This past week has been one of the darkest and most divisive in recent memory. The week began with no indictment for Secretary Hillary Clinton’s misuse of classified emails, which enraged many people who believed this showed the system is rigged in favor of the rich, powerful, and well-connected. Then in successive days we witnessed the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers. Many see these deaths as further evidence of police brutality towards the black community in America while others saw men who they believe would still be alive if they simply complied with the officers’ commands. This terrible holiday week reached its crescendo Thursday night as a gunman targeted police officers who were protecting protesters at a March in Dallas. He killed five officers and wounded others. Amidst the outpouring of support for the city of Dallas and law enforcement were those who blamed people with concerns about police brutality for creating an environment which led to the murders of these officers.
Over the weekend we heard the announcement that a well-known pastor’s church removed him from his role because he has been abusing alcohol. If any news ever calls for our silent prayers, it is the news that a brother in Christ has become ensnared in sin. Amid the social media posts from people who know him saying they were praying for him were the inevitable posts commenting, “well I don’t agree with him about a lot of things, but I’m praying for him.” In addition, some brothers who teach total abstinence from alcohol saw this as a great opportunity to advance their cause. One brother shared the story of this pastor’s fall with the caption, “this is why we abstain from alcohol” and another used it as an opportunity to say those who don’t teach total abstinence from alcohol are, “fools and the leaders of fools.” How cruel is it to hold a brother up as an object lesson on the day his removal was announced?
I share these two examples, not to debate the issues involved, but to shine a light on our response to divisive issues in our culture. All too often, those who follow Jesus take a strong stance on an issue based on incomplete information. Many times our strong stances are birthed out of personal animus towards a person or group of people involved. When we speak without complete information and out of a desire to belittle someone with whom we disagree, what we say is rarely helpful, kind, fully true, or gracious. For those who follow Jesus, it cannot be that way. We must learn a different method of responding to divisive events, one which reflects sound biblical wisdom and the grace we have been shown in Christ.
In the first chapter of his epistle, James offers by way of command a principle that should shape the way we respond to events in our day. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” In dealing with this text we should first notice James’ application of this passage to, “every person.” Too often we hear biblical texts and think of how they apply to other people, but James’ “every person” reminds us this is for us too. We can’t somehow think of ourselves as the exception.
James calls us to be quick to hear. I can remember when I was young and CNN’s “Crossfire” would be on in the evening. My Dad would often cut the show off when it came on because he said he could not stand to listen to people talk over each other. Almost all cable news now resembles the early days of “Crossfire” and on social media we simply lob bombs and then defend ourselves against anyone who challenges our position. We have forgotten how to listen, but James reminds us to recover this lost art. Can you imagine how much our civil discourse would change if we simply listened to someone so we made sure we understood what they were saying before we responded to them? The next time you hear someone speaking and you disagree with them, hear them out fully before you speak.
Then James reminds us to be slow to speak. One day I was riding in the car with my father-in-law and I asked him a question about the ministry. He was looking out of the window for what seemed like half a minute and I almost started to ask the question again because I did not think he heard me. Then he started answering my question and I almost couldn’t process what he was saying because I wondered what took him so long to say it. Then it hit me, “he was thinking before he started speaking.” How often do we start talking before we think through what we are about to say? We often unload a barrage of unhelpful, unformed, and unkind opinions before we understand the issue we are talking about. Wisdom dictates we give thought to our words before we open our mouths to speak.
The last of James’ three admonitions carries profound implications for the conservative Christian overreaction to “political correctness.” Because people seem to get offended about things they shouldn’t, many Christians have begun running in the opposite direction and either saying harsh things or applauding harsh things they hear under the banner of, “well, I’m not politically correct.” James reminds us that we should be “slow to anger.” We often make the same mistake as the person who is easily offended. We become offended at their offense and unleash rude harangues in their direction. James’ words remind us that the answer to an overly sensitive culture is not abusive and aggressive speech, but kind and thoughtful words intended to help, challenge, and correct people so they might receive grace when they hear them.
In Proverbs 18:2 Solomon writes, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” and his words describe us more often than we want to admit. 2016 has been a highly charged year with a lot of heated issues signaling seismic shifts in our culture. Our temptation may be to lash out at the things we see which make our blood boil, but wisdom dictates that we start slowing down before we lose our cools and say harsh things.
In our speech, Christians would do well to meditate on the grace we have been shown. God saved us, not because of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but by his mercy through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. We stood worthy of his judgement, but instead he gives us a future where we will reign with Christ. When we consider this grace, how should we respond to those with whom we disagree? We don’t seek to win arguments, but to testify to the truth of the Gospel. This will mean disagreeing with people and saying things they don’t want to hear, but the offense should come from the message and not from our manner of expressing it. And while some will hear what believers have to say and smell the stench of death on it, others will hear it for the life-giving word it is and embrace it with their whole hearts.
“Redeeming our Uncivil Discourse“
For Further Reading:
Onward by Russell Moore