals are of the persuasion that not voting at all somehow makes their point that the system is broken. The only point this makes is that the person making this decision has elected to remove themselves from participating in democracy – ergo, they have no room to complain. Every candidate is flawed, just like everyone voting is flawed. In voting, read arguments for and against candidates and ballot measures. If you read Christian voting guides, then also read non-Christian voting guides. Why? Because we all have blind spots, we need to hear why opposing views exist.

In 2008 many Evangelicals in California supported Proposition 8, called the Same-Sex Marriage Ban Initiative. I was serving as part of a leadership team at a church in Southern California at the time. I was asked to support the bill and I refused. The vitriol I faced from good “Christians” was educational. “Let me tell you why I don’t support this bill,” I offered. “You claim to be making your decision to support Prop 8 based on biblical arguments regarding morality. More specifically you apply your biblical interpretation to society generally. Why? Paul is clear in his letter to the Corinthians that our to move the public to live a biblical morality, but the moral character of the church. What if Muslims wrote propositions based on the Quran? Would you support the adoption of Sharia law? Wouldn’t a pluralistic society be better served with broad guard rails that inhibited the loss of personal choice, or loss of property, or loss of opportunity, be a better approach?”

Every historical attempt to establish a theocratic government in church history has resulted in abysmal failure. We are not called to force “kingdom government” onto existing political/national structures. We are called to invite people into the love and transformative power of God modeled and demonstrated in Jesus Christ. We are called to be a new humanity (Ephesians 2:13-16). The ideal Paul outlines is highly attractive. The experience many have in being derided, ridiculed, insulted, diminished, and rejected by Evangelical norms is not.

Third, engage in discussions with opposing views, not rants, not proclamations, not truth claims, but discussions, i.e., a give and take of various views and perspectives. A discussion listens to understand, a rant listens for the opportunity to obliterate the opponent’s proposition. It is work to engage in discussions, emotions run high when our core beliefs are challenged. But here too Paul is helpful in getting us to recognize that our claim to truth must be carried humbly and open to critique because our perspectives are all limited and cloudy at best. (1 Corinthians 13:9-12).

I once served as an administrative pastor for a congregation in Southern California. In chatting one day with our attorney, I made a bold proclamation about some subject. She looked at me curiously, “an interesting point,” she began. “Can you argue the other side?”

Her question left me stammering like a dunderheaded imbecile. Her smile grew and she graciously offered this sage advice, “If you cannot argue the other side, it is doubtful you fully understand your own.” She then peppered me with questions that demonstrated that my confident assertion did not have as solid a foundation as I first asserted.  I thanked her for the great lesson, and we went on to have many discussions about faith and its impact on life.  

As Christians, we claim to have a corner on truth, but the truth by its very nature is self-authenticating. Often the problem with our claim to truth is that we don’t allow it to demonstrate itself, we get in the way and pollute and diminish its impact in our own inconsistency of action and attitude. If we see through a glass darkly, it behooves us to allow what we think we know to be challenged.

Ultimately, I think it behooves us to see that we all live in a bubble of sorts that needs to be expanded. We need to see the community around us, hear their stories, endure the painful critique of our own failings as a Christian community, and fearlessly engage in discussions that allow our relationship with Jesus to shine as attractively as it is by nature. Sure, not everyone will engage, sure some with remain hostile. But, some will be gracefully drawn to the salvation you live and you will be surprisingly enriched by getting to know someone new.

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