As I write this, I’m preparing to head off to speak to an adult class at a downtown Lexington church.
The friend who asked me to come suggested I address how Christians ought to respond — or not respond — to a culture that’s become terribly politicized and polarized.
This is a topic that seems heavy on the minds of churchgoers. They want to continue bearing witness to God’s grace even as they inhabit an ungracious era.
I’ve written about this before. But considering my friend’s request, and considering two recent viral outbursts of rage, I thought it might be good to write about it again.
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One recent incident involved students from Covington Catholic High School, who became embroiled in a race-tinged encounter on the Washington Mall. Somehow we Americans watched the same videotapes of that interaction, yet managed to see spectacularly different things. The second event was the now-paused partial shutdown of the federal government.
How should Christians specifically, and spiritually minded folks generally, react during controversies such as these — or to the next hot-button controversies sure to follow?
There are multiple points of entry into this discussion, but I always turn to the earliest principles of the Christian faith.
In the New Testament letter to the Galatians, for instance, St. Paul lists what he calls the fruit of the Holy Spirit. These are attitudes and behaviors that ought to guide us regardless of the circumstances.
I think if we bore these fruits today, heaven might be pleased:
▪ Love. It’s important to recall that the ancient Greek word for love that’s used in the New Testament (“agape”) has little to do with emotions. It’s an act of the will, in which we choose to perform loving deeds even toward those we don’t like and who might mean us ill.
Jesus said if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If she’s thirsty, give her something to drink.
Maybe, today, that means we should stay after work to help a coworker with a project he’s behind on, even if he’s given to wearing a red MAGA hat we loath, or even if she’s still got that “I’m With Her” bumper sticker on her car.
We act with agape simply because that’s God’s way.
▪ Joy. This is supposed to be a hallmark of Christians, believe it or not, despite how many sour, mule-faced churchgoers we run into.
If politicians shut down the government and cut off workers’ paychecks, instead of lying awake all night, fuming and swearing and checking our Twitter account, we might decide to enjoy life and praise God anyway. (We might also reach out to the laid off IRS employee next door, tell him a few jokes and slip him a gift card.)
We don’t have to agree with the politicians, but we can refuse to let them steal our joy.
▪ Peace. If we’re at peace with God, and we should be, then we can allow his peace to flow through us toward everyone nearby. Inner peace produces outer peace. As much as it depends on us, we can exhibit goodwill toward friend and foe alike.
We can forgo posting snarky memes on Facebook — or responding self-righteously to those who do.
▪ Patience. The Greek word for patience can also be rendered as “long-suffering.” In essence, it means we’ll put up with a lot of difficulty from other people — without complaining or casting ourselves as martyrs. We’ll accept that the world is an imperfect place and we’re all imperfect creatures.
▪ Kindness. We can be nice. We can smile at folks and pat them on the back if they’re blue, even when we disagree with their politics or their theology. We can laugh with them when they’re happy and cry with them when they’re sad.
We can try not to regard them as one-dimensional stereotypes — as only a red hat or an irritating bumper sticker or a different skin complexion — but as three-dimensional, complex children of God. Their hearts are as wounded as our own.
▪ Goodness. We can become that rare person without guile. We can forgo backbiting and plotting. We can stop pretending to be transparent, honest and dependable and become those things. We can speak what we believe to be the truth, but speak it with humility.
▪ Faithfulness. We can keep striving to develop the virtues on this list even after we’ve failed spectacularly —because we will sometimes fail. We can remain faithful to the Lord, too. Faithful to our church. Faithful to our spouse. Faithful to our kids.
▪ Gentleness. We can quit jabbing our finger in people’s faces and lecturing. If necessary, we can walk away and go take a drive in the country until we cool down. We can choose to forgive, always.
▪ Self-control. When we’re tempted to say, “That’s the dumbest freaking idea I’ve ever heard!” — we can say instead, “That’s something I hadn’t thought of. Tell me how you arrived at that conclusion.” That is, we can put our ego on the back burner. We can remind ourselves that we don’t know everything, either. That we might indeed be wrong. That we’re not God.