Guerrilla Christianity

“Why were we forced to speak nicely to one another?  Why couldn’t we just be honest?” an agitated woman accosted me.  “You have no right to censor us.  You make rules that we can’t accuse or blame or address people directly.  That’s not fair.”  This woman was furious that I proposed ground rules for civil conversation before a listening session in a conflicted setting.  One man referred to the rules to be respectful, kind, courteous, non-aggressive and non-abusive as “fascist.”  When did civility become evil?  If the setting had been a political arena or a reality TV show, I guess I could understand it better, but this was in a church.  People were actually angry that they could not hurl insults and invectives at one another (in Christian love).  Some folks wanted to say truly hateful, hurtful, malicious, and damaging things to each other, and they felt that there should be no boundaries whatsoever.  In fact, some people refused to abide by the ground rules — even after they agreed to them.  Such is the society in which we find ourselves — one that colors and conditions our Christian behavior rather than the other way around.

I wrote about standing by Christian principles this week and I got hammered in a flurry of emails saying that “Christian values” are the abdication of thinking for oneself, that evangelical Christians are @$$#*/&$, hate mongers, idiots, and brainwashed, and that the church makes people think they don’t have to be responsible for their words and actions.  Interesting perspectives all, but none suggested we discuss these things as opinions — they were merely stated as facts.  Fans of Rick Reilly felt fully justified in questioning my parentage, my intelligence, and offered interesting suggestions as to some physical activities in which I might engage.  What happened to people having the right to differing opinions?  How have we come to a place where disagreement leads to name calling, insults, and unconscionable personal attacks.  How are we going to find our way back to a place where we can hold diametrically opposed opinions, yet remain together in respectful discourse?

Our witness to the world is that we are no different, no better in our conduct than non-Christians.  This is a witness of hypocrisy.  We want to hold “the world” to high standards, telling people they have to clean up their acts, and implying that the Christian faith is an excellent way to do it.  But when “the world” watches the church, what does it see?  I’m not implying that they shouldn’t see conflict and occasional strife.  What I am saying is that we should be offering an alternative vision of how to disagree well and wisely.  Mercy, grace, forgiveness, patience, tolerance, reconciliation — these are essential tenets of the Christian faith.  They are qualities we should not just revere or aspire to — they should be the practices we are working diligently to perfect.  Living in Wisconsin and watching the current political meltdown over collective bargaining rights, I have been impressed at how civil and respectful much of the protest has been.  Certainly, some folks have acted outrageously and inappropriately, but many keep calling for open, respectful, tolerant and dignified conversation.  Sadly, the nastiest and most insulting comments I have heard through this whole, drawn out melodrama have come from Christians who are angry that the spiritual leaders of The United Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Lutherans and others have voiced support for collective bargaining.  I wanted to excerpt one email as an illustration, but the epithets, slurs, foul language, and vile insinuation is so prevalent that I couldn’t reprint even one sentence.  This from a lifelong United Methodist.  Someone will say, “yes, but we’re not all like that!”, and that is true, but it misses the point.  Why does anyone in our church feel this is acceptable and appropriate behavior?  I wrote back, simply saying that I didn’t appreciate the hostility and the obscenity… which only made things worse.  We need to find a better way to express ourselves without being cruel, offensive, mean, hostile or violent. 

Speaking the truth in love is an art, not a science.  But it should also be the norm, not an option.  No one has the right to attack another, simply because they hold a different opinion or express a disagreeable position.  The fact that some people in our churches find it offensive that they be required to be kind, civil, respectful, and tolerant says a lot about the impact our cultural values are having on our Christian faith.  When we see no good reason to treat each other within the church with respect, what hope do we have to love our enemies, to care for the stranger, or to reach out to the lost?  I wish it were the priority of every local congregation to build healthy relationships and heal broken ones.  I wish we were teaching one another how to live the fruits of the spirit — to actually love one another, to give people a reason to feel joy, to work to make peace, to be patient, to outdo one another in kindness, to be generous as well as faithful, and to be gentle as we exercise honest self-control.  This is what we are called to be.  This is what it means to BE church — the incarnation of the risen Christ.  There simply is no place in life together for hate, hostility, violence, and cruelty.

22 replies

  1. Thank you for putting my thoughts and experiences into words! As a pastor, I find so much bullying in the church – by adults, not little children. People wanting to be in control, insisting on things being done their way – or they won’t show up or volunteer anymore! Leaders who discredit the pastor behind her back and point fingers of blame rather than take responsibility for their actions when privately confronted. Sadly, these are the kinds of things that make pastors want to leave pastoral ministry, or at least become cynical as the years go by. Immature behavior, whether by the pastor or the congregation, hinders the church from its Christ-given mission: who can make disciples of Jesus Christ if they aren’t a disciple to begin with? May God have mercy on us all and give pastors and leaders the courage to stand up and prophetically proclaim the good news and live lives that exemplify Christ and the message of Micah 6:8. God bless you, Dan, for your gifts of articulation and boldness!

  2. The church is supposed to be counter-cultural but it is so hard not to be co-opted by society. I have been in the middle of those nasty church meetings and it breaks my heart. I see so little understanding of forgiveness – the giving and receiving of forgiveness. Yes, as Christians we are not perfect, but when we do stray, we need others around who are willing to bring is back (even when we snarl and snap) and we need to be humble enough to ask forgiveness. Sadly most people take sides and (like Gov. Walker) are not willing to compromise or to try to understand the other side’s position.

  3. When did civility become evil? When the vast majority of “Christians” allowed their politics to form and influence their faith, instead of allowing the faith to form and influence their politics.

  4. I agree with every word spoken here. The conduct of people such as described here is one reason I and others have to do so much “repair” work as it involves Christianity. I also believe our love of violence in this country(guns, television, MMA fighting, talk shows, etc.) only serves to exacerbate the problem. When I hear of Christian people acting this way I have to ask myself if they actually know Christ? Their fruits certainly do not show it. Peace, love, mercy, grace, compassion, acceptance, inclusion should be the words on all our lips as followers of Christ, not the other words.

  5. Dan,
    If you remember Joan Newell from GBOD, you might remember me a little, her husband Ray.

    Your article topic is one very much on my mind. I’ve been gathering materials on bullying and applying it to bullying in the church. We have our bullies, and maybe we should be as honest about it as schools and work places are having to be.

    A couple of years ago, after a brutal meeting at church about some remodeling,where people openly lied about past positions, and accused the “other” side–which ever side they were on– of all kinds of evil intentions. And of course, it was all my fault as the minister. At home that afternoon, I told Joan I felt the way I used to in elementary school when big kids would threaten and pick on me. I felt bullied. I later asked a couple of teachers for the kind of materials they were using about bullying. Reading through this material, I saw that, the definitions, behavior, and causes of bullying were often the same as I witnessed in the church.

    Usually, physical bullyinig is minor in the church, but when a 6’4″ very large man stands over my 5’10” frame and yells at me this is physical bullying. (I have also had my life threatened twice in my ministry. Both times by men with histories of violence.) But usually church bullying involves mattters of money, presence, and history: “I’ll quit paying on my pledge if you don’t stop that;” “I’m going to leave if you don’t do it my way;” “My family and I have been in this church for over 100 years;” and similar power plays. Often the nice people back off under these threats, hoping the bully doesn’t attack them: “That’s what the preacher gets paid for.”

    The materials I’ve read on bullying seem basically to agree that we need an overall atmosphere where bullying is not passively accepted. If witnesses to bullying quit passively accepting such behavior, and step forward and speak out against bullying, and help create an atmosphere where bullying wouldn’t be tolerated, bullying can be neutralized. This seems to be what schools are trying to work for. The church should do the same.

    (Sometimes,I’m afraid the United Methodist system may be especially conducive to bullying: Bishops and DS’s who bully preachers and churches, pastors who bully churches, and churches who bully preachers. Or maybe all denominations are like this.)

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