Ever since Peter and Paul had opposing views about ministry to the Gentiles, there have been divisions in the Christian church. But rarely in the course of church history have differences among Christians been so exploited and manipulated for political gain by those outside the church as is the case today.
It is true that many Christians have taken an ideological approach to religion. But the proper response to such people isn't to take an opposing ideological position. Rather, it is to encounter them humbly, prayerfully, and firmly rooted in scripture -- after all, they are our brothers and sisters in faith.
For while there are indeed consequential disagreements between segments of the church, the bonds that unite us as Christians are stronger than the differences that separate us. It's important to distinguish between Religious Right institutions -- some of which are nothing more than right-wing political organizations -- and the often well-meaning individuals under their influence.
How should we relate to other Christians associated with the Right? Below are several suggestions to get you started. (Tomorrow, in part II of this blog post, I'll share how to get beyond labels while addressing a group.)
- Get beyond the labels and seek to understand others' point of view. Shorthand phrases such as "conservative Christian" lump together people with a wide variety of beliefs, many of which likely resonate with our own.
- Share the good news. In many ways the gospel of Jesus Christ is very different from the nationalistic and materialistic "gospel" taught by right-wing preachers and politicians (or, for that matter, from the purely social gospel taught by those at the other end of the spectrum). As written in Ephesians, "You must speak the truth to one another, since we are all parts of one another" (4:25). If we honestly seek the truth, we must have confidence that the Spirit will lead us in the right direction.
- Study the Bible. Become more familiar with the scriptures that form the basis of our beliefs; be prepared to articulate the biblical basis for social and political positions. When discussing "political" issues with other Christians, focus on the biblical basis of beliefs. Examine the underlying assumptions of positions, and the sources of those assumptions. (For example, are they cultural and national assumptions, or are they biblical and theological assumptions? Many ideas are based on a little of both, and it's worth sorting it out.)
- Don't write off Christian radio and other such media as necessarily right wing. While they tend to be wary of traditional big-government-liberal approaches, they may be surprisingly open to alternative, biblically based viewpoints. And even right-wing media such as Fox News are licensed to reflect community standards. Write letters to stations (and to the FCC) requesting a diversity of views and protesting unfair and unbalanced coverage.
- Political groups-from both sides of the spectrum-intentionally seek to exploit our spirituality. Take it seriously! We must be "as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves" in such matters. Many Christians are influenced by Glenn Beck and other right-wing media personalities. Ministers and other church leaders should be aware of and explicitly respond to what people are listening to. Research the "facts" spouted on these radio and TV shows; some are bald-faced lies, some are gross distortions, and some are simply unsubstantiated opinions disguised as facts. Write an article for your denominational newsletter or magazine exposing these demagogues and explaining why Christians ought to be very wary of such polemic.
- Don't be reactive. Develop your own agenda. Ask yourself, What does my community need? Get beyond the general and the rhetorical to address the specific and practical steps and programs that can begin to address these needs. These pragmatic strategies ought to form the basis of our own "contract" with our community and nation.
- Pray. Without ceasing. "Pray all the time, asking for what you need, praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion" (Ephesians 6:18).
- Live your convictions. Nothing speaks louder than integrity. "You must live your whole life according to the Christ you have received -- Jesus the Lord" (Colossians 2:6-7).
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine.