On January 14, 2014

Civil Religion: Can We Talk?

“Love and trust, in the space that is in between what is said and what is heard in our lives, can make all the difference in the world.” -Mr. Rogers

“The only thing keeping many of our Churches together is their lack of communication.” –Randy Harris


Against my better judgment, I’m doing a series about the way that Christians disagree with other people. I mentioned last week that this question I’ve had for years has been “Can a religion be civil, without becoming a civil religion?”But before we talk about disagreeing with other people. I think we should talk about how we disagree with ourselves.

Recently, on Reddit/Christianity, an atheist got on there and told them why he was done reading their particular sub-domain. They were very nice to him, but total jerks to each other.

Here’s what he said:

I wanted to let you know how it looks to the casual, non-believing observer who looks past the fact that you’re super-nice to non-believers, and wants to see how you actually treat each other. It tells me all I need to know, which is this: You’ll be super nice to me as long as you’re trying to recruit me, but once I join the club, I better fall in line or else…I honestly don’t care what kind of votes this post gets because I’m done with this subreddit. But I wanted you to know that people notice how you treat each other. And it’s the same in this subreddit as it is in real life: open hostility strictly because of different opinions WITHIN the ranks of Christianity.

Offending and Being Offended

Have you noticed how angry everybody seems to be these days?  Every group seems to feel and claim to be persecuted. Most groups I know define themselves against another group, and how that group has hurt them. I’d say if we want to continue to build on the angry culture we are creating, then we need to keep working to nurture the grievances we have.

But we must not use the word “love” to do so.

At least not if you are a Christian.

Almost every time I see or hear a Christian have a disagreement break out in public, it is peppered with words of “telling the truth in love.” Which is a great idea that comes from one of Paul’s letters, but it might do us well to remember Paul’s working definition of love. It’s a love that is patient and kind and works without envy and it is not easily offended.

I have a hunch that if Christians would just run our convictions through that lens, so much of the angry rhetoric on Facebook would dry up in a short time.

But here’s why it is so hard to be loving online.

Because short term, it works much better when you aren’t.


Fight between monks at the Holy Sepulchre

From Tribes to Generosity

If you want to create a tribe, you need to be able to communicate clear distinctions between your group and the rest of the world and you need to be able to do in a passionate, compelling way. I think we’ve got this part down. The problem with creating tribes, is that eventually you have a world of tribalism. Where every things is carved up into ‘us and them.”

We say that our world is becoming post-denominational, but I’ve been sectarian before and I know what it looks like. Today we aren’t less sectarian, we are just drawing the lines in different ways. It’s now becoming carved up between personalities. Do you follow Rachel Held Evans or Mark Driscoll, Do you like Greg Boyd or John Piper?

Now to be sure, I agree with some people more than another, but no matter how much I disagree with another Christian, (even Pat Robertson or Joel Olsteen) I cannot and will not disavow them, and if I’m going to disagree with them publicly, I’d like to give them the most generous explanation.

This is the biggest challenges facing our world today, and it’s one that Christians have a unique gift to give the world.

Because think about the specific Christian story…the Gospel starts off with Jesus calling 12 radically different men to share life with. A zealot (someone concerned with moral purity) and a tax collector (someone the zealot couldn’t stand). And Jesus invited them all, not just to share life with Him, but to share life with each other.

And they did.

On our better days, we still do.

This Sunday, I looked around the Highland Church and saw people who disagreed on just about everything. I saw people who were pacifists passing communion to people who were in the Air Force, people who taught evolution took communion with people who were young earth creationist, I saw someone with AIDS give communion to an elderly married couple, a woman gave a brief communion talk to a church with plenty of people who think the Bible says she shouldn’t do that.

And they all managed to stay together to take communion at a shared table. Because when God came in the flesh that’s exactly the kind of table He created.

And before we talk about Christians going out into the broader world, I think it should start with us, with Christians being able to live together with other Christians. With cultivating the ability to listen to why people believe differently, no matter how much we disagree with it. It doesn’t start on Facebook, it starts with our “business meetings” and preachers and leaders disagreeing respectfully instead of building a brand on the back of each other. It starts with a deep commitment to Jesus and therefore His people.

When Leslie and I argue, we often find ourselves saying things that we don’t mean in the heat of the moment. But after a little bit of time, we will start to cool off and one of us will approach the other with a question that goes something like, “Can we talk?”

It’s an invitation, an admission that we’ve been going at this the wrong way. Blaming and pointing fingers isn’t going to get us where we want to be, so instead of seeing who can yell the loudest we need to re-establish a better conversation.

That’s what civility is, a commitment to keep the conversation going.

I think we should be curious about how other people see the world. I think we need to assume goodwill and generosity on the part of others, no matter how wrong we might thing they are. For the sake of having better conversations, and for the pursuit of truth, we have to be able to admit we don’t have it all, After all, if we want to be heard, we have to learn how to listen.

So what do you say, Can we talk?

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  • David Russell

    One of my favorite undergraduate classes was conflict management. We learned a lot about talking to others when opinions varied and emotions ran high. One of the biggest concepts was maintaining safety. Fight or flight happens when people yell (fight) or shut down (flight). As Christians and as leaders we need to keep it safe to talk and therefor keep the dialogue going. An excellent book that has real tips for communicating is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High by Patterson.

  • TerryC

    You’re right on with this. I see where you say, “Blaming and pointing fingers isn’t going to get us where we want to be, so instead of seeing who can yell the loudest we need to re-establish a better conversation.” Besides “who can yell the loudest” we could also say, “who has the sharpest argument” or “who has the wittiest comeback” and it all comes back to who’s the best at one-up-manship. We need to get over that. And those of us who have been victim to that should remember not to be easily offended.
    I’ve read recently about the the journey of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield from being a leftist lesbian professor who despised Christians to becoming one. She noted how her journey started in coming across a letter from a pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church responding to her article about Promise Keepers. He responded in a way that she couldn’t file as either fan mail or hate mail. He asked, “How did you arrive at your interpretations? How do you know you are right? Do you believe in God?” We need to engage in a similar way — understanding of interpetations rather than fearing a different thought; recognizing that we all have our own, likely very valid, reasons for for thinking we’re right; and that we believe in the one, true God Who loves us whether we’re right or not.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Terry, I read that story too and thought it was a great example of this. I love that line about not being able to file it as hate mail or fan mail.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks David, that sounds like a good book! Thanks for the recommendation!

  • http://beingperfectlyhuman.blogspot.com/ Eric Fry

    There’s usually a response of something about standing up for God/God’s Truth/The Gospel, etc., when things get nasty in a Christian discussion. I think it has much less to do with defending God than it does our fragile egos and certitude about our faith. We make such a weak construct of our concepts of faith that anything that could contradict a point of it is seen as a vicious attack on our entire being. We love to talk about the strength of our faith and sing “Blessed Assurance”, but we often act in a way that says something much different.

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