Hey Christians, Why Do We Suck At Apologizing?

Or: Against Crank Christianity

I recently came across an article about a church in South Carolina. According to the post, a South Carolina church is under fire due to the pastor dropping a racial slur in a recent sermon. Specifically, many in the diverse community of Newspring Church we’re angry because of how they believed Pastor Perry Noble jovially dropped the n-word during his Christmas Eve service.

The above recording of the video shows how – while not blatant- it’s contextually believable that Noble actually used the slur. And yet the church has denied responsibility, refusing to apologize. The church’s public relations director stated:

“We…stand by the message Perry gave to our church on (Christmas Eve). In regards to your question about the ‘N’ word, Perry doesn’t use that word and doesn’t address anyone in his life by such a word.  He did not use that word in his message and what you perceived as him doing so was [a] matter of words getting jumbled as can happen with anyone who is speaking.”

Now it’s understandable that the pastor may have misspoken. And it’s possible he was misheard. Even if the pastor had dropped the slur on accident, or even purposefully (in an incredible lapse of judgement), I still don’t think this would be as big an ordeal if it’d just been followed by a sincere apology. As one (ironically) atheist blogger said about the incident:

“The smart thing to do would be to apologize, even if it was, as his people claim, a misunderstood stumble.”

I couldn’t agree more. Is it really that difficult to just say “I’m sorry”?

Apparently it is.

Christians have earned a reputation of being quick to defend and slow to apologize. I want to here ensure that I emphasize my intentional use of the royal “we” throughout this post. For I am no different. In marriage, in work, in church and certainly in blogging, my immediate reaction is to throw punches, not apply neosporin to wounds I’ve already inflicted (upon all two of you who follow this blog regularly, bless your souls).

I’m not alone in this; it is the human tendency. And, with the onslaught of virtual communication, culture as a whole, and Christianity within it, has forgotten the impact of harsh words on a fellow human. We do not see tears, downturned eyes or tortured expressions when we launch a tirade against others online. In person we are exposed to the damage our words cause. But from behind a computer screen we are shielded.

In the wake of Mark Driscoll’s retirement and the disintegration of Mars Hill the evangelical community has witnessed the whiplash of abrasive pastoring. What has consistently made the situation infinitely worse is Driscoll’s well-earned reputation for half-baked apologies. When confronted with pages of disturbingly angry and chauvinistic blog posts from his first few years in ministry, Driscoll didn’t apologize. Rather, he noted that these comments were part of his “angry-young-prophet days” (Driscoll was 30 at the time). Even when Driscoll resigned from his position, he hardly apologized. Instead he made thorough mention of how hurt he was by the whole ordeal.

And the Driscollean method of pseudo-repentence is disturbingly present among Christians. Over the past 50 years, Christians have adopted an increasingly defensive stature towards culture. The onslaught of relativism has resulted in us viewing secular culture as a constant threat to our sanctity and even the validity of the gospel. Because of this, we have grown to adopt combative techniques of interacting with culture figuring that anyone who is turned off to our message by abrasive methods (such as Answers in Genesis’ recent Times Square advertisement addressed “to our intolerant liberal friends”)  is necessary collateral on the road to conquering culture for Christ. But the “culture” that threatens us is not an inanimate evil object. We don’t exist in some Tolkienian version of Middle Earth, waging war against the orcs and trolls of dark powers. Rather, the culture we seem intent on combating is made up of children, mothers, brothers…people. And the collateral of our combative nature is not conquered evil, but ugly defacing of Christ’s church.

This fall, blogger Matt Walsh published a post titled “Sorry, but its your fault if you’re offended all the time.” The post was a brash critique of what Walsh calls “the dexterity and athleticism with which we get offended.” Walsh employs pubescent doses of sarcasm to critique the tendency of contemporary culture to take offense. While there is certain validity to his point, Walsh’s methods of engaging culture aren’t exactly as ‘gentle as doves.’ Walsh is the same blogger who published, within hours of the beloved actor’s death, a post stating that “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice.” The post went viral(surprise, surprise). And it produced many angry responses. Walsh did not post an apology for the insensitivity of publishing critical commentary on someone’s death within minutes of their passing. Instead he ran a second post, defending previous statements. Throughout his work, Walsh’s defensive and disarmingly passive-aggressive attitude appears with uncanny frequency. And it is all too symptomatic of our Christian culture. We love employing techniques that encourage us to defend first and only apologize if irrefutably necessary.

Samuel James, blogging at Patheos, has labeled this rhetorical movement as “crank conservatism.” I’m hesitant to adopt this label because I’ve seen the same techniques utilized by Christians across the spectrum. But the label “crank Christianity” is absolutely applicable to the current trend.

Often methods utilized by those like Walsh and Driscoll are then justified with biblical extrapolation. Some point out that Christ offended people too, so it’s obviously okay to step on culture’s toes. Other’s make an argument that goes along the lines of “the gospel message will offend those who aren’t saved.”

In response to such thinking we Christians need a heavy dose of humility. For one, we are not Jesus. Jesus was fully God and perfect in every way. So for him to verbally offend someone is entirely just. But it doesn’t give Christians permission, let alone mandate, such behavior. Just because a parent does something doesn’t mean a child can follow suit; the child rarely has the maturity required to properly mimic adult behaviors. To pretend otherwise is pretentious and often sinful on the part of the child.

Secondly, it ought to be noted that the group of people Jesus most readily offended were Pharisees, the religious elite if his time. For modern Christians to lob grenades of offense into culture and then turn around and say “well it’s okay that we offended people… Jesus pissed off the Pharisees” is inexcusably ironic and backwards.

Culture is not a fort to be taken, and the gospel is not a weapon to win it. Rather the gospel message is a city on a hill who’s governor has commanded it’s people to tear down the walls. But instead of destroying the walls, or even opening the gates, we have a tendency to build them higher with careless words, insensitivity and an unbiblical “us verses them” mentality. And when people are uninspired or incapable of building ladders to scale these walls, we scoff at their retreating silhouettes on the horizon and think: “Good riddance, Jesus did the same thing.”

But he didn’t. Jesus smashed down the gate. He tore open the curtain. He demolished the walls of his city. He invited everyone to his wedding feast. And the pen he used to sign invitations was the Cross.

As Christians, we’ve been commanded to do the same.

I understand that sometimes people can be unnecessarily offended. I know that culture can play the victim. Unjust accusations can and have been made. But I also know that human-beings aren’t collateral. Every person on the planet is someone that Christians have an obligation to love. They’re someone we’ve been commanded to care for, walk with and guide to the Cross. If our words demean them, if our techniques act as a stumbling block to someone else’s desire to hear Christ’s kingdom proclaimed, then we are not to be commended and certainly not to just shrug if off. As Paul once said: so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). And should we be accused unjustly, our reaction ought not be defensive but rejoice in the blessing Jesus himself promised (Matthew 5:11). Such joy should look like gracious interactions with culture- apologizing even when unnecessary- not a “NU-UH!!!!”-ish retort.

I hope Pastor Noble apologizes and soon. And I hope spotlight Christians such as Walsh and Driscoll are increasingly convicted by Christ’s invitation to all and offense of a few. We cannot please everybody. But we should be weary of offending the majority by empowering the select and elitist minority.

I hope and pray that my words do not come across as demeaning, hurtful or slanderous. But if they do, I pray for the humility to promptly and sincerely apologize. With such an attitude, it’s possible that “crank Christianity” may one day see its end.

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