Feeble Knees

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Why Give Needless Offense?

I've been mulling over the duststorm kicked up over at One Hand Clapping. If you haven't been over there lately, there's quite a conundrum going on about whether Western Civilization is "morally superior". I promised myself I would not get into this. I read follow-on responses at Messy Christian and Effortless Grace and In The Outer. I read and read, shook my head and went "tsk tsk tsk". I even commented here and there. But I absolutely was not going to get into writing anything more on the matter.


What follows is not so much a direct reply to anything that was said in any of those blogs, but my own ruminations on the wider subject of what role our faith should have in shaping our attitudes towards foreigners in general. No one person or comment is singled out, nor do I wish to demean, disturb, or defame any of the individuals involved in those discussions. With some trepidation, I dive into the fray. Please bear with me. May these words merely provoke thought and not give offense.

It is hard to argue with the premise that the Western European and American nations were the most single influential civilization during the last several hundred years. If we try to step back and look at things as objectively as possible, the influence of Western Civ on commerce, industrialism, literature, arts, music and yes even religion and morality has been huge. Talk to any citizen of India about the British influence there and how it changed Indian culture. Ditto the American influence on post-war Japan.

Notice I use the word "influential" in a neutral way. Certainly a good amount of America's influence has been beneficial during the course of its history. But you'll never get a consensus on what was and was not beneficial about our influence. It'd be more profitable for you to spend hours of time trying to teach a pig to sing. Everyone is going to have varying perspectives about America's influence. Consider too that Russia was influential during WWII, but no one would go so far as to say that everything the Russians did was beneficial (just ask Poland).

Does this mean then that we can never make a value judgment or have an opinion? Are there then no objective yardsticks by which to measure the relative success or failure of a particular civilization of people? No, that is not what I'm trying to say here. Certainly within the Christian worldview there is knowledge and recognition of good and evil, profitableness and vanity. The Scriptures themselves make no attempt to call evil by any other name. Since as of yet no person yet living (save Christ Himself) has been a continual fountain of God's wisdom and grace, we do have to open our minds a little to make absolutely sure that conclusions we draw are based on truth, not presumption or prejudice.

In her book Bird by Bird writer Anne Lamott cautions would-be writers to work hard to see both other people and ourselves with compassion and pursue a more reverent contemplation of life in general. At a time when so many bloggers are struggling to observe and express their thoughts about the tragedy in the East, this seems timely:

Writing involves seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein. But you can't do that if you're not respectful. If you look at people and just see sloppy clothes or rich clothes, you're going to get them wrong. Bird by Bird pp. 97

The Bible also instructs us not to have respect of persons, setting up or esteeming one group of people higher than another. Perhaps because it clouds our perspective, and prevents us from seeing that the people whom we've deemed "lesser" as people who ought to be regarded as we'd like to be regarded ourselves. Does the golden rule just apply to people who look like we do? Or to those who think like we do? Or does it apply to everyone?

This requires something of us. If God so loved the world, then what ought our attitudes and deportment be towards others? The One who issued the Great Commission did not weight the value of one group of lives over another. Therefore, "Love thy neighbor" should extend equally beyond the boundaries of our town, state and nation. Knowing that we are first and foremost citizens of Heaven, why do we not conduct ourselves with grace towards those who are without? Why do we not see in our hearts that all these too are souls for whom Christ died?

Suppose I see you zipping by me on the Interstate in a souped-up Mustang. You are going much, much too fast and hit a patch of ice. You are critically injured in the ensuing crash. Is that the time for me to stand by the side of the road, wagging my finger and calling you a rotten driver, an accident waiting to happen? You would think me the meanest of all people and question whether there is any love or grace in operation in my life. Even worse, suppose you were driving like a madman because your pregnant wife was in labor with your first child, and you were trying to get to the hospital. My observation that you were driving horribly would technically be valid. But who has just committed the greater offense, you with your frantic driving or me with my inappropriate and graceless remarks?

To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own a** -- seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one. Bird by Bird pp. 102

Do we want to be a people that offer hope to no one? Or worse, do we want to be preferential, offering hope only to those who think like we do and affirm all that we hold dear? If so, what kind of moral superiority is that?

There is only One whose morality is superior, and that was Jesus, called the Christ, the Son of God and the only one with the righteousness required to save our lost and dying world. Whosoever calls upon His name shall be saved and made new by the regenerating power of his Holy Spirit. Whosoever hears His words and lives them will be like a house built upon a rock and a light to the world. If those in Asia hear the call and heed the words of Christ, He will come and rebuild them, and restore all that has been taken away.

The blessings of God are not the exclusive privilege of Western civilization. God forbid we should be like Jonah, sulking under the dead gourd plant, complaining about the mercy and grace God chooses to bestow on people we choose neither to know nor to understand.

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