Charles is fifty four with two elementary school age children. Several years ago he found himself at odds with some separatist Baptists who were on the extreme right of Fundamentalism. Charles was acquainted with several people who had been run over and hurt by the actions of these separatist Baptists who were seeking to bring doctrinal purity to the kingdom. Charles wrote me a very personal email yesteday that spoke to my heart. It caused me to evaluate my own thoughts, motives and actions. Though I have never met Charles, he has confirmed for me the validity of the promise that I made to my wife eighteen months ago: 'The day I can't genuinely enjoy my service in the convention, or the day I no longer can laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously, or the day I can't smile and forgive those who ridicule and attack me, is the day I quit all involvement in the Southern Baptist Convention. Charles helped me undestand the significance of my promise. I publish his email with permission.
"I was drawn into a conflict with other Baptists for many of the same reasons that seem to motivate you concerning injustice among brothers and sisters in Christ. I have other reasons that are described by words such as bigotry, ignorance, and trying to to force one’s beliefs on other people. However, mostly, I have been outraged by the treatment of others---all people with whom they disagree.
I learned the hard way how confict can affect one's soul on a web site called “Alabama Live!” It was frequented by a couple of particularly pugnacious Separate Baptists. You know---real fundamentalists with a capital F. Well, they let me know right away that they were right about everything and that anyone who disagreed with them was something they called “apostate” and in league with Satan himself. When you get labeled as a member of Satan’s camp, the gloves come off and you get treated like the human garbage that you so obviously are to them.
I was informed quite sincerely that unsaved people are—and I quote exactly---“little more than worms.” I mentioned that they must be awful valuable worms because Jesus loved them enough to die for them. That didn’t phase them a bit. They made me so angry that the anger turned into clinical depression and a higher dose of medication. That is when I learned that you cannot fight against them directly. It is like talking to a fence post. The only way to fight them is to appeal to the people in the middle ground who have not gone over to the dark side of the force as it were.
Unfortunately, I am afraid that these encounters over the past few years have been changing me in a direction in which I do not want to go. You see. I very much believe in “love one another and love your neighbor as yourself.” A friend of mine who teaches at a theological retreat in Oregon warned me about this. He told me that he does not engage in open fights with Pharisees. The reason he says is this. The very act of starting to fight them lands one of your feet on the first step to becoming one yourself. This is because Pharisees operate by drawing a moralistic line of their own definition in the sand and declare “thou shalt not cross over it.” According to my friend, the very act of fighting them automatically causes a person to draw their own line in the sand and defend it to the death. In doing so, one inevitably wakes up one morning and finds that they have become one of them.
Well, I think my friend may be right. I have carried on my fight for several years now. In the process, I have slowly seen “mere disagreement” turning into a simmering internal rage that just sits there aglow within me most of the time---doing more damage to me than them. I sense my rage crystallizing into hatred. My response to their incessant nastiness is to dig in my heels and shoot back with both scripture and withering sarcasm. Of course, as noted earlier, that has no effect on the Pharisees themselves, but I think it does cause many in the middle to avoid going where the Pharisees are---perhaps people who would otherwise be tempted to go. However, it is taking a terrible toll on me, and that leads inevitably to another issue.
My Sunday school class is starting to study the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As you may know, Bonhoeffer not only opposed Hitler openly in the name of our Lord but actually participated as a plotter in the famous attempt to kill him. I suppose one could argue that this was not a Christian position. However, one could also argue that the principle of love for one’s neighbor required it as an act to save the lives of millions, including brothers and sisters in Christ. You might put it something like, “Greater love hath no man than this, but that he lay Hitler’s life down for his brother.” I think even C.S. Lewis was so inclined. Still, I am not so sure because an honest reading of the Bible could just easily argue that we as Christians are supposed to be totally passive and simply fold to all evil like a sheep before its shearers---just as Jesus did. Perhaps the few people with the superhuman strength it would take to do that are the only real Christians in this world---and all of the rest of us are mere pretenders. However, if that extreme is not true and Bonhoeffer and Lewis are right, then we as Christians need to consider the arising of the UNTHINKABLE in this world and our appropriate response as Christians to it.
What do I mean? About 20 years ago, I ran across a wonderful theological essay on Romans 14. As you know, this chapter says that stronger brothers and sisters in Christ should be willing to put aside certain acceptable liberties rather than tempt a weaker brother into sinning by violating his own conscience with regard to partaking in those liberties. It is posited on the notion that the authority in the church will always rest in the hands of the stronger brothers in Christ, and they will always be there to help the weaker brothers along. Then the essayist asked the most marvelous question: What would happen if the weaker brothers were to take over the authority of the church and run it such that the stronger brothers were in subservience to their whims?
Carrying this a step further, as Christians, what would we do if an evil as pernicious as the National Socialist Party (Nazi Party) were to successfully arise within the church of Jesus Christ, sustain itself, and grow to enormous national power---driven by an army of weaker brothers. To some that would sound preposterous. However, I am a serious student of history, and I am not so sure that this is impossible. In fact, I am not so sure that it is not already germinating.
If this nightmare were to be quite obviously coming true before our eyes (as was another nightmare in Bonhoeffer’s eyes), what would be the appropriate response of Christians like us who would know that it is wrong? Would we merely raise our voices in calm and loving dissent and be taken off as sheep to the death camps? Would it be acceptable to get rough with them verbally and physically to protect the babies from being tossed into the crematory ovens alive? Would assassination be an act of love for our brothers and sisters who were marching to their earthly doom, just as Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer rationalized when he plotted to kill Hitler? These are all hard questions that we need to be asking ourselves now. The German people comforted themselves with the notion that they were so civilized that such barbarity could never arise among them. It did. The church of Jesus Christ was so strong that it could stand up to the barbarity. History shows that the Catholic and protestant churches of Europe sat down in silence before it and actually became willing accomplices to the barbarity.
You say it cannot happen in your convention? You say it cannot happen in the church? Those who refuse to learn from history are destined to repeat it.
Charles, thank you for your email.
In His Grace,