Bump Stocks and Log in My Eye

Some of my readers have probably been pleased that I have been less “political” in what I’ve posted in recent weeks. There are several reasons for that, but one of them is not that I am less concerned about the state of our nation and world. I became a part-time pastor again this summer and that has affected my writing in a couple of ways. Given more pastoral duties means less time for other things, including writing. The writing I have done has been primarily sermons and prayers. Secondly with the privilege of being a pastor of a congregation comes an expectation to handle political matters tactfully and in a non-partisan way.

I did not realize how much I felt constrained by that non-partisan expectation until I retired and wasn’t serving a congregation. I felt liberated to speak my mind more freely, and now that I am back in a formal relationship with a congregation that freedom is one of the things I miss most. As a student of persuasive communication I know full well that effective communication requires a meeting of minds, a shared understanding and respect for one another’s ideas and feelings. That’s a quality of community that is sorely lacking in our bitterly divided nation and world.

No meaningful communication occurs across the chasm of ideological extremes where we view others as enemies (political or foreign) instead of as fellow humans doing the best we can to make sense of the lives we have been given and the world we inhabit. So my philosophy of ministry is one of trying to understand what people believe and why they hold those beliefs so I can then facilitate a process of faith development that moves all of us toward the peaceable kingdom God covets for us and all creation.

I am not always successful at being empathetic and understanding, and as one who is very uncomfortable with conflict I fear I have been too timid during most of my ministry to share my true thoughts and feelings because I feared that to do so would be unpopular. I greatly admire my colleagues who have the courage and faith to speak prophetically about controversial issues.

I recently saw a list of the 15 most popular hymns of all time. I don’t know how the list was compiled or how scientifically valid the methodology was for surveying people, but the list was pretty much what I expected it would be: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Garden,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well With My Soul” etc. All 15 hymns on the list focused on personal salvation and holiness. What was lacking was the other half of the Gospel, what John Wesley called “Social Holiness.”

I imagine that such a list might have inspired the prophet Amos to proclaim the lines that are part of the lectionary for this week: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) I don’t know how long Amos would have lasted in a church pulpit but I do believe that we dare not ignore the biblical imperative to be agents of social justice.

I cringed this week when I saw a Facebook meme that hit much too close to home. To paraphrase it said, “Don’t be nice. Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy.” I often encouraged my preaching students to heed the advice of Ephesians 4:15 that tells us to “speak the truth in love.” Looking back on my career as both a preacher and teacher I fear that I have erred on the side of love in that equation and sugar-coated or omitted hard words of truth. As a pastor I often criticized myself for sacrificing prophetic truth in exchange for a parsonage and a pension.

Ironically it has almost always been the case that when I have dared to speak my true understanding of God’s will about controversial issues of social justice someone that I least expected to agree or appreciate those views has let me know they did. For example in today’s news there is not much that is more divisive than people’s views on gun violence and the second amendment. It has become a partisan political issue when it should be seen as a basic human problem to be solved. But most politicians are afraid of the NRA and dependent on financial support from the gun lobby. So even though a majority of Americans are in favor of stricter gun legislation a majority of Senators and Representatives are unwilling to risk their office and its perks to oppose a vocal and powerful minority.
This morning I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch that reported that Congress has passed the buck on dealing with the sale of “bump stocks” that transform semi-automatic rifles into automatic rifles/machine guns (which are illegal) to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instead of acting on it themselves.

Immediately after the massacre in Las Vegas there was widespread agreement including even the NRA that those devices needed to be banned or “restricted.” But as the news cycle moved on to sex scandals and other mass killings, the mood shifted, the NRA changed its mind, and Congress lost its political will to act.
After reading that article I wrote the following note to my two Senators and my Congressional Representative: “I was appalled to read in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch that Congress has done nothing about bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre. Stop passing the buck and do something to stop this insanity of gun violence. It is way past time for someone to have the courage to stand up to the NRA. We need to reinstate the ban on assault weapons but in the meantime banning devices whose sole purpose is to circumvent the law should be a no-brainer.”

I also posted that message on Facebook with some fear and trepidation that it would be too “political” for a preacher. But again I was pleasantly surprised at the number of “likes” and even some “loves” I got in response. Some of those positive responses were from people I didn’t expect would agree with me. I would never have known had I not had the courage to say what I was feeling.

I wrote the above part of this post in the wee hours of the morning, and then when I went to bed and couldn’t get to sleep I realized that I had been guilty of seeing the “speck in my legislators’ eyes and ignoring the log in my own” to paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:42. As is often the case I am often most judgmental about things in others that I don’t like about myself. It’s easy to criticize political leaders for not living up to the profiles in courage standards I expect of them, but much harder to admit I do the same thing. I don’t always say what I truly believe, and I certainly don’t always live up to the values I hold dear. Peer pressure, societal or professional expectations and other human weaknesses get in the way of speaking the truth in love. If I am honestly and fairly judged by my ideal goal of living up to the profound standards of Micah to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” I am in deep trouble.

When I shared my late night insight about being guilty of living out of integrity with my values with my dear wife this morning Diana cut to the chase as she does so well. She said, “That’s true of every job. We all have to make compromises and concessions to employers who control our livelihood.” If those compromises create too much cognitive dissonance or inner turmoil with our consciences we can say “no” to that employer and choose a different path. Those are very hard decisions that try our souls, and that is why we all stand in need of a generous helping of God’s grace.

Well, this blog certainly took an unexpected turn. It was good for my own introspection. Thanks for listening. If it was helpful for you too that’s a bonus.

Freedom to Speak the Truth in Love

The killings and demonstrations in Copenhagen, cyber attacks and threats in response to Sony’s movie The Interview and the recent massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris have put the issue of freedom of expression on the front burner of media coverage and public discourse. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are so critical to Western and American values that they are number one in the U.S. Bill of Rights. The international outpouring of protest and sympathy captured in the “Je Suis Charlie” movement is further evidence of how close to home this tragedy has struck.

Emotions run high when core values are threatened. As much as I believe in non-violence, even I am tempted to despair that we are on the brink of a horrible and perhaps inevitable violent confrontation between radical Islamists and the West.

In hopes of tempering emotional reaction with reason, I am reminded of two favorite quotes as I try to sort out my thinking on these complicated issues. I was introduced to the first many years ago in a book by Frederick Buechner entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. Buechner likens the task of preaching to the final lines of Shakespeare’s King Lear where Edgar says, “The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

As one who grew up in a family with the “unspoken” (of course) motto “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” saying what we feel is a radical notion and essential to freedom of expression. Saying only what one ought to say may be polite and tactful, but it is also a subtle form of censorship.

The question that must be addressed in this debate is where does one cross the line between freedom of expression and disregard for the feelings and values of other human beings. In the global information age where words and images circumnavigate the world in seconds what one says has far wider impact than ever before in human history.

The Sony and Charlie Hebdo cases provide excellent examples of that point. Unrestricted freedom of expression says we can make a movie about the assassination of a foreign leader or publish satirical ridicule of a figure considered to be a holy prophet by millions of people, but does the freedom to express those feelings justify the damage done to human relationships already stretched to the breaking point in our world?

Let me be perfectly clear that I am not saying that taking offense to any form of expression ever justifies violent reprisals. I am merely calling for more reflection on potential consequences of what we say and how we say it. Anger and conflict are natural human realities. (See my blog post “Prince of Peace,” April 1, 2014 for a more detailed discussion.) And because the Information Age makes interaction between different cultural values inevitable, it is imperative that we find non-violent ways to manage conflict while protecting basic human freedoms.

One way to do that is found in Ephesians 4:14-15, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” To “speak the truth in love” means a mature balance that is necessary between freedom of expression and consideration for other peoples’ feelings.

That does not mean failing to speak the truth, but it adds the critical dimension of thinking about how the truth is presented. Fred Craddock, another of my preaching mentors, says the preacher’s job is not to get things said, but to get them heard. That is true for all human communication and requires sensitivity and respect for one’s hearers to guide the choice of words and images we share with the world – and every tweet, whisper, Instagram, post and conversation has the potential for that kind of global sharing.

One of the lies many of us were told as children is that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Not true. Words and images have tremendous power to hurt and to heal; so use them wisely. Yes, the weight of these sad times demands that we say what we feel, but the peace and well-being of our world depends on our ability to learn to deliver that truth wrapped in love, even for those who call us enemy.