It is often with dismay that I cast my eyes over the Christian landscape.
This landscape is inhabited by friends as well as those who gain prominence in news reports and online and print conversation. It is a landscape of controversy and conflict, and it grieves me deeply.
It is not the existence of disagreement itself that pains me (though I am by nature conflict avoidant). Disagreement we will always have. Unity is not uniformity. The “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church is a reality born of many minds wrestling through deep questions seeking understanding and common confession. It’s not the presence of disagreement that is my concern.
My grief is sparked by the way we address those disagreements. Paul warns Timothy to flee from the one who has an “…unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction….” (1 Timothy 6:4, 5) It is the quarrelsome spirit with which disputes are carried out that grieves me.
That Paul addresses this spirit is a good reminder that the reality to which I speak is not one that is born of or unique to the internet age. Of course the ease with which news travels, and untruth and slander propagates, in a digital world does not serve us well. And it does not take long for those who hunger for ‘hits’ and ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ and ‘followers’ to learn that being provocative and edgy, perhaps quarrelsome, can spike those numbers in an intoxicating way. Nevertheless, the spirit of contention and the tendency to grow ugly in our disputes well predates the internet.
I grieve that in this we, the Church, have not learned to distinguish ourselves from the world. The sniping between the President of the United States and his critics carried out in plain sight on Twitter bears all the marks of a power and popularity struggle between pre-adolescent boys. It is shameful in its own way and cries out for a dose of restraint and decency. But I am afraid that someone familiar with that world dropped into the crossfire among Christians disputing the issue du jour would find no difference. Would he be able to tell that we are Jesus’ disciples by the love we have for one another? (John 13:35) I don’t need to answer that.
I am aware that this is a lament without substance. I am not footnoting and cross referencing or using person A and opponent B as examples. Yes, this is sparked by a current controversy which led me to drop in on some sites I don’t normally frequent. And yes, I was saddened by what I found there and saddened that good friends had directed me to sites that were happily trashing other good friends of mine. I’m purposely not being specific because my point is not one particular person or group and not one particular issue or conflict. It is that our discourse has degenerated to the point that I want to cry out in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 6, “Why not rather suffer wrong?” (verse 7) than fight before unbelievers?
This also might be a lament without solution. I can shout into cyberspace with the power of ALL CAPS and exclamation points, “STOP BEING SO MEAN!!!!” but that only adds to the noise. And it would be futile to wander among competing positions urging men and women to be nice and play fair.
But I do want to invite my small community of readers to act with some radical flair.
First, we need to agree that the spirit of our discourse is a problem. If I’m wrong in that, let me know. I will then return to my regularly scheduled life.
Secondly, we ourselves need to practice what we want to see. What is hard about this is that we so few models of how to enter into disagreements in a Christian way. We will, I fear, model those we hear. It should come as no surprise that if we hang around angry people, we will be angry. If our only models for how to confront differences are clever men and women proud of their verbal power and snark, then we will be trained to attack. Perhaps we need to remember that “those who walk with the wise become wise” (Proverbs 13:20) and its corollary regarding fools. Maybe we have been enamored with the wrong models. We have learned to react in accusatory, fearful, angry ways because those are the models to whom we have exposed ourselves.
We need to do better. We need to stop following, stop reading, stop promoting those who model what we would not want to emulate and find those whose spirit we want to imbibe.
More on what that might look like to follow.