Tag Archives: cooperation

The Self Destructive Nature of Bearing False Witness

by Nicholas Price

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on my blog reflecting on a disturbing issue that has arisen since beginning my studies in seminary in July of 2013. It is a problem that has continued to bother me and it relates to how we, as seminarians and faculty, talk about those with whom we disagree.

Let me explain what I mean. At several points over the past two quarters I have heard professors and students set up straw men when trying to highlight what makes us, as Lutherans, theologically superior to other strains of Christianity. More often than not the straw man is the “Evangelical”. I’ve heard evangelicals called anti-intellectual, prone to emotionalism, shallow in their theology, self-centered in their worship practices, and overly focused on works righteousness.

Not only are these criticisms harsh, they are not true!!! And I say this as someone who worked for an evangelical para-church ministry for six years. I say this as someone who has attended evangelical churches, received training at evangelical conferences, and studied at an evangelical seminary. In fact, it was the evangelical commitments to discipleship of the mind, deep theological inquiry, Christ-centered worship, and the insistence on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone that brought me to the Lutheran Church. I have a high regard for my evangelical brothers and sisters and, in many ways, still consider myself a part of that community. So you can understand my personal frustration and distress when I hear members of my own church community insulting and denigrating an entire community of Christians just to score a couple of theology points.

But beyond being unfair and ungenerous, this problem matters for one other reason: we are breaking the Eighth Commandment. This commandment states the following:

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

When we set up straw men and use them to make a point, what we are really doing is judging and speaking against a community based on stereotypes. We are claiming that those who belong to this community say, act, and believe things that, in truth, they do not. In so doing, we are bearing false testimony against them. And we are doing this to fellow Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ.

Not only does this damage the unity of the larger body of Christ, but it actually hinders our witness to the world. When I was studying Islam as an undergraduate student, one of the most frequent charges against Christians by my Muslim friends was that they fought all the time about doctrine and would regularly tear each other down over religious disputes. They said that they could not believe in a faith tradition that was marked by such division and infighting.

However, as I have reflected on this further, I’ve come to the realization that this kind of “straw man” approach not only damages those within the Church, but also to those outside of it. How many times have we, as Christians, heard our fellow brothers and sisters tear down Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, Atheists, and Agnostics based on stereotypes of these religious and philosophical communities? In our attempts to highlight the unique features of our own faith tradition, are we denigrating and painting a false portrait of those from other backgrounds? I would argue that this is no less a violation of the Eighth Ninth Commandment than when we fall prey to infighting, for when we do this we are tearing down our neighbors. Furthermore, it destroys bridges to cooperation.

But the damage doesn’t end there, for these kinds of stereotypes actually do harm to us as well. When we start seeing an entire community of people through the lens of a stereotype we hinder our own ability to build meaningful relationships with people who are different from us. The reason is because our perception becomes our reality.

For example, if we start from the premise that evangelical Christians have weak or inaccurate theology, then we build up the impression in our own minds that we have nothing to learn from them. If we start from the premise that Muslims are violent, then we will never learn of the rich history of social justice and peacemaking work that has been done by pioneers within the Islamic community.
In so doing, we cut ourselves off from the powerful theological insights and social contributions that entire faith communities, within and outside of the global Church, are making. The truth is that often my own faith is strengthened when I learn from the insights of my brothers and sisters from other branches of the Christian church. Likewise, my appreciation of the arts, sciences, social activism, and yes, even theology, have been broadened as I have learned from my non-Christian neighbors.

So, if we must argue against people who have differences in opinion let’s be specific. Rather than saying things like, “Evangelicals believe….” or “Hindus think…”, it would be more helpful to say, “When I was at a theology conference, I had a disagreement with a particular presenter on the following issue…” or “When I read (insert specific title or author) I disagreed with (him/her) on the following point….”. Get specific. Address real-life disagreements that happened between specific individuals. Don’t paint broad strokes and don’t label an entire community.

My hope is that we would learn to disagree honestly and with integrity while still leaving the doors open for fellowship and mutual instruction. The truth is that we, as Christians, have significant theological differences with those inside and outside of our community. However, there is a way to discuss these differences while still communicating respect to others. Generosity must trump polemics and addressing specific concerns goes much further than condemning entire communities. My prayer is that at the seminaries and in the churches around the country, we build academic environments and ecclesial cultures based on respect, honest inquiry, and humble conviction.

Nick is currently enrolled full-time at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in the M.Div program. He is the proud father of two kids and happily married to his wife of five years, Jenny. He writes regularly on his blog, Prodigal Preacher.

Read another Faith Line Protestants reflection on Bearing False Witness here.

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No Benadryl Allowed

The Gospel reading for this week was a portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we all know: “you have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

Do not resist an evildoer? This verse about turning the other cheek is probably one of the most quoted New Testament passages—just after love your neighbor as yourself and John 3:16. But it’s troubling. Don’t even resist?

I looked up the Greek word here for resist, anthistemilike the word that we use for allergy medications—antihistamine. It means to set against, withstand, oppose. We use antihistamines to fight the chemicals in our bodies that are causing an allergic reaction and making us weak, tired, stuffy. If you’ve ever suffered from allergies, you are thankful for good medication that can resist these reactions. But, Jesus, it seems, would have told us to stock up on tissues and tea—no Benadryl allowed!

What’s hard for me about this verse is that resistance actually seems to be a major theme in Jesus’ teachings. Doesn’t the Gospel invite us to resist greed, to resist Empire, to resist the forces of evil in the world…Didn’t Jesus resist the men who wanted to stone the adulterous woman? Didn’t he resist the forces of death when he raised Lazarus to new life? Didn’t he resist Satan’s temptations of power and wealth while he was in the wilderness? Wasn’t Jesus, in his ministry, a resistor?

And it didn’t end there. Isn’t the Resurrection the ultimate act of resistance? In his resurrection, doesn’t Jesus say no to death, no to violence, no to sin, no to injustice?

So, what is going on in this passage? Should we resist as Jesus has modeled for us, or shouldn’t we, as he instructs us?

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference of Interfaith Youth Core Alumni in Atlanta, Georgia, and there was a young Muslim woman who was speaking on a panel about the work she is doing to build peace in the Middle East. Someone from the audience asked her which stories from her faith tradition have inspired her work and this is what she said:

It has been written that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), though he was beloved by many in his time, was not beloved by all. In fact, he had a neighbor who did not like him one bit. And this neighbor, because she didnt like him, would get up very early every morning and bring all of her garbage and rotten food, even the waste from her animalsand she would leave them in a pile on the doorstep of the Prophet. And every morning Muhammad would wake up, see the trash, quietly sweep it away and then go about his daily chores and activities.

One morning, Muhammad woke up and he opened his front door expecting to see the pile of trash as usual, but on this day, there was nothing there. No trash. Without hesitating the Prophet went to the pantry, collected some fruits and herbs and rushed next door to his neighbors home.  Sure enough, she was very sickso sick that she had not had enough strength to collect the garbage to leave at Muhammads front door. Muhammad offered her some food and stayed with her and prayed for her recovery.

This seems to me to be the kind of thing Jesus is talking about when he says: do not resist an evildoer.

Jesus is asking us to change the way we think about justice and injustice–to envision a larger picture. The Prophet Muhammad did not let the garbage pile up on his doorstep, but neither did he grow to hate the woman who seemed to hate him so much. He saw the woman for who she was—a human, broken, like the rest of us, who might fall sick one day and need to rely on the compassion of others.

Perhaps Jesus is saying, don’t set yourself in opposition to those who do evil to you, to those who do evil in the world; instead, imagine them as part of the larger picture of God’s salvation. Don’t build fences, build pathways. Don’t stand your ground, expand your ground. We are not called to be antihistamines that fight against the evils of the world: we are called to see those evils and envelop them. We are called to imagine that even those who seem to do the most harm, might also have a share in God’s kingdom.

We don’t need to tolerate injustice. We don’t need to let evildoers free.  We don’t need to sit idly while people step all over us; we do need to do the work we can to clean up the messes that people leave on the doorsteps of the world. We know that from Jesus’ own example. And we need to keep the resurrection in view.

I think that Jesus is inviting us to rethink our own stories. In what ways do we let ourselves get bogged down in the small battles of our daily lives? What “evils” do we resist that Jesus might actually nudge us to welcome as part of the larger vision of salvation? Do we resist difficult conversations with people whose political, social, or religious beliefs differ from ours? Do we resist wisdom from other faith traditions—like the story I just told you about the Prophet Muhammad—because we think that by appreciating what others have to offer we will somehow become less whole ourselves? Jesus says, don’t resist—embrace the coming of a new world and have faith that all of us will have a role to play in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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