Nov 112018 7 Responses

What I Debate Most In My Life

When I was in seminary, we studied the ministry of Billy Graham. On two occasions, we made trips to some of Graham’s last crusades where we got a behind-the-scenes perspective on his ministry and spoke with many of his close advisers. With all the things Graham got right, there were two things which stuck out in my mind of mistakes he made. Graham and his co-laborers often mentioned that if he could do it over again, he would have spent more time with his family, and he would not have gotten so enamored with people of power that he remained silent on the most pressing political issue of the day–racism.

At the time I wondered, would I have had the courage to speak against an issue which most of my church supported. It’s easy to assume I would, but there is no reason to think I would have had more boldness than Graham.

It’s been almost twenty years since college and seminary. The pastorate has gone from an idea I dreamed about to a reality I live every day. All these years later, I remember what Graham called his two mistakes. I work hard to spend time with my wife and children. Hopefully, I’m not as good of a pastor as I could be because I want to give my family more time than others. I also struggle with how to handle the political issues of our day.

The greatest debate I have in my life is whether to speak or not speak regarding political issues, specifically how to do so on social media.

Social Media and Politics

When social media emerged on the scene a decade ago, it didn’t come with a manual. None of us knew how to handle it properly. As a culture, we have learned by trial and error. Oftentimes with more error than trial. While this is true for every aspect of social media, (who hasn’t learned the hard way that there are some things you shouldn’t post or some comments you shouldn’t make) nowhere has this been truer than with politics.

In 2016, the elections were greatly impacted as a foreign enemy used social media to spread false stories creating division, discord, and doubt regarding our political institutions. Just as others abused social media to influence us, many of us misused social media because we didn’t know how to wisely use the new medium.

I have been as big of an offender as anyone. (See: The Facebook Cycle of Hate)

In retrospect, there have been posts I’ve made which I regret, comments written that weren’t well stated, and debates engaged which were not productive. If I could take it back, I would. On multiple occasions, I messaged people privately just to clarify my intent or to make sure our relationship was protected.

My greatest regrets haven’t been the initial articles or posts, but the long string of comments which followed. I enjoy conversation and I believe that responding to others when they respond to you is respectful. While some comments have to be ignored, most deserve recognition and feedback. Yet these conversations often get off the rails. On many occasions, I’ve been sucked into conversations which I didn’t know how to leave. I didn’t want to rudely ghost people, but I couldn’t figure out how to redeem the conversation.

My primary focus during these conversations was never to change the mind of the person I was talking with. I knew that was unlikely. While I wanted to treat the person fairly, I was more focused on the onlookers of the conversations. They would face similar questions from friends or co-workers, so I wanted my answers to give a possible explanation of approaching topics Biblically. One of the great encouragements to me has been the private comments and people who have chosen to attend our church because of what they have read on social media.

While social media has many upsides, the great downside is the stripping down of communication to just words. True communication is much broader than words on a screen. Body language, movement, inflection and a host of other factors are supposed to help us interpret the intent of the speaker and the understanding of the listener. Without these cues, social media leaves us interpreting what we believe the other thinks or feels. In many cases, we interpret wrong. (See: What Evangelicals Forget Regarding Elections)

One of the most prevalent changes I’ve made in how I use social media is to add “haha” as much as possible when I’m actually joking. While it seems obvious to me, I learned quickly it wasn’t always obvious to others. Joking is one of the best tools we can use to lighten the mood or clarify relationship when things get tense, yet if the other person doesn’t know we are joking it can be destructive.

Evangelical and Republican Aren’t Synonyms

While it’s tempting to eliminate every political topic from social media, it’s not wise. I generally don’t give my opinion on taxes, proposed state amendments, or typical political issues where Democrats and Republicans disagree. However, other issues aren’t just “politics,” they are Biblical issues. The easiest way for me to get called “political” is to speak about race, abortion, the death penalty, poverty, or treating political opponents fairly. For me, those are Biblical topics which a pastor would obviously speak about, yet when others disagree they feel as though I’m getting “too political.”

One reason I’ve chosen to comment on these issues and others is because of the wrongful wedding of evangelical identity and Republican politics. Growing up in the Bible belt, I was taught from an early age that the Biblical political party was the Republican party. I didn’t realize that said more about my geography than my faith. Leaving my right-leaning small town and attending seminary in a metropolitan area opened my eyes that some on the Left loved Jesus just as much as some on the Right. And that some on the Left try to exploit faith for votes just like some on the Right. (See: How Do Christians Fit Into a Two-Party System? They Don’t)

While seminary taught me there are multiple ways to apply my faith within political boundaries, being back in my hometown, I pastor a people who still believe evangelical and republican are synonyms. They aren’t. A person of faith can rightly be an R, a D, an I, or nearly any other option and still be faithful to the Bible. As a pastor, it is partly my job to remind people of that and to applaud anyone who speaks for Biblical truth while also refuting the twisting of Biblical teaching to fit a political ideal, especially when that idea is one with which I more closely align. In other words, I should be harder on my own political kind than anyone else. We should be quick to rebuke our friends and applaud our enemies when the opportunity presents itself.

As national media continues to push the false narrative that the Right is religious and the Left is not, it’s important for pastoral voices to speak on issues to show there are ways the Right is unBiblical and the Left gets some things right. This meets the old pastoral advice that the Gospel is meant to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Yet it’s not a process anyone likes. It’s far easier for people to discredit me than to consider the point I’m trying to make. On many occasions, I’m called both a liberal and a conservative by people in an attempt to label me as their opponent rather than to interact with the ideas.

And Then Came 2016

For my first 8 years on social media, I attempted to speak to controversial issues with grace, compassion, and a different perspective than what was commonly seen for public consumption. The first article that did this was What If Trayvon Martin Was My Son? It was controversial but important. In retrospect, the article was very wrong. It may have been right at the time based on the information we had, but time has proven that George Zimmerman was a racist murderer so we have no reason to believe that Trayvon Martin was anything but an innocent bystander.

The article was a typical article prior to 2015. I took a hot-topic, gave a different perspective, and some people got really mad because they didn’t like what I said. Prior to 2015, the articles that got the most heat were about racism and adultery. Speak against either of those topics and the critics would come out of the woodwork.

But it all changed as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton battled for the presidency. As the race ensued, evangelicals were divided–evangelicals of color stood with her while many white evangelicals supported him. During this time, I felt compelled to do what my Sunday School teachers taught me–to speak about the importance of character in leadership. To me, it is the foundational question when it comes to choosing a leader. Issues change, but one’s character normally stays the same. I’d rather have a leader I disagree with but can trust than one who I think gets the issues right but does not have the moral authority to lead.

This was the truth I was taught growing up in Sunday School–character matters. I wrote the article, I Still Believe Character Matters, and I don’t regret it. To this day, I can’t believe the negative reaction it received. How can people be shocked that a pastor is calling politicians to a higher standard? Why was I called political for confronting both parties and their candidate for President? How could I be seen as so powerful that by voting for neither candidate I was accused of voting for both of them? Haha.

I’m not surprised that those standing on the fringes of faith disliked the article, but I can’t believe the criticism I received from mature Christians. I mourn the strife it caused, but if I had to do it over again, I would write it again. The issue needed to be raised and still needs to be discussed.

Even as the election ended, the issues of character persisted. The new President had bragged about sexually assaulting women. He had mocked a reporter with a disability, something very personal to me having a daughter with special needs. At a minimum, he seemed insensitive to race and on many occasions, he seemed to incite racial divides. On a host of issues, he rejected the way of Jesus while claiming to be a Christian. What was I to do? (See: Why the Church Owes Trump an Apology)

To speak, even infrequently, about my concerns was to run the risk of alienating church members. To stay quiet was to add to the misconception that Trump was the fulfillment of evangelical values. The choice I made was to speak knowing I would offend many evangelicals in hopes of reaching some of those who were outside the faith. My thought–if churched people get mad at me, they will go to another church and be fine, but if unchurched people rightly reject Trump’s brand of evangelicalism and assume that’s what Christianity is about, they might be lost forever.

So I wrote, commented, and endured. So I will continue to write, comment, and endure.

Have I been right? I have no idea. I think I’ve been right about a lot of things. I’m sure I’ve gotten some things wrong. But was it right to speak out rather than to stay quiet and just focus on the Gospel (as if the Gospel doesn’t apply to politics and shouldn’t influence every aspect of our lives)? I don’t know. I simply know I’ve done my best.

A Secondary Purpose

Through all of this, there has been a secondary purpose. My primary goal was to do my best to apply the way of Jesus to the ways of this world. I wanted God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. I wanted to challenge believers to embrace the way of Jesus over the secular way of power. Yet there was another reason I chose to speak when others have stayed silent and encouraged me to do the same.

I wanted Silas to know. Years from now, I want to be on record that I was making the case for character in leadership. I wanted him to know that I was saying, “This is not right.” It’s not right to have to say, “Ignore his words and just look at the judges he got us.” It’s not right to say, “Forget about his immorality and just look at the economy.” It’s not right to have to turn the channel every time the President is on air and my ten-year-old is in the room because I don’t know if the President will act properly. It’s not right and I want Silas to know that I was saying it wasn’t right. (See: Why the Church Owes Trump an Apology)

Every generation judges the previous one based on the issues of their day. One day, Silas will judge me. It’s more than possible that he will judge me for getting many issues wrong…especially issues dealing with politics. But he won’t have to ask why I stayed on the sidelines. He won’t question if his dad cowardly kept quiet in an attempt to please powerful church members rather than speaking what I believed was the truth. He might judge me as wrong (I might be wrong), but he won’t judge me as cowardly. Not in this. (To see critiques of the other side of the political aisle, see here, here, and here)

To Those Who Disagree

One of my greatest frustrations, either from my inability to communicate it or other’s refusal to understand my intent, has been the belief by some that I’m judging them for their political beliefs. I haven’t. I’m not. Even as I wrote in 2016 that I couldn’t vote for either major candidate for President, I understood that others could and would. I didn’t blame them, yet many people claimed I was being judgmental for their views. That was never my thought.

Instead, I have great friends on both sides of the political aisle with whom I greatly disagree, but from whom I’ve learned. We debate, laugh, seek to understand, often shake our heads at each other and then move on. We find far more identity in our love and respect for each other than we feel disunity because we disagree. (See: Refuse the Rage)

Yet some have chosen a different way. They’ve written me off. As a people-pleaser, it bothers me. As a peacemaker, it disappoints me. But I can’t control it or change it–cognitively I know it, emotionally I’m still working on it.

Billy Graham reflected on his life and saw his silence on racial issues as a great mistake. One day, I’ll look back on my life and determine which of my many mistakes was my most grievous. I’m sure the list will be long. But one thing that won’t make the list–silence born from cowardice during this season of life.

7 Responses to What I Debate Most In My Life
  1. Linda M Reply

    I greatly appreciate your standing up with Biblical teachings as they apply to political issues. If our church leaders can not continue to teach us how to apply the teachings of Jesus in our daily lives, what is the point? None of us have it all 100% right or 100% wrong and I am glad to see you continue to step up and stand up for what is right! Yes, my toes get stepped on from time to time but I prefer to be admonished in this life to scrutinize my beliefs and actions than for you to be silent for fear of alienating me.

  2. Cathy Reply

    I admire your courage to apply biblical principles to political situations. Keep up the good unbiased and biblically based work.

  3. J. Parker Reply

    As much as I talked to my sons about living with integrity, I also couldn’t simply toss aside my stance on morals and character when discussing candidates. And it’s funny—peculiar, not haha—to see what people have concluded when I’ve written about President Trump’s sexual failings—with one person even emailing me to say I must be a Democrat. I’m not. Nor am I a Republican. But that wasn’t even the point. Actually, I’m the SAME VOTER who had massive issues with President Clinton’s awful treatment of women (and harassment of a female employee, during business hours, on work premises), so who’s biased here? I know it’s not me. We have to be willing to let our faith illuminate our view of politics, not the other way around.

    Thanks for bravely speaking up! Even when I haven’t agreed with some detail, your political posts have made me think about my own positions and our need to hold them up to the Word of God for inspection. I appreciate that. It’s iron sharpening iron!

  4. Nancy Reply

    My Republican husband is one of the unchurched people that reads your emails and blog, and I can fully attest that your article on “I Still Believe Character Matters” kept the door open for him not giving up on all Christianity. Were it not for your words, I believe there would be no hope of ever getting him to possibly step foot in a church again. We know so many more people just like him. I’m sorry for all the heat, but so very grateful to you!!!

  5. Lew Bell Reply

    Kevin, I reread this post today and read the 3 links you listed as examples of “critiques of the other side of the political aisle”. I think it is a very vague connection to a political view – rather comments on what is politically correct re men’s comments about a woman’s appearance and Down syndrome. All valid comments, just that I don’t see them as a particularly vigorous critique of a political view as you have taken of late.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Lew, I would hold that I haven’t had a vigorous critique of a political view. To me, that would be debates about taxes or proposed bills, etc. My critique of the President is in regard to truth, issues about life, adultery, treatment of women, character, etc. I actually haven’t seen a consistent political view to critique regarding this president.

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