Radical grace in an ungracious cultural momentWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
The origin of this aphorism, long attributed to Saint Augustine, is shrouded in uncertainty. But regardless of who said it first, it’s a neat encapsulation of how people, Christian and otherwise, ought to treat one another in the church and in a civil society.
However, when it comes to conversations on social media, unity, liberty and charity (also known as love) are often in short supply, whether the topic happens to be essential, non-essential or trivial. Instead, polarizing tribalism has become the ruling paradigm, not just on Twitter or Facebook but in the culture at large. To share an opinion – any opinion – about faith, politics or a popular movie is to invite scorn and verbal abuse.
It goes without saying that followers of Jesus are called to a different standard. In a cultural moment plagued by ungracious interactions online and in real life, we are to represent our Lord with radical grace to our brothers, our sisters and everyone else.
The image of God
“With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).
After the Flood, God reiterated the creation mandate and singled out murder as a capital offence precisely because it’s an attack on the image of God in another person (Genesis 9:1-17). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus equated anger, insults and abusive speech with murder, and said they all deserved hellfire (Matthew 5:21-26). His brother, James, pointed out the hypocrisy of praising God while cursing those made in his image.
Respect for our fellow image bearers, regardless of ethnicity, gender, beliefs, lifestyle or social status, isn’t just a theological ideal. It’s our creation mandate and the command of our Lord for members of his kingdom. This should give anyone tempted to engage in disrespectful talk, either on social media or elsewhere, serious pause.
The Golden Rule
“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:27-28, 31).
The command to love one’s enemies is more challenging than many of us in the West realize. In much of the world and throughout history, it has meant loving those who can directly do you harm, foreign and domestic oppressors who might kill your sons, rape your daughters, destroy your home and livelihood and sell you into slavery.
In short, it has meant a lot more than someone on Twitter or Facebook who has an opinion you don’t agree with. Even if they express that opinion in an ugly way, even if their voice carries weight in the culture, that doesn’t exempt a child of God from showing them grace, because their heavenly Father is gracious to the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:43-48).
When pondering the Golden Rule, it’s vital to ask, how do I want others to treat me? Do I want them to be rude and dismissive? Do I want them to put words in my mouth, think the worst of my motives, caricature my beliefs and refuse to listen to me? If not, then why would I treat anyone else that way?
The perils of Phariseeism
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:1-3).
The Pharisees were the most conservative religious people of Jesus’ day. They knew the Old Testament inside and out. They read all the right commentaries by all the right authors. They were also virulent legalists, without a shred of compassion for the pain and suffering of others. All they cared about was that everyone followed the rules, as they defined them.
One of the grave perils of Phariseeism is that Pharisees don’t see themselves as such. They believe in the rightness of their cause and that they’re doing God a service by insisting on the fine points of theology while being willfully blind to the weightier matters of justice, mercy and the love of God (Matthew 23:1-36; Luke 11:37-54).
It doesn’t take an exhaustive search to find online examples of Phariseeism in full bloom. The stories of women and people of colour who’ve been victims of misogyny, sexual abuse or systemic racism are minimized and dismissed – and the victims often mocked – in favour of arguments about socialism, feminism and critical race theory. For angry keyboard warriors who hide behind the anonymity of their screens, the warning of Jesus is apropos: “What you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.”
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
The title of C.S. Lewis’ classic book, Mere Christianity, points to the core truths on which all believers of good conscience can and must agree. These truths are reflected in the early creeds of the church: The Trinity, Christ’s full deity and humanity, his saving life, death, resurrection and return, the unity of the church, baptism and the communion of faith, the forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Not surprisingly, those ancient creeds are silent about political conservatism versus liberalism, capitalism versus socialism, nationalism versus internationalism. They have nothing to say about models of worship or church government, the roles of men and women in the church or in the home, the proper way to interpret the creation week in Genesis or the apocalyptic visions in Revelation.
These are important subjects and worthy of gracious, civil discussion. But they are of secondary importance and shouldn’t be conflated with core truths of the faith. Brothers and sisters of good conscience can disagree about them, and have done so throughout church history. Such disagreements don’t automatically make anyone an unsaved heretic, and they certainly don’t justify unkind verbal attacks against them, online or anywhere else.
Thinking freely and deeply
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
All of us are susceptible to tribalism, to seeking out those who look, act and think as we do. We feel comfortable and validated in our echo chambers. We give in to confirmation bias, welcoming any sliver of opinion that supports our position while rejecting volumes of information that may challenge our ideas.
This is a polarizing tendency that has only gotten worse of late. Every issue has two (and only two) mutually exclusive (and mutually hostile) sides. There’s felt pressure to signal loyalty to one’s camp (whether political, theological or otherwise) by toeing the line on every position it holds. Either you’re with the tribe or against the tribe.
But Jesus told his followers that the greatest commandment included loving God with all of the mind (Mark 12:28-34). Among other things, this means doing the hard work of thinking through issues carefully and critically. We’re to use our minds as discerning adults, rejecting falsehood and embracing truth in every field of inquiry.
As those who worship a God who is both rational and free, followers of Jesus ought to be the most free and deep thinkers in all the world. We should be eager to pursue the truth, whatever its source and wherever it leads, even if that means stepping outside the boundary markers of our various tribes.
Living as an ambassador
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20-21).
Obeying God by thinking for ourselves and showing grace to our ideological foes has its own risks. It can leave us feeling alienated from our own tribe, or any tribe. People on every side may accuse us of being friendly with the enemy, whoever they perceive that to be. Or they might simply dismiss us as fence sitters. From an ideological standpoint, we may feel like we’ve become people without a country.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. For followers of Jesus, our primary loyalty isn’t to an earthly nation, a political party, an ideological tribe, or even to a particular church tradition. Our loyalty is to our God, and our desire is to see his kingdom come and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Scripture portrays us as ambassadors for Christ, and that is what we are (2 Corinthians 5:20-21; Ephesians 6:19-20). We represent his current and future reign within the foreign territories where he has dispatched us. As his ambassadors, we’re to reflect the customs and character that are hallmarks of his kingdom: grace, mercy and kindness to one another, and to those who oppose us.
The grace of Christ
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Our ambassadorial duties are a great privilege as well as a great responsibility. They’re difficult – in fact impossible – to carry out, apart from the empowering grace of our Sovereign Lord. As fallen creatures, we’re prone to look for validation in all the wrong places – our sense of pride and self-importance, being right and belonging to the right group, tearing down those who threaten or merely disagree with us.
But even as the surrounding culture descends into these polarizing depths, Jesus calls us to demonstrate uplifting, radical grace. We’re to humbly consider others ahead of ourselves and look out for their interests (Philippians 2:3-4); to repay no one evil for evil but live at peace with them (Romans 12:17-18); and to do good to everyone, especially our brothers and sisters in the faith (Galatians 6:10). And according to Jesus, all people will recognize that we represent him by how we love one another (John 13:34-35).
Jesus isn’t just our model for grace and kindness, but the source who makes it possible. It’s only as we grow to appreciate the beauty and wonder of his forgiveness and love that we’re empowered to love others as he has loved us.
Whether online or in real life, the world is watching how we treat one another and those who disagree with us. And it needs the radical grace of Christ, mediated through his people, as perhaps never before. Let’s make certain that they see it.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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