Fear not: An open letter

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To my conservative, Evangelical brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ,

I am writing in a spirit of love, and with more than a little concern for our shared walk in Christ. You and I may not agree on some things. In fact, we may disagree on quite a lot. But, I’d like to set that aside for a moment (actually, I’d like to set that aside altogether) and focus on our shared faith, on the redeeming love of Christ – a common ground much more powerful than any point of doctrine or theology on which our beliefs may diverge.

I started writing this as a pointed, passionate piece on the president’s talk Friday at the Values Voter Summit, fueled by my intense distaste for and disagreement with that body. And here’s a few quick points to clarify where I stand: I believe we are called to love ALL God’s children, without qualification – gay, straight, liberal, conservative, Christian or non-Christian, believer and atheist, and the whole beautiful spectrum of skin color, culture and language. And loving doesn’t include judging, or “loving them enough to tell them they’re going to hell.” There. I’ve said my peace. You know where I stand. You may disagree with me. And that’s fine. I love you too.

And that last bit – that bit about loving and respecting each other in spite of disagreements – that’s the part that made me scrap my first draft late last night and start over. I’m not going to convince you to change your mind. I like to think of myself as open-minded, but you’re probably not going to change my mind on the points on which we disagree either. So, I’d just like to talk to you, with love and respect, because I am concerned for what is happening to our faith.

No, I don’t mean I’m concerned because you may think differently than me. Your walk with Christ is yours. Mine is mine. God has broad enough shoulders to carry us both. My concern is with the way our faith is being used to pit us against each other, to stir up hatred, contempt and fear between us, and between us and every other corner of God’s amazing creation.

When the president spoke at the Values Voter Summit yesterday there was a lot with which I didn’t agree, and I was more than a little concerned that he was there, the first president to do so, speaking not just in favor of one faith over others, but in favor of one corner of Christianity over others. Perhaps you were glad he was there, and took comfort in what he said. That’s your right, and it’s not really the point here. My problem with what happened yesterday is summed up in this quote: “We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values.”

First, I’m completely at a loss to understand how anyone views this man as a Christian leader, displaying Christian virtue – probably another point on which we disagree. But I don’t think his appearance Friday had anything to do with Christian values or moral character. It had everything to do with feeding the false narrative that Christians in general, and conservative Christians in particular, are under attack. The president did much Friday to fan the flames of that hysteria, even dragging out the tried and true fear that someone is trying to take away your Christmas.

This has become the mainstay of political and social discourse in our country. Fear is the fuel that drives our government and our social conscience right now. Conservative Christians must fear liberals. And the LGBTQ community. And the football players. And feminists. And the Muslims … oh, the Muslims. And generally anyone different than us (which, apparently, includes Puerto Ricans, somehow?). And it goes the other way too. Social media and the mainstream media feed the narrative that Progressives must fear anyone who owns a gun, anyone who voted for Trump, anyone from rural America, anyone who brings up Jesus in the course of everyday conversation. Scary stuff all around.

Every aspect of our culture today encourages us to take a side in this petty nonsense, and to vilify, demean and share insulting memes about anyone who doesn’t agree with us. Donald Trump didn’t start this sickness, this lack of empathy and respect in our society. But he has benefited from and manipulated it masterfully. The president has made great strides in getting Americans to fear one another and our neighbors in this world. And Friday’s talk at the Values Voter Summit was a masterful stroke in that effort.

This pitting of people against each other, constantly fanning the flames of hatred, scorn and fear, is great political stagecraft. But it’s shitty theology. Christ called us to love each other. He didn’t call us to agree. He knew enough just from trying to keep the disciples together that wasn’t going to happen. But in spite of our differences, above and beyond our differences, we are called to love God and to love each other.

Somehow we – on all sides – seem to have forgotten this essential lesson of Christ: we all are of one body, and even in disagreement we still can love, respect and pray the best for each other. I don’t know why it has become so politically and socially acceptable for you and I to hate each other. I know many powerful people – of all political persuasions – have benefited from and stoked that enmity. But hatred is not of Christ. There is no war between us, unless we make it so. My beliefs are not dependent on or damaged by yours. And I’m confident your faith is not dependent on mine. Ultimately, there is no external influence that can dim the light of Christ in your heart, unless you let it be so.

Let us set aside, then, this notion that either of us must be right at the expense of the other, or that we need to build ramparts up around our beliefs. There was a time when we could meet face to face, and even in our disagreements we could be respectful, love one another, embrace our common humanity and be strong in our faith without having to resort to fear and intimidation. I believe we can get there again. I believe we must get there again if we are to retrieve our faith from the dirty realm of temporal power, and elevate again our gaze to the eternal realm which is our source, and our goal.

In closing, I hope that we can meet in person some day and share our love of Christ. I pray we both can silence the political discord and social media hysteria long enough to see Christ in each other. In the meantime, I will continue to strive to better love those we all are called to love. That includes our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. It includes Muslims, and Puerto Ricans and people who say Happy Holidays. And it includes you too.

Your fellow servant of Christ,

James Neal

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