My dear family in Christ,
A recent exchange I had via social media has brought my attention to a topic that I don’t think we, as a Christian community, talk about as much as we should. A certain individual took issue with a particular phrasing I used in one of my comments (on a thread I had myself started) ~ I had quoted a character from Star Wars/Disney’s The Mandalorian: “I have spoken.” It was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek pop-culture reference in the midst of a more serious discussion. The individual I mentioned above demanded to know if I “talk to my children that way.” I responded to this person by asking “How dare you attempt to use my children in an attempt to shame me just because you disagree with my point?” Personally, I found and still find that tactic to be extraordinarily offensive. This individual replied: “I thought you were supposed to be a pastor. Some pastor you are.”
That response—and let me tell y’all, it is one that’s heard all too frequently by those of us who are in the business of ministry, whether lay or ordained—is evidence on the surface of what I think is a fairly deep issue, both within the Church and beyond, in the larger secular culture. There is a widespread misconception that being a Christian, in general, and that begin a pastor/priest/minister/etc., in particular, means first and foremost being “nice.” Now, nice, of course, is a good and wonderful thing; what makes this expectation problematic is that “nice” gets defined as “never, ever pushing back against any words or actions, no matter how offensive or vile those words or actions may be; never challenging anyone or anything, but instead just being happy and making sure nobody ever feels bad for any reason.” Christians, and especially Christian ministers, are just supposed to smile, nod, and “take it,” no matter what sort of vitriol is directed our way.
Now, to be sure, we are absolutely called to conform our lives to the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who commands us unequivocally to turn the other cheek, to return kindness for malice, compassion for hate, love for fear, and to make of our lives a living sacrifice in service to God and God’s people (i.e., everybody). Beyond that, Jesus calls us to be, ourselves, agents of transformation: when hatred or anger are directed at us, we are called to transform that hate and return only love, to transform that anger and return only peace. We must follow not only the commandments but also the living example of Jesus, every single day.
So I am not even remotely suggesting that any of us ought to “fight back.” To do so is irretrievably un-Christian.
That said, however, Christians in general and Christian ministers, especially, do have an additional obligation, and that is to teach, through word and example, the faith of Jesus Christ. Teaching sometimes requires a bit of compassionate confrontation, a willingness to call people’s attention to the nature of their own actions and those of others … and the courage to offer loving correction when needed. What happens, all too often, is that the expectation that Christians and (again especially) Christian ministers are to be meek and mild at all times gets weaponized: “I can say and do whatever I want, and the pastor has no choice but to allow me to do so, because if he or she pushes back at all, I can accuse him or her of being a bad pastor and not following Jesus … and yet I don’t even have to try to live up to that same expectation myself.”
Folks, in the Christian community, we all have to live up to that standard, together. That’s the piece of the puzzle that’s so often missing in our modern Church and especially in the larger, secular culture that surrounds us: it’s not about individuals’ behavior at all. It’s about the way the entire community is called and commanded to behave towards each other within the community, and towards the larger world outside the community. We’re all in this together. That’s the only way any of this Christian life can work.
That means that I sometimes need to receive—with as much gratitude as I, in my own sinfulness, can muster—a loving rebuke from a fellow follower of Christ. Even, and really especially, when I don’t want to, I have to make myself close my mouth and open my ears and my heart to hear where it is that I’ve misspoken or acted inappropriately, how my behavior has hurt or is hurting someone, and what I need to do to make it right. It’s hard to be on the receiving end of such a rebuke at all, much less to take it in gracefully, but that’s what I’m obligated to do.
It also means that, when I witness someone’s mistreating another person (whether that other person be me or some other individual), I am obligated by my faith to speak up. I can’t let it slide; I have to step in and let the offending party know, as gently but as firmly as possible, that he or she is speaking and/or acting in a way that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and that such behavior will not be tolerated in my presence. Looking out for each other, taking a stand for each other (or even for ourselves, sometimes), whilst maintaining a humble awareness of our own capacity for harming others (whether advertently or inadvertently)—that’s all part and parcel of the Christian witness that is our obligation and our collective vocation. Again, we’re all in this together. To borrow once more from The Mandalorian: “This is the Way.”
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