My second year at a summer academy, I experienced what I learned is known as “drama” for the first time. As a sheltered homeschooler with only one friend at home, I wasn’t familiar with the social politics that are involved in being friends with teenagers. It’s one of the many reasons I was grateful for being at the summer academy for a full month– it gave me the opportunity to learn what it was like to meet and interact with people my age. It also helped that most of us were just as sheltered as I was.
During the first year I attended the academy, I’d made a friend who returned for the second year. However, the second year, we ran into problems. There was a particular boy she wanted to spend every single waking moment with, and I . . . well, I didn’t. I also felt that spending every single waking moment with one boy was not “guarding your heart,” and I was concerned for her “emotional purity.” So, instead of just quietly choosing to hang out with the other friends I was making, I felt it was important to be honest, to speak the truth in love about her behavior.
So, one day, I pulled her aside– into the bathroom, I think– and did my best to tell her what I was thinking with all the kindness and gentleness I could muster. I told her that it was totally fine if Mike* was who she wanted to spend time with, but I didn’t feel comfortable spending that amount of time with just one boy, so I was going to start hanging out with other people. Girls, preferably.
She accused me of judging her, that I was being patronizing.
The accusation stung, but I bore it well. Of course she would react this way– she was feeling convicted, and so she was lashing out at me because of it. I just smiled at her, kept my voice low and smooth and calm, and told her that of course I hadn’t meant to hurt her, I was just trying to do what I thought was best for us, for our hearts. I admonished her in love that we were too young, at fifteen, to be thinking about boys, and other girls should be our primary companionship.
Looking back at that incident now, all I can feel is shame. Because she was absolutely right. I was judging her. I was patronizing her. And I was doing it all under the biblical mandate to tell her the truth, but to do it lovingly. My mother, when she taught me to do this, emphasized that grace, compassion, and loving-kindness were absolutely necessary, and that we should take our responsibility to this incredibly seriously.
But, in the fundamentalist environment I was raised in taught me to do this, everything that went into this idea wasn’t really love, or compassion, or grace, or mercy. In my church, and at my college later, it was about control. It was about how you could prove you were so much more righteous than anybody else. Keeping your cool, not allowing yourself to get angry when someone called you on your judgement and self-righteousness, was praised. Being told that our words were not loving only reinforced our opinion.
And, it became an excuse.
It ceased to matter how the words were said. Saying the words, speaking truth, were the only things that mattered. Because, after all, Jesus was harsh with the people who needed to be dealt with harshly. He overturned tables. He called people vipers and said their mouths were graves filled with rotting corpses. How could we justify staying silent when the world was going to hell? How could we not say anything to that woman walking into an abortion clinic, who was about to murder her baby? How could we let a “gay” friend continue to chose their sinful lifestyle? How could we allow someone to believe in evolution, when that would only lead them to atheism? How could we not confront a girl who was going to lead a young man into sinful lust with her clothing?
In the end, the only thing we cared about was making sure every single last person we talked to knew about the their sin. That was love. We used the truth as a weapon, to cut someone into ribbons just so they could understand our point. We used it as a justification to wave signs in the middle of the street outside of a bar to tell those drunkards that they were surely heading for hell. We marched around the county, demanding to invade people’s homes and believing we had the right to pose intimate, demeaning questions to strangers.
It’s all based on five words pulled out of the middle of Ephesians. Paul had spent the first fourteen verses of this chapter dedicated to the unity of the body. He opened his chapter with a call to “humility, and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” He says there’s one body, one spirit, one hope, one faith, and that grace was given to each of us. He concludes this portion with the encouragement that when we do all of this properly, it “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
Context. It helps.
There is absolutely nothing in this passage that endorses violence in our words, in our actions. There’s nothing there that allows the body of Christ to wound one another, to cut each other to pieces for the sake of being right.
But now, I’m faced with a question. Because I believe in the unity of the body, and I believe in bringing unity into our faith functionally as well as ontologically is incredibly important. But, this passage is also about dealing with disagreements. Paul is asking us to “equip the saints,” and he says that it’s possible for us to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,” that maturity is important, that we shouldn’t be deceived by “craftiness” and “schemes.”
So how do I go about speaking the truth in love when I disagree with someone– and disagree with someone violently? What if I know, with all of my being, that what a Christian is doing is horribly wrong and doing untold damage to the Church?
At some points, this is straightforward. I had to face a personal decision a few weeks ago that involved this kind of process. How did I help protect a body of believers against someone who was hurting them– but this person was also a Christian, and was also hurting? I asked for counsel, and people much wiser than me helped me through it, and what we did was the best, most loving thing, for everyone involved. There were hurt feelings, and upset-ness, but it’s all turned out for the best in the long run.
But what do I do with my anger at abuse, at injustice, at violence being done to our souls? What if someone who claims to be a Christian is unabashedly supporting torture and racism? What if someone says something blind and idiotic, but then vehemently defends his right to perpetuate and support a culture of violence and privilege?
I don’t think anger is opposed to love, but the kind of love that Paul is talking about here isn’t just a feeling. It’s cultivated by a frame of mind that we encourage by humbleness, and gentleness, and patience.
I’m not exactly sure what that looks like, but I’m working on it.