My congregation Burke United Methodist Church is doing a campaign this fall called Jesus is My Candidate: I Vote for Him Every Day. A dimension of this campaign is thinking about how we “vote” for Jesus (maintain our allegiance and focus on Him) when all around us people are screaming for us to make either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney our Lord and Savior (or perhaps saying that the other guy is the anti-Christ but our guy is at least somewhat reasonable). One way that we “vote” for Jesus is by staying “on message” for Him. Political campaigns strive not to let reporters trick them into going “off message” by saying anything that detracts from the real issues. Satan is constantly trying to trick us into committing “gaffes” on the Jesus campaign trail that make our Savior look bad. So here are some ways I thought of that we can stay “on message” for Jesus during a campaign season full of distractions.
1) Always ask: “Does it build the kingdom?”
If Jesus is really your candidate, then everything that you say, do, write, or share online should build His kingdom. Matthew 6:33 tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” in all that we do. We are building the kingdom when we do things to make ourselves and the people around us fall more deeply in love with Jesus and become more thoroughly devoted to His cause. When our friends know we are Christians, we are never “off-the-clock” or “off-the-record” for Jesus. Everything we say and do impacts whether others are willing to consider following Jesus. If what others see is that we are primarily focused on tearing down and ridiculing our political opponents, then we are not building the kingdom. So ask the question before you share that article or watch that video or make that snarky comment on your friend’s page. Does it build the kingdom?
2) Interpret others charitably
Charitable interpretation is a concept that was introduced to me by my church history professor in seminary. It means that you try to find the truth or valid point in what somebody else is saying and use that as a basis for conversation instead of focusing on the errors that are easy to attack. In seminary, we read a lot of ancient theologians who didn’t make sense to us, but when we took the time to understand what their presumptions were and what they were reacting against, we could appreciate where they were right and where they went wrong if they went wrong. Paul tells us in Romans 14:19 to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” When we interpret others charitably, we won’t always come to an agreement, but we will maintain peace and learn important lessons from each other in the process.
3) Don’t play guilt by association
Jesus didn’t play guilt by association, because He only associated with the guilty. He says in Matthew 9:13, “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.” That’s why it’s so egregious when Christians dismiss and judge other people according to the company they keep, the books that they’ve read, or the political party they belong to. “How can you support him? He’s a MORMON — do you know what they believe?” “Did you know that he used to hang out with COMMUNISTS when he was in college?” And so forth. The fact is, we shouldn’t presume to know why our friends and fellow Christians choose to be Democrats or Republicans or go to Tea Party rallies or anarchist drum circles. Maybe they’re a part of whichever party we oppose because they disagree with a lot of what we disagree with and they want to make it better. Maybe they see it as a mission field opportunity to share Jesus with other people whose language they know how to speak.
4) Don’t throw other Christians under the bus
This is a tough one for me. I spent a lot of my twenties telling people, “I’m a Christian, BUT… I’m not like those Christians.” It’s complicated. Christians offend other people for both good and bad reasons. It’s going to make non-Christians uncomfortable to hear Christians say that everyone is a sinner and needs Jesus’ sacrifice in order to be healed. But that’s an offensiveness that we can’t be squeamish about because it’s the source of our liberation. On the other hand, when Fred Phelps carries around “God hates fags” signs and Terry Jones burns Korans, I think we do have an evangelistic responsibility to speak out and say, “Hey, wait a minute, most of us aren’t like that!” But it’s easy to get seduced to the point that bashing “those other Christians” becomes everything we talk about. We saw that with the Chick-Fil-A drama this past summer. Every Christian who went to Chick-Fil-A day had their own particular understanding of what they were doing. It is both true that gay people were hurt by it and that most Christians who did it were not trying to dis gay people. I argued both sides of that issue and went “off message” and dishonored Jesus on multiple occasions. So when you hear non-Christians criticize Christians, don’t be anxious to prove that you can dis other Christians better than they can. Don’t be defensive either; be charitable and dignified. Galatians 6:2 tells us that as Christians, we are to “carry each others’ burdens.” We should protect and nurture the weaknesses of those within our house rather than using them as an opportunity to prove how we’re better Christians than they are.
5) Do not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth
1 Corinthians 13:6 contains such an important word for us in our age of “gotcha” cynicism: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” Christians should absolutely not feel muzzled from telling the truth as we best understand it when we’re talking about any kind of controversial issue. But we must not delight in evil! The last two decades of the information age have created an atrocious phenomenon that I describe as the outrage industrial complex, whose purpose for existence is to catch other people (or accuse them of) doing evil and take delight in it. Whether it’s Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh, they justify their ceaseless promotion of scandal by telling us that they’re exposing the “real truth” other people are hiding, but it’s really all about delighting in evil. We should tell the truth about what is happening in our world. It is not inappropriate to engage in political protest that bears witness to the truth. But when it turns into scorn and cynicism, then it has become delighting in evil. This a delicate but critical distinction for people who are called to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).
6) Do not dehumanize any race or religion of people
Christians are being persecuted by Muslims in the world right now. We cannot pretend that isn’t happening. One of my facebook friends is an underground pastor in Pakistan who recently had to flee for his life. Now that doesn’t mean that all Muslims persecute Christians or that all Christians are being persecuted. There is a growing group of Christians who obsessively spend their time finding and sharing evidence that Islam is utterly evil. One of the guys behind the recent anti-Muslim film was a Coptic Christian from Egypt. Evil things have happened to the Copts that must have made this guy bitter. What scares me about the movement to delegitimize Islam is that it smells so much like what the Europeans were saying and writing about the “Jewish bankers” at the beginning of the 20th century. The Holocaust was only able to happen after decades of dehumanizing propaganda had already taken place; a pogrom against Muslims in our country may become imaginable to us after they have been dehumanized for a few more decades. Who would have ever thought for instance that a town like Murfreesboro, Tennessee could ban a house of worship from being built in the 21st century? Our society has already gone several miles down a dangerous road; it’s time for a U-turn! As Christians, we must always affirm the basic dignity of other people. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created mankind in his own image.” We don’t often reflect on what a powerful statement that really is. Every single person on this planet is of infinite worth because all of us reflect God’s image. That is the fundamental truth of the sacredness of human life that underlies every other Christian ethical principle. It is why Christians cannot dehumanize any race or religion of people, no matter what kind of persecution Christians suffer abroad.
7) Listen to God when you speak to each other
Christians are supposed to be passionate about what we believe. We are children of Israel whose name literally means “the God-wrestlers.” Throughout our history, we have wrestled and argued with each other, and beautiful thinking has emerged on the other side of that, even when the arguments were less charitable than they should have been. But these arguments do damage to us when they make us arrogant and spiteful. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” Christians who are secure in their standing before God through Christ should have zero investment in showing other people how right or knowledgeable they are. Our purpose in having passionate conversations should always be to draw our community into deeper intimacy with each other and God. This is not to say that we avoid conflict for the sake of community, because that just makes a roomful of elephants. But the key to fruitful Christian conversation is to purge the goal of winning arguments completely out of our mindset. We must talk to others expecting for God to correct us through them even as He corrects them through us. It is also the case that God may need me to believe one thing and another person to believe something different for the sake of the unique way that He’s gifted each of us and the unique place each of us have arrived in our journeys.
Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com. Follow Morgan on twitter at www.twitter.com/maguyton.