Though the story about Miss California, Carrie Prejean, and her loss of the Miss USA title because of her honest, frank, and widely shared opinion in answer to Perez Hilton’s loaded question has been covered ad nauseam, I will venture an observation or two.
Because I am not part of the demographic making up the usual audience for beauty pageants or the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, I was spared the early wave of media-frenzy about the whole megilla. As I sat at a diner near our home last Monday morning, I tried to read the already-touched-by-a-hundred-hands copy of the only newspaper lying around – USA Today. In between bites of food, and while dodging objects thrown by my grandson, I came across an interesting opinion piece by Jonathan Merritt.
It was entitled, “An Evangelical’s Plea: ‘Love the Sinner.’” Merritt is a 26-year-old graduate of Liberty University, the school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. His essay was thoughtful and thought provoking.
A short while after reading Jonathan’s missive, I saw a news report about what had happened the night before in Las Vegas – that city’s slogan apparently being incorrect. Watching a replay of Hilton’s question and Prejean’s answer, I experienced mixed emotions. I was very moved and proud of Miss California’s poise and presence of mind as she shared her personal conviction on the issue of marriage being something between (such a radical!) a man and a woman. You could almost see in her eyes that she grasped the significance of that moment and sensed her hopes for the coveted crown slipping away.
Another emotion moved me as well, but not with warm and fuzzy feelings of pride and sympathy. I got angry. Mario Armando Lavandeira Jr., a.k.a. “Perez Hilton,” turned my stomach. His behavior was rude and his epithets offensive.
I thought again about what Jonathan Merritt had written. The gist of his article was that too often those of us who stand for traditional values express ourselves as angry and mean. I confess that this has sadly and too often been the case, with zeal for “righteousness” occasionally and unfortunately trumping the greatest commandments.
Point taken. He is right, at least partially so. The “God hates Fags” stuff that some on the lunatic fringe promote, as well as the comparatively benign mockery that sometimes goes on in the evangelical mainstream (jokes, sarcasm, snide remarks), fall humiliatingly short of the compassionate example of Jesus. It is very true that Jesus had nothing but tender compassion to those struggling with moral issues, while reserving his ire for the religious “purists” of his day.
This is something that many who profess the Christian faith and express it through conservative values should take to heart. Jesus loved people – especially broken people, sinners, if you will.
But while many – especially younger – evangelicals are busy building bridges of love, sincerely reaching out to people often alienated by conservative Christians, they had better think things completely through. Not the reaching out part - that’s of course what real ministry is all about. I am talking about reflecting on how far one can lean toward “political correctness” before watering down the authentic message to the point where it becomes unrecognizable and therefore ineffectual.
Jesus told a story about the perils of building a house on shifting sand. Presumably the same caveat would apply to the building of a bridge.
Merritt wrote: “If Christians’ language were marked by these characteristics – humility, kindness, and grace – it would ease tensions and open up avenues for dialogue. It’s time for evangelical Christians to reform our rhetoric.”
Well, he has a valid point with the first part – all of us could use more “niceness.” But he is, I fear, being at least a wee bit naïve when he suggests that “kinder-gentler” evangelicalism will really open “avenues for dialogue.” Not as long as the Perez Hilton’s of the world spew their venom with mainstream media impunity.
Sure there are so-called and self-styled “Christians” who turn hate into an art form. Real followers of Jesus repudiate that stuff all the time, though the media often portrays the ugly caricature as the norm. But there is no real attempt on the part of those who support same-sex marriage and the like to marginalize people like the notorious foul-mouthed blogger.
In fact, he’s a celebrity judge at a major pageant! I am tempted to suggest that Donald Trump, purveyor of the Miss USA Pageant, may be morphing the once respectable event into a freak show, but I won’t because I want to be “nice.”
In my opinion, many younger evangelicals like Jonathan Merritt, have determined to distance themselves from the “religious right-ism” of their parents’ generation, in much the same way as the children of the baby-boom rejected many of the ways of their “World War II” generation parents. I have talked to many of them. They have not abandoned the Bible or the faith; they just don’t want the main message to be about abortion and traditional moral values. In fact, these younger evangelicals remain themselves largely pro-life and believe in heterosexual marriage and Biblical mores.
They just really, really believe they can practice their faith – even share it in love – while avoiding coming across as intolerant and shrill. The idea is that they will reach others by not yelling at them.
What needs to be noted though is that in order to actually reach a person with the gospel, the acknowledgement of sin is essential. So is repentance. Confession comes from a Greek word meaning, “to agree with,” in this case agreeing with God. The Bible term repentance means, “to change the mind.”
Both concepts are essential components of Christian witness. They require sin to be called sin and then to be turned from. How Jesus dealt with the adulterous woman in John chapter eight is case in point. He told her, after the condemnatory accusers had slithered away, “Neither do I condemn you.” But he didn’t stop there – and nor should evangelicals. He followed with: “Go and sin no more.”
Sin was still sin. And it is very important for some idealist evangelicals to understand that people today who celebrate and glorify behaviors that are clearly labeled in the Bible as sinful, will never really take advantage of “avenues of dialogue” until and unless evangelicals are willing to concede that the Bible doesn’t say what it means and mean what it says.
Niceness is a nice try, but the punch – “sin must be acknowledged before grace can flow” – must eventually be thrown. Build all the bridges you want; “they” will never use them.
In fact, “they” will usually blow them up.