This zinger caught my worship minister’s eye in a recent Facebook conversation. She was initially shocked by the words. Her shock turned to sorrow, however, when she realized they came from one of our church’s precious college students.
It came in response to a potentially controversial post. Any post can seem controversial, given current polarization over politics, gay rights, Caitlyn Jenner, Supreme Court rulings, and so forth. This particular Facebook post had to do with President Obama’s clemency of 46 non-violent drug offenders. The young adult who posted it was already anticipating a backwash of angry comments. He said, “Please keep comments civil. I will moderate if need be.”
Fortunately for him, remarks were civil. Until, that is, our college student unleashed his stinging comment. Why his cynical oracle of impending conflict? Why did our college student expect the worst from his fellow Christians?
I believe it’s because too many church members in recent years have fostered a ministry of division. I’m going to briefly explain why this has happened. But before you conclude that this is just another hopeless commentary on the polarization in our society and in our church, I want to quickly qualify that I am offering this article as a message of hope. I believe young people—like the one above who expressed cynicism—can teach us to live out the ministry of reconciliation.
Churches of Christ are not unique in the story of American Protestantism. We don’t get a big mention in most books. We sometimes think of our story as an extraordinarily impressive one, but most outside observers don’t agree. Almost every Christian sect or denomination has a similar period in its history.
Our movement flourished through a potent form of sectarian group-think. We were the only ones going to heaven. If you cared about people’s souls, then you did something to get outsiders into our churches. Didn’t matter if people already had a faith or were active in a different church. If you didn’t do things our way, you were lost.
Surprisingly, this worked better than you would think. We were very good at guilt trips. We scared many people into becoming Christians the Church-of-Christ way.
Whether you grew up in it or were converted into it, this pattern of “outreach” wrote itself deeply onto our psyche. Many of us are still overcoming it. Scare tactics aren’t the MO for many of us anymore, but they still surface as occasional, nagging feelings: “You aren’t good enough.” “God doesn’t really love you.” Although most of us no longer believe that our church brand contains the only saved ones, the mentality of “us vs. them” won’t let us go.
But it’s not just our people. This is a plague that visits members of most other Christian churches as well. They have comparable, judgmental pasts (and presents). Evangelicals believe that only the “born again” are going to heaven. Liberals believe that fundamentalists don’t know the heart of God. Conservatives think liberals have lost their moorings and their salvation. Charismatics doubt the legitimacy of non-charismatic faith. On and on it goes. Christian doctrine and Christian leaders have sadly taught us to divide, judge and condemn.
It’s a legacy we shouldn’t be proud of. Yet this is our inheritance in American Protestantism. We have learned how to shame and belittle those who aren’t like us. This is hardly the way of Jesus. But it’s the way of Jesus’ followers here in the U.S.
Even though some of us are learning a more generous orthodoxy in questions about who is and who isn’t saved, we can’t shake the fighting mentality. Some have transferred this way of thinking straight over to politics. Which is odd for a movement like ours that was deeply suspicious of human institutions. Yet some now believe that those human institutions—the presidency, Congress, the courts—are our potential salvation or downfall.
Some who learned to be gracious about faith are unable to be gracious about politics. Did they transfer their primary allegiance to the nation-state rather than to Jesus and his church? I find it deeply disturbing when otherwise grace-filled Christians have no trouble trashing fellow Christians over matters of politics. In conservative churches like mine, it’s mostly those favoring a particular flavor of the Republican Party who sometimes rip into anyone espousing love or appreciation for the other party or for policies that strike them as “liberal,” “socialist” or other related transgressions.
This is why the afore-mentioned college student despairingly awaited a torrent of criticism for someone else’s post that showed support for presidential pardons. He had seen people’s comments get torn apart for exhibiting the wrong political leaning. He had been personally excoriated by fellow Christians for what they perceived as wrong stances on immigration, gender issues and so forth. He’d seen it before. Figured he’d see it again.
But here’s where hope is. When my worship minister saw this, she reached out privately with love. She said, “I know you have reason to be skeptical. But you’re bigger than that. Think about how your words portray the community of faith.” There was silence for several hours. Then finally he replied, “Sigh. I know you’re right. Thanks for caring enough to say something.” And he took down the comment.
There is hope for the future because young people are open to learning a new way. There is hope that the peace-loving people among us can turn the tide by loving and investing in a new generation. Young people may not be perfect, but they are thankfully tired of our judgmental ways. And with just a little coaxing, I think they are the ones who can guide the church back onto the non-judgmental path of Jesus that leads to reconciliation rather than division.