Can We Live Faithfully in a Time of Vitriol? | Sojourners

Can We Live Faithfully in a Time of Vitriol?

Scripture is rife with paradox. Live by the Spirit but be firmly anchored in the Word. Seek justice but love mercy. Love sacrificially but maintain healthy boundaries. Be gracious with people but hold to the standard of holiness.

Followers of Christ and children of God are called to center ourselves in the example of Jesus and navigate these tensions continually. But we seem to have evacuated that center and migrated toward the wings of easier-to-digest theology, in all directions. And intense disagreement without centering on Jesus can lead to extremes. 

In this season of Lent, perhaps it would be beneficial to examine our tendency toward extremes, and how Jesus navigated paradoxes during his time on Earth.

Extremes are easy — clear-cut, straightforward. They’re comfortable and certain. But they don’t capture whole reality, nor do they require us to develop a capacity for complexity and delve into the mud that is life experience. With our appetite for extremes — or in our fear of others' — we’ve created narrow corridors of opinion that are impossible to deviate from, lest we be ostracized or vulnerable. And this kind of atmosphere enables authoritarian figures to rise — the fact that so many Christians have not only acquiesced to President Donald Trump’s administration, but enabled it, is very confusing.

Scripture exhorts us to walk humbly before God and live in peace. Are we doing that?

To navigate intense disagreement and remain in relationship, we are called to practice empathy and generosity of spirit. There is no humility in saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong” without inviting a conversation (and a comment thread on Facebook does not often constitute as a conversation). I once heard a preacher say, “Humility is confidence properly placed.” Where have we placed our confidence? What makes us think that our cause is God’s cause?

In Joshua chapter 6, we read about the fall of Jericho. Many of us are very familiar with the story of its fall, but rarely do we meditate on the verses just prior to this scene:

“Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’ ‘Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’ Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’ The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’” (5:13-15)

The commander of the Lord’s army did not say whether or not Joshua would win the battle. He did not say which side God was on. His message was to make Joshua aware that he stood before a holy God, a sovereign God — a God who does not always take sides but is committed to God’s own purposes.

The season of Lent is an excellent opportunity for us to acknowledge our sinfulness and remove our sandals before a holy God. God has laid down commands and principles in the Scriptures. That is the side we should be on. Regarding the hows and whats of living out our Christian faith and influencing society, we are called to center ourselves in Jesus — which more often than not means balancing the tensions of grace and truth, justice and mercy, freedom and holiness. This is perhaps one of the more difficult spiritual disciplines to which the Lord calls us.

Micah 6:8 tells us, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

God has called us to live in peace. Living in peace is not equal to staying silent and letting falsehood reign. It is to allow for complexity while pursuing truth and righteousness; to preserve relationship in spite of diverging perspectives; to speak prophetically without alienating.

An old and world-weary King Solomon wrote in his book of Ecclesiastes, “The man who fears God will avoid all extremes” (7:18b). As a ruler who had extreme wealth, extreme wisdom, and an extreme number of wives and mistresses, he should know. Let’s not sacrifice kindness on the altar of rhetoric and opinion. Let us walk as true children of God, navigating the many tensions of life. This is a hard road, but it’s one that reflects God’s heart. And it's the one we are called to walk.

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