My InterVarsity colleague James Paternoster emailed me the following in response to my recent posts on anti-Christian and anti-academic rhetoric, and he agreed to let me share his words with you. James, Tom, and I — along with 140 of our closest friends — will be in Chicagoland this week for our Graduate and Faculty Ministries staff meetings, where we’ll be discussed the topic “Campuses Renewed” with George Marsden, Santa Ono, and Don Davis. Thank you, James, for these thoughts. ~ Mike
Mike asked the other day about responses to antagonism, and it brought to mind for me the limits of “attitude” or “manner” in our responses. Sometimes the best thing is to sidestep an issue to deal with the person. Sometimes the issue needs to be faced. It’s not always easy to know which is which situation, but wisdom is needed.
I remember years ago reading — I think it was in Barbara Benjamin’s account of the IV fellowship in New York City, The Impossible Community — about a professor who refused to distance himself from a fellow-Christian colleague whose Christian faith was expressed in ways different from his own. He owned his unity with this colleague. That made a strong impression on me, and I continue to be unwilling to let non-Christians with whom I agree on this or that issue drive a wedge between me and Christians who disagree with us.
One of the tactics opponents use is to invite or even demand that we publicly disavow positions or people. Here’s how I responded to such a call from Eugene Volokh (UCLA law prof, who is actually quite sympathetic to Christians, but thought it incumbent on Christians to make more public disavowals of Jimmy Swaggart), way back in 2004. He was adding his voice to Andrew Sullivan’s.
You’re always a good read, but better than that, you’re a level-headed and insightful commenter on a number of issues about which I disagree, but never fail to learn. Yet I think this time you go too far.
Jimmy Swaggart was controversial, and more criticized among fellow-Christians than from outside, long before he was caught out violating the commandment against adultery. When that happened, his denomination, the Assemblies of God, attempted to exercise discipline and found, as many other Christian churches have, that in America there’s very little power a church body has over an unrepentant sinner who’s willing to cut ties and go his or her own way. But whatever influence Swaggart had up to that time (and it was significant, but narrow) was severely curtailed by his evident hypocrisy. No Christian bears responsibility to monitor Swaggart and match his statements — whether wrong, ridiculous or outrageous — with public corrections.
If I may say so, Andrew Sullivan (may he recover his equilibrium soon) is trolling for outrage if he’s seeking out Swaggart to publicize. We don’t ask Sullivan to keep track of every homosexual attack on Christianity and make a personal disavowal or rebuttal, or else be tarred with complicity. And he, and you, shouldn’t expect us to dignify Swaggart with such either.
In this case, I wasn’t alone, and Volokh is also as sweetly reasonable as anyone I know, so his subsequent posts add insight into the problem.
The other day, I noticed that Doug Heye is raising the question whether the “birther” controversy isn’t being kept alive by folks who find it a useful means to attack folks who have no part in it.
The nagging issue of “Birthers” raises a chicken/egg question: It is an issue that lingers of its own accord, or does it linger because the media won’t let it go away
Republicans appearing on cable to talk about important issues of the day — unemployment, the national debt, Egypt, Wisconsin, etc. — can bet the “Birther” question will come up. And there appears to be nothing a Republican can do to satisfy an interviewer on this question. It is not enough to state a belief in the president’s Christianity, or that one takes the president at his word. In question after question, interviewers call on Republicans to condemn, repeatedly, rumors they neither believe nor spread; then they condemn the condemnation for not being condemnatory enough.
A little more serpent-like wisdom may be called for to go with more dove-like innocence.
What do you think? What is the role of Christian unity in our response to criticisms of fellow Christians?