I recently had the opportunity to hear the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), J. Herbert Nelson, speak as part of an ongoing celebration for the 200th anniversary of Newton Presbytery in New Jersey. I have read some of his words, of course, on PC(USA) communications, but I had never heard him speak. I very much appreciated his message and it has stuck with me for weeks. He talked a bit about how we are very divided as a denomination and have been ever since the North/South split that occurred before most bloggers (including myself) were ever born. He suggested that we have never recovered from that division and that, even worse, we are even further divided today over politics. “We have allowed the labels of conservative, liberal and moderate to invade Christendom,” he said. And worse, we have pigeon-holed and demonized people by using these labels.
I don’t know about you, but I have personally witnessed both Christians and non-Christians acting in this way. Politics, in general, is really an obscure contest. It is hardly Christian in that, at least in the beginning, the focus is on what you say, who you please and what you don’t say (rather than actions). Voters scramble to educate themselves and scrutinize who is who and who is for what on paper, when there is a very real possibility that the entire platform or set of beliefs, values or promises someone is campaigning with will be watered down, disregarded or abandoned upon election. Yet, there seems to still be some prestige and pride on one side for selecting the “correct candidate” and shame and guilt on the other for selecting the “wrong candidate” when the smoke clears. And, as much as we pray and discuss with fellow Christians and trusted non-Christians, we cannot predict the future and we cannot ensure that someone will stand by his or her word. But such is the representative nature of not just politics in our own country, but alas, some of the same minds have permeated church government.
J. Herbert Nelson also remarked that it seems while labels have been on the rise, personal stories have fallen by the wayside. We have isolated ourselves with others of like minds, and sometimes refused interaction with those who are for a different political candidate out of disgust, outrage or the inability to understand. But isolation is not Christian. Refusing to move on is not Christian. And demonizing people is not Christian. “Hate what is evil,” the author of Romans tells us. But sometimes we confuse this with “hate who is evil.” We stand outraged and dismayed at the evil that seems to lurk in our society, Christian and non-Christian, and we ostracize and demonize someone (or someones) rather than the evil within. But the very next part of that instruction in Romans 12:9 after all, is “cling to what is good.”
There is much evil present today to be disturbed by, motivated by and compelled to an action. But, as Christians who are called simultaneously to “cling to what is good,” we must refuse to demonize a person for the evil within him or her. We think of exorcisms as pre-mental health world stuff, but the only chance we have of drawing evil out of someone or something is to approach the situation and the other person with love and listening.
A man stood up at the 200th anniversary celebration after hearing our stated clerk speak and said he voted for President Trump, not liking everything Trump has done and hasn’t done in office, but wondering out loud if there is still a place for him in the PC(USA). In the fact that the felt the need to ask that question, I realized that we, as a denomination, as a presbytery and as a church, have failed to love this man like Christ. We have failed to love in such a way that all can find themselves safe, yet challenged. If we look for agreement or like-mindedness before we respond in love, we have misunderstood the gospel. And if we stop sharing our stories in exchange for labels and sides, the church will be and will continue to be divided.
Sharing our experiences may not erase disagreement, but listening keeps us in conversation. And it is always possible that we may discover some right or righteousness in the people we have somehow demonized in our thoughts and even through our words and actions. Because I firmly believe that if Christians are unwilling to exchange the “conservative,” “moderate” and “liberal” labels for “brothers and sisters in Christ,” then there really is no hope for those who claim no common ground among them. Presbyterians are notorious for avoiding language that recognizes evil, the devil and demonic forces. But, let us no longer avoid the many opportunities to recognize and cling to the good in the conservative, moderate or liberal to our left and right and then to forever re-label them as the brother or sister in Christ as we open up our ears to listen.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.