I don’t plan on watching any of the presidential debates because honestly the whole concept makes me sick. I am so weary of argument being the central trope upon which our society is built. How many people were either gleeful or bitter when they walked around work yesterday based on whether they were pulling for Mitt or Barack? Think about how ridiculous that is. A world built on arguments becomes a post-truth world in which there need not be any correspondence between an argument that a person makes and the reality on the ground as long as the argument is plausible and logically coherent. Every debate is won by the one with the best delivery, so that a confident liar can beat a stuttering, conflicted person of integrity. Nobody cares what the fact-checkers have to say. They’re like the refs who call fouls every 30 seconds and get beer thrown on them by fans who scream, “Just let them play ball!” I wonder if this is what it felt like in Athens when Plato was writing about the sophists. In any case, it made me think of the time when Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin after having all sorts of attacks made against him: “Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’ But Jesus remained silent” (Matthew 26:62-63). So here’s my question: when are Christians supposed to argue and when are we supposed to be silent?
It seems like the default for Christians, particularly those who are pompous enough to become bloggers like me, is to say that we’re always supposed to argue because if someone says something that isn’t right, then unless we challenge it, other people might believe it, and before you know it, the truth will vanish from the face of the Earth. We cite verses like 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” And so we eagerly await the opportunity to use our apologetic and evangelistic expertise to smack others down when they contradict the truth that we have. Of course, we often forget to read the rest of verse 15 and verse 16: “But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
What would it be like if we owned the challenge of speaking so gently and respectfully that anyone who spoke maliciously against us would be ashamed of their slander? This is completely different than shaming them for their slander. It is something that cannot be accomplished through logic, which modernity has taught us to worship above all else. Many Christians today love logic more than they love Jesus Himself. But speaking gently and respectfully has to do with beauty, not logic. The hope that we have is supposed to be an enchanting garden whose aroma lures people in, not a fortress of perfect irrefutability whose archers are ready with a flock of arrows to launch in rebuttal to any challenge.
Jesus wasn’t always silent. He was silent when there was no chance of accomplishing metanoia (that form of epiphany translated as “repentance”) in His listeners. He playfully argued with the Pharisees who took themselves a lot more seriously than He did. He did lash out at quite a few people harshly, but it was always either for the purpose of shaking a realization out of them or in order to express solidarity with someone else. Simon the Pharisee got schooled on his hospitality because of the way that he scorned the poor prostitute washing Jesus’ feet. The teacher of the law who wants to know how to love his neighbor gets pricked by having the despised Palestinian (er… Samaritan) be the hero of the story. Jesus had to call Peter “Satan” so he would stop being a !@#$%^&*. When Jesus excoriates the Pharisees in Matthew 23 in the harshest speech he ever gave, it’s clear that He’s speaking out of solidarity with the people who are having “the gate of heaven slammed in their faces” and having “heavy loads tied for them to carry.”
There was always a purpose when Jesus argued with and dissed people. But when it became about defending Himself against enemies who were completely hardened in their views, Jesus had nothing to say. As 1 Peter 2:23 says, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” So think about this as you consider your conversations with other people. The more that you love the strength of your own logic, the more that you are mocking the foolish weakness of our savior whose cross was utterly ridiculous and pathetic before it became a piece of jewelry and something you could make a million bucks writing pop love songs about. If we have indeed taken up our crosses to follow Jesus, then their foolishness should be a constant source of humility for us. True self-denial is not taking pride in conspicuously arduous self-sacrifice and toil; it is rather having the humility to let somebody else get the last word.
I have had some amazing conversations with a brilliant reformed pastor named Derek Rishmawy over the past year. We disagree over the fundamental chasm that divides the Wesleyan from the Calvinist. But our conversations have been so much more than debates. And there is so much more overlap and agreement in our perspectives than I thought there would be. Because of the gentleness and respect with which Derek writes, I feel like a jerk every time I crucify straw men or dump a red herring in what I say. Another blogger who is a master of gentleness and respect is my fellow Methodist John Meunier. John is a generation older than me in some of his social views which has lit my fuse a few times. But he is so humble in a way that seems like it cannot be disingenuous that God uses his responses to my outbursts to throw heaps of burning coals on my head and teach me temperance of speech.
By all means, be prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have. But make it a beautiful answer instead of a logically impenetrable one. If someone wants to argue and it seems like they might really be asking for help with an issue they’re struggling with, then engage but do so gently. But if Satan’s trolls come around to heckle and taunt you, then you don’t need to say a word in reply because the cross to which they nail you to is the proof of their defeat.