The Right to Remain Silent

Note: I wrote the bulk of this some time ago and it never was posted. Nevertheless, the sentiments expressed do seem to me to be worthy of consideration and so I am posting it here even though the issues and events referenced are dated.

Men and women facing arrest have the right to remain silent. Preachers, apparently, do not.

For some Christians alarms ring constantly on the cultural front and if preachers do not preach to that alarm we are cowering in fear and shirking our God-given calling.

There are many ways I fail in my calling. I question my fitness for ministry weekly, if not daily. But do I fail as the alarmists tell me I do when I do not speak to every cultural issue or crisis? I don’t think so.

A couple years ago, I addressed this subject, and so to cover the same territory is redundant. And yet the demand that preachers preach “to the current crisis” continues to surface.

There are many reasons to resist that demand, not the least of which is the ignorance that often swirls about issues when they first break onto the scene. Lack of information should breed care. It often does not.

We have this week alarmist fingers pointing at Houston, Texas, where, we are told, government is flexing its authoritarian muscle in subpoenaing sermons from pastors. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, a man with the ears of many and at times good insight, says that

A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship. The pastors of Houston should tell the government that they will not trample over consciences, over the First Amendment and over God-given natural rights.

I’m stunned by that. Absent from his post is the reality that the pastors in question SUED the city of Houston, and the subpoena is simply part of the discovery phase of a legal proceeding that the ministers themselves initiated. One may still find the city’s reaction an over reach. But we do no one any favors, and especially those who are looking to our leaders to be thoughtful men, when we leave out pertinent details in our reporting of it.

Just this morning news broke that a city in Idaho was threatening to fine or jail a couple of ordained ministers for their refusal to perform a gay marriage. Again, this is an issue worth watching. The implications could be broad. From some posts (an example is here) one can easily get the impression that the city is going after all Christian ministers. But the couple in question do not pastor a church but a for-profit wedding chapel. They are a business. Again, issues abound, but the alarmists do us a disservice in screaming loudly in our ears and omitting information crucial to the issue at hand.

And if we all do not feed out of their hands and march to their drum, our very credentials as faithful men and women are questioned. That is wrong.

We were told on Twitter this week by one respected evangelical writer, Eric Metaxas (@ericmetaxas), that

Every pastor in America should preach about [the Houston subpoenas] on Sunday. If your preacher won’t, find another church. This is real.

I get that Metaxas’ has a thoughtful perspective on history. Though his book on Bonhoeffer was awful (I seem to be the only one on the planet who thought so), he has thought deeply about how Christian leaders should respond to government’s power. But men of good conscience will disagree on this. To lay down a litmus test of fidelity to my calling on this issue is grossly irresponsible.

Biblical preaching will often intersect with issues of public debate. And it should at times stimulate public debate. But the degree to which public debate influences the nature of one’s preaching will be effected by far more than what the alarmists find alarming.

Often I’m silent because I don’t know enough about the current crisis to speak intelligently about it. But mostly I’m silent because the issues are ones on which good people differ and which do not strike at the heart of my calling to preach the gospel.

Even here, I am told that I am wrong. When World Vision some time ago first agreed to offer employment to partners in gay relationships and then immediately reversed itself, I felt that there were a couple of ways of assessing that decision from a Christian point of view. Russell Moore, however, could see only one way and stated (quoted by Justin Taylor)

At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Really? That is, quite frankly, absurd. (Sometimes I wish my sense of propriety would lose its grip on me and allow me to use a stronger word. Such a comment deserves a stronger word, an expletive, even.)

Give your pastors the right to remain silent. Give them the promise of your prayers and your support. Pray that they would be wise and courageous. Be there when they preach, love them in their brokenness, and accept their gentle shepherding. But don’t demand that they follow the alarmist herd.

Fair

From J. P. Hickinbotham’s forward to John Stott’s Christian Mission in the Modern World in which he seeks to elucidate four of the qualities of the work which make it useful.

“Thirdly, fair. He does not hesitate to criticize what is unbiblical in modern radical theology, but neither does he spare the unbiblical attitudes which sometimes lurk among the presuppositions and attitudes of evangelicals. He always qualifies his criticisms so as to avoid any injustice to those whom he criticizes and he balances criticism by generous recognition of the true and good things which those with whom he disagrees are saying and standing for.” (page 8)

Let’s Be Honest

Few news organizations have as many people in as many places covering as much stuff as the New York Times or National Public Radio, and so I trust them as sources of good and relevant and accurate information. And yet try as they might to be objective, and they do try, that they cannot succeed should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about the strength and blindness of human bias.

Several articles in the NY Times lept out at me this past week or so as revealing this blindness. Two address the recent efforts of the majority Republican US Congress to reduce spending. One is an op-ed piece about those cuts whose headline is “The G.O.P.’s Abandoned Babies”. The other is an editorial headed “The War on Women”.

In both, the pro-life tilt of the Republican party is used as a foil against which to portray the party as having no compassion for children or women. They are, the author of one says, “pro-life before birth and indifferent afterward”. Their efforts to restrict federal funding of abortion services are nothing less than misogynistic.

This is, of course, no better than a conservative paper trumpeting the extension of abortion rights as “The War on Babies”. And it does not matter who is in power and who is making cuts, when budgets get cut, those cuts are made as carefully as possible to effect those with the fewest number of votes. As David Brooks pointed out, in the same publication, the problem does not lie with ideology or party, but with politicians unwilling to face their difficult task.

So, pardon me, Mr. NY Times, your biases are showing. I know these are opinion pieces. But the headlines you gave to them suggest the tilt.

Ironically, the Times this week as well ran a story about the New York City Council being incensed that crisis pregnancy centers in New York do not advertise themselves as ‘not providing medical or abortion services’, ‘tricking’ women into walking into their ‘trap’ and then feeding them loads of mis-information, contrary to honest service providers like Planned Parenthood.

Okay, I know that there are crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) whose operational practice is less than stellar. But they are rare. If I might make an observation on those that I have had the privilege of being associated with, their whole goal is to give the information that Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers are denying women. The mis-information is not on the CPC side of the street, but in the halls of the abortionist who will not provide the woman an ultrasound to see the baby’s beating heart to make sure she wants to go through with a procedure that will stop that beating heart. The ‘war on women’, rests with those like Planned Parenthood who happily support efforts to get pregnancy centers to fill their advertising with disclaimers, but staunchly oppose bills to require that THEY THEMSELVES give accurate information to the women whose abortion fees fund them.

I’m all for civility. But I treasure honest clarity as well. Not seeing a whole bunch of it here.

And finally, in the Irony of Ironies Department, Life Division, NPR ran a story this week on Republican efforts in the House to alter EPA funding. One concern is that changes in the regulatory power of the EPA will reduce the agency’s ability to control mercury emissions, a pollutant particularly dangerous, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “for young children”. To raise awareness of this danger, the Environmental Defense Fund is running a television ad stressing this danger by using footage of an ultrasound of a fetus. The same ultrasound that Planned Parenthood refuses to show their patients, unconcerned, it would seem, about an abortion’s danger for “young children”.

The human heart is incapable of impartiality. Read. But read with discernment.

Abraham Lincoln and Effective Rhetoric

Charity in debate is something I long for. I’m not a good one to champion it, of course. I often find after a heated discussion with someone on some topic mattering to the two of us the need to go to that person and ask his forgiveness for my tone or for words carelessly spoken.

But this pot would still like to address the kettle so that we all might step away from our blackness, listen to how we sound, and ameliorate our rhetoric in such a way that we might be heard and be effective in our persuasion.

The concern for civility has entered the national debate recently as a result of the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. I’m not persuaded that this shooting was the result of uncivil discourse. My hope is not that Rush Limbaugh would tone down his rhetoric. He won’t, nor will others whose shrillness is a part of their entertainment schtick. My hope is that those of us concerned for persuasion and not entertainment would stop letting those voices be the ones which inform our content and style. My concern is ultimately that the church, first, would become a place where variant views can be heard, discussed, and even strongly disagreed with, in a context of mutual respect and understanding.

With this background, I am intrigued, therefore, to read how Abraham Lincoln framed his rhetoric regarding slavery prior to his election to the presidency. There is no question that Lincoln opposed slavery. He was realistic enough to know, though, that the most to be hoped for politically at the time was containment, not abolition. He pursued what was politically viable and for that, he is skewered. But should he be?

It is easy to embrace and speak moral absolutes. But to be politically persuasive is far more difficult. And being persuasive was Lincoln’s goal.

Lincoln knew that in any debate there are several groups. There are hardened partisans on both sides of the issue. In his case, these were the abolitionists on the one end and the defenders of slavery on the other. He could not hope to take ardent defenders of the Southern practice of enslavement and move them to the abolitionists’ side no matter how skilled his tongue or passionate his desire. What he could hope to do was to persuade a third group, those uncertain, those whose opinions were not yet hardened. And so at these he aimed his message.

Doris Kearns Goodwin provides a fascinating account of his approach in her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Lincoln appealed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, arguing that these principles alone forbid the right of one man to govern another without his consent. What was he trying to accomplish by so doing?

“By appealing to the moral and philosophical foundation work of the nation, Lincoln hoped to provide common ground on which good men in both the North and the South could stand.”

He knew that that common ground would not be embraced if he simply shouted angry slogans across the divide. His goal was not to shout and to alienate, but to reason and to draw together. His approach was radical for its time, and radical in our own. This observation is key:

“Unlike the majority of antislavery orators, who denounced the South and castigated slaveowners as corrupt and un-Christian, Lincoln pointedly denied fundamental differences between Northerners and Southerners. He argued that they ‘are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up…. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself.'”

He models for us something that our more passionate anti-abortion allies, and at times I, find very hard to comprehend:

“Rather than upbraid slaveowners, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy.” (page page 167)

This is hard, and it seems pragmatic. And yes, it did not persuade the hardened. The country still went to war; Lincoln was still assassinated. But there is something fundamentally right in his approach, right and important for all our personal discussions, whether it be political or religious.

Everything said in these pages (I have quoted from pages 167-168) is helpful. The whole book is helpful. But I leave you with this:

“Though the cause be ‘naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel,’ the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker or the slaveowner than ‘penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.’ In order ‘to win a man to your causes,’ Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, ‘the great high road to his reason.’ This, he concluded, was the only road to victory — to that glorious day ‘when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth.'”

May God give us ears to hear.