“We’re not leaving the PCUSA; the PCUSA has left us. You Presbyterians don’t believe in the Bible anymore.” That’s the essence of the message that has come from the elders of one of our congregations now setting sail for a new denominational home. That’s the language of cultural rhetoric, of anger, of disrespect; and it’s undeserved and, more to the point, unbecoming of Jesus’ followers.
We are all blessed by the good news of our culture; and we are cursed by its bad news. I remember one seminary professor condemning the cultural materialism of the time (1970’s) and then proudly showing off his 5,000-volume personal library in his basement – and thinking, “We all have our forms of materialism, don’t we.”
A recent CNN editorial by John Avion condemns the current political debate season as “punch-drunk pugilism…But for all the excitement…there is a civic cost to the radioactive rhetoric that gets thrown out to excite the…crowds.” (February 12, 2012 “Opinion: GOP’s cheap anti-Obama rhetoric”) And in the current cultural climate, punch-drunk pugilism can come from the left as much as the right.
So what to do when the culture infects the political life in our church? When disagreement leads to disrespect which leads to our version of punch-drunk pugilism (“You Presbyterians don’t believe in the Bible”)? Ignore it? Internalize it? Argue about it? Confront it?
How about standing up for the truth in the face of unhinged prejudice? Referring to a moment in the last presidential election, the editorialist recalls: “Four years ago…when a supporter [of John McCain] called then-candidate Obama an “Arab”, McCain corrected her. He said, ‘No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man…(a) citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.’ That’s the voice of a loyal opposition, putting patriotism above partisanship.”
I believe that most of you, like me, are tired of the anger and hate that has infected Christian denominationalism in our time. We don’t like it when we hear it in others; and except for the momentary thrill, we certainly don’t like it in ourselves. The church will not change by silence. The church will not grow more respectful by silently turning the other ear – and listening to one more round of punch-drunk pugilism.
Stand up and finish the sentence, “You Presbyterians don’t believe in the Bible.” No ma’am/sir: I do believe in the Bible very much, just not the way you believe in the Bible. Or… No ma’am/sir: The Presbyterians love the Bible too, just not in the way we may love it. Or…No ma’am/sir: The Presbyterians and us – we all love, honor, respect and obey the Bible; we just do it in different ways sometimes.
Make no mistake: We have allowed disagreement to breed disrespect and venom – way too much. It’s all our sin. And it’s all our problem to address. Finish the sentence; and trust that you’ll be doing more than helping to heal the church; you’ll be changing the culture for the better.
Dave Wasserman is interim executive presbyter of Grand Canyon Presbytery.