The internet abounds with memes – pictures captioned with sarcastic comments. Most are partisan, crass, and condescending.
The most high-handed of memes feature actor Gene Wilder in his beloved role as Willy Wonka, complete with bemused/creepy grin and felt top hat.
But for many people, memes (especially the wildly popular Gene Wilder sort) and their biting one-liners, represent the bulk of our nation’s cultural engagement. Whether it’s the bickering Republican presidential debates or verbal assaults lobbed on Facebook, our culture’s ability to hold civil discourse has all but evaporated.
Consider the recent beating actor Richard Dreyfuss endured after attending a Ted Cruz rally. Dreyfuss defended himself on Fox News, lamenting the loss of curiosity in America and our patience to listen to opposing ideas. His point was not lost on me, nor was the fiery reception he received from his liberal friends for venturing outside the left’s ideological silo.
But, for years now, I’ve watched many of my Christian friends fall into the same philosophical trap.
Facebook, and its lack off accountability, has robbed our culture of civility, the result of which is not only the loss of kindness in conversation, but the ability to hold any kind of conversation at all. We engage in one-sided rhetoric that wins no converts to our positions much less to the person of Christ. We lob insults like grenades hurled from a WWII trench, logging off before seeing where they land or whom they damage.
On the rare occasion, we do see people of differing perspectives successfully engage one another with kindness, we are baffled. The recent passing of Supreme Court Antonin Scalia led to multiple news stories describing his long-time friendship with his political opposite, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as “unexpected” and novel.
Perhaps both the state of the church and the state of the union would be in much better repair if friendships like this were more common – if kindness was more common.
This is not an accusation so much as it is a lament, particularly for the failure of the church to live out it’s God-given missional role in our respective communities with any sort of charm or congeniality.
The character of our conversations
Simply put, the character of our cultural engagement reveals the character of our heart. Are we, a people who have been shown immeasurable kindness in Christ, ruled by kindness? Or are our hearts ruled by something else? Something more sinister?
- Fearful hearts
The church is called to uphold truth and biblical principles (1 Tim. 3:15). But when our interactions with the world are reduced to hateful and unkind words, we reveal the peace that should rule our hearts has been replaced by fear.
Fear leads us to falsely assume we will fail to uphold truth or acquiesce to the world by engaging opposing ideas. And after the tensions that have swept the political landscape of our country for the last 7 years, those fears of succumbing to evil are sometimes warranted.
But often our fears can be motived by less nobility. We fear we will be proven inadequate in the marketplace of ideas, and more tragically, we fear our beliefs, or our God, will be proven lacking as well.
- Prideful hearts
If it is not fear that shapes our cultural engagement, then it is pride.
We want to be right. We enjoy being right. We make idols of being right. And so, we post comments on Facebook that are mean-spirited and unkind and unfair – things we wouldn’t otherwise say if the person was standing in front of us.
Pride and its ugly twin – anger – cause us to nurse resentment against those who do not subscribe to the same ideas. And while some of that anger can be justified, it is often dangerously vented to the detriment of the gospel.
The character of our engagement speaks not only to our own personal character, but also speaks how we view the character of our God.
In his very nature, God, who is both Truth and Love, demonstrates how both come together without contradiction (John 14:6, 1 John 4:8). His character was made plain even in the days of the Old Testament when Scripture speaks of God’s hesed (lovingkindness) toward his people (Ps. 36:7; 63:3).
“For His lovingkindness is great toward us, And the truth of the LORD is everlasting. Praise the LORD!” Psalm 117:2
It is exactly this type of hesed that we receive ultimately from God Incarnate (Eph. 2:7). It is this type of hesed that we need desperately in our dealings with those who are not yet claimed by God nor claim him in return.
2 ways to be ruled by kindness
In his book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, Russell Moore calls the church to re-embrace “convictional kindness.” He says, believers should seek to engage the culture commiserate with the kindness of the gospel of Christ.
Convictional kindness comes as we seek to “speak the truth in love” without contradiction (Eph. 4:15). Living out that tension in a world of memes is challenging. To get started, here are two ways we can let our hearts be ruled by kindness and by Christ.
1. Offer a listening ear
For some of us, being a good listener means being a better friend. It certainly doesn’t mean you have to concede to unbiblical beliefs, but it does require us to take an active role in learning what others around us believe and why they believe it by asking good questions.
For some of us, being a good listener means being a better student. It means reading a spectrum of authors and commentators – not just the ones you agree with. It might also mean getting our news from a spectrum of sources – even those you believe to be hopelessly ‘biased’ in their reporting.
For even more of us, being a good listener means demonstrating better restraint. It means we should stop posting offensive things on social media, even if we believe them to be 100 percent true. I include myself here, as well.
2. Offer an invitation
In an era when our daily conversations are becoming decidedly less personal, they are also becoming increasingly less kind.
Offering an invitation means asking a friend for coffee rather than trying to have fragmented conversations online. Offering an invitation means opening your home and dinner table to those who look differently, believe differently, or even live differently than you do.
As it turns out, kindness was something that Roald Dahl’s character, Willy Wonka, knew something about.
The 1971 film adaptation ends a bit differently from the book. In the screenplay, Charlie returns an everlasting gobstopper stolen from Wonka’s chocolate factory, unknowingly proving himself ready to receive an even bigger inheritance – a kingdom of chocolate. Quoting Shakespeare, Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka breathes: “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
Our weary world is in dire need of the kindness of Christ. Let us be a people of Truth who are ruled by Christ and his kindness in our words. In this way, we prove Christ has made us ready for the inheritance that awaits us in heaven.
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace… but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ” Eph. 4:1-3, 15
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