It always amazes me how Christians clamouring to be heard in the public square are so often convinced they are best understood with both feet in their mouth.
Within a month, we've had two cringe-inducing high-profile examples of the syndrome. The first was during the recent Alberta election campaign. It involved a candidate for the Wildrose Party, a Christian pastor who infamously felt the need to tell the world via his blog that gays would spend eternity in a lake of fire.
Now, there is a serious discussion to be had about the democratic unacceptability of discrediting citizens from public office for believing Hell is a literal place, not mere metaphor. Serious beliefs based on Scripture and tradition must be treated seriously, fairly, and with respect. Holders of such beliefs do not deserve the smug asininity of journalists tingling with the voyeuristic indecency of Elizabethan Londoners ogling the mentally ill at Bedlam.
The faithful, however, have a concomitant obligation to update the ancient Christian admonition to speak the languages of all men to bring all souls to Christ. We don't have to be mush-mouths. We do have to speak within the cultural frame of understanding of our interlocutors.
There was a time in Christendom when salvation could promise the benefit of looking down from Heaven as "the smoke of the damned riseth up forever". That's been a non-starter for a while—rightly so, not just because of contemporary pagan cultural sensibilities but from the offense against Christian charity of anything that suggests vicarious pleasure in others' suffering. Vivid evocation of lakes of fire filled with bobbing homosexuals is precisely such an offense against charity, with a heaping helping of blasphemy tossed in since it presumes to know in advance God's disposition of the souls of the sexually otherwise.
Offending against charity is front and centre, too, in the second example of someone who lives for the Word making a hash of himself by getting tangled up in misbegotten language. Alas, even as perspicacious a Christian as my whipper-snapper colleague Brian Dijkema got drawn into the rush to defend William Swinimer, the Nova Scotia high school student who became last week's 15-minute martyr for refusing to remove a T-shirt that said "Life is wasted without Jesus."
You can judge Dijkema's blog entry from earlier this week for yourself, but I will fairly summarize it by saying it ferociously denounces "the system" and "the man" (properly a female school superintendent) for coming down with two-tonne boots on 19-year-old Swinimer.
"The (school) board's decision (to suspend Swinimer) and its reasons for doing so are inane, thin-skinned, and not becoming of a liberal society. It was also probably legally wrong," Dijkema writes.
Reading the blog, I anticipated the mystical appearance of the ubiquitous 1960s rhetorical question—"yeah, and what about Nixon, man?"—just for good measure. It never emerges, but I still half-expect to see young Dijkema trading in his severe formal suits for sloganeering T-shirts of his own. Will pulling out of the Cardus parking lot in a tarted-up 1971 VW bus with his old school tie wrapped, yippy-hippie style, around his head be far behind?
Whatever criticism the school board in question might deserve, it was not wrong to assert its authority to oblige a student to conform to a quite reasonable dress code against wearing sandwich board garments that knowingly and deliberately offend others. Much more importantly, Swinimer's programmatic lapse into the defense of his right to free speech as a Christian is simply indefensible.
He was wrong. And he was wrong as a Christian. For Christians, no life can ever be a waste. Is the life of a leper a waste? A prostitute? A tax collector? The Samaritan woman at the well? The criminals crucified beside Our Lord? No, no and always no.
Why? Because our Christian perspective makes every moment of every life an open possibility for encountering Christ. It is not up to us, who encounter Him imperfectly ourselves, to judge when that moment should be. It is a besmirching of Christian charity to imply that those who have not yet encountered Him are somehow living lives less worthy in His sight.
But there is a deeper, and yet inherently practical, level at which he was wrong. When he was told that students had complained about the T-shirt, he could have heard the urging of Our Lord to also give our shirts to those who ask for our coats. He could have asked what he could do to try to heal any hurt. He could, in other words, have stepped up and modeled Christ. He could, for that moment at least, made his life a life of Christ.
He chose not to. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But it is an amazing reminder for the rest of us that stepping up before speaking up at least keeps both feet directed away from our mouths.