”We’re not leaving the PC(USA); the PC(USA) has left us. You Presbyterians don’t believe in the Bible anymore.” That’s the essence of the message that came earlier this year from the elders of one of our congregations now setting sail for a new denominational home. That’s the language of cultural rhetoric, of anger, of disrespect; and it’s undeserved and, more to the point, unbecoming of Jesus’ followers.
We are all blessed by the good news of our culture; and we are cursed by its bad news. I remember one seminary professor, during the 1970s, condemning the cultural materialism of the time and then proudly showing off the 5,000-volume personal library housed in his basement. I remember thinking: “We all have our forms of materialism, don’t we?”
Last spring, a CNN editorial by John Avion condemned recent political debates as “punch-drunk pugilism,” adding that, “for all the excitement … there is a civic cost to the radioactive rhetoric that gets thrown out” to excite the crowds. And in the current cultural climate, punch-drunk pugilism can come from the left as much as the right. Regardless of its source, we relish the point/counterpoint that exaggerates the truth and imputes the worst intentions to those with whom we disagree. We witness the deterioration of civility and respect. And we may become aware, if only dimly and belatedly, of the erosion of our own capacity to take a saner, more constructive perspective — and ultimately, to change for the better.
So what to do when the culture infects the political life in our church? When disagreement leads to disrespect, which leads to our version of punch-drunk pugilism (“You Presbyterians don’t believe in the Bible”)? Ignore it? Internalize it? Argue about it? Confront it?
How about standing up for the truth in the face of unhinged prejudice? Referring to a moment in the last presidential election, the editorialist recalls: “Four years ago … when a supporter [of John McCain] called then-candidate Obama an “Arab,” McCain corrected her. He said, ‘No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man … (a) citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.’ That’s the voice of a loyal opposition, putting patriotism above partisanship.”
I believe that most of you, like me, are tired of the anger and hate that has infected Christian denominationalism in our time. We don’t like it when we hear it in others; and except for a possible momentary thrill, we certainly don’t like it in ourselves. The church will not change by silence. The church will not grow more respectful by silently turning the other ear — and listening to one more round of punch-drunk pugilism.
What about standing up and correcting the sentence, “You Presbyterians don’t believe in the Bible”? No ma’am/sir: I do believe in the Bible very much, just not the way you believe in the Bible. Or … No ma’am/sir: The Presbyterians love the Bible too, just not in the way we may love it. Or … No ma’am/sir: Both we and the Presbyterians love, honor, respect and obey the Bible; we just do it in different ways sometimes.
Make no mistake: Our silence undermines the life of the body as much as those emotionally laden theological bombs we watch being launched back and forth. We have allowed disagreement to breed disrespect and venom far too much. It’s all our sin. And it’s a problem for all of us to address.
Correct the sentence, and trust that you’ll be doing more than helping to heal the church. You’ll be changing the culture for the better.
DAVE WASSERMAN is interim executive presbyter of Grand Canyon Presbytery.