I recently sat in a carpool line behind a Toyota 4-Runner whose backside was plastered with no less than 22 bumper stickers, three proclaiming the driver’s pro-life views, and three more in favor of gun rights.
The tone of many of them, and the sheer number, made me feel as if I was being shouted at. I’m not a pacifist, nor am I opposed to gun ownership, but I confess I wondered how to square the driver’s concern for life (which I share) with a decal image of an automatic assault rifle labeled as a “modern day musket.”
But the larger incongruity for me were the stickers professing affiliation with churches and Christian schools bearing names like Good Shepherd alongside the oval sticker on the rear window which read “Proud Member of the Angry Mob.” After all, it was an incited angry mob that demanded crucifixion for the one who called Himself the Good Shepherd, and I can’t recall a lot of good things accomplished by angry mobs throughout history, in spite of the fact that there is often real and legitimate reason to be angry.
Joining the Angry Mob
The person in front of me wanted to share her views on a few political issues which were obviously important to her, namely abortion, gun control, taxes and Obamacare. People also take their opinions to social media to debate everything from Supreme Court decisions on abortion to marriage rights and much, much more.
I don’t know the driver and am not free to judge her, but her display did cause me to reflect on how many Christians engage the broader culture, and how disconnected it often seems from the central Gospel message that the God who made us and loves us is about the business of making all things right. And He calls us to be a part of his loving, healing, creative and redemptive work in the world.
So I wonder how taking pride in being part of an angry mob reflects a life transformed by the healing power of Jesus. That may be a harsh assessment of the anonymous person in front of me. (I’m guessing if I met her she might well be the kind of person who volunteers at a food pantry, runs a business with high ethical standards, sends money each month to an orphanage in Guatemala, and prays regularly for a neighbor stricken with a terminal disease.) Maybe her life has been radically transformed by God’s love. And thank God we live in a society where you can express yourself freely and use your family SUV as a mobile conveyance device for your political views and other things you’re angry about.
But on the other hand, how many minds have ever been changed by a pointedly worded bumper sticker, even 22 of them? Angry discourse can certainly motivate and stir people to action, but we as Christians are called to live differently. Shouldn’t we resist the urge to be a part of the angry mob rather than proudly trumpet our affiliation with it?
I’m obviously being too hard on this poor woman whose great misfortune was to find herself in front of someone like me in carpool line. But after nearly 20 years in our nation’s capital, I’m disheartened by the poisonous state of our political discourse and even more by the contribution that have been made to the toxicity by those who do it in the name of Jesus. God help us.
I don’t think I’m being naïve. Winsomeness and reasoned engagement won’t always win the day. (If you doubt this, read this story by Tish Harrison Warren and her disillusioning encounter as a certain-type of Christian at Vanderbilt University.) But there are arguments and battles I am content to lose if the cost of “winning” them requires membership in the angry mob. Or, better said, I want to be a part of finding a way to live together with deep differences in a pluralistic society. And I want to do it in ways that allow me to reflect into the world the deep sense of divine love and grace I’ve experienced and on which I am entirely dependent.
That’s not to say there aren’t things I’m angry about, too. I have a long list. But, of course, as Paul said, it’s what we do with our anger that really matters. And it’s how we treat our neighbor with whom we have deep differences of belief, action or lifestyle. Think of Jesus and the woman He met at a well in Samaria.
So in the spirit of shining a light rather than just cursing the darkness, here are a few guideposts for Christian engagement in an era of deep division and poisonous discourse:
1. Be humble, winsome and irenic. Jesus’ call to take up His cross won’t always be welcomed, of course, but we are called to be peacemakers and the sweet aroma of Christ.
2. Listen more than you talk and don’t demonize those you disagree with.
3. Be hesitant about holding people to moral or religious standards to which they haven’t agreed.
4. Seek the common good, the flourishing of all, and respect and defend the rights of others more than your own.
5. Do your homework and learn to calmly and intelligently articulate reasons for what you believe.
6. Give complexity its due. Not everything can be reduced to a bumper sticker slogan.
7. Stay in the game—in the world though not of it—and don’t walk away or retreat into a Christian subculture bubble.
8. Reject angry activism in favor of hopeful engagement.
The culture is shifting rapidly, leaving many of us wary and uncertain, and anger and vitriol are the order of the day. Can Christians endure a radical renegotiation of the social contract and find ways to hold fast with what they know, articulate their views, and be heard? I believe we can, but angry activism has to be rejected, not just because it’s ineffective, but because it’s inconsistent with the message of the Gospel.
Todd Deatherage is the co-founder of The Telos Group, a nonprofit group seeking to educated American leaders about he Israeli-Palestinian conflict and work toward peace. Before that, he worked for over a decade in Congress and the U.S. government.