Controversy, Critique and Cannibalism

"But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another." (Galatians 5:15)

We live in an age of controversy and criticism, of outrage over what someone (purportedly) said or someone else (purportedly) said in response. The internet is sometimes called an "echo chamber," but the image that seems more apropos is two angry men standing at the mouth of a cave. Each one screams indignantly at the echo of the other, and at the echo of that echo, and those rebuttals echo and are indignantly screamed at in reply. The cavern thunders with the thousand reverberations of outrage layered one upon another. More than that, this online cacophony has infected the larger culture. As those who live in it walk out of it into the world, they start to treat human beings as incarnate tweets or sound bytes, needing to be rebutted or affirmed. For years now my heart has carried a grief as I listen to the angry rumble and see how it dehumanizes and destroys our communities.

This cyclical outrage is something different than simple critique or conversation. The good part of social media, reflecting one good part of society, is that it allows us to grow better through challenge. When someone shares a thoughtful opinion and someone else shares a thoughtful response both sides grow. That is wonderful, but using that to excuse the destruction and resentment around it is like roasting marshmallows over a campfire while ignoring the fact that the surrounding forest is a raging inferno.

We have lost sight of the purpose of critique. It is always about building someone up. Trying to understand their perspective in the best possible light, seeking to find their best arguments, and then challenging them in a way that helps them grow. Good critique says "Brother, let me help you be better." Controversialism says, "You are wrong and I will destroy you."

The problem with this attitude is that, as we destroy the other, we are really destroying ourselves.

In the first place, all of humanity is interconnected. We are created as communal beings; I have a real participation in my neighbor and he or she has a participation in me. God creates us as a whole to bear His image, in ourselves as individuals but also in our relationships with each other. True individual greatness is never detached from society; it is fed by it and feeds into it in turn.

This is doubly true of the church, which is where my heart especially breaks when I watch this brutal trend. Paul imagines us as the body of Christ. We are members of each other, ligaments and tendons in the same organism. When we bite and devour one another, we are in a real sense cannibalizing ourselves. We are so consumed by a desire to be right or to be perfect (in our very particular notion of perfection) that we start lopping off our own arms and gnawing on the flesh.

Again, I realize some will protest. There is a balance - iron sharpens iron, and we should spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Falsehood should be challenged and truth proclaimed. However, those can all be masks the cannibal wears to dress up in religious guise their thirst for the flesh of brothers and sisters. We need to be cautious of such justifications even as we are courageous when standing for truth is necessary. To that end, I'd like to suggest a few principles I've been working to apply to my own heart to curb my tendency toward such self-devouring criticism.

Being Right is Not Always Love
We have been preaching through the book of Romans for the last year and a half. In Romans 14 Paul has a fascinating discussion about certain "disputable matters" in the church, things like eating meat sacrificed to idols or following Jewish cultural practices. What makes this discussion so fascinating is that Paul does not say there isn't a correct answer to these issues. He makes clear that one side is in fact theologically right. However, he tells them they need to give up their rights and stop hurting their fellow Christians even though they are wrong.

Of course, there are issues that Christians need to stand on with confidence. Scripture contains many warnings against false teachers, those who would deny the foundational truths of Christianity or prostitute the gospel for worldly gain. It condemns such people in no uncertain terms. In addition, there are many other issues in Christianity that matter and are worthy of dialog. One side or another in those issues is correct, and in Romans 14 he tells the believers that "each one should be fully convinced in their own mind." (Romans 14:5)

However, barring those issues that clearly abandon the fundamentals of Christianity, our opinions on other matters are subordinated by Paul to the need to "pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding." (Romans 14:19) No matter how correct we are, we are in sin if we are being correct while wounding the body. Carrying a candle for our beliefs is no excuse if the consequence is that we burn the church down.

Correcting Others Must Seek to Build Them Up
I do some amount of pastoral counseling. One of the most important lessons I've had to learn is that often I have to leave (what I perceive as) errors uncorrected. Not always - part of counseling is challenging problematic ways people think about themselves or God or some area of their lives. Yet that challenge can only happen in a context of relationship and trust, and that context can only be built through listening and patience. When someone says something I think is wrong, my question has to be "is challenging this going to be helpful to the person?" If the answer is "no," then the right course is to leave it be.

The same is true of our debates more generally. The deciding factor in whether and how we speak into a situation should be built upon Paul's earlier statement. We must ask, "is challenge in this moment and in this way likely to make for peace and mutual upbuilding?" If the answer to that question is "no," then we should, like a good counselor, instead listen and wait and pray.

This waiting silence is actually how God often deals with us. Sanctification is the process, over the course of our lives, of becoming more like Jesus. A significant part of that process is that we progressively recognize more and more of our sin. Decades into the Christian life we are still discovering new areas of our heart that are warped and need to be corrected. I suspect the reason God works this way is that, if we were confronted by all of our wickedness at once, we would despair and be destroyed. The Lord shows us what we can bear to see and only after we have worked through that and found Jesus in it does He show us more.

Helpful critique is slow and incremental. It doesn't try to show someone all of their failures at once, and it doesn't demand they change everything overnight. It invites reflection and calls for taking the next step, not running an entire marathon. If we are unwilling to undertake or impatient with this process, that should be a glaring warning that we aren't actually interested in building people up but only in tearing down everything that doesn't agree with us.

This goal of building up is also why I get so worried by the "virtue signaling" and partisan tribalism that infects our current moment. Often those who try to speak carefully and incrementally are condemned for compromise or not going far enough. Yet this comes from an impulse that is not of Christ. People like to romanticize His patience with sinners, but I suspect that is only because of our historical distance. In our day we'd quickly become frustrated, asking why He opts for a gentle word and a parable instead of telling it like it is. Harshness and its children, sarcasm and mockery, are seen as virtues in our shrill age, but they are poison to careful and slow encouragement to grow.

Our Default Should Be Silence
Scripture often warns against being quick to speak (Proverbs 10:19, 21:23, James 1:19). This is a warning I often reflect on wryly given both my job as a pastor and my own proclivities. Yet it is a wise and necessary warning. We live in the age of words. We slather them over everything, reading and writing and sharing and texting and speaking without ceasing. This has only been worsened by the internet. The demand is that we respond to what happened today, today. If public figures don't retweet or comment in the right ways, they are accused of complicity. It is a sin to not have a press release (or at least a tweet) ready within an hour.

I'm still caught off guard by the way certain people feel betrayed when I choose not to speak to an issue. As I've sought to grow in holding my tongue (it's still a slippery hold, I acknowledge), I've had people get angry. Even if I think the discussion would be unhelpful, even if I don't feel like I have the expertise to speak to the issue, it seems almost unthinkable not to engage.

Yet I have become increasingly convinced that silence should be our default. I've tried to apply a rule for myself of asking two questions before I weigh in on some issue. The first is "How much good do I actually think this will do? How likely is it to build someone up or change someone's mind?" The second, the counterpoint, "How likely is this to hurt or drive away someone? How likely am I to regret saying this later?" Unless I think the first set of answers are substantially greater than the second, I try to shut my mouth.

Lest it sound like I've figured this out - I often fail to follow these rules, but the hurt and regret I see convinces me that they're right. Even if I'm not especially good at keeping them.

Our Priority Should Be Praise
One last principle in seeking to challenge our impulse for destructive controversy is to pursue praise and encouragement rather than debate and criticism. We sometimes have a tendency in the church to be the least patient with those who are the most like us. If they are getting things 90% right, it seems outrageous to us they don't agree with us on the other 10%. By giving into this impulse we are often the most divided from and cruel to those who we should find the most unity with. It's not just the church, either. This sort of doctrinal policing is becoming more common in almost every area of debate. "If you aren't 100% for us, you're against us," is the rallying cry tearing civil discourse apart.

Here's how I've tried to think about changing this. Any given person, any given ministry, any given group has both strengths and weaknesses, probably many of both. So make a list. For every thing I disagree with or am frustrated by, I try to think of something good about what they are doing. Some positive quality. I try to give thanks for and praise them for those strengths, and only then am I allowed to offer a critique. One of the critiques, after all of the praise.

Final Thoughts
In all of this, I am not suggesting that we don't engage in debate or discussion. There is much need for good argument and even for strong, unwavering stands for the truth. However, by failing to have the above principles be our default, I think we actually kill our ability to have those debates when we need to.

I once watched (thankfully from a distance) the ministry of a preacher of a fundamentalist stripe for whom every debate was an argument over hell and heaven. Any doctrinal deviance, any political disagreement, any cultural difference left the other side condemned as an apostate and a devil. What struck me, besides the generally toxic nature of such a ministry, was how little credibility this left him when the stakes actually mattered. When the timing of the rapture, the current election, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ were all equally black and white, turn or burn debates, those under his ministry weren't able to care particularly deeply about any of them. The resurrection ended up compromised not because he was weak in his position on it but because he was too harsh and alarmist about everything else.

There are battles that must be fought, but we must be very careful to choose them. Otherwise we will find that we have no ammunition left when we need it. Even worse, in that hour we might look over our shoulders and realize we've spent it all leaving the city we thought we were defending a cratered ruin.