My earliest church memory in Savannah, Georgia, features willowy Mrs. Boyle, with gray hair twirled in a loose bun, singing while pointing to her ears, eyes, and lips. An earnest child who wanted to be good, I took it to heart. In fact, when I was eight years old, I scotch-taped a scrawled note to the family television based on Paul’s words “whatsoever things are lovely, true.” My mother shared my gesture with the church secretary who then put the exact words of my little sign in the church newsletter. A Christian often views attending to what one sees or hears in the context of maintaining moral purity, a worthwhile goal, but I invite you to reflect on the notion in a broader sense. Tending to one’s sensory input is key to liberation from a twisted culture.
Consider advertising in all its forms. Obviously, it causes people to imitate one another in a desire for a certain product or experience, fanning impulses of covetousness or greed. But, for this essay, please consider the fact that nefarious entities use communication techniques to shift people’s assumptions and, in the end, co-opt folks to act in unlikely, sometimes evil, ways. I am fascinated by this phenomenon. Neuroscience supports the idea that once one has an idea, or narrative, or bias, one filters out disputing information, underlining the importance of being careful what one hears and what bias one adopts. Bombarded with incoming data, a person’s mind tends to allow input that will reinforce an original premise.
Inevitably, discussion groups muse about the notion of how Christians in various contexts participated in evil against other people. Like in the Holocaust. Or in Alabama, the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice makes a lot of people wonder about churches’ responses during those many lynchings. May I suggest one root of the problem likely may have been a disregard of the admonition put forward by the children’s song? Were Christians being careful what they heard? Does listening to the narrative of those in power taint Christians? Political slogans? Talk radio? Memes? Do loud voices stifle the still small voice?
Christians have a responsibility to stay rooted and impervious to manipulation by mass media. Mass media has become a political weapon that will, if allowed, taint the minds of those who are supposed to be shepherds or of those who are supposed to speak freely and act upon the basis of the goodness of God. Modern society can be divided into three realms: individuals, the government, and civil society. Churches and religion reside in the realm of civil society. Civil society is necessary for democracy as it is a voice to advocate for norms and ideals of the group; a religious leader functions as part of civil society. When a Christian falls under the sway of political narratives, then her mind is under the control of another, and her prophetic voice is muted. So, the natural cognitive wiring of the mind likely will make a person resistant to an accurate picture of the reality of the societal situation. A Christian cannot allow herself to be a part of any narrative that disregards the truth that each person is of value and created in God’s image. She must shun any broad disparaging categorization of a group’s value, intelligence, or morality. Any compromising pact with those in power will yield an evil outcome.
For example, most of organized Christianity in Europe missed the opportunity to reflect God’s character of love and peace during the Holocaust, choosing instead to cooperate with the leader that “God had placed in power.” However, it appears that in certain regions early protest by church leaders about the immorality of discrimination against Jews was associated with smaller harm to the Jewish population over the years of Nazi power. The voice at the pulpit seemed to matter (Fein, 1979). The clear voices of pastors can provide a grounded reality check for those who encounter loud narratives used by power hungry leaders.
In late 20th century Rwanda, society was inundated by radio propaganda that dehumanized the Tutsi people prior to the Genocide in 1994. Tutsis were called cockroaches, enemies of the state, and evil. For the most part, churches failed to speak prophetically amidst slanderous talk about a certain group. Timothy Longman (2010) wrote of this in a comprehensive study of Christianity and the Rwandan Genocide and notes the overwhelming failure of any church (Catholic, Protestant, or Adventist) to register a comprehensive dissent about the issue of dehumanizing the Tutsis. In fact, the general stance seemed to have been that churches must steer clear from politics. (Sound familiar?) In addition, several Protestant groups adopted the position that turmoil was inevitable in the time right before the Second Coming, so no need to intervene or advocate for a different path than what was proposed by the government. (Sound familiar?) This passive posture that refused to use the power of religious voice in civil society shows a massive failure of Christian witness. There is no easy explanation about what factors caused people to act in certain ways in Rwanda, but, obviously, and sadly, churches failed to be peacemakers.
Whatever their individual reasons for choosing to participate, the fact that the churches gave moral sanction to the genocide freed people to act. The attitude of the churches toward ethnic politics and ethnic discrimination reassured those who were motivated by the anti-Tutsi ideologies. Even those who did not hate Tutsi but feared the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) and were convinced that they had to kill local Tutsi to defend themselves took comfort from the support the churches showed to the genocidal government. And for those who acted merely out of obedience, the church once again offered support. In Rwanda, unfortunately, the Golden Rule taught by the churches was not “love your neighbor as yourself,” but “obey those in authority.” (Longman, 2010, p. 319)
Early Christians were not persecuted for offering a vision of eternal life but because they served a different Lord, not Caesar, and were in an alternate society, one that questioned the narrative put in place by earthly leaders. Political narratives, in the end, serve to elevate a select group or person as the mandatory corrective for certain ills, or the narratives denigrate a group, without caveat, as responsible for certain ills. Such ideas are idolatry, twisting the roles of Jesus Christ and the treasured people He came to save. Any narrative that diminishes or elevates a human who has been made in God’s image should be suspect. In this time of overwhelming sensory input, it is time to avoid the stories that powerful people want to push. The Christian narrative of human value has no boundary. The words one hears can form the story one believes. Christian leaders must be catalysts to beckon the flock to leave the twisted culture. This path is not an alignment with political power but a replacement of the coercive narrative with the good news, the gospel, of Jesus. This will be subversive, but, in the end, every other narrative will fail.
In a tweet earlier this month, Ty Gibson said, “The core logic of the biblical narrative is that relational integrity leads to human flourishing. As Savior, Jesus is the facilitator of relational healing and restoration.” I agree with Gibson’s description. One must measure any narrative against this.
Just as in Paul’s time, the executive authority of Jesus must trump the executive authority of Caesar. As the song goes: “There’s a Father up above, and He’s looking down with love. Oh be careful, little ears, what you hear.”
Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.
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