Gentleness and Respect

We northern hemisphere folks are beginning the darkest month of the year — but in the last third of December the tide turns, naturally and supernaturally. Because of the event many of us celebrate on Christmas, the Bible notes that "people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light."

One problem among Christian conservatives is that many of us bask in the light and curse those in darkness. We often forget what one of Christ’s toughest apostles, the rough fisherman Peter, advised: Speak to others "with gentleness and respect."

I suspect that Pete was preaching not only to us, but to himself. Until transformed by God’s grace he did not treat others gently. And in talking with my University of Texas students, many with church backgrounds against which they rebel, I’m struck by how many believe that Christians do not treat other sinners with gentleness and respect.

Some of the students recall preachers who pointed fingers and thundered so much that the ministers and all those around them became deaf. These students, of course, filter their experience through the anti-Christian bigotry that is common in academia and media, so their accounts may be exaggerated, but they are reality-based.

How should we react to those dwelling in darkness? Take (please) Michael Richards, best known as Jerry Seinfeld’s neighbor on their 1990s hit TV show, who during one recent show screamed the "N-word" at some audience members. Richards positively recalled the bad old days when the only right many blacks had was the right to be beaten, and worse.

His rant was creepy. Southern Baptist leader Richard Land described well the general problem: "Racism and the ugly destructive prejudices it spawns are still with us, and will continue to be. Why? Fallen, sinful human hearts are always going to be subject to the temptation to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, which is the root of all prejudice."

But how should we respond to Richards personally? Some saw his terrible display, Internet-posted on YouTube, and declared that the comedian should never work again. Others defended him. But Christians should take Richards’ fall not as an opportunity to condemn him forever. Instead, it’s a reminder that sin is always crouching at all of our doors.

If we’re tempted to point fingers at someone else, we should be reminded of our own desperate need. We might say, as an adaptation from Augustine’s 1,600-year-old "Confessions" states, "O Lord, what evil have we not done? Or if there is evil that we have not done, what evil is there that we have not spoken? If there is any that we have not spoken, what evil is there that we have not thought to do?"

We might recall as well two modern statements: Theologian J.I. Packer’s three-word summary of the Bible, "God saves sinners," and writer Ann Lamott’s "I don’t understand much, but I understand how entirely doomed I am without God." Doomed without the event we celebrate on Christmas.

I’m a Christian because 33 years ago, in late fall darkness, I began to glimpse a great light. I know of some desperate people, from teenagers to octogenarians, who sit in darkness and need that light. If you’re a conservative Christian, here’s a question: Will a drug-user, thief or liar come to you or to me with the expectation of being treated with gentleness and respect? How about a homosexual, a radical feminist or an atheist?

It’s hard in our media culture to treat others with gentleness and respect — that doesn’t play as well on television as anger and sarcasm do. But when we’re tempted to abandon the biblical injunction, we should recall words that may have become over-familiar: "Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled."