A More Excellent Way: Charlottesville and the Challenge of Evangelism in Volatile Contexts

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A More Excellent Way: Charlottesville and the Challenge of Evangelism in Volatile Contexts

The question before us is what is the best way to persuade people to choose Jesus in volatile cultures and contexts?

Sadly, it seems the United States has become a volatile context in our increasingly polarized political, social, and moral discourse.

Our attention as Americans has again been fixated upon tragic events, this time in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the eternally condemnable ideology promoting the supremacy of one over the other, primarily on the basis of skin color, has ignited the hearts and minds of those all across the country. White-supremacist, Neo-nazi, and KKK members, reveling in the afterglow of the victory of their endorsed Presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, gathered together in a rally to promote their vision for the world.

Opposite them, and notably present because of the white-supremacist rally, several unaffiliated counter-protesters, as well as Antifa (anti-facists), a group whose history represents essentially violent (which is also condemnable) resistance to Neo-nazi type groups, also rallied in a counter-protest. In the course of events, an innocent nonviolent counter-protester, who happened to be a white woman, was killed when one of the white-supremacists drove his vehicle into a crowd of the counter-protesters. I think it no mere coincidence that the weapon in this instance was a vehicle, which has lately (as I write this, another sad tragedy appears on the news concerning Barcelona in Spain, where a Muslim terrorist has used a vehicle for an attack) become the favored tool of terrorists. There is little difference, it seems sometimes, between terrorists regardless of their specific ideology or professed faith background.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, very unfortunately, some prominent white leaders, President Trump in particular, have tried to spray the blame around almost equally.[1] I do concur that Antifa does not appear to promote (any) useful methods in its attempt to attain its goals, but their presence in Charlottesville was in reaction to the rally by the white-supremacists. Thus, I wish Antifa had not been present–as the white-supremacists do not deserve the dignity of such attention which seems only to encourage and inflame them, and it only risks violence actually occurring. I wish the police had prevented the two groups from confronting each other face to face, and properly enforced the right of “peaceful assembly.” Once conflict breaks out, tracing the cause-and-effect chain back further in time concerning who inspired who, particularly when it comes to violence, becomes an ugly game with no true winners until we invoke Adam and Eve’s names and the Serpent they encountered.

That said, I hear, clearly, the outcry of what I perceive to be the majority of the media in their correct condemnation of the white-supremacists and Trump’s embarrassing and insulting waffling, and, as a white male with a family sharing a mixed ethnic background, I feel deeply the pain of my Christian brothers and sisters who represent the minority in this matter that has a very long history, and their desire for sympathy from their white Christian friends.

Yet, as I survey the social media and blogosphere, listen to the ongoing dialogue concerning what ails our country, and ponder over the debates about the best paths forward in the public or secular arena, I feel an alternative concern awakening more forcefully within myself. I am a Christian, first and foremost. And because of this, what concerns me the most is: What really is the best way to win people for Jesus in such volatile contexts?

Winning People for Jesus in Volatile Contexts

What has been, almost consistently, missing from the conversations I observe is an awareness of that wisdom from Paul, when he shared, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13:1). As I see the battle lines being drawn in the public sphere concerning our political divides, and ethnic tensions again flaring up, I, and many others, have no difficulty siding unequivocally with those condemning the Neo-Nazis and white-supremacists, which thankfully does include many people on both sides of the political landscape. However, I also feel deeply troubled by the methods taken by the mainstream media to combat all of the radical groups. They are half-baked, they are incomplete. They stop at an external condemnation, they do not penetrate within to the hearts of those who should be rightfully condemned.

The Gospel alone is transformational, and delivers those in bondage into liberty. This encompasses much more than we might suppose. For, “To set at liberty those that are bruised” (Luke 4:18), reaches the external, while “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” we are “set . . . free from the body of this death” which “wages war against . . . my mind and makes me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom 7:24-25). These are startling words, and apply to everyone, and to all forms of bondage. Blacks may still suffer under the bondage of external biases and prejudices, but make no mistake, the Neo-nazi and KKK members are equally in bondage, suffering the prejudice and malicious hatred of one who is Malcontent and holds them captive! They too need liberation, not mere condemnation.

The most difficult part of the Gospel is that after we’ve received it, we are to proceed to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Mat 5:44). Paul, when surrounded by the statues and idols of non-existent pagan gods, did not advocate tearing them down. He did not directly criticize those in power (Rome), nor did he attack their gods directly. Rather, he destroyed their value by teaching about Christ and Him crucified, which led by implication to the reality that the statues were worthless. The consequence of this was that they would not be sold nor worshiped (Acts 17, 23-32; 19:26, 37), which did lead Paul into some problems at times. Yet, most important of all, Paul realized the truth that a complete redemption, of body and mind, cannot be won by coercive actions.[2]

A Contemporary Illustration and its Historical Context

I have spent some time in the Middle East, where Christians have long had a burning desire to find more effective ways to reach their Muslim brothers and sisters. Noteworthy is the fact that, as an Adventist-Christian, in particular, I share a unique perspective on the histories of Christianity and Islam.

Contrary to what many in the West may believe, the history of the conflicts between Christendom and Islamdom do not have a clear “good-guy.” Most of it has been dominated by oppressive popes seeking power and glory alongside their fellow Catholic emperors and kings while engaging in wars with Muslim warriors who were seeking similar power and glory. One has only to read the recorded motives of popes like Innocent III of the early 13th century (named in Ellen White’s Great Controversy as one of the most powerful popes in history), and his desire to control not only Christendom, but also the lands of Islamdom. The Christian protestors against him, and Muslim alike, suffered his wrath. Innocent III claimed, conveniently, that Muhammed was the anti-christ. Later, during the 16th century, Martin Luther received a sharp rebuke from the Vatican for distracting Christendom from the Turkish Muslims invading Europe. Interestingly, Luther believed both Muhammed and the pope to be anti-christ. Yet, despite this political turmoil in the external world, God had a completely different agenda for Christendom and Luther’s Reformation at that time–Luther was neither concerned with invading Islamdom, nor in saving Christendom from it.

There are a few key lessons I think can be learned from the above biblical example, history, and our current situation, concerning the most effective ways to convert people to follow Jesus.

For example, when one is ministering in Islamdom, one does not call out Muhammed’s name for public criticism, or insult the religion of Islam, or we would face an unnecessarily harsh persecution. To criticize Islam is illegal in many lands. Those of us who participate in missions must not seek unnecessary conflict while ministering. At the same time, it is to our advantage in retaining our true saltiness as Adventists, to share our candid understanding of the history of the conflict between Christendom and Islamdom in more private or personal contexts and ministry. It is a blessing to hold claim to a neutral position that frees us from the shackles of the past. In harmony with this, it is helpful to acknowledge the differences between sincere Muslims who are seeking peace, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and those that are committed to violence in groups like ISIS. (Whether we believe members of ISIS to be legitimate Muslims is a non-issue to address in most missionary contexts.)

Having myself been sensitized to the challenges of doing mission work in volatile contexts like the above, it surprises me how readily we in America seek to condemn, without a redemptive spirit, some conservative Christians (the Religious Right) who may have loose alliances (by proximity and secular political sympathies) with what we can call our own American radical groups, like the Neo-nazi and KKK. The truth is, by God’s grace, I hope we can all acknowledge and recognize, that the Neo-nazi groups in America are not nearly as influential nor widely supported or sympathized with as are the more conservative nonaggressive Islamic groups, let alone the violent groups like ISIS, throughout Islamdom.

Yet, in any case, even if they were, then the lesson of missions in Islamdom would be all the more relevant for America today. How do we win people to Jesus? Is it by tearing down statues of pagan gods or evil leaders of the past? This was not Paul’s method. Is it by raising our voices in condemnation without offering redemption? How can redemption be offered without an understanding of what is truly motivating the varying types of Muslims and white-supremacists, and the various groups that may, respectively, be aligned with them in seeking common goals, that makes it so hard to break into their cultures and liberate them? Are there any elements in common in these scenarios?

The Goal is Redemption

The world will do what the world will do, sadly. We, as Adventists, cannot and will not stay the tides of many and diverse evils. We know the end is coming, and the final enslavement of the world. But, as Adventists, I hope we can elevate our conversations with each other and those we meet in the world to point beyond mere condemnation that does not redeem. The final judgement alone is reserved for non-redemptive condemnation. The white-supremacists are bred from an evil ideology. We Adventists understand that, as do, thankfully, many reasonable people in the world. But are they worse than ISIS terrorists? Can we still seek ways to penetrate their groups, or more specifically, their “loosely affiliated” sympathizers, and redeem them, and unravel their power in some locations without civilians becoming involved in violence?

Any such redemption will not take place through the mainstream media or its talking heads, which seems only to inflame the fires. It requires personal contact and courage–and at times it may best be done through white Adventist brethren. When this is so, we would ask that our black brethren pray for us. Also, please sympathize with us while we take care to articulate our responses carefully, at times hesitating to condemn some of the radicalized right’s “loosely affiliated” sympathizers (e.g., those who voted for Trump, or who question aspects of white-privilege) too loudly in certain contexts (e.g., if we live near these groups, or even because some of them already reside in our own church pews, [3] inviting their wrath and misunderstanding upon ourselves before we have awakened their hearts to the depths of these issues), as we begin our specific efforts to win them to Jesus, just as we would behave in foreign lands with Islam (which is known to also oppress blacks, women, and all non-believers in many locations). Mission work that seeks to redeem the heart is sensitive–there are moments when taking an aggressive external condemnatory stance against evil is necessary, and other times when it is not beneficial–but only creates more evil.[4]

Let us always remember, in our efforts to redeem, that “the tongues of men and angels,” knowledge of prophecies, and faith to move mountains, is nothing without love. Let us not join the chorus of the world by being a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. The war is not to be found in the world of secular society or politics, but in our battle to liberate ourselves and others through the power of Jesus (John 8:36), both externally and most importantly, internally. The dual-faceted nature of this liberation requires patience for every one who would become a saint–both liberations in their fulness may not arrive in this world in all places and times. Yet, by the power of God we may all learn that “love is patient, love is kind,” and “is not provoked, nor takes into account a wrong suffered.” “It does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; Love never fails” (1 Cor 13:4-8). Let us follow the “more excellent way.”

______

Notes.

[1] Even Mitt Romney, a former candidate for President from Trump’s own party, has urged Trump to apologize for his comments, and “state forcefully and unequivocally that racists are 100% to blame for the murder and violence in Charlottesville. Testify that there is no conceivable comparison or moral equivalency between the Nazis–who brutally murdered millions of Jews and who hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives to defeat–and the counter-protestors who were outraged to see fools parading the Nazi flag, Nazi armband and Nazi salute. And once and for all, he must definitively repudiate the support of David Duke and his ilk and call for every American to banish racists and haters from any and every association.” https://www.facebook.com/mittromney/posts/10154652303536121.

[2] I discourage aggressive coercion, in which statues are torn down (or otherwise vandalized) unilaterally without input or consent from the community. However, I do not mean to imply that orderly political action couldn’t or shouldn’t be taken in which a statue or other symbol is removed democratically (via popular vote from the constituents composing the surrounding community or their duly elected representatives).

[3] Ellen White counseled the church with these words in 1907, which remain applicable today: “Among the white people in many places there exists a strong prejudice against the Negro race. We may desire to ignore this prejudice, but we cannot do it. If we were to act as if this prejudice did not exist we could not get the light before the white people. We must meet the situation as it is and deal with it wisely and intelligently. For many years I have borne a heavy burden in behalf of the Negro race. My heart has ached as I have seen the feeling against this race growing stronger and still stronger, and as I have seen that many Seventh-day Adventists are apparently unable to understand the necessity for an earnest work being done quickly. Years are passing into eternity with apparently little done to help those who were recently a race of slaves. {9T 204.2}

[4] Ellen White wrote “My mind is much troubled over the position some of our brethren are taking in regard to the work in the Southern States. One point is strongly impressed on my mind. Those who labor in that field will have to work in different lines in some respects. They must be very cautious. Let no rash moves be made. Our methods of working must be carefully and prayerfully considered. A crisis is just before Seventh-day Adventists, and the Lord would not have any of us [be] presumptuous and invite persecution.” {4MR 12.1} Again, “Prejudice is strong in the South, and in presenting the Sabbath great care should be taken. The people will soon learn all you believe. Educate the people in the simplest manner, and make no great stir about it. Use every precaution, lest you be cut off from your work. The spirit which has held the colored people so long in slavery is alive today, and among the whites there are those who will work in every possible way against that which has a tendency to uplift the colored people.” . . . {4MR 12.3}. If you would make the Southern whites and the colored people your friends, you must meet them where they are, not to act as they act, to sin as they sin, but to present the truth to them in your daily life. This people must be taught as you would teach children their alphabet. The truth must be brought before them by presenting to them the lessons of Christ in their simplicity. . . . By unwise words the colored people will be led to think that they can defy their oppressors; therefore we must avoid stirring up their excitable natures. Speak no word that will prejudice the Negroes against the whites. Satan is seeking for opportunities to work these ignorant, passionate colored people, by causing them to misunderstand the motives of the white people in laboring for them. Let no spirit of resistance be encouraged. Teach the people to conform in all things to the laws of their State, when they can do so without conflicting with the law of God. Counsel needs to be very guardedly given; for unless you are as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, your way will be hedged up.–Ms 118, 1899, pp. 1-3. (“The Work in the South,” August 21, 1899.) {4MR 13.1}

“But let every one bear in mind that we are in no case to invite persecution. We are not to use words that are harsh and cutting. Keep them out of every article written, drop them out of every address given. Let the Word of God do the cutting, the rebuking; let finite men hide and abide in Jesus Christ. Let the Spirit of Christ appear. Let all be guarded in their words, lest they place those not of our faith in deadly opposition against us, and give Satan an opportunity to use the unadvised words to hedge up our way. Do nothing before the time. When God gives a close, cutting message, it will be his work, not prompted by the impulse of finite beings. Man’s cutting and slashing with the two-edged sword will hedge up our way, so that we shall find doors closed and locked against us.” {RH, October 21, 1902 par. 5}

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About the author

Michael Younker is a consulting editor for The Compass Magazine. He is completing a doctoral degree in philosophical theology (2019) at Andrews University.