I have probably mentioned this before, but the folks from Westboro Baptist Church really burn my cookies. Last night at our youth group meeting we watched a segment of Adam Hamilton’s “When Christians Get it Wrong” and were discussing how well-meaning church people often chase unbelievers away from the church instead of attracting them. When I was much younger, we were always taught that the Christian faith should be “winsome.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but from the way it was used, it sounded as if it ought to be something that looked and sounded attractive. According to the American Heritage online dictionary it does, in fact, mean charming.
The followers of Jesus Christ are called upon to tell the world about the Good News of reconciliation, that God has done everything possible to repair our relationship with him and to demonstrate his love for us. I have to think that demonstrating respect and love for others, for their religion, for their opinions, for their culture and for their existence would have to be the first step in doing that. Showing up at a child’s funeral or anywhere else with signs that say “God Hates Fags,” “God Killed Your Sons,” or worst of all, “God Is Your Enemy” is definitely going in completely the wrong direction. First of all these statements tell unbelievers that the church is out of touch and that it is full of bigoted idiots that have no desire (or ability) to understand their situation. Worse than that, these things are all lies. There is nothing in scripture that could lead someone to believe that God hates you or that God is your enemy. the whole point of scripture, especially the message of the Gospel, is entirely the opposite, that God loves you more than you can know.
That doesn’t meant that God is making any compromises about things that he considers wrong, but that a message of love cannot be communicated by being hateful and hurtful. In his book, When Christians Get it Wrong, Adam Hamilton, correctly, points to the Apostle Paul. I have used Paul as an example for years, and so have many others. Paul was a Pharisee. He was incredibly well educated. He had studied under some of the most noted Rabbis in history. Paul knew sin and he wasn’t afraid to point out the sins of others. Paul had often warned the churches of the evils of idol worship, particularly in those places under the influence of the Romans and Greeks (which we, pretty much everywhere), but that isn’t how he started a conversation with people who actually worshiped idols. When Paul visited Athens, a city full of idols and temples of numerous false gods and goddesses, Luke tells us that “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Even so, Paul didn’t launch into a tirade about how evil they all were. He went into the synagogue and and into the marketplace reasoned with the people. His reasoning was sound enough that he was asked to go to Mars Hill and explain his views further and even there, he didn’t condemn them. Instead, Paul said:
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23)
Paul began by expressing his admiration for their care in pursuing the truth even though their worship of idols distressed him. No one will believe you if you tell them you love them while you are beating them over the head. Telling someone that God hates them is not winsome… or loving.
It’s just wrong.
It isn’t often that this sort of thing drops into my lap. What’s more rare, is a situation in which I agree so strongly with the atheists and so clearly disagree with the (well-intentioned) Christians. To me, the atheists ‘get it’ and these particular Christians just don’t (however well-intentioned) particularly in light of recent events in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The United States is an amazing place. Our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of speech like nowhere else in the world and that gives us, as Christians, an unprecedented opportunity to compete in the arena of ideas. I believe, as the Apostle Paul did, that Christianity is absolutely able to stand on its own in any such competition if it is given the ability to speak clearly. Our freedom allows us to do exactly that. My atheist friends may disagree with me on matters of faith but they understand that this same freedom allows them to disbelieve without fear of punishment or reprisal, whether from Christians, or Muslims, or anyone else. My Christian friends want someone to protect Jesus from being defamed when, I believe, Jesus doesn’t need protecting. First of all, Jesus is completely able to defend himself if he chooses to do so and second, Jesus chose not to defend himself when his accusers defamed him face to face.
In recent days the entire Middle East has been in an uproar over a video produced by an American and released on YouTube. In it, the Muslin prophet, Mohammad, is presented in a negative light. This, the Islamists claim, is blasphemous. They demand that YouTube remove the video, that the United States government require that the video be removed from the Internet and pass blasphemy laws preventing such things from happening in the future (sound familiar?). Free speech on the other hand requires that none of this happen. Free speech allows any of us to say things, to present a range of ideas, even offensive ones, without fear of punishment or reprisals. If the government were to prohibit us from blaspheming Jesus, then why not do the same for Mohammad?
Already our friends in Canada have passed hate speech laws that make it illegal for Christian pastors to preach what the Bible says about homosexuality (even if preached compassionately and not being deliberately inflammatory) but that same speech, unpopular or not, is still legal in the United States. If free speech is constrained to protect Christians today, it may very well be used to harm us tomorrow. I don’t like it when people burn flags, but I believe that it is a protected form of free speech that I am willing to protect. I don’t like it when the KKK or other hateful groups march and spout their venom from the public square, but it too is an important example of free speech. Just because I don’t like it isn’t a good reason to make it stop. After all, I have things to say that other people don’t like very much and I wouldn’t want someone to decide that my speech was no longer legal.
Jesus is not threatened by the people who oppose him. Christianity doesn’t need the law to protect us from blasphemy. Jesus is more than able to compete in the arena of ideas.
…for all of us.