When did we become so mean? These days, it seems like we can’t talk about anything anymore—even with our brothers and sisters in Christ—without becoming defensive, making snap judgments, or interrupting each other with our well-rehearsed justifications. Whether online or in person, we hurl insults (“You don’t respect the authority of Scripture!”) and quickly dismiss each other with blanket labels like “liberal” or “conservative.” Then no one feels heard and everyone screams louder. And the good news of love and new life and hope in the gospel is drowned under the weight of so much mean-spirited noise.
We could blame the relentless cycle of news pushed through social media and the 24/7 cable channels for creating a climate in which only the loudest, most extreme voices get heard. We could also point to our stressed-out, un-Sabbathed ways of living as the source of our hair-trigger offence and easy outrage. But the trouble with outrage is that it leaves us stuck with an inward-focused defensiveness; it does nothing to encourage love of God or neighbor. Our outrage leaves us drowning in self-righteousness and pride, which are harmful to our souls and devastating to our communities. We seek out the people who agree with us and avoid those who do not. Most of the time, if we’re honest, we put a higher value on being right than on being loving.
Our Witness Is Broken
I know we don’t mean to be so unkind. I know that all over North America, church members are volunteering in Sunday school and setting up for coffee hour and terrified about the shrinking numbers in their congregations. I know we want to make sure that our churches are places where the love of God shines out to the world, even if sometimes we have no idea how to do that. I also know this denomination values rigorous intellectual exploration and well-reasoned arguments. But this is the sad truth we must face: our inability to have truly hospitable conversations with one another is affecting our witness.
Last spring, I spoke with a woman who was close to receiving parole after serving seven years in a federal correctional facility. We talked about some local churches she might attend. She hesitated before asking, “Would they be nice to me?”
“Of course they would,” I said. “Churches are great places for second chances.” But even as I said it, I wondered what a typical congregation would make of someone with this woman’s traumatic background and her nontraditional appearance. Then she told me the reason for her fears: “You know how Christians are—they’re so mean about what they believe.”
And here is the biggest problem with our meanness: our witness is broken. It’s one of the top two words people use to describe Christians— judgmental and hypocritical. Like it or not, this is how the church is defined by many people who stand outside of it.
Despite how well-meaning we are, very few of us regularly come into contact with the kinds of people Jesus spent so much of his time with—the outcasts of our society, the “tax collectors and sinners” of today, the lepers, those tormented in mind and broken in body. That makes it easier to dismiss them with our judgment, because they remain abstract “issues,” easy to pick apart from a distance. But a church that does not draw itself up to befriend the outsider and risk loving across the lines we set for ourselves is not the church of Jesus Christ. A gospel that exists to exclude, to judge, and to control is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to do better with our meanness or we will never do better with our mission.
What Does Love Require?
We need to stop asking, “Who is right?” and start asking, “What does love require?” We need to take the risk of drawing near to real-life human beings whose lives are tangled up in the issues we so hotly debate—and listen, listen, and listen some more. We need to ask God to grace us with the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We need to let our table fellowship be what defines us.
The Lord’s Supper is the ideal place for us to let go of pride and self-righteousness and recognize that we are all sinners, equally in need of God’s grace. When we come to the table, there is no room for defensiveness, no room for control or hostility, impatience, fear, or judgment. Around the table, we remember: “Christ himself is our peace. He has made Jews and Gentiles into one group of people. He has destroyed the hatred that was like a wall between us” (Eph 2:14-16, NIrV).
One time at a church meeting I ended up seated next to someone who holds the opposite view from me on women in ministry. Inwardly I groaned, anticipating an awkward conversation full of thinly veiled judgment and scorn. I could not have been more wrong. Immediately after the blessing, my seatmate turned to me and said, “So tell me what it’s like to be a woman in this denomination.” He was gentle and kind, asking one thoughtful question after another. At the end of the meal, he said to me, “Well, you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about.” And while I doubt that conversation changed his long-held view (or mine), it certainly changed my heart.
With a faith that proclaims incarnation as a central theme, there is no excuse for denying that the “issues” we debate do not float in some kind of abstract ether but are rooted in real human beings with complicated life stories. This brother in Christ taught me that we don’t need to agree to be loving—that the opposite of judgment is not tolerance, but love with a nearness and ferocity that could only come from Christ.
Here is a challenge: seek out someone who holds the opposite view as you on a major question facing the church today, a view she has come to with the same seriousness about God and Scripture that you hold. Pray for humility. Then bite your tongue, sit on your hands, and open your heart to the person you disagree with. Ask questions. Be curious not only about what this person is saying, but what she is not saying—the fear and grief behind the words. Honor her with your full attention. If we practice this enough among ourselves, perhaps we have a hope of offering the same kind of loving hospitality to others.
Is there really any danger in too much love? God’s mercy is extravagant. God’s grace is deep. God’s forgiveness is miraculous. What if, 50 years from now, we asked “outsiders” what they thought of the church and instead of “hypocritical and judgmental” the first thing people said was “authentic and loving”?
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God” (1 John 4:7). Let us love even those with whom we most strongly disagree. Let us repair our witness and change the world with God’s radical hospitality and grace. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the gospel.
The Trouble with Outrage: A Call to the Table
- Warren asks, “When did we become so mean?” Is this the case, in your experience? Think of some examples of conversations, either online or in person, that illustrate her point. Can you also name some counter-examples?
- Warren contends that we in the church put a higher value on being right than on being loving. How might our theological roots contribute to that tendency?
- How does being quick to judge each other and slow to listen harm our witness to people outside the church?
- “The ‘issues’ we debate do not float in some kind of abstract ether but are rooted in real human beings with complicated life stories,” says Warren. How does this realization fit with the biblical injunction to love one another?
- Warren challenges readers to seek out someone whose viewpoint on a matter of importance differs from yours and to honor that person with your full attention. Think of someone you might approach for the opportunity to listen to and learn from that person. Then do it!
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Don’t miss this week’s must-read articles:
- Feature: Tending God’s Creation
- Exposing Harassment of OSJ Raises Questions, Hope for Humility
- Book Review: Something’s Not Right