There is an unfortunate human tendency to assume that we have all the necessary knowledge to render an opinion on a subject, even when we don’t. On my way into the office this morning I was listening to a presentation by Ravi Zacharias in which he was discussing whether people actually live consistently with their worldview (for the vast majority the answer is “no”). Most people act one way but preach something else entirely, without ever pausing to think whether their actions are consistent with what they claim to believe. That is a subject for another day (and another post), but it gave me some food for thought as I looked through the news this morning. Just as people often fail to stop and reflect on their own actions before rendering an opinion, people also jump to conclusions about someone else’s actions without truly examining whether they really have all the necessary information to form a judgment. Where there are gaps in our knowledge, we just fill them in with unwarranted assumptions that will inevitably lead us to the conclusion we have already decided we want to reach.
There is a story on Yahoo! News this morning about the new Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and some comments he made soon after his inauguration. He went through the official inauguration ceremony at the state capitol then moved on to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church, a Christian congregation. While speaking at the church, Governor Bentley said, “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” Also, “If the Holy Spirit lives in you that makes you my brothers and sisters. Anyone who has not accepted Jesus, I want to be your brothers and sisters, too.”
Needless to say, the outrage then commenced. Bill Nigut, president of the Anti-Defamation League was shocked. “His comments are not only offensive, but also raise serious questions as to whether non-Christians can expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor.” Nigut also said that if the Governor was advocating for Christian conversion, “he is dancing dangerously close to a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids government from promoting the establishment of any religion.”
First of all, please understand that this is not a political speech. I am admittedly far less involved in the political marketplace than I probably should be as a responsible citizen and prior to today I had never even heard of Robert Bentley. I could not even tell you the political party with which he affiliates himself (I could, of course, hazard a guess, but alas that would be inappropriate without actual knowledge).
My point here is that sometimes I think Americans spend their day to day lives looking for an excuse to be outraged, and if they find something that almost fits the bill, they’ll fill in whatever holes are necessary to enable their blood to boil. It puzzles me why so many people seem to live for animosity.
Preliminarily, while Mr. Nigut is eager to cite the Establishment Clause, he needs to remember the Free Exercise Clause as well. The Constitution equally protects the right of any citizen to freely exercise their religion, and they don’t lose that right when they accept public office. As far as I can tell from the Yahoo! News article, this was a speech at a private church to a Christian audience, not a political speech on the floor of the governor’s mansion. The mere fact that Mr. Bentley has been elected Governor does not require him to forfeit his right as a private citizen to speak on his Christian faith in a church setting.
But leaving the Constitution aside, was Governor Bentley really implying that he would treat his Christian constituents more favorably than non-Christians? What did he mean when he said those who accepted Jesus Christ as their savior were his “brothers and sisters?”
We live in a pluralistic society. That (in and of itself) is not a bad thing. But many of the worldviews that are gaining steam have a different idea of “brothers and sisters” than what Governor Bentley was discussing, and that idea has permeated our culture. New Age beliefs claim that we are all connected. “All is energy and all is connected. We all live, move and have our being both inside the Quantum Ocean and the Mind of God, at the same time.” In this sense we are all brothers and sisters. Postmodernism tells us that there is no objective truth. What one person believes to be true is no more “right” than another. All beliefs are on equal footing and “tolerance” demands that we hold all people’s worldviews to be equally valid. The subtle influence of these (and other) worldviews has instilled an assumption in our culture that “brothers and sisters” must refer to everyone. We should all be living in harmony. Our entire society should live together as brothers and sisters.
Expressed as that general principle, Christian doctrine would not disagree, and I doubt Governor Bentley would either. But is that really the sense in which he was using the phrase “brothers and sisters?” Viewed from this global perspective, it looks like Governor Bentley was making a conscious effort to exclude all non-Christians from the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity. People who bring this universal family mentality to the table (and who then seek to impose it upon Governor Bentley, assuming this is what he must have intended in his comments) are outraged that the Governor does not believe he owes the same legal or moral obligations to those who do not share his belief system.
But what these critics fail to acknowledge is that the Governor was a Christian man speaking to a Christian audience. When a Christian heard his comments in context, what would they likely hear?
There is a close bond between family members. No, we do not always get along like we should, but the old axiom “blood is thicker than water” at least tells us the ideal. At a minimum, we share a biological connection to our family members that we do not share with others, but in a healthy family the connection extends to an emotional level as well. Christianity teaches that when you accept Jesus as your savior, you are also adopted into an extended family. The church is charged with looking after you just as a healthy family ordinarily would. For those of us with strong family bonds, this extends our bonds even more broadly. For those who grew up without such bonds, it provides encouragement that they can still enjoy that familial relationship. “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Romans 12:5.
I have two brothers. Is it offensive for me to tell them that they are my brothers or to tell anyone else that they are not? Of course not, so long as I am speaking of the biological connection that we share. Similarly, so long as Governor Bentley is speaking of the familial-type connection shared by fellow Christians, it should not cause offense for him to say that those who accept Jesus are his brothers and sisters whereas those who do not are not. Only by refusing to accept the context in which his comments were intended and imposing someone else’s definitions upon his statement can we give ourselves a reason to feel offended.
Clearly in this context Governor Bentley was speaking of his brothers and sisters in Christ. He was speaking to a Christian audience who, if they were the least bit versed in Christian teaching, would understand his comments in that manner. He even qualified his comments with the express condition that makes someone a brother or sister in Christ, acceptance of Jesus as savior.
To suggest that the Governor was somehow excluding non-Christians from the global community, or suggesting that he did not owe a moral responsibility toward them also ignores Christian teaching.
“Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”
Christ clearly commands us to be a neighbor to everyone, regardless of whether they share our religious beliefs. Again, those who step up to criticize the Governor are erecting a straw man, deciding in advance what his beliefs must be without putting forth the effort to investigate what he really believes. Christians are guilty of this too. All too often we assume to speak for Muslims, Jews, Atheists or even our fellow Christians from other denominations by evaluating their statements from the perspective of our own preconceptions. Before anyone condemns the opinions of another, we should always be wary when we are on the outside looking in.