The Danger of Theological Correctness

This piece won first place in the editorial/opinion category of the Associated Church Press's award competition. It was my first attempt at writing an opinion piece, and it basically sums up my philosophy of life.

It originally ran in the December 2003 issue of The Covenant Companion and is reprinted by permission.

In his book, Messy Spirituality, the late Mike Yaconelli tells the story of a trip that John Mackie, president of the Church of Scotland, made to visit poor churches in the Balkans after the end of World War II. Mackie was an officer of the World Council of Churches, which was helping those churches rebuild after the war. He was accompanied by two ministers from a very strict and pious denomination.

During their visit, Mackie and the others were invited to the home of a Greek Orthodox priest. Things were going quite well until the priest brought out a bottle of wine. The two other ministers, both teetotalers, looked on in horror as Mackie drank a glass of wine, complimented the priest on its quality, and then asked for another. When they got back to the car, they accosted Mackie over his behavior.

“Dr. Mackie,” they said, “do you mean to tell us that you are the president of the Church of Scotland and an officer of the World Council and you drink?”

“No, I don’t,” Mackie replied. “But somebody in there had to be a Christian!”

Mackie’s point was that there are times when common courtesy is more important than theological correctness.

But his companions—like many of us—loved their convictions more than they loved their neighbor. This can take the form of bad manners—as in the case of Mackie’s companions—or it can take the form of a “spiritual crusade,” argues Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary.

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mouw described civility as showing “tact, moderation, refinement and good manners toward people who are different from us.” Those are lacking in American culture, Mouw argues, especially in the lives of evangelical Christians. In his book, Uncommon Civility: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, Mouw argues that many evangelicals believe “error has no standing”—a concept that justifies their uncivil behavior.

“Most Christians are spiritual crusaders,” Mouw writes. “They take a no-holds barred approach to theological or moral arguments with other people. They are not about to listen carefully to their opponents, and anything goes when it comes to the choice of their tactics.”

An extreme example of this is found in Fred Phelps, a Baptist minister known for his anti-gay protests. After Matthew Shephard, a gay college student, was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming, Phelps and his followers picketed Shephard’s funeral with signs that read “God Hates Fags” and de-scribed Shephard being tortured in hell
—an almost unthinkable breach of civility and common decency towards Shephard’s family.

But Phelps believed that God sanctioned his hatred. “You can’t be a Bible preacher without preaching the hatred of God, the wrath of God,” he told the Topeka Capital Journal. “It is a fabrication, this modern Christianity, that says good old God loves everybody, like some grandfather or Santa Claus figure [and] is gonna wink at sin. Nobody believes that God willy-nilly forgives people, except heretics.”

But that kind of view is missing an essential point of the gospel—that, as Paul tells us, we “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. By demonizing our enemies by hating them, we can overlook our own sinfulness. Mouw quotes from St. Augustine’s concept of “a just war” in making this point.

Augustine knew that war “was a dangerous business,” for Christians, writes Mouw, and must not be waged “without kindness,” without acknowledging that our enemies are human beings made in the image of God. The real threat, for Augustine, was that Christians “will succeed in conquering our external enemies, only to be destroyed by ‘the enemy within’—our own ‘depraved and distorted hearts.’”

The publishing industry has tapped into the power of our “depraved and distorted hearts” in recent years, producing a host of best-sellers driven by hatred. Recently, WorldNetDaily.com sent out a promotional email for The Enemy Within, a new book by talk-show host Michael Savage.

With delivery “guaranteed for Christmas,” the email promised that The Enemy Within “goes for the jugular” in a “brash, incendiary attack” on “the liberal assault on our churches, schools, and military.” The Conservative Books Service recently promoted another book offering a “blistering assault” on liberals in the media—also out just in time for Christmas.

In a recent New York Times Magazine, James Traub described this new trend by looking at the New York Times best-seller list. The list included Who’s Looking Out for You by “liberal-hater in chief at Fox News” Bill O’Reilly, followed by a group of “Bush-bashing” bestsellers: Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country?; Al Franken’s Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them); and Molly Ivins’s Bushwhacked.

These books sell so well for a simple reason, writes Traub: “Hatred is delicious.”

In her book, Treason, conservative columnist Ann Coulter revels in hatred for her enemies. Coulter perhaps has good reason for her hate—one of her close friends was aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. But for Coulter, almost any action seems justifiable in order to “win the war.” She labels criticism of the war on terror as treason and unleashes her fury at the idea, raised in a September 2002 speech by former Vice-president Al Gore, that foreign governments are not worried about “what the terrorist networks are going to do, but about what we [the United States] are going to do.”

“They should be worried,” Coulter writes. “They hate us. We hate them. Americans don’t want to make Islamic fanatics love us. We want to make them die. There’s nothing like horrendous physical pain to quell angry fanatics. So sorry they’re angry. Wait till they see American anger. Japanese kamikaze pilots hated us once, too. A couple of well-aimed nuclear weapons got their attention. Now they are gentle little lambs.”

In her online column at Salon.com, writer Ann Lamott describes her struggles with hating her enemies, knowing that harboring hatred is self-destructive, but also knowing the power and sense of self-importance it brings. For Lamott, whose parents were “yellow-dog Democrats” (meaning they’d vote for an old yellow dog before voting for a Republican), the target of her hate are Republican politicians.

But Lamott’s delight in hating her enemies began to change during a service at her home church. “Everything was so sweet at church,” Lamott writes, “the singing, the kindness, the plain old grief, and then the pastor had to go and ruin it all by giving the sermon—on loving our enemies.”

It was an experience out of the Twilight Zone, Lamott said. “It was a nightmare. It was clear that the pastor, Veronica, was speaking directly to me. She said that Christians have a very bad reputation in the world, because we have earned it, with our hate and self-righteousness. We speak in reverent terms of grace, justice, equality, mercy, and then we despise people who were also created in God’s image. . . .”

That’s the scandal of the gospel— every person in the world is made in the image of God, and is equally loved by God. And in a real way, each of them —even our worst enemies—is holy. C.S. Lewis put it this way in The Weight of Glory, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

That reality has to be lived out in our lives by seeing everyone we meet—no matter how they act—as someone made in God’s image, says Mouw.
“Every human being is a work of divine art,” Mouw told the LA Times. “I can learn a lot about how to treat an unlikable person with reverence if I keep reminding myself of the value the person has in the eyes of God.”

This kind of approach can transform the way that even bitter enemies see one another. That was the case with Laura Blumenfeld, a Washington Post reporter whose father, Rabbi David Blumenfeld was shot by a Palestinian terrorist in 1986.

Though her father survived (doctors told him that if the bullet had entered his skull a centimeter lower, he would have died), Laura Blumenfeld was obsessed with getting revenge against her father’s attacker.

“I didn’t know who shot him, but whoever it was I was going to track that bullet back to its source and confront this person,” Blumenfeld told Religion News Service (RNS) in an interview this fall. “I vowed revenge.”

She eventually tracked down the family of Omar Khatib, the man who shot her father. She disguised her identity, saying only that she was a reporter, and spent a year getting to know them, eating at their home, and sharing in their lives. And as she hoped, they led her right to Khatib, sneaking her several times into the prison where he was being held by saying she was a member of the family.

But a strange thing happened on the road to Blumenfeld’s revenge. The more time she spent with Khatib and his family, the more she saw him not as her enemy or simply “her father’s attacker” but as an unlikely friend.

Still, Blumenfeld did not reveal her identity until Khatib’s parole hearing—a moving scene she describes in her book Revenge: A Story of Hope. It’s almost a complete antithesis of Ann Coulter’s response—Blumenfeld found herself pleading for leniency for the man who tried to kill her father. Her quest for revenge had been transformed into an act of redemption.

Later, Khatib would write an apology to Rabbi Blumenfeld, describing his daughter as “the mirror that made me see your face as a human person.” “All of a sudden,” as Laura Blumenfeld put it, “my father was a real person.”

Since his release from prison, Khatib has begun working towards peace solutions between Palestinians and Israelis. And Rabbi Blumenfeld told RNS that Khatib’s transformation gives him hope for peace in the Middle East and other troubled places in the world.

“If you can turn an enemy into a friend, you’re stronger than anybody,” he said. “The guy who tried to kill me, he’s not going to go out and kill anymore. That’s what it’s all about.”

Amen to that.


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