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A recent article in the New York Times addressed the troubling rise of a militant form of Christian Nationalism and how prevalent—and visually obvious—this was at the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. In the article the author quoted Tony Perkins as follows:
Along similar lines, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a leading figure among conservative evangelicals, was asked in a 2018 Politico interview, “What happened to turning the other cheek?” “You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins replied. “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”
There is a lot to unpack in that short statement. In fact, it “unpacks” potentially in more ways than I could even begin to explore in this short blog post. In one sense you could agree with Perkins. I have long made the distinction between humility and humiliation. We are called to be humble like Christ is humble but that need not mean—and I have used this image in my own preaching more than once—that we are the world’s doormat on which people just wipe off their dirty shoes. We need not equate being humble with being naïve. If someone is actively trying to scam the church out of money or other resources, humility does not mean we just let them do it. Being humble and forgiving and full of grace does not mean we do not report crimes to the police or take action to restrain or remove a pedophile from a church nursery or youth program.
We are not a doormat. We stand up for justice. We take action to protect the vulnerable or weak. Jesus said we are blessed when people hurl false accusations and speak all manner of ill things about us on account of our faith. But he did not say you could not answer back in defense of your faith. The Apostle Peter wrote that we should always be ready to give an apologia, a defense, of the hope we have within us.
But, as I have written often here on The Twelve, Peter said we do that with “gentleness and respect.” Perhaps this is also why Jesus advised his disciples that when going out into the world, they needed to be wise as serpents but also gentle as doves. Combining serpents and doves in a single identity is, I suppose, what you would expect from the Savior who himself is described in Revelation as being both the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and the Lamb that had been slain.
Jesus was also, of course, the One whom John describes in the opening prologue to his gospel as being “full of grace and truth.” Grace. Truth. Both. As Neal Plantinga has often observed, however, when it comes to having both Grace and Truth up and running 100% all the time, Jesus seems to be the only One who pulls that off consistently. The rest of us struggle with the balance. Some people have truth all sewn up and half the time you wish they’d shut up about it. Others are all grace all the time but as a result you can never get a straight answer out of them about anything.
It is like that with being simultaneously serpent-like and dove-like too. Yes, we need to be discerning, wily, smart. We don’t have to let falsehoods slide by. We don’t need to be the world’s punching bag or doormat. But the moment we discern something to be amiss, the moment we know lies are being told, the moment when we figure out that someone is being exploited, then we need to respond to that serpent-like insight with dove-like gentleness. What’s more, we have to accept upfront that such gentleness may be just less than effective. It might not work. It might not persuade anyone.
This is when the temptation to adopt the tactics of the world roars in. Tony Perkins is right: you run out of cheeks. But that is assuming that after the right cheek has been slapped followed by the left cheek that you cannot go back to cheek #1 again and start the process over. Getting both cheeks slapped is not then the moment to pick up a gun since the cheek thing isn’t working. Having our dove-like gentle witness scorned is not the moment to pick up a flagpole and start beating someone with it. Bearing witness to the gospel as Christ taught us to do may not get people’s attention but that does not then authorize hoisting up a “Jesus Saves” sign and marching into the Capitol to see if you can hunt down and kill Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi since you believe your “Christian nation” is being stolen from you.
As I wrote in a blog at the end of 2020, the saddest truth of last year as revealed by the pandemic is that too many Christians in the U.S. have all along been more loyal to the flag than the cross. Small wonder then that we are witnessing such an uptick in Christians using the tactics of the flag to enforce their “faith” than that of the cross.