Most people want to know that their lives count, that they can do something here and now to help someone else. Most of us think that we're good people and that we'd readily defend someone else who was in immediate danger. But do our personal lives reflect this? In reality, what or who do we spend most of our time defending? We can see what matters most to us by looking at what we are willing to fight for. Think about the last argument you had. Think back over the past week and remember what you pushed back on in a conversation. What did you argue about? What was your last disagreement?
Hopefully, you had a couple of helpful, civil disputes. Maybe someone made a racist (or otherwise hurtful) comment, and you called them out. Maybe you had a healthy debate with someone about differing beliefs, and nobody was offended and everyone was still friends. If so, that's great. You may be the 1 percent. Did your argument match up with what you say you care about?
Let me rephrase that: Were you engaging in a battle that was truly important? Unfortunately, much of what we spend our time and energy fighting for is not. Here's what I mean: I say I'm a Christian (sometimes reluctantly, because fewer and fewer people really understand what this means). I say I care about people who have been marginalized. I say I care about making sure people feel included. Yet I often find myself with my back against the wall, swinging a sword -- not defending the oppressed or what is actually right, but defending myself, my opinions, and what I think is the right way of doing something.
We humans are often so filled with pride that we get angry and offended by someone's words against us. Or sometimes -- we're the offenders. And, we do it needlessly. An example from my personal life: I'd just started going to a new college. My first night there, I was talking to a group of people about random things, trying to get to know them, when the topics of gay marriage/gay rights/LGBT issues in general came up. Hot-button topics on a Christian college campus. So, of course, it came up in conversation on my first night at this school! A girl in the group said that during her first year at a community college near her hometown, her roommate, whom she had just met, told her, "I'm a lesbian, and I have a girlfriend. I just wanted you to know that." Seems like an odd way to introduce yourself -- but not any stranger than the way the girl I was talking to said she responded. She told the girl she didn't approve, that her behavior was wrong -- but added, "I'm not going to judge you."
Keep in mind, these two girls didn't know each other. I shared with her that in those kind of situations, I wondered what someone has to gain by leading with their disapproval. I explained that I thought it was important for us as Christians to put people first as individuals -- not to immediately make unsolicited judgments about their personal lives. Why don't we make it our first priority to love people? Why don't we learn about them and their lives and earn the right to share with them about ours? If someone told me very personal details right when we met, I hope I would demonstrate love in my reaction, even if I thought that person's behavior was wrong or was surprised by the transparency of their revelation.
I hope I would put the person first. I would hope, over the weeks and months, my new friend would hear that I believe in and follow the teachings of a man named Jesus from a couple of thousand years ago. If so, that person would probably assume that whatever I did, and however I treated people would be what Jesus would do and how he would treat people. I hope my representation would be a good one.
For or Against?
In light of some of the heated and sometimes hateful things I've seen online since the recent Supreme Court DOMA ruling -- and reflecting on the last decade -- I'm afraid Christians have developed the reputation of being defined by what we oppose rather than what, or in whom, we believe. I would rather take time to build relationships with people, demonstrate my care and concern for them, and if and when the time is appropriate, ask some questions that might cause us both to think. I'm not saying I do this perfectly -- or even have discerned how to be gracious in relationships -- but it is what I'm aspiring to.
Many of us (Christians) think we should voice our objections if we hear or see something we perceive to be different from our beliefs, or something immoral according to how we interpret the Bible. And we often do this without being asked, without having a relationship that gives our opinion context, without knowing where the other person is coming from.
I was raised by a marketer and a communications professional, so I often ask the question, "What are we leading with?" What I mean by that is, "What are we giving as a first impression?"
In other words, "What are we telling people, through our actions and words, the first time we meet them?"
We need to view ourselves as Christ's ambassadors. As representatives of who we say we believe in. As such, we have to put forward what Jesus would lead with. The first thing out of Jesus' mouth was often a question -- not a judgment call or an objection. We cannot afford to lead with hate or what others may perceive as hate. Although we can't control other people's opinions or perceptions, we can (and should) avoid provoking or insulting them. I'm not suggesting that we "make the Gospel palatable." What I'm saying is that we must not lead with the most offensive of our own opinions about what the Bible means. If we lead with our most controversial and possibly inflammatory viewpoints, we lose credibility and shut down the conversation, slamming the door for further, winsome discussion.
As chivalrous ambassadors of Jesus, we can put forward the most scandalous aspects of what we call "the Good News." Things like the unconditional love of Christ, extended to you by a stranger -- not just Jesus, but also true followers of his. The shocking idea that this innocent man would die for you, knowing everything about you -- everything -- and would step in between your own sin and a loving, perfect God.
Last but not least, we can acknowledge that everything is not all right in our world -- or in our own lives. One of the most common misconceptions I've seen, within and without religious communities, is that we think we are good. We think that a person, left to his or her own devices, will do the right thing more often than not. I've seen too much of the world to believe that this is true. I believe everyone has a sense of right or wrong, in that we know how we want to be treated. But I know myself, and I want what I want. Most of us would choose the most selfish path possible to get what we want. When we admit to others that we struggle to do what is right, that we often make mistakes, we're setting the stage for honest dialogue about our need to be rescued from ourselves and our small petty lives.
Leading with our own humanity. Leading with compassion. Leading by finding common ground and asking good questions. These are the ways to build a bridge to a lasting
relationship that just might give us the right to talk about the things we feel are worth fighting for. But more importantly, if we lead with love, we never lose the bigger fight for eternity.
Zach Hunter is a college student, author and speaker. He's spoken around the world about God's heart for the poor and the oppressed, encouraging his generation to live out their faith by bringing relief from suffering. Zach has written four books, has been honored by CNN as a modern day hero, has appeared on Good Morning America, MSNBC, in the L.A. Times and many other media outlets. He has spoken at the White House and is looked to as a leading voice on the modern abolitionist movement. Zach's new book "Chivalry" releases summer of 2013 (Tyndale).