1 Peter 3.13-17
Rev. William Bills
I didn’t vote for President Trump. I didn’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton. I wrote to the Democratic National Committee twice to say that I thought they put forward a flawed candidate with too many past problems and overestimated her potential for election. One problem with the two-party system is that we sometimes end up wishing we had more than two options.
I had many concerns about President Trump as a candidate. I was surprised when he was elected. A number of people who lamented the election of President Trump asked me what I thought. On several occasions I said this could be a significant opportunity for people of faith to testify to their beliefs, values and morals. 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for President Trump. Non-white, moderate and liberal Christians were not as supportive. So it is hard for Christians to respond to recent events in our nation with a unified voice.
After the election of Barack Obama, some speculated that we had achieved a post-racial America. I found the idea of a post-racial America pretty naïve. I won’t take any credit for being right. It was just a matter of perception. My perception is that as we moved through the Obama presidency racism didn’t get better. It obviously didn’t go away. The election of one man to the presidency couldn’t resolve four hundred years of racism in our culture. There is no quick fix to racism and hate. World War II was a massive undertaking. Nazis and white supremacy persist in spite of it.
People of faith have a significant opportunity to matter in America. Some might see only crisis but every crisis is also an opportunity. We have opportunity now to offer thoughtful Christian responses to racism, violence and hate. These things are repulsive. But angry, unthinking, violent, faithless responses will make things worse, not better.
Lately we have seen a side of America that we would prefer not to see. But it won’t go away just because we don’t want to look at it. So an opportunity is thrust upon us that we may not want. We have got to respond in a Christ-like manner to what some hoped was no longer a problem in our country.
People of faith have to engage the conversation and speak to what we believe. Any truth we proclaim must be proclaimed non-violently. We must be willing to suffer for truth. There is a spiritual difference between witnessing to truth and fighting for truth. Any means necessary is not an option for Christians. Our methods have to be as pure as our goals. If we oppose hate, violence and intimidation then we cannot employ them as tactics.
Martin Luther King, Jr., and M. K. Gandhi before him, knew this. One cannot claim moral high ground while doing violence to those one disagrees with. Violence need not be physical. Our words, gestures, facial expressions, even our thoughts toward those we disagree with can be violent. Violence in any form does not convert anyone to a better way.
Dr. King and Mr. Gandhi would typically suspend resistance campaigns if their people responded to violence with violence. Gandhi would suspend resistance campaigns and undertake fasting because he knew that non-violent resistance was a spiritual discipline of the highest order. He called truth God and said that one cannot witness to truth without the spiritual discipline required for non-violence. Anger adds to the sum total of violence and cannot witness to truth.
Anger, violence, threat and coercion may subdue an opponent but they never convert them to brothers and sisters. Resisting evil and witnessing to truth are spiritual callings of the highest order. Even if your opponent repulses you their basic humanity must still be affirmed. The desired end should be change of heart and mind, not annihilation.
The Apostle Peter posed the question, “Now, who will harm you if you are eager to do good?” That isn’t a rhetorical question. If the status quo is not good, and you want to change it for the better, those invested in the status quo may not appreciate you meddling. If you try to change things for the better those who think things are fine may want to harm you.
The powerful don’t give up power easily. That is why many people simply go with the flow. Sometimes we wonder if we can make a difference. If you are really eager to do good, someone might harm you. But a person of faith cannot respond with violence in word deed or even thought.
Racism, prejudice, bigotry, violence; these things are not truthful. They are not of God. They are evil. They are birthed in fear and they live in fear. Peter also wrote, “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated. But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” To sanctify means to make holy. Those who work for good, those who desire truth must have clear hearts.
The scripture says, “When you are maligned…” It doesn’t say, “If you are maligned.” When you are maligned, don’t be intimidated but always be ready to give an accounting of the hope that is in you. If you respond from hope your response will be gentleness and reverence and your conscience will be clear. Don’t put Christ to shame. It is better to suffer for doing what is good than to suffer for doing what is evil. Our response to evil cannot be more evil. Evil is only overcome by good. But if you stand for truth, be prepared to be maligned. When you are maligned, respond with spiritual discipline.
Robin Meyers is the pastor at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City. He is also a professor of rhetoric and philosophy at Oklahoma City University. He has written a number of books. One of those is called, “The Underground Church.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped to reconcile South African Apartheid, said of “The Underground Church”, “Read this book, if you dare. Become a part of this movement, if you are daring.” The pursuit of truth in the name of God is a daring quest.
What does all this have to do with being a 21st century evangelist? In “The Underground Church” Robin Meyers gets right to the point very early. He says we know church attendance has been going down for decades and we offer all kinds of reasons. People are busy. There are more demands made on our time. We work a lot. We travel more. But Meyers says church attendance is going down because people aren’t sure the church really matters any more.
Does the church matter? Do we have a role to play in society right now? Do we have something worthwhile to say or is it better to keep quiet? Can we say what we believe and stand for that? Are we willing to be maligned for what is right? Can we do that and remain gentle and reverent?
In the midst of social and political crisis should the church stand idly by? What will a credible Christian response look like? Hand wringing? Name calling? Spiritually disciplined witness to the gospel?
“Divided nation” has become a cliché in America. Evangelism in the 21st century will require a response to division that is credible. Credible means believable. If people of faith resort to name calling, intimidation or violence, even violent thoughts, then we are not believable. Nor are we faithful.
Robin Meyers notes that there is often more passion generated in church when the organ is too loud or the sermon is too long than there is passion generated over the destruction of our planet. He says this is because he thinks nobody really expects anything significant to happen at church. Instead, we get caught up with insignificant things while neglecting important things.
Evangelism is sharing good news. Important things are happening in society. We have to respond in good ways. We can have important conversations in the church. We can be honest. We can disagree. We can do this without harming anyone. But doing nothing is tacit endorsement of the status quo. This is our opportunity to witness to the truth and the goodness of God. In a divided nation people of faith must step into the breach. Even if we cannot heal the divide we are still called to resist evil, injustice and oppression. Our resistance cannot become violent or hate-filled.
If we are going to be evangelists in the 21st century we cannot talk about our beliefs in here and fail to act out there. Does the church matter? What would happen if somebody asked that question on the cable news cycle today? What is the Christian response to racism, hate and violence?
If you are a Christian, remember what Peter said as the young church was working out its relationship to the empire: When you are maligned it is better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil. When you are maligned for doing good, respond with gentleness and reverence. Who will harm you if you are eager to do good? Do not fear what they fear and do not be intimidated.
The question Robin Meyers asked should be taken seriously. Does the church matter?
If you are white, stand with African-Americans; or Native Americans; or Asians, or Latinos. Do the right thing and don’t be afraid. If it costs you something, so be it. God will make it up to you later. If you are a citizen, stand with immigrants. If you are Christian, stand with Muslims. Or Jews. Or Hindus. Or Buddhists. If you’re straight, stand with those who are not.
Every week we pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth…” There isn’t supposed to be comma there. We say, “… thy will be done, then we take a breath, then we say, on earth. We put some distance between God’s empire and ours. But the prayer says: “… thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth …”
I wonder sometimes if God’s response isn’t, “Okay! What are you people waiting for? Why are you all standing around? Get to it!”
If we are going to share good news in the 21st century that is believable, if the church does matter, we cannot sit idly by and wring our hands. We have to stand with the marginalized, with the oppressed, and with the suffering. We have to speak to what we believe is right. We have to overcome evil with good. For that we may be maligned. For doing good, we may suffer. But we cannot be intimidated.