Sunday, January 28, 2024

Do we just ignore the fringe and hope they'll go away?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a quote by noted Old Testament scholar and missiologist, Christopher J. H. Wright, that I wrote down while listenening to the podcast he host, On Mission, which I shared on Facebook:

When Christianity gets used for nationalistic ends, even ones that are based in justice and the struggle for liberation, it's so easy then to get distorted into a hegemonic sort of, "We've got to be the winners," and that then easily becomes violent.

Someone online commented, asking me where exactly these violent Christian Nationalist folkd were. I provided several examples, including what went on beneath banners with Christian slogans on January 6, 2021, as well as evidence of violent rhetoric by professing Christians presented by Tim Alberta in his book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism.

That same commenter later replied, minimizing the importance of the extremists. Here I give my point-by-point response to what he said.

<<those you reference are minuscule>>

A little leaven leavens the whole lump. Studies show that when you put a group of people with ideological affinities together, the group as a whole tends to gravitate toward the views of the most extreme members (in part because those with more moderate/conciliatory views tend to be less forceful, and thus less likely to vocally stand up to the more vociferous members of the group). And when no one stands up to the louder people on the extremes, those become the voices that are most heard more broadly and garner the most attention (we see this in the body politic in general, where the extreme liberals and hyper conservatives each make up only 10-15% of the populace, but make significantly more noise than the 70-80% of folks in the “movable middle”).

As Alberta points out, and I already mentioned, those advocating violence are definitely a small minority, but they make themselves heard much more frequently and loudly than those seeking, as much as it depends on them, to be at peace with others.

<<To draw attention to them in this fashion is a misrepresentation of Christianity’s engagement in the political arena.>>

And to fail to point out the errors they introduce and the problems they create for Christian witness is to abdicate responsibility when it comes to Christian political engagement. The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Cor 5:12)

<<The reality is….FAR MORE “Christians” are liberal leftists. Now, there is the real danger in America.>>

Say you go to the doctor because you have a really bad cough that won’t go away, and need something to knock it out. The doctor takes some X-rays and confirms there is pneumonia in both lungs, but he also sees something that troubles him. He gives you some antibiotics for the pneumonia and also schedules some further tests. Those further tests reveal the initial stages of a cancerous tumor. Do you ignore the small but growing tumor simply because the pneumonia is causing what, in the moment, are more pressing symptoms (hacking cough, shortness of breath)? Or do you work to eliminate the immediate presenting problem of pneumonia while, at the same time, working out a treatment plan to deal with the cancer before it grows so large as to be life-threatening?

If we look back at the book of Acts, we see that Luke relates alternating threats to the Jesus community, both from outside the church, and from the inside. The Jewish religious leaders in Acts 4 are followed by the deception of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Persecution from the high priest and Sadducees beginning in Acts 5:17 is followed by the dispute between the Hebrew-speaking and Greek-speaking widows in Acts 6.

Paul warns the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:29-31 that not only will wolves “come in” (apparently from outside) and not spare the flock, but also “even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth.”

The danger from those who are “outside” (unbelievers, secular leftists) or those who are “inside” but further away from us on most issues (progressive/liberal Christians – and here we must note there is a difference between being politically liberal and theologically liberal, as they are not synonymous) is often fairly easy to detect, and not difficult to speak up against. After all, they’re not close to us, not part of our “in group,” so we’re not risking the rupture of a friendship or a working alliance by calling them out. It doesn’t take a lot of guts for conservatives to “own the libs.”

It does take courage, backbone, and intestinal fortitude to stand up to errors and distortions within one’s own “tribe.” One risks being ostracized and metaphorically homeless (and there are plenty of people feeling that way in our current political climate – they can’t stand the policies of the left, and can’t stomach the antics and shenanigans of the right, with whom they more closely align ideologically). If one says anything, one takes the chance that others will level accusations of being a liberal, of “lending aid and comfort to the enemy,” and so forth. And, sadly, some people will fail to speak up out of fear of loss: loss of church members who are large donors, loss of invitations to speak at conferences or preach at churches, loss of influence in their ecclesial networks. But as a good friend said while teaching just this week, "Do I try to maintain my influence and connections, or do I do what is right?"

We’ve seen this in the past with Pentecostals and Charismatics who, out of a desire not to provide cessationists with ammunition, have failed to speak out against errors and excesses among teachers and churches in our sector of Christianity. But truth is truth, and falsehood and error must be confronted, no matter where such falsehood and error pokes its head up. If the error comes from the liberal mainline churches in the area of human sexuality, it must be called out. If the error comes in the form of importing New Age practices into the Pentecostal church under the guise of “a new move of the Spirit,” those with the gift of discernment must speak up. And if it’s people excusing very un-Christlike attitudes and behaviors because someone “has the right policies” or “will protect us from the godless people on the other side,” that error must be faced down as well.

This all brings to mind an illustration I have heard preachers use many times during my lifetime to point to the importance of accepting only the pure, unadulterated truth:

You're thirsty after being outside in the hot sun on a summer day. Someone offers you a big 32 oz cup of ice water. But there's a catch. There's 1 tiny drop—1 mililiter —of strycnine in the 32 oz of water.  Would you drink it? It's just a little poison in a much greater quantity of water. Of course you woudn't drink it, because no matter how much ytou body needs hydration, you don't want to drink water thast's been contaminated by poison.

The sad irony is, I'm fairly certain there's a good chance my interlocutor on Facebook would agree with that illustration (and may have even used it at some point in his preaching career) when it comes to making sure the gospel isn't twisted and perverted by "liberals" who deny the authority of Scripture, yet he seems unwilling to recognize the same danger when it's on our conservative end of the spectrum.

As followers of Christ, we must stand firm for truth and against error and falsehood, no matter from whence that error comes. Even if it means losing influence. Even if it means losing funding. Even if it means losing position or recognition. We cannot afford to ignore the dangers that come from within just because the threats from "out there" seem bigger at the moment. 

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