When you have a group of Christians working on a project of some sort, you will almost inevitably hear an onlooker say something like this:
I don’t know why they’re so hung up on The Issue of the Day, when it really isn’t essential. I’m busy enough feeding the hungry and proclaiming the gospel to get tied up in that.
I call it the Nonessential Response. It rarely matters just what The Issue of the Day is. It could be ordaining women to serve as clergy, or updating a prayer book or hymnal, or ending slavery, or using gender-expansive language, or fully including disabled persons, or figuring out the date for Easter, or advocating for or against the filioque being included in the Nicene Creed. What I’m thinking about today is the response itself.
There are some more recent Issues of the Day that may come to mind, but we don’t need to go into any particular issue, because this post is about this response to people who are engaged and struggling with The Issue of the Day, the Nonessential Response. No matter what it might be, there are people who are very passionate about the issue, and we do them — and the gospel — a disservice when we dismiss them in this way. I am guilty of uttering the lines above, and on more than one occasion. “Do we really have to argue about this? Why can’t we just get on with housing the homeless and building up the Kingdom?” It is a perfectly valid thing to say. In the 21st century, every squabble can be magnified out of proportion by a media that does not understand Christianity… and even by Christians who do not understand social media. Once our bickering is exposed online, we make it difficult for others to see Christlike love in us.
I have three serious problems with this response, and they have grown over time:
- Spiritual sloth
- Intellectual dishonesty
- Spiritual pride.
I realize that not everyone who delivers this
The Nonessential Response diminishes The Issue of the Day to something of no consequence, so that the speaker feels free to ignore it rather than engaging with the underlying questions and theology, falling into the mortal sin of sloth. While any one Christian does not need to be wrestling with every issue or argument that has ever happened within the Church, the big questions of today have profound influence on how we respond to the world as Christians. I know that some of the issues I listed above seem obviously nonessential. Does it matter on what day we celebrate Easter, or does it really only matter that we actually do celebrate Easter? While we run the risk that our struggles with the big questions of our time will divide and polarize us, so that we see the Church as Us vs. Them, we are called into the struggle. Christianity is not easy; it’s hard enough loving my neighbor without having to love and pray for my enemies. Part of this difficulty is our lifelong struggle with the big questions of existence and these big questions for the church.
When we set aside The Issue of the Day, choosing to ignore it rather than to engage with it, we give ourselves permission not only to diminish our feelings around the question but to set aside study and critical reasoning as well. Okay, I admit it: I’m a geek. That’s why the Anglican Dominicans are my long lost family. We’re into study and deep thought on just about any matter, no matter how arcane or esoteric. I know that not everyone is called to this work, and that’s just fine. But the Anglican triad of scripture, tradition, and reason reminds us that God gives us brains and God expects us to use them. Many of these big arguments have not actually been about what they appear to be. The question of when to celebrate Easter was really about power, authority, obedience, and control. These things provoke immediate emotional responses, and we have little control over our feelings. What we do control, however, is the response we choose to make. We can let those feelings take us over, so that we shout out a big “No, never!” or “Yes, now!” Or we can remember to go back and look at scripture, tradition, and reason, to use these amazing brains God has given us, so that our response is measured, reasonable, and appropriate.
There is a slick smugness to the Nonessential Response, and it is an ugly form of pride. To say “You are too busy with things that don’t matter, while I am properly living out the gospel imperative” is to say “I am a good Christian, and you are not,” creating a specious division between you and I (well, between you and me). The truth is, none of us is a very good Christian. We are terrible at forgiveness; we barely manage to tolerate each other, much less to love everyone; we allow millions of people to go hungry while we throw away a huge amount of food; we support laws that basically make it illegal to be homeless, while we rattle around in huge houses; we demonize those we disagree with instead of working to find common ground. Even without the false dichotomy of this statement, it is extremely prideful to assert that one is a good Christian; even (or perhaps, especially) the most saintly among us keenly know how they fail to hit the mark. And while no single issue should be so elevated in importance that it becomes an idol, it behooves us to remember that those who are passionate about The Issue of the Day are our brothers and sisters in Christ, deserving of our love and support, and not our contempt.
Jesus to calls us to love everybody, as he has loved us. When we ignore and dismiss these questions, these Issues of the Day, we ignore and denigrate those to whom the questions are vital. That doesn’t sound like Christ’s love to me. So next time you feel the Nonessential Response welling up in you, I urge you to bite back the words before you say them. Think about sloth and pride. Consider the effect these words will have on your beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. And maybe say something more honest: “I see that you are very passionate about this question. It isn’t one that I even think about often. Maybe you could help me understand its importance to you.”
God’s peace go with you; Christ’s grace sustain you; the Spirit’s wisdom inform you.