According to Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and staff writer for the New Yorker, “We’ve lost the ability to have political conversations.” She was being interviewed on the New Yorker radio hour, and when she said, “We’ve lost the ability to have political conversations,” the host stopped her and responded almost breathlessly, “Seems like all we have are political conversations.” Gessen explained: “No, we have conversations about politics. A political conversation is a conversation in which people with different views come to agreements about how they’re going to inhabit society together. We don’t see that happening in Congress. We don’t see that happening in the streets. We don’t see that happening at kitchen tables.”
We have conversations about politics, not political conversations. Gessen’s insight stuck to me like a burr to my pant leg after a hike in the woods. It even hurt a little as I went about my day-to-day work, sticking me at unexpected moments. Why had this simple but profound distinction lodged itself so firmly in my mind? Once she pointed out this difference, I saw it in every Facebook post, commentary and news story. Vitriolic volleys from entrenched sides, not conversations rich with genuine exchanges of ideas. Conversations about politics, not political conversations. Troubling, yes, but unsurprising.
Then it hit me what was really digging into me about Gessen’s observation: Change one word and it applies to the church. We’ve lost the ability to have gospel conversations. We have conversations about the gospel, but we do not have gospel conversations.
We pound the pulpit or session table with monologues about justice and inclusion in some church circles. We decry radical pluralism, the lack of sexual morality and the loss of American cultural Christianity in others. We march with invective signs on opposite sides of the street, all of us certain Jesus marches with us. Noisy gongs of conversations about the gospel, not gospel conversations where we come around the table, recognizing the unity won for us in Christ and wrestle with how God calls us to inhabit this society together. We rally our constituencies; we don’t invite our brothers and sisters to eat. We strategize about getting our way; we don’t share one another’s burdens.
Gospel conversations look like Jesus’ conversations. Think of Jesus’ exchange with the woman at the well or his asking the Gerasene demoniac the simple, humanizing question, “What’s your name?” Gospel conversations involve asking questions without assuming to already know the answers and offering answers that don’t shame, silence, accuse or condemn. Gospel conversations leave some people aghast at the audacity of engaging with the other: Samaritans, tax collectors, women, lepers and the unclean, irrational, out-of-their-minds, not-worth-the-effort, dangerous others. Gospel conversations reverberate throughout culture, clan and country because everybody knows that Jews and Gentiles don’t eat together. A Jewish man doesn’t speak to a Samaritan woman. Those blind from birth don’t suddenly see. Sabbath rules are absolute.
Gospel conversations anger the pure and righteous, no matter what side they represent, because gospel conversations by definition entail grace, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation, and there are many in our culture who are much more interested in winning.
Conversations about the gospel will only get us so far. Pontificating about any principle, no matter how biblical and good, will not, in the end, bring us closer to being the salt and light that disciples of Jesus Christ are called to be. Conversations about the gospel will not exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven to the world — instead they offer up more worldly rhetoric.
Only Spirit-infused gospel conversations have the power to transform. But those conversations only happen in proximity to the very ones we least want to be close enough to touch. The calling of the church, according to our constitution, involves holiness and, “The holiness of the Church comes from Christ who sets it apart to bear witness to his love, and not from the purity of its doctrine or the righteousness of its actions” (F-1.03b). In other words, without love, we gain nothing.
We have not yet lost the ability to have gospel conversations, but they are rare and quite uncommon in these days. We need more of them so that the society we inhabit might better reflect the Good News we not only talk about, but demonstrate.
Grace and peace,