Recently Read: Christian Witness in Trying Times

Lake Sunrise


Editor’s Note: At UMR we re-read this brilliant article by our friend and columnist Rev. Dr. Stephen Rankin on a regular basis.  We often recommend it to folks who cross the line in comments on our web-site here and in comments on our Facebook Page or in Twitter messages.  We post part of it now as a recommended read for all of our many thousands of readers in the hopes that we can all learn to dialogue better with each other in order to be a better Christian Witness in the world.  Thank you for reading.  Follow the link at the bottom to read the article in full on Catalyst: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodist Seminarians, a site we highly recommend for your edification.

Christian Ethics

One of the most important ways Christians can witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially in these contentious times, is by showing how to have an argument “Christianly.” In these times, The United Methodist Church suffers dramatic polarization. As we watch and sometimes participate in the debates roiling us, now is an especially good time to consider how to engage in civil discourse with opponents. How do we go beyond “civil” to “charitable” (in the term’s best Latinate sense) and thus act as salt and light in the world?

Even though it has been the better part of three decades since I served my first United Methodist pastorate, I vividly remember my initial encounters with contentious church meetings. They were often followed by what I quickly came to call “the meeting after the meeting.” It looks something like this: The scheduled meeting begins. While the chair dutifully works through the agenda, discussions are laced with pregnant pauses, awkward comments, and hesitant votes. Strangely, as the meeting ends, the room is suddenly filled with new energy. Participants split into little knots scattered about the room talking animatedly, sotto voce. “Something is up,” I realized and often what is “up” is that whatever decisions were just made in the scheduled meeting are now being second-guessed and sometimes effectively undone in the “meeting after the meeting.”

It isn’t just church meetings where this phenomenon occurs. As a visiting professor in a United Methodist seminary some years ago, I saw it happen regularly in faculty meetings over the course of a year. These meetings mystified me. They were long – usually four hours. They were filled with extended periods of silence. The atmosphere was sometimes so thick it really did seem like you could cut it. Very little got done. It often seemed impossible to get anyone even to make a motion so that a vote could be taken. I did not know the history that led to such excruciatingly awkward impasses, but I could tell something was deeply, dreadfully wrong. Faculty have offices in which to have the academic version of the meeting after the meeting and I learned that colleagues had often exchanged harsh words behind closed doors.

What is the best Christian attitude and demeanor at these moments? How do we handle our own feelings, stay focused on the important concerns, and make progress in understanding?

I’ll try some tentative suggestions to answer that question, but let’s add one more observation before I do. Both my examples have to do with face-to-face encounters. The call to civil discourse extends obviously to the written word as well, especially in light of the Wild West of social media and blogging, where honor is easily offended, where people throw down at the slightest grievance, and where they can push the envelope of propriety in the relative anonymity of the Internet.

An example: Steven Salaita recently had a tenure-track job offer rescinded at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana over comments he made in tweets about Israel. (See here.) The fact that he lost the job has been big news inside the higher education world. Looking at his Twitter feed, you’ll see that many comments, though harshly critical of American foreign policy or Israeli government tactics, would be widely regarded as within the realm of “civil.” But what about this example: “If you’re demented, amoral, dimwitted, and have sociopathic tendencies, might I suggest applying for a job in the [Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs]?” This one, in my view, hits below the belt.

Some people rather enjoy a good scrap (I admit, I occasionally do) and I can imagine one objecting that Salaita’s comments are simply the normal give-and-take of polemic. No big deal and certainly not a sin. The rest of us need to grow thicker skin. There is far too much “making nice” and the issues facing us are far too important to limit our discourse to mealy-mouthed vagaries. But is aiming at civility in controversy simply a matter of making nice? Of course not. Most assuredly, one can state one’s opinion forcefully, making use of a large palette of rhetorical devices without lapsing into meanness. Some of the best writers use satire or sarcasm to illustrate human foibles, but manage also to recognize the common humanity they share with their opponents. For example, in his book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013), David Bentley Hart takes on the concept of memes developed by the famous evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. Hart does not think much of memes:

Now, as an ironic metaphor, meant as a slightly caustic comment upon the human tendency toward conformism, talk of “memes” might be either a fetching or an annoyingly cute way of describing the genealogy of popular culture. As a serious proposal regarding how consciousness works — how it acquires its “programs” or its mental intentions — it is pseudoscientific and pseudophilosophical twaddle. (p. 224)

The reader can see from this sample that Mr. Hart does not brook fools kindly. Though he sometimes wields a pen with wicked wit, he doesn’t hits below the belt. He does not engage in personal attack. Admittedly, if I were on the receiving end of this kind of scathing critique, I would wince and might react puckishly. But the point remains: Hart has made fun of an idea, not of a person.

As Christians, it can feel like we’re trying to hit a moving target with regard to faithful witness (civil discourse) in contentious situations. Where is the line we are not to cross? How hard is too hard? How forceful can we be, how colorful our characterizations? Do we make judgments about that boundary on the basis of how people act, or how we anticipate they will act? Is their subjective response to our comments the measuring rod or does it lie elsewhere? In other words, if I make someone angry, have I stepped over the line? Hardly. Yet, these questions have no lockdown answers. As Christians we are called, we have obligation, to bear witness to the truth as we see it and to do so vigorously. It takes wisdom and self-awareness. It calls for the wiliness of the serpent and the innocence of the dove.

Going to Our Sources
As we practice thinking about civil discourse, what biblical and theological resources come to mind? The temptation to ask, “What would Jesus do?” I cannot resist, so let us see what we can find by looking at the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount, we hear of the blessedness of meekness, of mercy, of being peacemakers. Later, in Matt 5, we read Jesus’ injunctions about how we express anger and to reconcile quickly with our opponents (5:21-26). Yet this same Jesus in the same Gospel refers to those religious leaders who opposed him as hypocrites, white-washed tombs, and snakes (ch. 23). It is not so easy to get a clear and unambiguous picture from scripture as to how to engage in conflict with opponents.

By today’s standards, would the Apostle Paul be guilty of “uncivil” discourse? Consider his recounting his confrontation with Peter in Gal 2:11, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face” (NRSV), and he goes on to explain what he saw wrong with Peter’s action around Gentile Christians. The whole letter to the Galatians shows Paul’s alarm and he uses, at times, very colorful words to issue his warning. Paul could be one tough customer!

We do not find, therefore, a simple rubric for engaging in civil discourse, yet we need scriptural guidance. In my own practice, two passages stand out. Romans 12:14-21 is full of gentle wisdom, especially v. 18: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (NRSV). “If it is possible….” Sometimes it isn’t possible. You cannot control the other side of the debate. All you can do is be responsible for you. But this is where the other injunctions found in this passage come into play: Don’t repay evil for evil (as in railing for railing). Leave vengeance to God. Overcome evil with good. And, to go back to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44, NRSV). If I can manage to follow these points, I’ll do well in conflict.

The second passage that consistently comes to mind as I contemplate the goal of civil discourse is Eph 4, especially v. 15: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (NRSV). As with Rom 12, this passage addresses a community of Jesus’s followers, and a particularly relevant one for our consideration. Ephesians 2 shows that this congregation is made up of Jew and Gentile, culturally distinct and often suspicious of each other’s backgrounds – a breeding ground for hostility. The immediate context of ch. 4 speaks to the link between sound doctrine and growing to maturity – to the full measure of the stature of Christ. The larger and narrower contexts strike me as especially relevant for thinking about our contemporary problems in United Methodism. In truth, we disagree on a significant range of theological and ethical questions, no matter what our denomination’s official stances may be. We, likewise, must with courage and gentleness engage the core issues of the faith, around which we commit to the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This desired aim takes work, persistence, courage, and epistemic humility. The Ephesian Christians – made up of Jew and Gentile alike – had to do the same kind of work.

What from our own theological tradition can we glean on this topic? What of Mr. Wesley? His published letter to the Bishop of London in 1747 offers an example of a Christian engaging a whole range of contentious matters and doing so with both charity and bold truth-telling. This letter originated relatively early in the movement when there was much suspicion and animosity toward the Methodists. The Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, had written a document known as the Bishop’s Visitation Charge, to which Wesley’s letter was a point-by-point rebuttal. It dealt particularly with misunderstanding over the doctrine of Christian perfection, but more broadly, the practices of the Methodists (including allegations of extreme abstinence regarding food and drink). Among other allegations, the Bishop accused Mr. Wesley of advising Methodists to stay away from parish worship and to forego confession of sin prior to receiving the Eucharist. While maintaining a respectful tone throughout the letter, Mr. Wesley wrote plainly, challenging the bishop and even chastising him at certain junctures.

Anyone who has read much of Wesley’s writings knows that he spoke and wrote in a strong voice, that he was most of the time very sure of his positions. But he also regularly left the door open for correction. For example, after addressing certain prejudicial descriptions of the doctrine of Christian perfection, Wesley asked Bishop Gibson, “I conjure you, my Lord, by the mercies of God, if these are not words of truth and soberness, point me out wherein I have erred from the truth; show me clearly wherein I have spoken either beyond or contrary to the word of God.” In Wesley’s polemical writings, one can often find this sentiment, challenging others to point out the flaws, but also acknowledging his openness to changing his mind, if the opponent could offer sound and convincing reasons. This response was more than rhetorical flair. Wesley actually meant his willingness to be corrected.

Read the rest here.


Rev Dr. Stephen Rankin

About Stephen Rankin
Professionally Steve Rankin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally Steve is married to Joni and has four grown children and two grandchildren. I believe a big part of my particular calling has to do with leadership development in the church and with church renewal (they go hand in hand). You can find his personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin
– See more at: Rankin File- Ruminations, Fulminations, and Cogitations on the Spiritual Life

Recently Read

Recently Read

Recently Read posts are stories the editors of The United Methodist Reporter have found interesting from other sites and wanted to share with our readers. The editors do not necessarily endorse the opinions shared in these stories, and referral here should not imply endorsement of that content.

Leave a Reply

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
1 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
1 Comment authors
Richard F Hicks Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Richard F Hicks
Richard F Hicks

Cowardice is the reason reasonable, civil people cannot discuss and then vote. The vast majority of UM leaders seem to prefer the cowards way – Wait long enough and maybe the opposition will die. This certainly is not the courage over cowardice found in the Peter & Paul debate or in Mr Wesley. Too bad it is missing. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

%d bloggers like this: