Monday, December 29, 2008

Forever Hold My Peace

One of the primary gestures for which the conservative right is known is loudmouthed condemnation. If something or somebody is wrong, they are the first to publicly decry the behavior, often using Biblical reference to indicate just WHY it is wrong. While what they are saying may be completely factual, their delivery leaves much to be desired.

They neglect two things. First, shaming or condemning somebody into changing is, at very best, only temporarily effective. Any changes made will not be the consequence of some moral conviction or personal belief, but simply in response to outward influences and embarrassment. Decisions rooted in such external motivations do not last. It is the same reasoning that states an addict must quit solely because he or she wants to quit, NOT because of external pressure. Otherwise, there is insufficient will to overcome the problem. People change because they WANT to, not because they are ridiculed or condemned. Many conservatives seem to believe that if they rant enough, somebody will change for the better.

The second thing conservatives forget is that righteousness cannot be mandated. Righteousness suggests a personally held belief system about what is right or wrong. This may be in complete keeping with legal mandate, or it may be totally disconcordant. If you outlaw something, people MAY be more inclined to not do it, but only because of the legal ramifications if they do. Their hearts are wholly unchanged.

Making alcohol illegal, for example, does not diminish the desire of an alcoholic to drink. Nor does outlawing pornography alter the fact that there is a sizeable demand for such material. The human desire, whether it be for porn, booze, stealing, adultery, or even murder, remains fully intact.

Thus, I am puzzled what many conservatives hope to accomplish by openly condemning some issue or action. Sure, it may be indeed quite wrong, but chances are, the wrongdoer already knows this. All the religious conservatives have succeeded in doing is alienating themselves from people with problems. They have forgotten that they, too, have problems.

My purpose here is not to get into a lengthy discussion about the propriety of moral laws that attempt to hold society to some standard. That is a touchy, controversial subject – and I could probably argue both sides of it equally. My intent is simply to clarify what may or may not be accomplished by condemning others.

Jesus Himself rarely spoke condemning words. He did drive the money changers out of the temple with a stick, but this was an exception. The vast majority of His speech was intended to connect with people, not drive them away in shame.

When the adulterous woman was about to stoned in the street, He cleverly called out, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Grumbling, the crowd slowly threw down their rocks and stalked off, until only He and the woman remained.

“Is no one left to condemn you?”

“No, my lord.”

“Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Clearly, He knew what she was doing was wrong. I am firmly convinced that she knew this, too. Yet He didn’t lambast her, tell her exactly WHY she was wrong and how awful she was. He simply said go and sin no more. We cannot determine when somebody is convicted of their behavior. God does that. Our purpose, just as was Christ’s, is to love that person regardless.

I believe that if a Christian feels particularly compelled to march around telling everybody how wrong and sinful they are, the Christian has likely forgotten that they, too, are sinners. They have forgotten that faith isn’t a perpetual existence in perfection, but a moment-by-moment conviction, repentance, and return to God. We are all sinners. The Christian shouldn’t forget grace, because he needs it too. “There is none righteous, no, not one.”

I bring this whole matter up because it is an area where I know I need great improvement. I routinely fight the urge to grab some people by the shoulders and shake them. “Don’t you see what you’re doing?! It’s wrong! It’s destructive, and it is hurting not only you, but others around you!” But this will accomplish nothing good. All I will have successfully done is alienate myself from him or her. If this person needs to talk to somebody who will be graceful and patient, listen more than speak, they will certainly not contact me.

This is not to suggest that Christian organizations or individuals should never open their mouths about things to which they are fundamentally opposed. To remain habitually silent is equally wrong. It can be misconstrued as support, approval, tolerance, or even apathy. None are helpful. But when is it right for an person to speak and when it is right to remain silent?

Good question, and one which I cannot easily answer. I think it best to consider accountability. For example, if a man is a pastor and claims to be a spiritual leader, yet is obviously having an affair, he is to be held to a higher standard than most others. He, as a pastor, having voluntarily accepted the responsibility of setting a spiritual and moral example, is far more liable for his actions. Speak the truth – in love, for apparently they have forgotten the truth. This is an easy one.

But what about a person (man or woman) who is unmarried and not a church leader? Are they any less wrong for messing around? Are they not to be held accountable? Here we enter murky waters.

The only conclusion I can offer is this, and even it must be answered individually. Which is more important to you: informing this person that he or she is wrong, or having a relationship with this person? Which will accomplish more? Which will best reflect what Christ might say (or NOT say) to him or her?

Speaking the truth in love has always been a difficult phrase for many to understand, myself included. Frequently, my desire to speak the truth is rooted in anger, and therefore a wasted (and destructive) effort. Anger also implies that it is ME speaking, not God in me.

Given the aforementioned, maybe the best question is this: WHO is speaking, or WHO wishes to remain silent? If God is speaking, it needs to be said. If I am speaking, it most definitely need NOT be said. For me, it works out to the following. If I am struggling not to blurt something, chances are it’s something that needs to remain unspoken. Yet if I’m nervous about saying something, I probably need to say it boldly.

I realize I’m not answering my own questions very well, simply raising others. So I guess I’ll conclude with a few more queries which will help me gauge when I should speak or not speak. I will try to use these questions as my “litmus test.”

-Do I love this person?
-Who is the source of my words (or my silence)?
-Given that shame never productively changes a person, will any good thing come of my opening my mouth?
-Will this jeopardize or dissolve my relationship with this person?
-Is what I wish to say important enough to make this sacrifice?
-What would Jesus say?
-How can I best love this person?
-What action best demonstrates an understanding of God’s grace, and God in me?

And then I will pray, because some situations are still unclear.

Having invited Jesus into my heart, into my words, and into my very character, I will ask these questions again. Speak, or forever hold my peace?

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Definitely time to go!

  2. This is why I didn't want to tell my friends the other day that they're idiots.

    I agree; I think this is really a case-by-case call - not that God's standards change or His love changes, but that each situation has a different purpose and each person is in a different step in the process of understanding God - as evidenced by Jesus' advice when the disciples would be coming up against some major friction: "do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (Matt. 10:20).

  3. Heaven knows I tried to love them...for 68 years, but alas the best I can do is hold my piece. In readiness.

  4. Free will has always gotten us in trouble.

    This may sound like I am selling out, but I usually find comfort in knowing that I am not the ultimate judge, He is...

  5. I remember when Ben wrote often, and well. But he has died, not with a scream, but a whimper. There are only so many rounds in a belt of ammunition. Only so many drops of melting snow. Only so many kernels of corn in a bag of popcorn, only so many frets on a guitar...well, you get the idea.