To get to my favorite coffee shop here in Louisville, I pass a lot of bumper stickers intended to make people like me angry. One of them says “Born Okay the First Time.” Another says “If You Don’t Like Abortion, Don’t Have One.” And, of course, there are several of the Darwin fish, those metallic signs with the early Christian symbol sprouting legs.
These bumper stickers have spawned an entire industry in American evangelicalism, countering these arguments, with “right back at you” ridicule. I understand the temptation, because some of those bumper stickers used to rile me up too. I would roll my eyes and think how stupid the argument was in front of me. Why does the Wicca devotee really need to tell us, “My Other Car Is a Broom”? Why does the anti-procreation guy have to announce, “My Labradoodle Is Smarter Than Your Honors Student”?
But, it seems to me that Jesus never seemed all that outraged by ridicule. Yes, Jesus would engage, and banter back and forth with his critics. Yes, Jesus would sometimes use some pretty stout sarcasm. But Jesus never seemed to be personally offended. Even when his critics suggested he was demon-possessed (Mk. 3:22-27), Jesus simply turned the conversation around, saying, in effect, “Come on, do you really believe that? Satan vs Satan?”
Why does Jesus seem so relatively free of outrage? I think it’s for the same reason Jesus didn’t verbally spar point-by-point with the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate. Confident in his Father’s future vindication, Jesus didn’t need to be seen, in the now, to be right. How different that is from our typical contemporary Christian polemics.
It is hard to argue with political scientist Alan Wolfe’s contention that the “culture wars” as we know them are mostly an illusion. The heated rhetoric of evangelicals in the political and media spheres, Wolfe asserts, is often directly related to the ineffectual nature of Christian distinctiveness in our own living rooms and pews.
Of evangelical conservatives, Wolfe writes: “Their inability to use their political power to lower abortion and divorce rates, instill a sense of obedience and respect for authority among teenagers, and urge courts and legislatures to give special recognition for Christianity’s power role in American religious life creates among them a perpetual outrage machine.”
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we shouldn’t confront culture. Jesus did, as did the prophets before him and the apostles after him. If we are, as Jesus said, “fishers of men” then we’ll understand that the eco-system in which the fish live matters. But we defend the gospel; not ourselves. We confront culture willing to be, as Paul said, “wronged” and “defrauded” (1 Cor. 6:7).
We know our ultimate vindication comes later. We need not then respond back to unbelievers with sarcastic barbs and slickly packaged campaigns. We have the right to religious liberty, and we ought to protect it. But we don’t have, and we shouldn’t want, the right to be free from ridicule.
My outrage at the Darwin fish in front of me often has little to do with persuading the Darwinist that there’s a more excellent way. Instead, sadly, my zeal is motivated by the very same factors that cause me to bristle when someone bashes the New Orleans Saints or tells a Mississippi joke. I consider it to be an attack on me. When that is my response to revulsion at the gospel, that becomes satanic.
We ought to be willing to be ridiculed and scoffed at because our audience isn’t this present band of spectators. We can listen to our “opponents,” love them, and bear their objections with patience precisely because we are convinced the gospel is true.
I am not outraged when my children wake at night afraid of a goblin in the closet, because I know there’s no goblin. Our “opponents” aren’t children, but we aren’t threatened by Darwinism or hedonism or nihilism or any other proposed alternative to Christianity for the same reasons.
Yes, I’ll talk to my non-Christian neighbor about how not even he really believes the universe is random and meaningless and amoral. I don’t rage against my son as “stupid” for crying about the goblin. And I don’t rage against my unbelieving neighbor’s unbelief. He’s held captive, as I was, to a mind-blinding snake (2 Cor. 4).
So let’s stop being irritated with unbelievers. Let’s pray to see those Darwin fish and witchcraft bumper stickers in our church parking lots as our neighbors seek to ferret out just why we don’t seem to believe in the survival of the fittest or the sovereignty of the ego. There are some things more important than whether we’re proven right, things like truth and hope and grace and, above all else, love.