Machiavelli is perhaps best known for a political philosophy with the tenet “the end justifies the means.” I’m going to say something here that might not seem terribly radical: I believe this justifying philosophy is counter to the teachings of Jesus, and counter to what the Christian church ought to be doing in the world. Lately, though, it seems that more and more people in the world seem to be using this justification to excuse any kind of behavior as they do absolutely anything to further their cause. And it seems like there’s an increasing number of Christians joining in.
The church spends a lot of time, as it should, fighting injustice in the world, fighting to make the world a better place. But when we fight for these things by shouting each other down, by railing at how wrong and ignorant and stupid the other person is, by calling people names, by doing whatever we can to make the other person shut up– these are corrupted means, and will only ever lead to corrupted ends.
It’s critical for the church to have a strong sense of right and wrong, and to always teach and fight for what is right, but that fight has to be conducted in Christian love. It’s only through engaging in Christian love that anyone is going to listen to anything you have to say. It’s only through Christian love, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that hearts and minds can be fundamentally changed and injustice will cease.
So then, how we meet people in love when we think they’re wrong? What if they’re not just wrong, but perpetuating injustice? Isn’t it a Christian thing to tell them how wrong they are so they stop hurting people?
Well, let’s say you have a conviction about issues of injustice, and you feel called to work toward changing the world, either through or outside of the church. Let’s talk about how we could engage in these issues with people with whom we disagree, with honesty and Christian love.
First: with an open heart, imagine you are the other person, and search deep within yourself. What makes them tick? Why do they think the way they think? What is fueling their beliefs and convictions? It is so very rarely truly evilness or hatred, and on the rare occasions of hatred, it’s never that simple. So, regardless of what MSNBC, CNN and FOX tell you, start by ruling out pure evilness and irrational hatred as explanations.
What else could be behind their position? What would you think if you had their same experience or background? When you seek to understand who they are, you acknowledge them as thoughtful, rational people who are not so different from yourself, which is good, because it’s true. Now, this is scary, I know. By granting legitimacy to their position, you also open yourself up to the possibility of changing your own mind. But it’s the only way to engage with someone in Christian love.
Secondly: don’t try to use faith, or Jesus, as a trump card in the conversation, or as a weapon to bludgeon the other person into submission. Have you ever heard or been told, “Jesus would support this, or do this,” or my favorite- “if you were really a Christian, you would do this or that”? People being people, I think they probably started saying these things right from the start of the church…. probably even from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. But the thing is, people never say these things about widely-accepted right/wrong things, like slavery, or human trafficking, or spiritual abuse. No, people say this about issues that the church, the state, and society are wrestling with today, as a way to stop conversation, rather than engaging with others.
Maybe they’re just lazy. Maybe they don’t know why they believe what they believe, and this would be exposed if they opened up the conversation. For whatever reason, rather than living, working, and talking with their brothers and sisters in Christ, they say things like, “if Jesus were alive now, he would vote this way, he would think this way, he would support this legislation, he would be a Democrat/Republican/liberal/conservative, and if you aren’t, you must not be a ‘real’ Christian,” to try to get the other person to stop talking. Spoiler alert: Jesus wouldn’t belong to any political party. His teachings don’t fit neatly in any political box; they never have, and because people are human and politicians are, well, politicians, they likely never will. So instead of using Jesus as a weapon, talk with others about his teachings. Study the gospel together, learn together, grow together, and justice and love will reign.
Notice I didn’t say, “and your beliefs will be proven correct.” This isn’t about scoring a victory, winning an argument or being right, and because you’re as fallible as every other human, there’s a chance that when you meditate on the scriptures, you may discover fault in your own way of thinking. That’s not fun to consider, but it’s part of being an adult.
Third: don’t seek to punish others for their “crime” of disagreeing with you. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember Jesus telling the fishermen Simon Peter and Andrew, “drop your nets and follow me or I’ll call the news, I’ll tell everyone what a horrible person you are, and you’ll never work in this town again.” I don’t recall him telling the tax collectors, “I’ll get you fired from your job, I’ll sue the pants off you and your family and destroy your life.” Likewise even the Pharisees, with whom he never saw eye to eye, never got these kinds of treatments.
Instead, he taught the truth and demonstrated love, and he let them choose to accept his teachings and change their lives. That’s what people followed. That’s what people believed in. That’s why the early church grew. I’d argue that it’s only through the demonstration of love and grace that the church ever grows.
Now, this isn’t something that’s easy. For too many people in the world, it doesn’t matter how things are achieved, just that they are. Trample over anyone who disagrees, label them as hateful and evil, get them fired, sued, ruin their lives if you need to; all in the name of getting what you want, getting what you believe is right. The internet makes it too easy these days to conduct this kind of destructive guerrilla warfare with few to no consequences. It’s very tempting for us in the church to follow that example, especially if you feel a strong conviction for righting wrongs and helping those in need. What should it matter how you get it done, just that you do?
It does matter, though. If you succeed in righting an injustice but leave a trail of shattered lives in your wake, have you really made the world a better place?