In a time of shock and disbelief, I found myself seated at a table with several other pastors from my area. It was right after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and we, like so many others across the country, were planning a community prayer service. The horrific and unforgettable scenes of that day brought a sense of unity and connection, our shared sorrow pushing us beyond our denominational labels and individual congregations. And yet, strangely, the same event that brought unity also revealed deep and significant differences of opinion that existed among us. At one end of the table was a Baptist minister, preparing a call for war, the enforcement of justice, and a prayer for victory over our enemies. At the other end of the table was the Mennonite pastor. He spoke words of forgiveness and non-violence, and was making plans for participation in a rally for peace. Neither one could understand the other, and it seemed that neither had any desire to do so.
Since then, I have seen that same picture play out many times in the church. It has been clearly displayed in recent months as we have witnessed the evil, violent acts of ISIS. The images of innocent people unjustly tortured and murdered have left us stunned and angry. The martyrdom of fellow Christians devastated us, leaving us with a sense of helplessness and heartache. But despite our common grief and unanimous condemnation of these acts, there exists among the followers of Jesus a difference of opinion in regard to our response. Some call for war, seeing it as clearly justifiable; others renounce war, calling us instead to pursue the path of the peacemaker. And once again, there are those in each camp that cannot understand the perspective of the other, and it seems they have no desire to do so.
Much has been written and said from both sides, and every related article, blog post, and Facebook status is met with strong and passionate responses. The sharp comments often convey, in so many words, the attitude of “How can you even think that?” and ” Why are we having this discussion? My position is clearly right and unquestionable to anyone with any semblance of a brain.” Hitting closer to home for me, this issue made the social media rounds recently in regard to my own alma mater, where the chaplain preached a sermon raising some challenging questions about being peacemakers in a culture of violence. Following the sermon, he was relieved of one of his positions with the university, which – at the very least – created the appearance that he had been censured. I cannot say the sermon was, in fact, the reason for the change, but the resulting comments and reactions have once again revealed the deep differences of opinion that exist. They also reveal that for some, the topic is not even up for question or discussion.
Ironically, our conversations about peace end up being anything but peaceful.
To be honest, I’m not troubled by the fact that Christians have differing opinions when it comes to an issue like this one. What does trouble me is the apparent inability to at least acknowledge the validity of the question. I am not unsettled by the reality that we can think through some complex issues and arrive at different conclusions; I am concerned when we think that our conclusion is so clear and obvious that it does not merit further discussion. Living out the claims of the Gospel in this broken, fallen world should raise any number of challenging questions for each of us. We have little hope of navigating the complexities if we make no room for the questions raised by those who might disagree; we will not move forward as individuals or as a community of faith if we cannot engage in honest and respectful discussion.
The horrible acts of violence and war that seem to flood every news cycle should leave us wrestling with difficult questions and legitimate points to consider on all sides. How do we reconcile the words of Jesus about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek with life in a dangerous world? Does a failure to respond with force simply allow greater evil to occur, causing more innocent people to suffer? We know God’s kingdom does not come by force, but by way of the cross and sacrificial love. But how do we live out the values of His kingdom when faced with the present reality of violence and evil? Do we simply accept a different set of values for nations and governments than what we hold personally? At what point do the lines become dangerously blurred between earthly, political agendas and the agenda of the kingdom? There’s probably no end to the list of questions we could raise. And they are valid questions. They are difficult, complex questions.
And that’s the point.
Difficult questions should cause us to approach the conversation with a spirit of humility. When faced with complicated issues, it should not surprise me that some will come to an opinion that differs from my own, even though we share the same faith and values. In my response, love and humility does not mandate that I change my opinion, but it does compel me to acknowledge the validity of the question and respect the view of my brother or sister. And something tells me if we cannot hold a respectful conversation and allow for the questions of those who differ in viewpoint, then we are not very secure in our own position. Just maybe our particular conclusion is not as clear and obvious as we want to believe.