January 21, 2001

Circumstance and history ask each generation to carry a certain pain and to redeem it through suffering. We, of course, are no exception. Our generation, in the Western world, is being asked to carry a certain pain, the pain of ecclesial disprivilege. What is this pain?

Simply put, today in the Western world we live in a culture that is, at a point, anti-ecclesial, especially towards Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism. In the name of open-mindedness, the moral high-ground, liberal sophistication, and political-correctness, one can manifest a fairly open bias and intolerance today against certain church groups.

What’s to be our reaction? Self-pity? Anger? Legal challenges through various anti-defamation organizations? Luxuriate in being victims? Give back in kind? What’s the adult Christian response?

Understanding. To an anti-ecclesial culture we owe an understanding that is wholly human, historical, and biblical. What’s implied in this?

First of all that we see what is happening within a proper human framework. What’s happening is not an archetypal struggle between good and evil, but a misunderstanding within a family. There is no enemy here, only our own brothers and sisters whom history and circumstance have, on this issue, put at odds with us. What’s important is that we don’t look to take offense, don’t take things personally, and look always at the larger perspective. The very liberalism that has spawned this kind of anti-ecclesial attitude is itself a product of Judeo-Christian principle and is itself very much at the base of the very structures in our culture that protect our religious freedoms. In the light of the bigger picture, a few liberal pockets of anti-ecclesial bias are nothing serious really, mosquito bites. We are not in any serious way being deprived of our rights. Western culture is not the enemy.

Next, we need to accept our time in history. A season of privilege is invariably followed by a season of disprivilege. The chickens always come home to roost! Given that for generations nothing we said could be challenged, it shouldn’t be surprising that there will be a generation or two when everything we say will be challenged. For too long the churches were given privilege. Now we pay the price. We see this particularly in anti-clericalism, in the projection of so much of the problem of paedophilia onto the churches and the clergy, and in our culture’s intellectual bias against Evangelical Protestantism. In many ways this as a necessary purification, a needed pruning of our arrogance and false use of authority. We are being healthily humbled. It’s something to learn from, especially when we see so many ecclesial pockets again itching for privilege, moral superiority, and the false use of authority.

Finally, and most important of all, we must bring some key biblical perspectives to bear on this. Two things might be helpful here: First, Scripture takes for granted that each generation of Christians, as part of its normal living out of the gospel, will have a special suffering, some persecution for the sake of Christ, which it is asked to carry with understanding, patience, and even joy. The early apostles, upon returning to their communities after being physically beaten up by those who opposed them, were filled with gratitude in the realization that they, persons of such minor importance and virtue, were privileged enough to suffer significant redemptive pain.

Moreover, they understood their pain and its seeming unfairness precisely as redemptive, as bearing fruit for the world through their proper suffering of it. They understood something that for the most part we no longer understand today, namely, what it means to carry pain redemptively and what it means to practice understanding. What does it mean to carry pain redemptively and to practice Christian understanding?

Christian understanding is not bias in reverse. Nor is it stoicism that simply makes do or a condescending, elitist attitude that radiates a moral superiority. Christian understanding, by definition, is transformative. It changes things by absorbing negative energy and not giving it back in kind. It takes in the tension, holds it, and carries it until it can transform it into its opposite, compassion. Transformative suffering works like a water filter. It takes the impurities out by absorbing and transforming them. Transformative understanding takes in bias, bitterness, curses, and offense and gives back understanding, graciousness, blessing, and forgiveness. We see this in Jesus. He never played the victim and he refused utterly to create victims. He never gave back in kind, but took in the hurt of those around him, absorbed it, and transformed it. For him, no other human being was an enemy, there were no sides, them against us, only fellow human beings, who, like himself, were also victims, wounded, sincere, searching, loving when they could, tragically distanced from so much of what they would want to embrace, and yet carrying on as best they could in the light that had been given them.

This is the kind of understanding we owe our culture.