What’s controversial…and what isn’t

Before we move on to consider the next chapter of James, I want to linger a bit on the matter of how we speak to one another, often in anger. These past two years of pandemic and political polarization in the U.S. have been trying for everyone. There are deep questions of justice involved, and equally deep divides over what’s right and necessary, even within the church.

Controversies abound, and each issue contains multiple layers of controversy within it. Take the response to the pandemic, for example. Masks or no masks? Mandated or voluntary? Vaccinate or not? What about boosters? Should churches stay open and gather in person, or close their doors and go online? What about schools? On and on the questions go.

Human nature is such that we need to make sense of ambiguity, and we often rush to come down on one side or another of a controversy just to feel like the world makes sense. Unfortunately, differences of opinion are inevitable, either within or between groups. When this happens, we often double down on our interpretations of the world. I think I’m right and others are wrong, and this becomes further polarized when we actually confront the differences between us: I’m the hero and you’re the villain. I’m well-informed and you’re ignorant. I’m loving and you’re selfish.

And that, in turn, makes us even less willing to listen. We roll our eyes like teenagers and act like the other person has nothing to say that would be worth hearing.

. . .

James, as we’ve seen, teaches that our lives should show the fruit of the gospel. We should care compassionately for those who live on the margins of society; we should take care that our values and priorities are grounded in God’s word and not a mere reflection of the world around us. And in pragmatic terms, we need to be people who put listening first, curbing the temptation to spout angry words.

Recall these words of James:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearer who deceive themselves. … If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. (James 1:22, 26, NRSV)

Think about what he’s saying here. People who consider themselves “religious” but don’t control their tongues are “deceiving” themselves. And although the NRSV also translates the verb in verse 22 as “deceive,” the two words are not the same. They’re synonyms, but in essence, the second one is stronger. It’s one thing, in other words, to be mistaken or deluded; it’s another to actively delude yourself.

What might that look like? Perhaps after an argument, we’re willing to admit that we could have been nicer. We didn’t have to scream and shout; we didn’t have to say nasty things. I know, I know, we say with a quick pang of remorse, I shouldn’t have said that. But

That little word “but” matters. We slip from remorse and repentance to self-justification, from acknowledging our responsibility to blaming the other person. We get together with like-minded people to commiserate and complain about how “they” just don’t get it — what is their problem? We convince ourselves that we’re taking the righteous stance, and that anyone with an ounce of intelligence or decency would agree.

But is this true righteousness or self-righteousness? Have we actually taken the time to listen to those who disagree with us, to understand their point of view?

. . .

All else being equal, we prefer certainty to uncertainty, clarity to ambiguity. Black and white distinctions seem more secure, more reliable, than multiple shades of grey. We have a need to nail things down, and may choose our facts (and news outlets!) accordingly. But when others challenge our tidy opinions, we may end up taking a verbal hammer to people instead.

The fact is, we will never be without controversy; most matters of importance are far more complicated than we might wish to admit.

But one thing, at least, seems un-controversial: those who follow Jesus should be quicker to listen to the words of others than to speak their own. And when they speak, it should not be in selfish anger.

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