“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” These are the words of Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ first disciples, written to some of the first and earliest Christians. And like most words put down on paper, these instructions have not always honored the intent of the author.
Peter wrote this during a time when Christianity was new, unheard of in most places, and very often viewed with suspicion. Thus, a graceful and thoughtful explanation “for the hope that you have” was absolutely required. Thousands of years later, Christianity is still handled with suspicion by many. Not because it is a novel invention, but because a large core of its adherents have misapplied Simon Peter’s good words.
Having a “prepared answer” – that is a ready opportunity to interact, dialogue, and discuss beliefs with others – has been replaced with defensiveness, anger, and out-and-out hostility toward those who see things differently. Many have forgotten to read the second half of old St. Pete’s instructions: “But do this in a gentle and respectful way,” he said.
Yes, I am a follower of Jesus. Yes, I consider myself a Christian (on most days). Yes, there are a number of essential beliefs important to me and to which I hold. Yes, some of these beliefs are in conflict with the beliefs of others, and these conflicts are not easily dismissed. But my beliefs, as important as they may be, do not give me the right to be belligerent toward others who do not share my beliefs.
I will allow that Christians aren’t the only ones who behave this way. Devotees to other faiths, politicians of all parties and persuasions, soccer fans, college alumni, and those with all manner of competing opinions will attack, degrade, and smear those they consider their opponents. The intent, it seems, is clear: Win the argument at all costs.
This cutthroat way of life is consuming every facet of our society, resulting in a complete collapse of common civility – that’s a column unto itself – and there is no relief on the near horizon. Anywhere there is an “us” versus “them” attitude there will be nothing but antagonism and disappointment until “them/they” are somehow rehabilitated or totally vanquished in favor of “us/we.”
In other words, peace will only come when all our adversaries are destroyed. This may be the way the world works, but it is not the way of Christ. For Christians, if Jesus is who this thing is about, then things should be different. Just because we have some assurance of our faith and beliefs, we forfeit the ability to share that assurance when we behave badly.
Our beliefs need not – should not – cannot – must not – be used to hurt or harm others. Consistently, and this should rend our hearts to pieces, Christians are characterized as mean-spirited, judgmental, critical, and inflexible (You don’t need research statistics to confirm this conclusion. Simply do an informal interview on any street corner.).
This is a reputation we have largely earned, because we have been more concerned with proving we are right, than we have been proving God’s profound love and grace. We have been more concerned with providing answers than we have with providing gentleness and respect.
Personally, I don’t think Jesus came to create an “in” group, an assembly of elitists who have truth held down under lock and key. I believe he came to create a “come on in” group, a crowd of fellow-journeyers who come to know God, experience grace, live life, and serve others together. But why would anyone want to come in to such a group if its representatives are constantly rude, arrogant, and unyielding.
Even if such a group had all the answers to all the questions in the world (and humility should caution anyone from making such a claim), it would be impossible to hear what they had to say, because it is simply impossible to hear the truth when it is communicated from a hard heart.