Sunday, May 23, 2010

Humility and Humanity

Recently the evangelical world in the United States has endured two more embarrassing scandals involving prominent public figures. George Rekers, an outspoken opponent of homosexuality, gay rights and gay marriage was “outed” for hiring a gay “rentboy” to tour Europe with him. His explanation that the young man was hired to carry his luggage was received with a considerable amount to skepticism. Just last week Representative Mark Souder of Indiana, an ardent advocate for morality and “family values” resigned after admitting a long affair with a much younger staffer. Souder was savaged by commentator Rachel Maddow for making an “abstinence only” video with this very woman. I have no intention of adding to the mockery and abuse heaped on Rekers and Souder. Quite the contrary. I have a good deal of sympathy for them. This sympathy is grounded in my own sinfulness and brokenness. I am a fallen and sinful human being, like Rekers and Souder and, for that matter, everyone who reads these words. As my colleague Klyne Snodgrass puts it, “Ain’t none of us straight.”

My problem with many of my fellow evangelicals is that they don’t seem to fully grasp this. Every time put themselves forward as public scolds and the arbiters of moral correctness, they alienate the very people they are trying to reach and set themselves up for a brutal fall. Why, I have often wondered, do they have to sound so angry, so embittered, and so scornful in attacking the many failings of their fellow citizens? Don’t they realize how this goes over? Can’t they grasp how unappealing, how cruel, and how bitter they sound? And, perhaps more to the point are they completely unaware of their own “twisted little hearts” bent toward self indulgence and security? I have reflected many times on how attractive Jesus was to sinners. They flocked to him. They listened to him. They knew he understood their brokenness and loved them anyway. I don’t think many contemporary sinners find American evangelicals attractive. When they think of us they don’t think of love. They rather think of supercilious condemnation and outright hatred.

American evangelicals need a new strategy. This strategy must be founded upon humility, modesty, compassion, and humanity. We need to see our “opponents” as objects of love, however scornful they are of our values; however much they mock our convictions. Too often evangelicals justify their outrageous rhetoric by claiming the role of prophet. But Israel’s prophets for the most part addressed the failings of their own. Evangelical leaders in the United States seem to spend most of their time these days assaulting their own mission field for the sake of their “base” of outraged traditionalists. There is much to criticize in our current culture. There is much to be distressed about and to weep over. But none of it will be addressed by throwing rocks from the moral high ground. None of it will be addressed by pursuing political power and hoping for the right kind of Supreme Court justices. None of it will be addressed by noisy protests in Washington or angry letters to the editor. It will rather be addressed by the most common, ordinary acts of humble, generous love.

I must add that “right wing” Christians have not cornered the market on moral superiority and public scorn. “Social justice” Christians can be just as high minded, harsh, and intransigent as their more conservative brothers and sisters. They can also call “prophetic” what is merely bad manners and simpering arrogance. They can profess love for the “oppressed” while they despise the benighted “fundamentalist.” An angry and hateful “social justice” Christian is no more attractive than an angry and hateful “fundamentalist.” Jesus called us to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves. He made it clear that neighbor was not just people we agreed with but the irritating liberal at the next desk or the ignorant fundamentalist across the hall. Our public impact as followers of Jesus will continue to wane unless we are able to acknowledge our own sinfulness and love the unlovable—as God as loved us.

John E. Phelan, Jr.


  1. Wondering about balance
    Where is it written?
    How goes your walk?
    Does Christianity resemble secular humanism?
    Are we there for the few people in our world or the marketing of Christianity to the masses?