The CNN program “Crossfire,” which boasted being about “left versus right, black versus white, paper versus plastic, the Red Sox against the Yankees,” had daringly invited comedian Jon Stewart on to the show after Stewart had criticized them for their acerbic banter. Each week, two guests espousing opposing views would be brought on to duke it out, and Stewart had noted the toxic fumes. Hoping, no doubt, for more sparks to fly, Stewart disarmed the guests with words they did not expect:
“Why do we have to fight?”
It was a good question. So good that shortly thereafter, the show was cancelled due to declining ratings, not altogether separate from repeated airings of Stewart’s appearance on YouTube.
So why do we have to fight?
Sociologist Deborah Tannen writes that we live in an “argument culture.” Her observation is that we no longer dialogue with each other, contending that there has been a system-wide relational breakdown in our culture. It is as if we approach everything with a warlike mentality so we end up looking at the world – and people – in an adversarial frame of mind.
And Christians seem to be leading the way.
An editorial in Christianity Today discussed how no attribute of civilized life seems more under attack than civility. The author, David Aikman, noted the extent to which certain Christians have turned themselves into the
“self appointed attack dogs of Christendom. They seem determined to savage not only opponents of Christianity, but also fellow believers of whose doctrinal positions they disapprove. A troll through the Internet reveals websites so drenched in sarcasm and animosity than an agnostic, or a follower of another faith tradition interested in what it means to become a Christian, might be permanently disillusioned.”
I recently read of a large church that made the news due to a problem with a persistently caustic blogger. A former member, he had become disgruntled over various actions of the senior pastor, and became further incensed that said pastor maintained the backing of the leadership. With nowhere to go with his animus, and no menas to lobby for his cause, he started an anonymous blog in order to wage a one-person campaign of bitterness. It quickly disintegrated on both sides to such a degree that the church complained to the police, who investigaged and discovered the identity of the blogger, and now suits and countersuits are flying freely.
What a God-forsaken mess.
But the article had links, which led to other links, and before I knew it, I found myself exposed in a way I had never imagined possible to the sordid world of the bitter-blog, meaning blogs that exist for no other reason than to attack a particular Christian leader, church, or ministry. I found that virtually ever senior pastor of a megachurch has one, intent on causing dissension and disunity and as much disaffection as possible.
Sadly, this is not new for evangelicalism. I once read of a school president, who was also an evangelist, who made it clear that if any faculty or student attended a certain fellow evangelist’s crusade, they would be fired or expelled. If they wanted to pray for the evangelist, he suggested the following words:
Dear Lord, bless the man who leads Christian people
into disobeying the word of God, who prepares the way
for Antichrist by building the apostate church and
turning his so-called converts over to infidels and
unbelieving preachers. Bless the man who flatters the
Pope and defers to the purple and scarlet-clothed
Antichrist who heads the church that the word of God
describes as the old whore of Babylon.
So much for Bob Jones, Sr., and his relationship with Billy Graham. I am sure Bob Jones, Sr., was a good and Godly man in many ways. Just not in this way. But while this sentiment has been brewing for some time, what is new is the increasingly public nature of our vitriol, its widespread dissemination through the internet, and our growing comfort with its presence. As Francis Schaeffer presciently observed toward the end of his life, it has almost become a matter of personal privilege:
“We rush in, being very, very pleased, it would seem at
times, to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves
up by tearing other men down...we love the smell of
blood, the smell of the arena, the smell of the bullfight...”
We may be pleased, but we are not being Christian.
In the gospel of John we have the poignant final words and prayers of Jesus to His disciples before the cross. It is considered by many to be among the most moving sections of the New Testament. What occupied Jesus the moments before His atoning death for the sins of the world? Not surprisingly, His concern was that the world would recognize His gift. And how would that happen? Christ’s torrent of prayer and pleading begins and ends with a passionate call for unity among those who claim His name. The observable love between those who called themselves His followers was everything. Why? Jesus said it would be this unity, and this unity alone, which would arrest the world’s attention and confirm that He was from the Father.
As has often been pointed out, when the Bible talks about such loving unity, it doesn’t mean uniformity, which is everyone looking and thinking alike. And the biblical idea is certainly not to be confused with unanimity, which is complete agreement about every petty issue across the board. By unity, the Bible means first and foremost a oneness of heart - a relational unity. Being kind to one another, gracious to one another, forgiving of one another – not assuming the worst, shooting the wounded, or being quick to be suspicious. Biblical unity is about working through conflicts, avoiding slander and gossip, and being generous in spirit.
And this unity matters – so much so that the Bible reserves some of its harshest words of discipline for those who sin against it. “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him,” wrote the apostle Paul to Titus (Titus 3:10, NIV).
Many long to return to the growth and vibrancy of the early church, and well they should – but we often mistake it’s dynamic. As Tertullian noted, the awed pagan reaction to the Christian communal life was, “See how they love one another.”
Such love arrested the attention of the world. And it should have – it is, after all, the mark of a Christian.
James Emery White
“Rudeness, threats make the Web a cruel world,” Janet Kornblum, USA Today, Tuesday, July 31, 2007, p. 1A and 2A.
Peter Wood, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (New York: Encounter Books, 2006).
On Billy Graham and Bob Jones, Sr., see William Martin, A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story (New York: William Morrow, 1991), p. 318.
Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of a Christian.
The Apology of Tertullian, AD 197.