Recently I wrote in this space about a “nation of chasms,” the division of worldviews and values cloven by the blunt maul of post-modernism, secularism, neo-paganism, “scientific rationalism,” etc. in our time. These and related faiths can all be subsumed under one comprehensive rubric: The first person singular über alles. Much of our culture believes the Serpent’s lie: by recreating the Divine in our own image, each of us can be his or her own god.
Christians are by no means immune to this seductive faith, which is as old as Eden and as fresh as daily sin. We easily become lovers of ourselves, preening with self-preoccupation. The idols on the shelves of our lives are the arid productions of our own hearts. Only through “devoting (our)selves to the apostles’ teaching (the truths of God’s Word) and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42) can we stay faithful.
How, then, can we speak across the deepening chasms of our culture? First, while working to speak and act in such a way that our peers grasp, consider, and in some cases embrace the truth of the Gospel, we have to be careful that we not become ludicrous hipster-wannabes, virtual parodies of “relevance.” Elizabethan English probably won’t get you too far in a generation raised on Jay-Z, but neither will artificial adaptation of styles of speech, dress, or behavior. People of every generation know a phony when they see one.
Second, when we speak to the broader culture, we need to use language that will not immediately discredit us and our arguments. Some conservatives delight in rhetorical bluntness, using adjectives and descriptors that are intrinsically hostile. Delivering oneself of righteous indignation can be emotionally expurgating. And, too, there are times when, to paraphrase Freud, you need to call a cigar a cigar.
But we’re not just talking to ourselves. In consequence, we need to consider not just how we structure our arguments or how decisively we logically, factually, and philosophically can decimate our opponents. Rather, we should ask how we can best display the grace of Christ while standing unequivocally for the truth. Our goal should not be to crush but persuade.
Of course, Jesus and His disciples more than once liken truth to a sword (Matthew 10:34, Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12). However gently offered, truth is a potent weapon that demands a decision, and a decision means, by definition, that one option is taken and the other is not. This makes truth, and Christ, inherently controversial. This is one of the reasons Jesus warned, “Woe unto you, when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:24). Popular approval is obtained only through moral compromise.
At the least, though, Christians should offer the truth, whether it be the Gospel itself or the truth about marriage or the truth about moral absolutes, in a way that does not intentionally antagonize those we are called to persuade, for their own sake and the sake of the culture.
Third, we need to seek areas of commonality sufficient upon which we can gain an audience if not make a disciple. As I wrote previously, the fact that moral horror still gives pause to the majority of people is welcome but is an inadequate basis for an ethical society. It’s good that we eschew such things as the fire-bombing of major cities, but what does it say about us that we tolerate and, in the case of a noticeable section of our society, celebrate the destruction of unborn life or the sexual exploitation of children in the media?
My suggestion: Rather than always going for the moral jugular – “How can you support that, you evil idiot?” – go back to the “assumptions of the assumptions,” per Kevin DeYoung. So when in conversation someone says, “What’s the big deal with same-sex ‘marriage,’” it’s likely not going to be convincing to rattle off what are, to you, obvious statements of fact and reason. Such things might be wholly new thoughts to someone raised in the culture of sentiment, mass media, and fluid morality.
Instead, maybe say, “What do you think of same sex 'marriage'? Sounds like you’ve got some strong opinions.” And then affirm what you can about your opponent’s argument: That all persons deserve to be protected by the law and treated with civil and social respect, that cruelty to someone based on sexual orientation is wrong, etc. Inviting into dialog those with whom we disagree affirms their value before God and us, and provides us with a credible platform from which to make our case.
These efforts also help establish some kind of common moral language, even if it is only elementary. At the least, we dispel stereotypes and for those interested in genuine discourse, provide a basis for deeper conversations and, we might hope, for their persuasion, as well.
Some advocates of what Christians must regard as immorality and wrong are strident, even hateful. Granted. The disgraceful, hateful comments registered on various blog sites following the tragic death of Pastor Rick Warren’s son are a case in point. But at least we can pray for them even as we oppose them, and also bear in mind that there are far more people who unthinkingly have accepted the presuppositions of the zeitgeist than there are enraged Left-wing activists. There are fellow citizens whose minds can, with gentle probing and respectful interaction, be challenged and even changed.
In days of extraordinary national trial, Abraham Lincoln was urged to make a strident statement about the South as a bitter foe to be defeated. Lincoln reportedly responded, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Lincoln refused to use harsh words against those who sought to destroy the Union and preserve slavery because he sought reconciliation even as his armies defeated the Confederacy.
Lincoln understood that no war is won through only one means. Winsome but still firm resistance, coupled with persuasive but uncompromising dialog, will bring us victory where God has so ordained it and make our witness worthy of Him, regardless of external success. That’s our charge as we share the Good News of the Savior and seek to advance life, family, liberty, and human dignity in our time.
Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president at the Family Research Council.
Publication date: April 9, 2013