Back in the day, when I was less faithful and a lot more concerned about what people thought about me, I used to proudly declare, “Christians should be known for what we are for rather than what we are against.” My fellow “backslider” and non-Christian friends would nod in agreement. It sounds so simple right? Surely no one will turn that against us. If we just say nice, non-controversial things, people will be nice to us. Sadly, reality is profoundly different than my youthful naiveté. I might be able to shrug it off if I did not hear the statement so often these days. I often hear it from Emergent Church leaders or those on the Evangelical Left who would prefer the faithful Church was more accommodating on issues of sexuality and salvation. Yet in most cases the use of this phrase can be chalked up to ignorance and a misunderstanding about the nature of public discourse.
Take for example the recent song Jesus, Friend of Sinners by the band Casting Crowns.
Jesus friend of sinners the one who’s writing in the sand Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands Help us to remember we are all the least of thieves. Let the memory of Your mercy bring your people to their knees.
Nobody knows what we’re for only what we’re against when we
judge the wounded.
What if we put down our signs crossed over the lines and love like
Oh Jesus friend of sinners.
Many of us could say, “Yes and amen” to the first part of the verse, but the second stanza makes the ignorant comment. It’s ignorant because on important matters of public policy–those matters Christians are known to have strong opinions about–we often talk about what they are for. But talking about what we are for does not matter if our words are twisted around. Here are three recent and prominent policy issues that illustrate my point.
Several months ago, the people of North Carolina had the opportunity to go to the polls to vote for an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment states, “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.” As it turns out 61% of the voters in North Carolina voted for this amendment. Nowhere does the amendment say it is anti-gay marriage. However, in the media Amendment 1 became known as the anti-gay marriage law where in reality it was the pro-marriage between one man and one woman law.
Over the last forty years, defenders of the pre-born have made a valiant effort to hold onto the term pro-life. In spite of recent efforts by the EPA and the environmental lobby to steal the phrase so that even abortion advocates qualify as pro-life, the term is understood as being for protecting the life of pre-born babies. As with the marriage issue, faithful Christians are not socially recognized for being “pro” anything, but rather we are labeled as anti-abortion, anti-woman, anti-choice. A simple comparison on major news networks, including Fox News, show journalist preferring anti-abortion over pro-life.
Finally, the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate which as of August 1, 2012 requires all insurance companies provide free sterilization services and contraception, in the form of birth control pills and prescriptions that cause abortions. As expected, Catholic and Protestant universities and hospitals objected to being required to cover services that go against their moral teachings of their faith. These proud institutions were accused of starting a “War on Women” rather than simply asking that they be allowed to qualify under the religious exemption. In being for religious liberty one becomes labeled anti-woman.
The real issue is that word matter and labels are fundamentally part of the discourse on social policy (culture war) issues. Label are not in and of themselves evil, but play an important role in helping us process information. If you want to do an experiment on trying to live without labels, start by taking the labels off the cans in your cupboard. Christians are constantly being labeled as anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-environment, etc. While there are numerous examples of Christians saying hurtful and mean things, the vast majority of Christians are for human flourishing and living to the high standard that God has set for us.
By joining the chorus of voices that say, “Christians should be known by what we are for, rather than what we are against,” we ignorantly affirm the negative view of Christians rather than confronting the misapplied label. As our culture drifts from its Christian mooring, we should anticipate the rhetoric and false labeling to increase. Ultimately, we should not expect the world to speak well of us, Jesus told us they won’t, but we can choose how we speak about ourselves.