The National Prayer Breakfast is an annual event that gathers religious leaders from various faiths to talk about perhaps the most controversial subject in existence: religion. It is also the time that Presidents have used to address matters of faith in our country. Typically the prayer breakfast is seen as a positive event. It shows how in the great melting pot of America people from diverse faiths, backgrounds and communities can co-exist. That was, until this week.
President Obama stirred the waters of controversy with his statement that “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” and then proceeded to list the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition as proof. The impact of those words were felt on social media immediately. Conservative Christians everywhere started to lament how such a “godless man” ever rose to power. Throw in a few obligatory “Obama is a Muslim” comments into the mix along with some scathing tweets about his lack of leadership in regards to Muslim extremists and the picture you get is not a very flattering one. But is it fair? Even more to the point, is it Christ-like?
Now, this article is by no means an apologetic piece for our President. On multiple issues he and I are about as far apart on the political spectrum as two people can be. On social issues, the gap widens even more. I will be the first to admit that the National Prayer Breakfast was probably not the place or time for such remarks, nor do I believe such remarks are helpful in dealing with the current threats of Islamic terrorism. However, the immediate backlash on this, and multiple other “hot-button” topics, reveals a character trait that is becoming more and more indicative of Western culture: we have lost the ability to disagree with one another. Gone are the days of being able to have a civil discussion about important matters and still be on speaking terms after the fact. The world of Twitter has produced a generation that prefers a snarky response in 140 characters or less over deep and thoughtful discussion. We no longer even consider changing our minds an option. No, the only option is force the other side into capitulation or shout them down with rhetoric. And the Christian side is just as guilty as the other.
So how do we regain the ability to disagree? How do we shine the worth and work of Christ into a world that collectively sticks its fingers in its ears whenever it hears something with which it disagrees? How do we respond when something as near and dear as our faith comes under attack? Here are some helpful tips.
1. Listen to Understand; Don’t Listen to Respond
How many of us really understood what the President was getting at when he mentioned the atrocities done in the name of Christ? How many understood that he was actually saying that Christians should not be judged by such atrocities, nor should their faith? Our knee-jerk reaction, brought about by years of the Crusades being thrown in our face by anti-theists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, was to jump on the defensive. Our minds went from listening to understand to listening to respond. And our response, as a whole, was poor. (And yes, I also understood that he was saying the Islamic faith should not be judged by groups like ISIL. More on that in a bit). Again, he could have made his point in a better way, but we cannot blame his poor choice of analogy for our refusal to listen.
2. Admit the Truth, Even When it Hurts
Were the Crusades bad? Yes, like any war motivated by greed and money is bad. Terrible things happened during the Crusades. Men, women and children were murdered. Catholics imposed a convert-or-die tactic meant to drive the Muslim out of the Holy Land. Worst of all, the Catholic Church wielded its power and influence to recruit foot soldiers for power-hungry leaders who wanted nothing more than control of the trade routes to the East. We as Christians must admit that religion was, and is, a tool often used to manipulate decent people to do evil deeds. In the case of the Crusades the religion of choice was Roman Catholicism.
However, the other side of the story must be told too. Like the fact that before the first Crusade ever happened the Holy Land was overrun by a “crusade” of Muslims wanting to expand Islam by any means necessary, including violence. The financial aspect of the Crusades cannot be overlooked either. The kings and popes who enacted these excursions were motivated more by a lust for wealth than a desire to see God’s kingdom be spread. Religion was used as a recruiting tool, but to those in power, the real motivation was greed, not Christ. Does this justify the Crusades? Absolutely not. But we must be honest in our assessment.
That being said, both sides need to learn to admit the truth even when it hurts. The vast majority of violent religious extremists in the world today are Muslim. That’s not a derogatory statement. It is simply a fact. That does not mean most Muslims are violent, nor does it mean that terrorists are interpreting the Qu’ran correctly. It is simply a statement of truth, and it is a truth that must be addressed if we are to make any headway in stemming the tide of radical terrorism.
Do people do despicable acts in the name of God? Unfortunately, yes. However, people try to justify evil with any number of scapegoats. Money, the good of society, national security and scientific research have all been used to justify violent deeds. The hard truth is that religion does not make man violent; man makes his religion violent because of the broken nature of sin. That is a truth that we all must wrestle with.
3. Assume the Best
Not everyone sets out to be offensive. I seriously doubt that President Obama thought to himself, “You know what? I want to to offend the largest religious group in America at one of the most prestigious meetings of faith leaders in the country today.” Seriously, if you think that then you are part of the problem. When we assume the worst about an individual they will never satisfy us. Our mindset automatically begins looking for flaws to nitpick and ways to be offended, and we are never disappointed.
But when we assume the best, our mindset changes. Instead of shortcomings, we see potential. Instead of finding fault, we give the benefit of the doubt. We allow room for clarification and are more willing to take context into account. Most importantly, avenues for discussion open up and real conversation can occur.
4. Have a Thick Skin
As I type this one of the major sports stories breaking is LA Clippers’ guard, Chris Paul, is being accused of sexism for criticizing a female referee and using the pronoun “her” in his criticism. If you are offended by a pronoun, you need a thicker skin. (Seriously, was he supposed to refer to the woman as “he/him”?) Our culture has become hypersensitive to matters of race, religion, sexuality and gender identity. Anytime someone missteps the gears of social network justice begin to grind the offending party into dust. Waiting for facts is unnecessary when you can make a hashtag that expresses your hurt feelings.
The problem is when we are quick to be offended, we are quick to judge but slow to understand. We fail to see the point of view of the other side, where they are coming from, or why they spoke the way they did. If I chose to be offended by every little thing done against Christians, whether it be real or perceived, I would never be successful in bringing anyone to Christ. Why? Because I would view everyone as an adversary to be defeated rather than a soul to be loved.
5. Practice Grace
Jesus was a master at this. In his group of Apostles He enlisted a symbol of Roman occupation via Matthew the tax-collector as well as the modern-day equivalent to a member of the IRA, Simon the Zealot. You couldn’t get farther apart on the first century spectrum than these two guys. I can imagine their discussions were quite lively! Yet they found a way to coexist and do ministry together. How? By practicing grace.
Practicing grace means that I’m not going to get offended every time you say something offensive. Practicing grace means recognizing everyone is at a different point of their spiritual journey. Practicing grace means having a short memory and being quick to forgive. Practicing grace means being willing to walk away from a conversation rather than cause irreparable harm to a relationship. Practicing grace means that just because I may be right does not give me permission to be a jerk about it. Practicing grace means understanding that I can still show love to someone without agreeing with them.
A Final Plea
This is directed to my fellow Christ-followers. Let us lead the way in learning to disagree. We should be the ones demonstrating Jesus’ teaching, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” We can be firm. We can be bold. What we cannot be is a poor witness of the love and grace of Christ.