There are times, Dear Reader, when I am heartily sick of, and fed up with, the behaviour of Christians. And the reason I get so annoyed and dispirited by it is that the people who are behaving badly have no excuse, and ought to know better.
There are a couple of situations of this type on my personal radar at the minute. I know one pastor who is being maligned in the press (both secular and ecclesiastical) for no good reason, on the basis of either inadequate understanding or inadequate theology. I know a church where incredibly destructive and misinformed gossip is placing huge strain on the eldership for no very good reason that I can see. And I am angry about this, because both those elders and that minister are my friends, and what is being done to them is spectacularly unfair.
I love Doctor Who. But I disagree with the Doctor’s oft-repeated mantra (at least since Christopher Ecclestone) that “people are brilliant!” People aren’t brilliant. People can be brilliant, but it’s not their ground state. I think Calvin’s doctrine of Total Depravity a far more clear-sighted and unromanticised view of the nature of humanity. I think Yeats was right when he talked about ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. I was told recently, on the basis of my Screwtape Letters, that I have ‘a real insight into the nature of the human heart’. That’s a nice compliment to receive, and I am grateful for it, but there are times I wonder if ‘you have a real insight into the nature of cesspools’ isn’t equally applicable.
And all that’s fine. I am entirely comfortable with thinking of humanity at its worst because I know I share in it. I am no better. I can, on occasion, be every bit as small-minded, petty, vindictive and unpleasant as anybody else – like, for instance, you, Dear Reader. But what really grieves me about the situation facing this minister and these elders is that it would be relatively simple to resolve these situations if everybody was prepared to sit down and talk about it. As the minister’s opponents have discovered, it is easy to sit at a computer and make comments that one would baulk at in a face-to-face encounter. As the gossipers have discovered, the last thing you want is to meet with the people who could make clear the situation. To do so wrecks the deliciousness of being in the group ‘that knows what the real problem is’.
I am sometimes accused – with a fair degree of accuracy, I must acknowledge – of being overly intellectual, of not engaging with anything on an emotional level. And, mea culpa, I acknowledge this to be true. I do over-emphasise rationality. I do have a tendency to lock emotions away in a box. But in situations like these, I think that approach a strength rather than a weakness. I am, I admit, angry on an emotional level – these things are happening to people I care about. But I am nevertheless clear-thinking enough to see why they’re happening – and even to see how they can be made to stop.
But here’s the thing. It is not my place to resolve any of these situations. I am not a member of the church where the eldership is being worked against. I am not a minister to leap into inter-ministerial disputes, nor am I a journalist to take other journalists to task for sloppy reporting, inadequate reasoning and poisonous personal attacks. (And I’m not going to mention Rosemary Goring by name, so you won’t know to whom I refer). But dear God all the people involved in these situations, of whatever stripe, faction or persuasion, are meant to be Christians, so why they can’t begin to live up to the name is beyond me. Is it too much fun being unpleasant? Is it too entertaining? Or is it that it’s too hard to behave as we are commanded?
Love God. Love thy neighbour. These are Christ’s two commandments, and if they were taken on board things would improve almost instantaneously. There would have to be acknowledgement, first off, that things have been badly handled. This is what’s called humility, and God knows it’s a painful business. But it is essential, and remarkably effective at leading to productive meetings, productive relationships and productive churches.
All this is Theology 101. I am not a proper theologian by any means (my brother occupies that niche in my family), but this is firstly plain old common sense and secondly such a basic biblical principle that one wonders how it could have been overlooked in the first place.
Following humility, there would be discourse. Tempers would be left outside with the coats, while inside rationality and sticky buns would hold full sway. (Incidentally, can I recommend “Rationality and Sticky Buns” as the format for all church meetings about everything, ever? Seriously, how is that not a winning recipe?)
And following the discourse? I think Abraham Lincoln put it best, in his second inaugural address:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…
That, I submit, is to be our aspiration. But it can’t happen until the high horses are dismounted, the mutterings are quelled, and straightforward conversation in humility occurs. This may not seem like much of a conclusion – it’s certainly no bombshell – but I can’t see a flaw in it. However, until it happens, I suspect I will remain angry, and sad, and wishing that people would be as good as Doctor Who believes they are.
Here is today’s moment of Zen: