Engaging Controversial Ideas Like Jesus

Chris was a pastor of a growing church in a large city in the South. He was in his early 30’s and had been pastor of a multi-site campus for around three years. I don’t know him well, but well enough that at a gathering of mutual friends he pierced through the casual sit-com-esque chit-chat with the question:

What’s your position on Christian non-violence?

Have you ever been hit with THAT kind of question? You know, something like,

What’s your position on women in ministry?

What’s your take on Rob Bell/Mark Driscoll/The Pope/Caitlin Jenner?

Where do you stand on gay marriage?

What’s your take on eternal conscious torment?

I’ve learned never to answer a “What’s your position?” question without context.

The question is never only about ideas. Questions like these are often about experiences, emotions, relationships, worldview, fear, love, anger, hope, and disappointment. I never answer a question like this without hearing the story that makes it important. 

The story behind Chris’s question

Come to find out Chris was writing a paper for a seminary class on the difference between “Just War Theory” and “Christian Non-Violence.” Chris’s conviction – through prayer, research, conversation, Scripture study – is shifting. He used to be a “Just War” person by default. Now, he’s not so sure. He sees a consistent ethic of loving enemies in the New Testament and, as he told me, “It’s awful hard to love your enemies when you’re killing them.”

This past Memorial Day was difficult for Chris. As a pastor, he wants to care for and honor people. Chris wondered how to honor those people in his congregation who have been in the military or who have kids/relatives in the military without endorsing nationalistic violence that isn’t always just. 

But there’s a larger dilemma at work for Chris. As he put it, 

Many of our largest and most faithful financial contributors unquestionably support the American military complex. If I were to begin to preach about my emerging conviction of Christian non-violence and the uneasy and tragic relationship of Christ’s Church with State violence, I fear I would lose up to 1/3 of our budget. 

Immediately, I would have to lay off staff because we couldn’t afford salaries. So, I feel caught: I can’t just ignore Memorial Day – or the 4th of July – without causing major waves. But, I’m beginning to think the only tenable Christian position on this issue is non-violence.

“What are you going to do,” I asked him?

“Sometimes I don’t think you can be a pastor and remain a Christian.”

I’ve talked with other Christian pastors, and I hear this sort of thing ALL THE TIME. The issue might change, but the crux of the problem remains the same: How do I remain a Christian – not compromise convictions and sacrifice integrity by faking or lying or not speaking up for issues of justice or truth that I see are vital to the Christian faith – and still pastor at my church? 

Answering that question well deserves its own article, but here’s the rub: What I thought about non-violence mattered much less to Chris than my willingness to listen to his struggle and calibrate empathetic understanding. 

I learned this from Jesus.

Jesus loved persons over ideas

There were those who asked questions to trap Jesus. They were usually part of the religious elite. They used questions as an honor lever – dueling with the popular Rabbi publicly to gain renown and status and take it from Jesus in the eyes of the crowds. 

Jesus seldom (ever?) answered these questions straight up. He responded with parables, or questions of his own, remaining intentionally vague (see Mark 4:10-12).

But there were others who weren’t interested in using Jesus to gain honor and status. They were usually the marginalized, lowly, and rejected. Jesus engaged these questions differently. He asked them questions in order to learn more about their story. 

Why do you call me good? 

What do you want me to do for you? 

Do you want to get well?

Do you love me more than these?

Jesus seldom argued over ideas; rather, he loved persons. 

Here’s the idea Jesus seemed to favor: connecting with people is more important than correcting ideas. 

After all – he sent out a Samaritan woman with shaky theology (at best) to tell her town all about a man who knew her in a way no man had before. And then Jesus used her as a lesson for his disciples (John 4.27-42). 

Jesus commissioned a Gentile man who had been known as the demon-possessed freak to return to his hometown to proclaim “what the Lord has done for you and how much mercy he has shown you” (Mark 5.18-20)

Jesus seems completely comfortable with people whose ideas are wrong talking about him – as long as they’ve experienced and responded to his mercy. Apparently, receiving mercy, being healed, receiving honor and hospitality from Jesus is enough to begin to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Learning what matters most

So, ideas are important. Ideas about Jesus and Scripture and the Gospel are of tantamount importance. But not more important than a person and her story. 

The Living God in Jesus Christ isn’t encountered and received in the realm of ideas. He’s encountered in our story – in our very life – the relationships and emotions and history and hopes we carry and bear in our bodies. 

Truthfully, I’d rather argue over ideas. I’ve got a LOT of ideas. Ideas allow me to operate in my place of safety – in abstractions, thoughts, concepts – with my ego (i.e. who I am apart from Jesus) firmly in control of my world. This is where I’m comfortable. 

But I’m learning there is a better way to engage THOSE questions. It looks like honoring and listening to another’s story. Putting this into practice is how I’m becoming a better human.

And I’m learning it from Jesus.

[Photo:  Cristian Bernal, CC via Flickr]