The Edmond Sun

November 6, 2012

Striving for honest conversation

Don Heath
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — I wonder how many sermons this Sunday began with something like, “I’m glad the election season is almost over”?

There is conflict and hostility in the air. It is difficult to get into a discussion abouat politics without starting an argument.

This is my first election season as a member of the Facebook community. Facebook is a way to keep in touch with your friends through the Internet. You write something on your wall, and all your friends can see it. It’s like a mass email to all your friends. People post all kinds of things. Some people post pictures of themselves with their kids. Some people post interesting things they have read so that their friends can read them, too. Some people post stories on behalf of the presidential candidates.

My liberal friends post anti-Romney stuff and my conservative friends post anti-Obama stuff. I really don’t see too much pro-Obama from liberals or pro-Romney from conservatives. Some people take a break from Facebook during election season. They get tired of reading the political posts, which are a lot like the attack ads you see on television. They wear you down.

We come by this hostility naturally. It is part of our Christian identity.

Brian McLaren addresses this hostility in his new book, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” It is about religious pluralism.

McLaren has a unique approach to pluralism. He suggests that we begin by focusing on our own identity as Christians. McLaren is a progressive theologian who grew up as an evangelical — it has left its mark on how he see things today. He sees Christians as having two dominant attitudes toward pluralism. Evangelicals tend to see a strong Christian identity as being hostile to other religions. For them, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life means that Jesus is the only way to God. The stronger our Christian commitment, the stronger we emphasize the difference between Christianity and other faiths.

Religious liberals tend to open themselves up to other religions by watering down their own Christian faith. McLaren says that we emphasize our similarities with other religions and minimize our differences. We make it matter less that the other is Hindu or Muslim by making it matter less that we are Christian.

McLaren’s book is about finding a third way. Not a compromise between the two but a different identity altogether. Both evangelicals and liberals see hostility toward other religions as an essential part of Christianity. McLaren believes it doesn’t have to be that way. There has been hostility toward the stranger in many parts of the Bible and throughout Christian tradition, but there also has been hospitality to the stranger in other parts of the Bible and as a minority voice throughout the tradition. What if we built a Christian identity on the foundation of hospitality toward the stranger?

That will require us to be honest about the skeletons in our own closet — to challenge those parts of the Bible and Christian tradition that encourage hostility. We will need to interpret them in a new light. When Luke’s Jesus says, “Woe to the scribes and Pharisees,” we will need to examine the hostility that is embedded in that passage. It makes it too easy for us to say, “Woe to the people who disagree with me today.” When Matthew’s Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” in the Sermon on the Mount, we have to ask whether Matthew practices what Jesus preaches. Does Matthew loves his enemies? Does Matthew love the Romans and the Pharisees?

Is it possible for us to have honest conversation today? Can Democrats and Republicans live together after the election?

We get too little honest conversation during an election season. It is more like a food fight. So we avoid talking about difficult subjects. We talk about something less divisive. Something pleasant and trivial, like the weather or the Thunder.

Part of that aversion to talking about meaty issues flows out of the dominant Christian identity that has emerged from our tradition. We have been taught that the purpose of Christian mission is to convert people. We will save them by making them think just like us. If we can’t convert them, we can still treat them with civility. But in our own minds we write them off. We shake the dust off our shoes and move to the next person.

Can we get in a conversation where we aren’t trying to prove that we are right? Is that a Christian thing to do?

Humility is a Christian virtue. A humble attitude might suggest that there is a lot of mystery in the world. There is a lot we don’t know about God. People in other faiths may have insights into the sacred that we lack. There is a lot we don’t know about how we can improve society. People on the left and the right have only a partial grasp of truth. Sometimes well-intended programs have bad results that we didn’t anticipate.

Our churches need to be models for honest conversation. The church should be a safe place. Folks in church should be able to trust each other and respect what each other has to say. We don’t all think alike. Some of us will vote for Romney. Some of us will vote for Obama. Some of us will wish we had a third option. Wednesday morning, no matter who wins the election, we will still be church and we will still come to worship together next Sunday.

Thank God the election is over. Thank God we can talk about the hard issues in church.

DON HEATH is pastor of Edmond Trinity Christian Church. He may be reached at