A wise man once said,
“Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.
Everything is permissible, but not everything is constructive.”
That idea has been on my mind lately, for several reasons.
FIRST, a few Olympic athletes have gotten themselves into some hot water for comments they’ve made on Twitter or other social media. On the one hand, are they not free to make whatever statements they want? Sure.
On the other hand, even their sponsoring countries are asking whether racial prejudice (in the case of a Greek athlete and a Swiss one who were each sent home) or simply discourteous comments (in the case of a US athlete who was not sent home) are really the best way to represent their nations or the Olympic spirit.
SECOND, I recently posted an article entitled “Let them eat cake-2012 style”, as well as a follow-up, in which I essentially was raising the question of whether an attitude of suspicion towards the poor who are on welfare was really the best Christian response, particularly when the OT and NT canons hold predominantly benevolent postures towards the poor. In a nutshell, I was, and am, asking whether Christians going on about welfare abusers is really putting our best (i.e., most Christ-like) foot forward.
Both on the blog, and on Facebook, I got a number of responses, some of which took me on (lovingly), questioning whether the poor in the US today are actually comparable to the very, very poor of early Palestine, and restating the concerns about welfare recipients who have TV, cell phones, may use drugs, etc… I remain unconvinced. Sure, I realize there are abuses in the welfare system, that it is an inconsistent and inefficient bureaucracy, that charity or welfare alone do not ultimately eliminate the problem of poverty. But I still ask, if you’re going to make one sound-byte statement about poverty, as Christian, is that really the one you want to make? To quote Regis Philbin, “is that your final answer?”
In fact, as one who grew up in France, I have many good friends there who are agnostic or atheists, yet who hold deep concerns about social justice. And I couldn’t help but wonder… what kind of view of American Christians does our interchange give them? Do they walk away thinking, “wow, I’m so amazed at the generous, merciful spirit of these followers of Jesus”? Or are they more likely to walk away scratching their heads, confused?
THIRD, there has been a lot of noise about Chick Fil A founder’s comments in support of a traditional view of marriage and in opposition to gay marriage. These immediately drew ire from the likes of Boston mayor Thomas Menino ‘unwelcoming’ the company in Boston. And in response, a Chick Fil A appreciation day garnered support among conservative Christians who wanted their voice heard.
I was left with the same feeling. Of all the statements followers of Jesus might want to make to affirm his Kingdom vision, is this really the one that seems the most compelling? I think a number of folks in the blogosphere have, in fact, asked some version of the question, “will the same size crowds show up at the local shelters for the homeless, soup kitchens, free clinics to help the poor, that showed up in support of Chick fil A’s anti-gay stance?”. Also, similarly to my puzzled European friends, I believe it’s our youth who are put off by these exclusionary postures; the same youth who more than ever are motivated to help the poor and oppressed in their own and other countries around the globe.
To me the issue is about faithfulness, not political correctness. I don’t think Christians should be worried about being politically correct. In fact the New Testament suggests that a certain degree of enmity, on the part of the world towards the church (rather than vice versa; e.g., John 15:18), is inevitable, and that becoming too much like the world is risky (e.g., James 4:4).
Moreover, political correctness is often no more than a thin veneer that masks an underlying truth that is entirely different. Singer John Mellecamp said it well when interviewed a few years back about his take on the racial climate post-Obama:
We create the illusion that we are a nation of compassion and understanding and I’m in Philadelphia right now, walking down the street and I don’t see it. I have a house in Savannah, Ga., I don’t see it. We just don’t say the N-word in public anymore. Big deal.
Indeed it is one thing to get all outraged about the use of the N***** word, it’s another all together to really deal with prejudice at its root, in our hearts (cf. Mark 7:21-22).
In other words, it’s quite easy to hop on the bandwagon of the day and proclaim one’s allegiance to “traditional family values” by driving down to the corner and eating a fried chicken sandwich. It’s entirely more difficult to do the hard work of actually living out family values by remaining in a vital, loving relationship with the wife of one’s youth and parenting children with devotion, wisdom, character, patience and no hint of abuse. Both national statistics about conservative Christians and my own experience as a therapist indicate that, on both of these counts, the loyalty to family values runs pretty shallow.
What does faithfulness mean, then?
To me, it simply means that our emphases should match those of the Savior we claim to follow. He actually never said anything about homosexuality, himself. He actually never suggested screening the poor to verify how legitimate their poverty was before helping. So, it doesn’t take complex theology or deep exegesis to come to the conclusion that going on tirades about welfare abusers or demonstrating in opposition to same-sex marriage rights is pretty off the mark.
To be sure, there are psychological reasons religious folks are tempted, on the whole, to be more preoccupied with some issues (like sex or fairness) over other ones (like radical generosity or love of enemies. In his book “Unclean”, my friend and colleague Dr. Richard Beck does an excellent job of bringing together the psychological and theological literatures and developing an analysis of this phenomenon. The following ideas are informed, in part, by his writing.
In Matthew 9, we see that Jesus ran into the same tension between separation/distinctiveness (holiness) and inclusiveness (mercy). The Pharisees were concerned about holiness, purity and boundaries (“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”). For them, concerns about contamination and separateness were tantamount. And to be fair, they did not invent the principle. Holiness is a major theme of the priestly literature (e.g., Leviticus, Deuteronomy).
Today, we see the same when it comes to the politics of sexuality and poverty. The message from a large segment of the conservative Christian voice in the US tends to be one of contamination: “If we ‘allow’ gay marriage, it will lead to the breakdown of our society and weaken the institution of heterosexual marriage” (which is pretty delusional considering that conservative heterosexual Christians have a pretty dismal track record as far as making marriage work, regardless of what gay couples do or don’t do!)… or, “If we enable poor people who are actually drug users or lazy or… by giving too generously, the system will break down… there will more and more free loaders.” As a result, the pull is towards exclusion, towards blocking.
Yet, Jesus did not see things that way. In fact, he thought exactly the reverse. By eating with tax collectors, by coming into contact with prostitutes/loose women, by touching lepers, it was not he who was contaminated. On the contrary, they were purified, healed, liberated. Thus, rather than take up the Levitical message of purification and sacrifice, he privileged the prophetic message of justice and mercy. He rocked the religious world by proclaiming that they should not be all about fear of contamination:
But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
When you think about it, that’s an incredibly hopeful message. Mercy is more powerful than contamination. Love is more powerful than sin. The world is changed by welcoming and embracing others, not excluding and rejecting them. To me, this means that over-the-top generosity from Christians will do far more good, will be far more powerful than any harm caused by a minority of free-loaders. To me, it means that the loving dialogue and genuine friendship offered to sexual minorities will have a far more “purifying” effect on the soul of the church than any loosening of morals that we might fear.
So, to get back to the earlier quote about Paul, I suppose that it is permissible for Christians to make a stand on anything their conscience, their beliefs, or even their opinions move them to. But, it may not be beneficial or constructive. It may not place Christ and his Church in the best, or the most faithful, light. It may, in fact, downright distort the gospel.
I’m not too fond of the ‘sound-byte approach’ to religion, social issues or politics (though it seems, judging by social media, news outlets , political campaigns, and all other dominant forms of dialogue in our society to be the preferred way). But, if we must tweet, post, or otherwise share snippets about our beliefs, shouldn’t mercy be at the center of those messages? And if we must take a stand or otherwise protest, shouldn’t our cause be for greater inclusion rather than exclusion, for greater solidarity rather than greater separation?
I know, I know… isn’t there a danger that people will misinterpret our mercy and graciousness and take sin lightly? That’s a fair question, one the Pharisees wrestled with and the early church struggled with (you’ve probably already thought of Paul’s analogy of the yeast working its way through the dough). All I can say is take it up with the one who said “I desire mercy”. He seemed pretty comfortable landing on a dominant tone for his ministry. My friend Jim McGuiggan used to ask why we are so afraid of grace and so quickly feel the need to protect it from potential abuses when grace is not our message in the first place, nor ours to protect, but God’s.
Yes, I do agree that we need to honor both holiness and mercy, to such an extent that we are capable of doing so… but, when in doubt, we must choose mercy, every time. As I’ve tried to express before, it’s not so much that holiness and mercy are twin virtues to be held in tension, as they pull against each other. Instead, one is in the service of the other. As I see it, holiness is part of the process of preparing us so that we’ll be ready to do the works of mercy 1.
1 See for instance I Peter 1:16-25 where holiness is in the service of deep love for one another; II Timothy 2:21 where holiness makes us “useful to the Master and prepared to to do any good work”; Ephesians 1:5 where “He chose us… to be holy and blameless” leads into Ephesians 2:10 “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” etc…