Why Are You Upset with Me?

A week ago a friend dumped me on Facebook because I was “too abrasive and divisive.”  He didn’t unfriend me, just dropped me from his newsfeed, assuring me of his love as he waved goodbye.  He blocked me after I wrote a post admitting my own ungracious thoughts and encouraging us all to be careful with our words.  Why would that be the final straw?  Wasn’t I promoting his point?  I searched my last month of entries for sharp edges, but was left clueless since he refused to discuss it further.

I know I can be hurtful, so I felt only sadness about his accusation, but his refusal to discuss it felt like rejection, and it made me defensive and a bit angry at first.  Perhaps his withdrawal was best, however, because it pushed me into deeper reflection than just sorting it out inter-personally.

I have mulled often over this issue of how to reconcile prophetic challenge with grace and gentleness in my words.  For instance, how does one express outrage over injustice while showing understanding towards the unjust (and those who support them)? Or how does one sound the alarm to wake the sleeping without frightening the timid?  I marvel when I see it done, but can’t pull it off myself—I still have a learner’s permit. Preferring frankness, I lack both the inclination and the insight to speak as the gentle do, though I strive for it.

I’m always open to suggestions and insights, but my friend was himself unclear: “A healthy or unhealthy debate is like pornography,” he said.  “Hard to describe the elements in a clear way… but I know it when I see it.”  That doesn’t really help me. In my straightforward perspective, I have always seen harshness in speech as easily identifiable: belittling, name-calling, pigeon-holing, shaming, distorting, being dismissive or arrogant or skewed. When I ask for more grace in a discussion, I can point out specific faults: “When you say, ‘that is stupid!’ or ‘grow up!’ you belittle the other person’s perspective or person.” If we can’t name it, I’m not sure how we can fix it… or even discern if there is something to fix.

Just as I see clear guidelines for speaking graciously, I see clear guidelines for listening graciously: don’t assume or jump to conclusions; disagree with a viewpoint rather than condemn a person; stick to the actual words instead of projecting motive, reasoning, or conclusions; don’t affix guilt by association. The responsibilities of speaker and listener seem clear and distinct to me, and boundaries between the two seem especially important, so that if you break the rules of respect (say, by jumping to conclusions) it is on you, not on me (and vice versa). What I state plainly should be taken plainly, and if you’re in doubt, ask for clarification.

All neat and tidy, clear and fair. This would work if everyone followed the rules of engagement, but add emotion to the mix and everyone’s perspective goes screwy. In practice I’ve tried to show and invite mutual respect by focusing on the rules, but that doesn’t work anymore because the whole atmosphere is negatively charged. The last few times they heard that position it was conveyed with words that were arrogant, antagonistic, and spiteful, so that tone will be overlaid onto everything I say. The default reading voice in our heads is now Oscar the Grouch.

This is a fresh insight for me. Until now I have divided writers into those who are clearly rude and those who are not, and carefully kept myself in the last group. When I failed, I would apologize and try to do better. With all this effort to follow gentlemen’s rules, to be thoughtful and careful, I was offended when others attributed to me attitudes that were not mine, lumping me in with the snarky. When I respectfully disagreed, I was called mean; when I asked for clarification, I was accused of making false assumptions. Wait! This is not fair! I didn’t belittle your ideas or judge your intelligence. Why am I the bad one?

I asked Kimberly to read over my posts and look for what might offend.  She pointed out a post where I linked to a first-person account of gun violence in school.  My only comment was, “Wow, just wow!”   Aren’t we all shocked and troubled by gun violence in school?  Is that somehow controversial?  But these three words could apparently be read in all sorts of negative ways.  I am truly flummoxed.

I see now that I have to come up with new rules that take into account our social fracturing and assumed antagonism—perhaps start out each statement with an assurance of good faith or denial of bad faith. I now realize that simple frankness is the new rude, that I must deliberately set a tone or it will be set for me. In other words, being gracious—which was already a struggle for me—just got harder still.

When Sins Stop Being Sinful

I misspoke in my last post with too much meaning in too few words.  I said, “Let me begin by saying that if the Bible condemns something even once, that is sufficient for me to call it a sin.”  That simplifies the matter so grossly as to be obviously false on its face and suggests that mapping the Bible’s morals is easy and straightforward.  There are many, many actions the Bible condemns–eating pork, marrying a foreigner, refusing to give a loan–that I don’t consider a sin for me today, and an even greater number which are unclear.  Let me offer a list of reasons to hesitate condemning what the Bible condemns, especially in others.

1) The Bible’s condemnation (or affirmation) may not be directed at me, but someone else.  The Bible speaks to many different individuals and groups, and I may not be its intended audience.  A great deal of confusion and even harm comes from ignoring this dynamic–claiming promises that are not rightfully ours: “I will give you this land”; or assuming commands that are not directed at us: “sell all that you have and give to the poor”; or condemning actions not concerning us: “do no work on the Sabbath” (which, by the way, is Saturday).  The Bible directly addresses individuals (Moses, Peter), nations (Moab, Israel), groups of people (Gentiles, Pharisees) categories of people (priests, women).  Most of it is not directed at humankind generically, and it is not always clear who the intended audience is and whether that particular word applies wholly or in part to the rest of humanity.  I don’t quit and throw up my hands any more than I stop listening to my wife when I have trouble understanding her, but it does call us to humility, latitude, and a lessening of our dogmatism and certainty.

2) Deriving principles not directly stated in a Bible passage may be problematic.  Assuming why my wife Kimberly is upset with me is a dangerous game to play, especially when I go beyond what she specifically said.  I can pick up on a look or tone of voice or memory of similar events–those can raise questions, but should not answer questions.  For answers, I ask.  I need specific statements to validate my hunches because I can even misinterpret my own wife whom I know very well.  “Whoever is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus says.  Does that mean no one ever has the right to punish law-breakers?  Or no one has the right to judge or hold others to account?  I must not “cast the first stone,” but what does that mean?  Let me suggest that I am much more responsible to decide what is wrong for me than to decide what is wrong for you in a given situation.

3) Applying truths from Scripture to specific situations can be very complex.  Even when the general truth is clear, deciding that it applies to this situation and these people at this time in this way is uncertain.  “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth.”  Okay, but who decides what is wholesome or unwholesome?  Surely it is wrong if my words damage others… but who is to decide that the fault lies with my words–maybe she took it the wrong way?  And what constitutes “damage”–sometimes pain is the necessary precursor to healing.  And what if my words are true… are all true words automatically wholesome?  What if my motive was good even if the outcome was bad?  Life is a journey and many of our moral choices are not black and white, simple and straightforward.

4) “Proof texting” or finding one or two verses to back my position is problematic.  The less Scripture says about any one moral command or prohibition, the less confident I can be about my moral stance because the fewer the words, the more easily misunderstood.  It seems that those truths God considered most important he repeated often in many contexts with different illustrations and ideas to be sure we did not miss his point.  So many considerations can affect a message and lead to its misinterpretation.  A passage can be taken out of context so that its original meaning is distorted.  We can take it out of literal context (divorced from the wider text) or out of cultural or historical context (because their culture and history are different from ours).  We can wrongly translate words or their nuances–think about the slight but very significant moral differences in our English synonyms “brag” vs. “praise” and “praise” vs. “worship.”  Whenever there is widespread disagreement between folks who are equally committed to God and his Word, humility is the better part of wisdom.

5) Offsetting truths in the Bible make for difficult conclusions.  Sometimes Scriptures place competing ideas right next to each other.  Proverbs 26:4 & 5 say “Do not answer a fool according to his folly,” and then “Answer a fool according to his folly.”  Jesus says, “Judge not” and “Judge with righteous judgment.”  When we take the whole sweep of Scripture into consideration, it adds so much color and contrast and complexity that we would do well not to insist on our view as being the right view in condemnation of those who fight for an alternative perspective.  Among those of us who love God and want to know and follow his ways, we must be especially cautious about condemning those with whom we disagree.

6) Theology is Progressive in Scripture and Christologically Centered, so certain morals have become obsolete.  There are many Old Testament laws that have been set aside by Christ and the New Testament.  This is quite natural since the context has so dramatically changed.  The Old Testament was written in the context of a political theocracy, so that there was no distinction between religious, moral, and civil laws. Clearly, when Israel is no longer a nation and the whole world is invited into a covenant relationship with God, everything drastically changes.  This is especially true regarding Jesus who not only became the supreme interpreter of the Old Testament, but its successor, setting much of it aside by his teaching (such as the food laws) and much of it by his sacrifice (the ceremonial aspects of the law).  It is hotly debated among conservative scholars as to how much of the Old Testament “laws” are directly relevant to us after Christ has come, but all agree that the New Testament overrules the Old Testament.  Christ is now the glasses of truth through which we understand the whole.  Any moral teaching which appears only in the Old Testament carries less weight, after all, it is the Christ of the New Testament that separates Christianity from Judaism.

I have personally discovered that starting with the fundamentals of the faith–Christ and the gospel–and working out from there gives me the grounding I need to flow more naturally into living the life of the Spirit.  To be honest, I often still assume that I am right and the other person is wrong, so I still have a long way to go on this road to humility, gentleness, and respect.  None of us has arrived, so we will all need to be patient with one another.

Duck Dynasty’s Offense

A high school friend posted this to his Facebook page:

Image

and a flash flood of reactions flowed.  For those who don’t know the big media controversy, it started with the patriarch of Duck Dynasty, Phil Robertson giving an interview at GQ here… the high degree of irony in this man being interviewed by this magazine

Image has been totally lost in the ensuing controversy regarding Phil’s comments on homosexuality, race, and non-Christian religions.

The response was quick and strong against Phil from the left-leaning half of the country, and A&E, the host station for the duck hunter’s program, was worried enough to put Phil on indefinite leave from the program.  “Indefinite” no doubt means “until this controversy blows over,” since money is always the bottom line, and Duck Dynasty is a cash cow for A&E (excuse the mixed metaphor).  The reaction on the other side was equally swift in coming to Phil’s defense (as my first photo shows).  A former classmate on my friend’s Facebook string asked me to weigh in, so I thought I’d give my reflections here.

First off, let’s set aside the whole 1st amendment issue raised by conservative politicians everywhere.  The constitution speaks to government control of speech, and this present case has nothing to do with the government.  There are always social consequences to our words, and when we choose to use our freedom to speak publicly, it is our own responsibility to consider how our hearers will respond.  The less we know our audience, the more vulnerable we are to their reactions.

Second, only those completely out of touch with the conservative side of America would be shocked by Phil’s comments.  If anything, they are much milder than what I have heard from others in that stream of society… and I expect much milder than what Phil says when he is with his own group.  A&E producers have  no doubt edited out a good chunk of Robertson family dialogue to sanitize it for a wider audience.  Or perhaps the issue is not shock so much as reactive anger, an outrage that is shared in equal measure by the right in responding to this critique from progressives (see Sarah Palin’s daughter’s post here).

I don’t sense that Phil spoke with malice, but that doesn’t get him off the hook according to an insightful New York Times op-ed piece, “Robertson’s interview reads as a commentary almost without malice, imbued with a matter-of-fact, this-is-just-the-way-I-see-it kind of Southern folksiness. To me, that is part of the problem. You don’t have to operate with a malicious spirit to do tremendous harm. Insensitivity and ignorance are sufficient. In fact, intolerance that is disarming is the most dangerous kind. It can masquerade as morality.”

I know “intolerance” is a conservative flash-point as a word often used to censure conservative beliefs, denying them the right to judge an act as immoral (in this case homosexual acts).  However, the word can also refer not to beliefs but to how one treats or talks to (or about) someone else, and when it is used in this sense, it is really a synonym for “judgmentalism,” an attitude of condemnation rather than care.  The strongest societal reaction to conservative views on homosexuality seems to be not against beliefs, but attitudes.  Contrary moral beliefs can be stated with love, humility, and respect, with true personal sensitivity, connection and understanding.  Take Pope Francis and Papa Robertson who both believe that same-gender sex is a sin.  The LGBT magazine The Advocate declared the Pope their person of the year while most LGBT groups strongly criticized Phil.  I have been amazed at the degree to which many self-identified homosexuals welcome conservatives who believe them immoral as long as they treat them with respect as persons.

Of course, it can be argued that Robertson meant no disrespect, just as he meant no malice.  But to speak casually or lightly or off-handedly into a place of deep, long-term, pervasive pain is disrespectful, unthoughtful, and unkind even though unintentional. Here is one Christian’s response: “Specifically with issues that have caused such heartache and damage already like gay marriage and racial inequity, we should refuse to contribute to someone’s pain by speaking about them abstractedly, distantly, as if they aren’t real human beings whose lives bear actual repercussions of our casual public conversations. The sterile public sphere outside of the protective confines of relationships is not a safe place for such weighty discussions, and we should not add to the pile of condescending, degrading comments about real human people. These precious, fragile conversations belong among people who love one another, who’ve earned the right to be heard, who can look each other in the eye and listen with grace and humility.”

Even those who are defending Robertson admit that his words were crude and poorly stated, even his own family!  Still I have heard no public apology from Phil.  No doubt the family is feeling defensive in the face of this huge backlash, and it is true that in our polarized society we tend to shoot the enemy instead of engaging them in any sort of fruitful way.  As one openly homosexual author wrote in Time about this blowup: “Why is our go-to political strategy for beating our opponents to silence them? Why do we dismiss, rather than engage them? One of the biggest pop-culture icons of today just took center stage to “educate” us about sexuality. I see this as an opportunity to further the discussion….”  He gives credence to the right’s cry: “Freedom of Speech!”

But the problem as usual is what we do with our freedom.  If we speak in ways that hurt others, there is not going to be respectful dialogue and greater mutual understanding in response.    Speech can be blocked not only from the point of origin, but at the point of destination. “Freedom of speech” in a soundproof chamber is meaningless, and yet when we antagonize our audience, they stop listening.  Such freedom is not only sterile, but damaging, creating mutual disrespect and disregard, distrust and offense.

Al Mohler President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said on a CNN broadcast, “What is causing the offense is classic Christianity.”  But let’s be careful not to confuse the “offense of the cross” with offensiveness, which is kind of its opposite: a refusal to identify with outcasts as with Christ himself in his crucifixion.