A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
The Perils of Party Spirit
October 11, 2018
Over the past two weeks our national discourse has been riveted by the public spectacle of a no-holds-barred contest over the confirmation of the most recent supreme court nominee. Predictably enough, the final confirmation vote fell almost exclusively along party lines in a process that had become entirely politicized. Even if we agree that sexual aggression is never tolerable or excusable, and that one’s reputation should never be destroyable by unsubstantiated accusations, we still find ourselves aligning on all-too-predictable fault lines. What makes this especially egregious is that the judiciary, above all governmental institutions, should be constituted and its work conducted without a trace of partiality.
My Facebook feed is chock full of posts intent on shrilly vilifying either Judge Kavanaugh and his supporting party, or Dr. Ford and her supporters. Without exception, I could have told you before I read one word of their posts which side each of my Facebook friends would support. Especially sadly, friends in both streams on my Facebook feed claim to be truly “Christian” in their perspective, and summarily discount the integrity of fellow-Christians who see matters differently.
The Bible lifts up impartiality as the highest standard of justice. False balances are considered an abomination to the Lord. (Proverbs 11:1) Solomon’s unequaled wisdom is reflected in his wise, unbiased verdict regarding a hotly contested claim of baby ownership by two mothers. (1 Kings 3:16-28 ). Leaders in the apostolic church are enjoined to rule “without prejudice, doing nothing on the basis of partiality.” (1 Timothy 5:21) In all we say and do, even a “trace” of partiality is contrary to godly wisdom. (James 3:17)
I know of only one way to break the vicious cycle of blind partisanship and angry demonization that has taken over so much public discourse. And that is to listen carefully, respectfully, and empathetically to those who hold a position different from our own. Turn down the volume, soften the rhetoric. Listen for a while. Reply only slowly. Assume the best of others’ intentions, rather than the worst. Then invite them to do the same with us. Our positions may not shift by much, but our attitudes to those who see things otherwise will dramatically change.
I was privileged to go through such an exercise with a brother in Christ last week as the supreme court justice confirmation hearings were underway. I came away with my convictions intact, but with far greater respect for his integrity in choosing his position. I can no longer blithely dismiss those who see things from that vantage point. I believe he would say the same about my convictions.
The more the world of public discourse rages in blind, unyielding, bullying partisanship, the better the church’s opportunity to shine as a contrasting social order. Shame on us when we squander that opportunity by joining and even advancing within the church’s precincts such categorical disparagement of those who differ from us.
Let me be clear. I unequivocally stand alongside victims of sexual harassment and abuse in their search for justice. I insist on accountability for perpetrators of such harassment and abuse. I further contend that victims who come forward should be granted full sympathetic hearing rather than being subject to vilification.
I also unequivocally stand with those who have been wantonly accused of acts they did not commit. Making judgments on the basis of unsubstantiated testimony by an individual was prohibited in ancient Hebrew jurisprudence, and has continued to be so in the Christian church from its inception.
So how can we adjudicate competing claims for justice when both seem equally credible? Solomon’s example is telling – he judged in favor of the woman with the tender heart. Similarly, James teaches us that godly wisdom is marked by gentleness and non-defensiveness, something I addressed in my sermon at our last presbytery meeting, “I May Be Wrong.”
I am speaking here of more than how we engage in public discourse. We need, first of all, to practice these graces in our church conversations. How can we proclaim Jesus as Prince of Peace for the world if we do not practice peaceability within his church? How can we bless God in one moment then curse brothers and sisters made in God’s image the next? (James 3:9-12)
Amid a world spewing more and more vitriol, can we who belong to our Lord and Savior demonstrate a radically different way of living together, made possible by the new creation we have become through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? I believe such a counter-witness is not only possible; it is absolutely evangelically necessary.
For the sake of the reconciling Gospel,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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