Speaking Truth in Love
The art of thoughtful dialogue is fast becoming a lost commodity among us. Considering opposing viewpoints is increasingly distasteful to many.
In an effort to silence other people who disagree with us, or who point out realities that unsettle us, we sometimes accuse them of getting “too political.” Christians do this to each other in church, especially to those who have speaking roles, like pastors. I have been questioned sometimes as to why I shared a certain story or a certain reflection, which is then followed up by a suggestion I should focus on the gospel and avoid politics.
What’s ironic about many in the “don’t be political” camp is they are apparently unaware of the political logs in their own eyes. This salient fact leads me to believe that their issue isn’t with politics, but with those who have the audacity to disturb their political presuppositions. It’s a problem common to the human race. We all tend to seek affirmation for our beliefs and action and to avoid anything that creates cognitive dissonance with status quo. “Don’t be political” becomes the code phrase for “don’t speak.”
In doing so, we become that crowd around the apostle Stephen following his impassioned speech. Acts 7:57–58 records that they “cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him.”
To be fair, some of us use “politics” to mean anything “unnecessarily divisive,” and we should avoid that which simply foments turmoil. However, when it becomes a catchall phrase to sidestep real issues, we are failing our mission. In backing away from discussions on sexuality, racism, abuse, power and money, the church begins to resemble the meme of a smiling cartoon dog saying, “Everything is fine,” while the office around him is on fire.
In Psalm 137, we find the Israelites brought in captivity to Babylon. Some of the Babylonian leaders say, “Hey, I know, why don’t you all sing us a song, something from your homeland we just destroyed?” What comes forth is not what the captors wanted to hear.
Sense what’s being shared in the Israelites’ song: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?” These cheery lyrics are followed by the happy chorus, “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!” The message between captives and their captors is clear. The captors were hoping for something like “Shall We Go for a Walk Today” not “God’s Gonna Pay You Back Someday.”
God’s people could have sung a song full of promises and politically correct platitudes. Or, they could have remained silent, which in itself would have made a statement. Instead they wrote an “imprecatory” Psalm, a cursing Psalm, directed at a political power seeking to strip their spiritual identity. This type of Psalm reminds us that worship is always political in that it defines the nature and values of God’s kingdom.
Political themes appear in places like Rev. 2:18–21, where the image of Jezebel, an ancient queen known for hunting down God’s prophets, is used to describe what Thyatira tolerated. In order to do business in the Roman Empire you had to belong to a trade guild. Part of being in a guild was attending guild festivals that included immoral temple rituals as part of state worship. Refusing to party meant expulsion from the guilds as well as economic sanctions. Jesus chastises this church because it tolerated these things.
When Moses is directed to approach Pharoah on God’s behalf and ask him to release the Israelite slaves building the Egyptian empire, is it spiritual or political? When Queen Esther is asked to approach the king to speak on behalf of her people about a genocidal maniac named Haaman, is it spiritual or political? What about the three men in the fiery furnace? What about all the instruction to speak up on behalf of the poor and needy (see Prov. 31:8–9).
Sometimes it feels like we have confused separation of church and state with separation of our voice from the public space. We have separated faith and works by allowing theological fear mongers to demonize the concept of “social justice,” as though it were only a government concern. We have abdicated our voice to politicians and sold our will to act to government agencies. What we are left with is a group of people who possess a form of godliness but no power to say or do anything. Jesus tells us we will be judged by our words (Matt. 12:37). I believe that includes the words of truth and justice we don’t speak because we are too afraid of what someone might think.
Saul, one who had been in that crowd around Stephen, was confronted with the truth about God on the road to Damascus. Much later, as Apostle Paul, he wrote to the Ephesians, exhorting "that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ" (Eph. 4:14,15 NKJV).