My country’s founding fathers were slave-owners and the entire history of my country is marred by racial inequality and injustice.
Many of my church tradition’s theological heroes owned other humans or stood silent in the face of those who did.
81% of my faith tradition, according to leading statisticians, supported a president who has presided over the most divisive presidency in my lifetime.
Year after year prominent leaders in churches with whom I am associated fail morally, ethically, or turn a blind eye to those who do.
Numerous churches and other Christian institutions continue to fail in their response to abuse – sexual, physical, or emotional.
How am I to respond or even to rightly think about these things? My heart is torn because I love my country and my church, but I also love the people these institutions have hurt. This is tension.
This week a story broke about a hazing and assault case at my alma mater, Wheaton College. I love Wheaton (not loved, love). My time there was formative spiritually, relationally, and intellectually. When I think back on people, places, and times of my life that imparted the most wisdom and shaped me the most Wheaton College is involved in a huge number of them. But now this.
The alleged incident was horrific and unconscionable. It was the kind of behavior that has no place in society at all, and especially not on a campus flying the banner “For Christ and His Kingdom.” Of course, I do not know the details. I may never know them, and I am not sure they are owed to me for my consumption anyhow.
I have read the accusations against five football players. I have read counter-statements and defenses. I have read portions of the school administration’s statement about how the situation was handled. I have read the vitriol poured out against that administration.
I’ve seen predictable lines drawn: forces massing to defend the accuser and condemn the accused in the court of public contempt VS. opposing forces demanding that we “wait for the facts” and “let the justice process be served.”
I have seen people hurt by, or at, Christian institutions empathize with the accuser and I have seen those whose experience was positive (like mine) assume innocence.
But what I have seen above all is the mass discarding of babies with bath water. In each dispute people pick a side and assume both the guilt and animosity of the opposition. And such a stance inherently breeds animosity. In a situation fraught with tension and complexity the instinctive response has been to over-simplify and create stark blacks and whites with no gradient of gray.
Our instincts in this are wrong. The desire to simplify and segment and draw lines doesn’t resolve issues – historical, theological, institutional, or legal. It exacerbates them. It escalates them. It widens the chasm between sides when, in fact, there ought not to be sides. The instinctive simplification of complex issues is a defense mechanism that ends up doing more harm than good.
We must train our instincts to recognize points of tension and move into them instead of away. We must find a level of comfort – though maybe that is the wrong term – with the unresolved and unresolvable, the gradients of gray rather than black and white.
This means a willingness to recognize the good and distinguish it from the bad simultaneously. It means a willingness to appreciate the good and condemn the bad simultaneously. It means we cannot idolize, lionize, or demonize the way we once did because few people eras, or institutions are as good or as bad as we have portrayed them. We have portrayed only a portion of who they are, or were, for the sake of simplicity and at the expense of truth.
America’s history and politics, with all its heroes and villains, are remarkable for their good and for their evil. The church over the ages is remarkable for its Christlikeness and its Christ-forgetfulness. Christian institutions are remarkable for the saints and sinners who have run them and been developed by them. This is a tension with which we must become accustomed.
And it is one with which we should be intimately familiar for it is a tension that reflects my heart and yours at a societal level. We are capable, by God’s grace, of remarkable good. And we are, by our sinful nature, capable of heinous evils. Put us in charge of a group, an institution, an organization, or a nation of like-hearted sinners and all this will be magnified.
It is dishonest to ourselves and those around us to over-simplify tensions. It falsely accuses or falsely praises. It refuses to acknowledge the whole reality or the whole person.
Tension is uncomfortable. It is not easy. It often does not relax over time. That is why we avoid it and precisely why we must engage it. Often tension is where truth lives, and to avoid it is to believe and perpetuate lies. If we refuse to acknowledge the push and pull between competing realities we are simply creating falsehoods we find easier to believe.