If you haven’t heard that saying before, maybe you’ve heard other profound thoughts on kindness. Maybe thoughts from the Bible, like that the fruit of the Holy Spirit at work in your life is kindness. Or that we should be kind to one another. Or that God’s kindness is what draws us to repentance.
I long to be kind, but I seem to fail in those moments when it would serve me the most. In those moments, I revert to being clever. Clever comes easy. Clever doesn’t require any courage. Kindness is harder.
I wonder where I get this, and yet I do know exactly where it was nurtured. Where I come from—or, to be more precise, where I spent my college years—our faith culture hinged on the need to be right and clever, because we believed we had a corner on truth. We had all the answers. We did things God’s way. We were biblical. And there is, it seems, little need to be kind when you are just so very, very right.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure we could truly feel right unless someone else was wrong. And that’s where kindness became elusive. If we were biblical and others disagreed with us, then they, by default, were unbiblical. They didn’t just read and understand verses differently. No, they were unbiblical. In fact, sometimes they were more than unbiblical. Sometimes they were actually—in our minds—at war with God’s Word. And there was no in between. We claimed there was grace for varying interpretations of Scripture, except that this never seemed to be practiced when it mattered. When it mattered we called them ignorant.
There was only knowledge of truth or ignorance of God’s Word. Us vs. them. In or out. What should have been the finer shades of our faith were always black and white. And almost immediately, from my freshman year onward, I was seeing what happens to our brothers and sisters when—rather than carefully outlining our own beliefs and coloring them carefully—we chose instead to use our condemnation paint and smear entire movements, entire denominations, entire churches indiscriminately and completely without grace for any theological differences we don’t understand or simply don’t embrace.
I sat next to my precious friend Rachel in the fall of 1991 as the president of our college preached from his pulpit for weeks on end of the dangers of charismatic churches, often picking on the Vineyard movement that she’d grown up in.
“But my church doesn’t do those things,” she would say tearfully in long car rides back to the dorm on Sunday nights. “How can he say we are all doing those things when I grew up in a Vineyard church and don’t know anyone who does.”
Week after week we endured the charismatic bashings from the pulpit and then made the long drive home completely at a loss for how to comfort Rachel. When our president called them of the devil, he was saying it of her. When he said they were at war with God’s Word, he was saying it of her—this big-hearted, on-fire-for-Jesus, in-love-with-God’s-Word girl … he was saying it of her. Every stone he placed while laying his almighty wall of truth landed squarely on her back, crushing her and wounding her deep inside while those of us who loved her watched helplessly, confused and torn. We had no answers for his accusations. We had no remedy for her pain. We were just kids.
Who was surprised when Rachel eventually tired of hearing the heavy-handed slander, packed up her bags, and never came back?
Our president, however, soon directed the condemnation paint elsewhere: Christian psychology. Seeker churches. The emergent movement. Catholicism. For decades now, every time one controversial war of words dies down another begins to fester. Once—long after graduation—I found myself in Rachel’s shoes. He was disparaging my people. Loudly. In newsletters. In sermons. In a book. Like Rachel, I could see the cracks in the paint clearly. A few exaggerations here. A dash of misinformation there. And of course the heaping doses of condemnation. Clearly theologies differed and this might have been easily expressed with some grace and an appropriate level of concern, but was the smear campaign—and it was an all out campaign—really necessary?
I’ll never forget sitting next to one good pastor—no, an amazing pastor—not long after he’d been named and shamed in the campaign against the emerging church. We’ll call him Ken. I struggled for words after admitting to Ken my connection to the man who had wounded him so publicly. “I’m sorry,” I said eventually, Rachel’s face replacing Ken’s in my mind and a dozen familiar wounds beginning to ache. “This is just what he does.”
This is just what he does.
When confronted with the unkindness of what he does, he—the man with the condemnation paint—will tell you as he has told many others: It’s just the truth and truth is love. If you question the divisiveness of what he does, he will tell you truth divides. And so there is no winning in this war of words.
It’s clever, really.
And once again, just like 22 years ago, charismatic churches of all shapes and varieties are the target of the current campaign: Strange Fire. Many writers have already pointed out the specific problems with Strange Fire (see list below), so I’ll focus instead on the familiar colors that show up every time the condemnation paint is opened up …
And to be perfectly honest, I’m weary of it. If the slightest hint of unorthodoxy frees us from the responsibility to be fair, to be honest, to be kind … then who are we, truly? To what end is all our rightness and cleverness going to lead?
I’m weary of publicly tolerating such divisive, toxic behavior when I’ve been nursing the private wounds that it causes for decades. You see, I’m angry now and it’s difficult to be kind when I’m angry. It’s difficult not to simply return cleverness for cleverness, and so even this week I’ve erred on the side of being clever and right when it just might have been better to be kind. (Oh, these habits are hard to break …)
But for the last two decades I’ve been surrounding myself with people of different denominations and varying theologies and somewhere along the line I figured out through arguments, misunderstandings, and usually a great deal of listening that it is entirely possible to disagree on the finer points of theology and still love Jesus together.
So many of us have learned that we can talk about these differences—sometimes sloppily, sometimes gracefully—and still love Jesus together. That we can read a book of the Bible and come away with two very different opinions on what it means and still love Jesus together. That we can even share the gospel message in two different ways, each using different verses, emphasizing different (but equally accurate and no less truthful) aspects of God’s beautiful redemption plan and still love Jesus together.
Yes, we can.
No, really. WE CAN.
We can leave that whole need to build a wall of truth behind and be content with a welcoming garden of truth instead. We can give the bricks and the mortar to God and save our energy and wrath and books and conferences for things that are worthy of such mighty campaigns: starving children, exploited women, boy soldiers, orphaned babies. These issues and so many others call to us daily, demanding the attention of God’s people, and we will get so much further if we are working together and not against each other.
But this is ecumenism. This is pragmatism. And these things will only get me drenched in the condemnation paint, I know. In fact, I fear that what I’ve written here is utterly futile in the face of such great and clever walls.
So I will simply use my voice, with as much kindness as I can muster given all these years and all these senseless scars:
If you want to love Jesus together, sir, I’m willing.
But it’d be so much easier if you’d tear down that wall.
Articles and posts voicing specific concerns about the Strange Fire conference:
Author: Tasha Chavez
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