Guest Post: Antagonism, Christian Unity, and the Need for Wisdom

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?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Katelin Hansen commented on March 22, 2011 Reply

    I am not sure if I fully understand the intricacies of the specific example sited here, many of the names are unfamiliar to me. But I often think about my relationship, both public and private with loud Christians with whom I strongly disagree. On the one hand, my instinct is to distance myself from a lot of my sisters and brother who say/do some pretty hurtful things and to tell the world “wait! we aren’t all like that! Please do not turn from Christ because we are poor at being Christians!” But on the other hand we are a family and to separate ourselves perpetuates the fractionation and division in the church that we see today.

    To quote myself: “Christ called us to be one with each other and to gather together into a body of believers. He saw the brokenness of organized religion is His day, and definitely was critical of it, but also did not come to abolish the institution. He called for change, while functioning within the established fellowship of Judaism. I think this is a model for us to follow. Even the most misguided of Christians are our siblings in Christ…The church is a family. And like any family we have our crazy uncles, selfish sisters, racist grandparents, and misbehaving children. We don’t have to condone any of that and in fact should speak out against it. But we are still family.”

    Correct me if I am misreading the premise of this post.

    James Paternoster commented on March 23, 2011 Reply

    First, a correction. After I sent Mike the note, I happened on a copy of the book I mentioned, and couldn’t find the example I gave, so I don’t know where I read that.

    Second, I think Katelin expresses well a problem (hazard?) with what I’m suggesting: do we dishonor Christ himself by failing to at least criticize fellow-Christians who, we believe, egregiously act in ways contrary to the gospel and the character of God? Indeed, did I violate my own principle in the way I spoke of Jimmy Swaggart and act more in line with her suggestion?

    What do you think?

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