“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” – Albus Dumbledore
I knew a man once who grew up watching his alcoholic father beat the life out of his mother. A friend whispered to me that, as a little boy, he would run to her house in tears to hide, afraid of his own home. Over the years, the violence hardened him. By the time I knew him, he was no different than his father, filled only with rage and alcohol. Sadly, I watched his children repeat his boyhood story of hiding their tears in neighbors’ homes.
Before I learned about the pain of his childhood, it was easy to label this man idiot and asshole and abuser. While his rage scared me, I also knew different. Though he appeared a violent and ruthless man, I could not help but also see a teary, scared little boy hiding from his father in a neighbor’s house. This one fact changed the way I thought about, prayed for, and responded to him.
Sometimes, I muse that there are corners of the North American church that reflect the life of an alcoholic like this man. We come from so many places and perspectives and experiences. We have different needs and hurts and hopes and dreams that shape how we understand The Story God left for us. For some, the Bible has proved no better than an abusive father, having been used to beat us down and send us hiding in neighbor’s houses, tears streaming down our hearts. For others, it has been the authority of life, a testament to be revered, followed-to-a-T and never challenged. Still for others, it has been a life-changing, restorative and hope-filled new way.
As I participate in the conversation emerging in our digitized world, I’ve observed that social media has become a great venue for our alcoholic traits to rear their ugly heads. From the safety of our computer screens, we rant and rage, accuse and deny, promise and fail, stereotype and namecall.
Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 1 haunt me every time I smugly disdain or praise the public voices who I find either ridiculous or brilliant. We might as well just substitute new names for our Big Fight: “One of you says, “I follow John Piper”; another, “I follow Rob Bell”; another, “I follow Joyce Meyer”; still another, “I follow Jesus.”
His words haunt me primarily because I do this very thing. Paul is talking about me.
I recover quickly from my conviction because, let’s face it, folks: some people are wrong.
There are racist people out there, people who are prejudiced and mean-spirited and divisive, all in the name of Jesus. There are people who preach that following Jesus will make you rich. There are people who put on a good show just for the money and the fame, using Jesus like a trick-or-treat costume to reach the ranks of the kid-with-the-most-candy. There are people who preach a beautiful grace from the pulpit but can’t manage to apply an ounce of it to one single person in their life.
I judge them, flinging my mental rants at them because I don’t want them messing up the life-giving message of the gospel that Jesus came to save us at our worst.
The very-sticky-problem is that the very people I deem ‘wrong’ may well think the same of me. So we polarize, mudsling, stake our ground, call for schisms, and tweet and post our disagreements with furor. It is perhaps one of the most complexly sad sights of the American protestant church today.
One of the most potent lessons that living between worlds has taught me is that people have many sides. As I’ve lived among both rural and urban poor, wealthy coastal elites, perseverant immigrants, powerful politicians, awe-inspiring performers, stodgy academics, consumeristic metropolitans, shallow surbanites and simple minded small-town folk, I’ve rarely seen any of them live up completely to the stereotype their namecallers hold them to. The media shouts that red-states-hate-blue states and vice versa, but the story that we’re slower to remember is that everyone – regardless of ideology – loves, wants to love or be loved.
In the age of opinions becoming digital sound bytes, it has become far too easy to fling our anger at each other and forget that we are humans, not screens. “The person-who-disagrees-with-me deserves my wrath because he is WRONG,” we chant.
I get it. I’ve been on the receiving end of threatening phone calls, of bigoted teenagers in pick-up-trucks, of name-calling and assumption making. It wounds. It infuriates. It keeps me awake at night. It sends me running to my neighbor’s house in tears. But as much as my gut reacts otherwise, it is not the way of Jesus, even when “they” are wrong.
Father, forgive them, he said as they took his very life. Seventy times seven, he’d told his followers.
Turn the other cheek.
If someone wants your shirt, give him your coat as well.
I nearly walked away from Jesus once, but one of the primary things that drew me back was learning more about the ‘other way’ of which Jesus speaks.
Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.
Don’t do your righteous acts for others to see.
If possible, live peaceably with all men.
Whenever I hear people from one region of the country disparage the ‘crazies’ in another region, I find myself getting strangely defensive regarding traits that drive me equally crazy, You don’t understand, I want to explain. They’re more than just red and blue, conservative and liberal. They’re humans, just like you. In the words of my witty Grandpa John, “Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.”
We are one in the spirit, we like to sing but struggle to live. I recently heard Michelle Bloom, a singer-songwriter, point out how we often overlook the words at the end of the second verse, We will work with each other, we will work side by side. And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.
As we navigate this topsy turvy path of our new digital world, let’s practice a new way of talking to and about each other as we stumble along the path toward unity. When we remember the human behind the screen, we echo the very words of Jesus as we seek to protect every man’s dignity. While this does not mean we will all come to the same conclusions, it does mean that we commit to walk alongside one another in our humanity with respect for the God-given dignity of all our fellow sojourners, not just the ones with whom we agree.