Blogging the Lectionary--6th Sunday of Easter

Readings (Catholic)
Acts 8: 5-8, 14-17
Psalm 66
1 Peter 3: 15-18
John 14: 15-21

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you

Christianity is a religion of hope.  The Scriptures, and ultimately Jesus himself, makes promises to us about this life and the life to come.  In other words, we receive the Good News.  We cannot prove, at least in a scientific way, that this Good News is real.  All we can do is hope in those promises.

But that hope is not random or arbitrary.  There are reasons for us to hope in the Good News.  Some of those reasons are going to be deeply personal and unique to the individual--an experience, a feeling, a moment of confirmation between us and God.  Some of those reasons are more generalized and intellectual, in the form of 2,000 years of constant reflection and analysis of this Good News by people from all possible backgrounds and points of view.  For most people, their reasons are some combination of those two strands.

It is my experience that people are generally, legitimately curious as to why people believe what they believe.  A person of the same faith wants to know how their experience compares with someone of the same background--and often finds that those experiences are rather different.  Sincere believers of other faiths are often the most interested why people believe what they do, particularly when the beliefs are very different from their own.  And many non-believers of goodwill are curious as to why are person would place their hope in something like religion.

We have a tendency to avoid discussing religious faith in our culture--or, at least, parts of our culture.  Some of that is born of a desire not to be intrusive, and that is appropriate.  I don't believe in broadcasting one's faith to everyone on the street sua sponte is the way to go.  But if someone asks, I see no reason to be shy about answering them.  Whatever our reasons are, many folks genuinely want to know them.

[Y]et do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 

Despite the fact that most folks are genuinely interested in the beliefs of others, there are some who are not.  Haters and trolls have always been with us, no matter what name they are called.  Richard Dawkins did not invent the genre of fiery denunciations of religion and religious people.  When faced with these folks, the passage's suggestion to respond with gentleness and respect is good advice.  Engaging these folks by trying to shout them down is playing right into their hands.  They want a reaction, they want to make religious people look like idiots.  Calmness and respect may not convince them to see things your way, but it will perhaps lower the temperature a bit.

The problem comes, however, when folks jump immediately to the second part of passage.  There is no question that there have been, and currently are, folks who suffer greatly as a result of speaking out regarding their faith.  Here's a great example. 

But there is a tendency in Christianity to frame everything in terms of persecution, and to see everyone who disagrees with you as Emperor Nero in disguise.  There is an old idea that being persecuted is a sign of being a "real" Christian.  But when all you have is a hammer ("real" Christians are persecuted), everything looks like a nail (being persecuted).  This creates a perverse incentive to find reasons why you are being beaten down by others, and to magnify every slight into the leading edge of a pogrom.

So, two suggestions.  First, I think it is very necessary to move away from the idea that persecution is a necessary part of the Christian life.  Celtic Christianity talks about three types of martyrdom: red martyrdom, which is actually persecution; white martyrdom, which involves leaving home, friends, family, and possessions to go on the road (whether actual or metaphorical) to preach the Word of God; and green martyrdom, which involves a life of quiet sacrifice and faithfulness at home, wherever home may be.  This broader understanding of sacrificing for Christ helps, I think, to diffuse the unhealthy masochistic quality of some expressions of Christianity.

Second, we need to place our focus squarely on the first part--responding to others with gentleness and reverence.  This is perhaps obvious, but being persecuted, or believing you are being persecuted, is an unpleasant experience, and has a natural tendency to place you in a defensive, angry crouch.  That crouch simply escalates the tensions, and turns a situation that may truly be only a disagreement into full blown warfare.  Gentleness and reverence, even if you think you are being put upon, diffuses the situation.

Indeed, "answer with gentleness and reverence" should be the motto for anyone who participates in the religious portion of the Internet (or any part of the Internet, really).  It is very, very easy to fire off an unyielding defense of one's position, and a fiery denunciation of anyone else's position.  There is not a ton of gentleness and reverence to go around, and everyone shares at least a small part of the blame for that.  Think a second before you speak, and keep an eye out for your tone.  Keep your conscience clear.


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