The Real Place for Conflict: On Keeping Controversy Close to Home
By Justin Frank
Social media gives unprecedented opportunities to know about and engage in controversy. Many of these controversies are rooted in places far from us; involve people we’ve never met (and will likely never know); and grow out of communities of which we’ve never been (and never will be) a part.
Social media makes these far-away controversies seem urgent, right here, right now. We feel compelled not only to care but to respond. We may even feel a more fervent connection with these far away controversies than we do with the problems and needs of our own neighbors right next door.
David French has recently written about this phenomenon in regards to political anger. Jonathan Leeman has noted similar themes in regard to evangelicalism. Both, in different ways, counsel a return to a concern for the local and point to the dysfunction that comes from engagement in the never ending stream of distant conflicts.
I do not doubt that there are those in the church who are not only well equipped, but also actively called, to take up arms in many of the broad arguments being had in the church and in the culture; people whose vocation is to serve the church in a role like that described by Alan Jacobs – his “Watchmen”, Christian public intellectuals who fill the role “of the interpreter, the bridger of cultural gaps; of the mediator, maybe even the reconciler.” I have personally benefited from those called to this role. I am grateful for them. But I wonder if for most of us, we’d be better served ourselves (and of better service to others), if we saw this as the calling of some and not all. What if, instead of assuming we are called to every fight just because technology gives us the ability to comment, we instead chose to discern which fights are really ours in the first place?
And what if the best practice for most of us is to limit our engagement in controversy to those arguments around us that are actually the closest to home?
In Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Jeremiah 29, he points out that God is calling the Jewish exiles to stop dreaming about far away Jerusalem. False prophets were lying to them, telling them they would very soon be going home. Instead, the Lord tells them they’ll actually be parked in Babylon for quite some time. They need to settle down right there, in the local place they’ve been put. “Build houses”, the prophet says, “settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.” This leads to the famous call to “seek the peace of the city to which I have carried you into exile”.
Brueggemann points out that the lies of the false prophets are actually encouraging the Jews AWAY from engagement with the present and the local. The false prophets want them to dream of far away Jerusalem, at some future date yet to come. God, however, wants them to settle down and get productive, right then and there. He writes, “The threat to the Jews is that they will be…invited to deny the real place where they must live their faith.”
This, it seems to me, has lots of resonance for the age of social media (however long it lasts). One of the places this applies is to the good work of engaging in necessary controversy. In order to be truly “good”, is it possible that our engagement with controversy must be more focused on the real places we are called to live our faith, than on the virtual arenas in which social media summons us to battle?
And how might we refocus when lured by the siren song of pressing – but distant – controversies?
Helpful for our Church?
The most concrete place we are called to live our faith is as members of a local church. As many have noted, it’s easy to say you love “humanity” as an abstraction. It’s really hard to love particular people. And yet loving our brothers and sisters in Christ is exactly what Christ commands us to do. That takes form in local church membership, as the good folks at 9 Marks have been faithfully reminding us.
So we might ask, Does engaging in the latest controversies help me to love my fellow church members?
I think often the answer is “no.” Instead, these controversies kidnap our mental and emotional energy, while making us less able to encourage, instruct and correct one another in the local places where we live out our faith.
Take the current controversy over “Social Justice.” In regard to the issues raised, isn’t one of the key factors to ask: How would any of this apply to the people in my church?
Who are the members you’ve covenanted with in your church? What community are you all living in together?
If you’re fired up about this conflict, but mainly in terms of the main evangelical celebrities in the conflict and not in terms of the members of your church, and the community you worship in together, then I’d wager you’re likely not helping anyone.
I’m not saying that the biblical and theological issues don’t matter. They do.
What’s striking, however, is how much agreement there is between the best proponents of both sides in terms of their biblical and theological foundations. The disagreement comes down in many ways to matters of application, and application drives us back to the local, the concrete. And if I’m really going to help, it is on these issues of local application where I need to be humble enough to pay attention, to listen and to seek wisdom.
For example, isn’t it obvious on a moment’s reflection, that the way a faithful pastor or member is going to talk about justice in Ferguson or in Chicago is different from the way a faithful pastor or member is going to talk about these issues where I live, in Maine?
I have police officers in my congregation, serving small cities and towns. Talking to these folk in terms set by debates in much larger communities, where there is more violence and a more tortured history of racial injustice, may be unhelpful at best. In fact, unless I get to know this place and their work, I won’t know how to address the particular stresses and challenges – and the systemic corruptions – that may take up residence in this particular location and institution.
In other words, concern for local members can help focus our engagement with issues, and even help us think through which ones to engage with at all.
Kevin DeYoung has written that when he chooses to engage in a public controversy, it is because it arises out of the context of his church. When people begin to ask his thoughts about a particular issue or to advocate for certain new books, as a shepherd he takes notice. He studies what people are asking about, and if necessary, engages the controversy. But he does it because this will be helpful to his church, the very people he is called to serve.
Now of course, Mr. DeYoung has a much larger public role as a writer, blogger and leader than most of us. But his rule seems like a good one for the rest of us too. Rather than leaping in to opine on the latest scandal of the evangelical soul, why not ask ourselves “Will engaging with this help people in my church?” before we decide how much energy to put into a controversy?
All of which is to say, love demands that I engage with the particular concerns of concrete people more than with the abstract arguments of people far away.
Fruitful in this particular controversy?
And speaking of people far away – why is it that so many of us seem so intent on being so involved in controversies in which we have no part?
In which we can be of no help, to anyone?
Why do we feel outraged by what people are doing or saying somewhere else? It’s fascinating the need we feel to respond to controversies involving figures who we don’t know, in churches or denominations of which we are not a part, with words that no one principally involved will ever listen to.
I’m a baptist. How outraged should I be by the latest issue in the PCA? I’m in Maine. How upset should I get about what’s going on in St. Louis?
Did anybody ask my opinion? If I give it, is it going to make one whit of difference?
Again, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t read about trends or even that there aren’t some who might be called to respond publicly to various controversies. I just think most of us normal church members and pastors who care about these things should ask ourselves how helpful it is to get worked up about it all.
As Derek Rishmawy recently put it:
Can't remember where he said it, but Carl Trueman once commented that one good thing about denominations is that they provide a limit on the number of controversies you are obliged to comment on or involve yourself in.
Unless clickbait is your thing.
— Derek Rishmawy (@DZRishmawy) January 15, 2019
Why not ask ourselves “Is there any fruitful role I can have in this controversy?” before we open our mouths?
In fact, if we are going to open our mouths, why not open them in prayer? It seems to me in most of these things, love demands that we give the benefit of the doubt to all those involved and humility demands we recognize how little we actually know about the “facts on the ground”.
Maybe the most fruitful thing we can do is pray and shut up.
Healthy for my soul?
Finally, it occurs to me that too much controversy just might not be good for the soul.
I used to really love to let loose with a good rant. Truth be told, I still do from time to time (though I’m learning from my wife that this practice is not endearing).
I’ve been learning from the Spirit’s work on my soul (often through my wife), that a habit of ranting is not healthy. Not for my soul, not for my wife, not for…anyone.
Oh, it feels good sometimes to vent the spleen. It’s good to have friends with whom you can let loose. But we should probably ask what too much of this is doing to us. Is ranting – is being a self-styled controversialist – really making our lives shine with life and health? Or is it doing…something else?
I think that in this day and age of ugly social media rancor, most of us have a pretty ready answer to this question, at least in so far as it relates to other people—which is part of the problem.
Part and parcel of the rant, of the engagement with controversy, is that it puts me in the camp of “the righteous.” This is, in part, necessary. Why would you argue for anything other than what you, out of conviction, believe to be right?
The problem is, this so easily becomes the camp of the self-righteous. And that, my friends, is the most deadly and dangerous place to be. How easily I become a person who is very concerned with how those people, over there, are handling their sin, overlooking the real flaws in my own walk of faith, right here at home.
As a new pastor in Massachusetts, I gathered to pray with a group of pastors, many of whom were more seasoned than I. One dear brother would pray at every gathering, “Lord, help me to hate my own sins more than I hate the sins of others.”
I’ve never forgotten that prayer. And it seems to me now that making a habit of approaching sin (and the often necessary controversy it entails) in any posture other than this, is not just unhealthy, it’s deadly for the soul.
Keeping Controversy Close to Home
The real issue, I think, is not that we need to avoid controversy. The problem is that social media tempts us to waste time and energy in controversies that aren’t actually ours to engage. It temps us (to take liberty with Brueggemann’s words), to deny the real local controversies in which we are called to live out our faith.
In other words, in the day of social media, I think we’d be wise to keep to controversy closer to home; to heed the words of the old adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” After all, the closer your enemies are, the more likely you are to be able to love them.
Justin Frank lives with his wife and children in Augusta, Maine where he serves as the pastor of Penney Memorial United Baptist Church.