Friday, February 21, 2014

Telling the truth in love

‘Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. For twenty-three years, I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now... well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!’
To tell the truth in love—what does this really mean? It gets complicated because, from all outward appearances and most of human history, telling the truth in love can have some very adverse effects. We look back and shudder in horror, if we think long enough about it, but the burnings at the stake of those considered to be heretics was just a different expression of ‘telling the truth in love.’ After being tortured and made to confess, they were ‘forgiven’ but still had to endure death by fire as a sort of penance and purification, vaguely referenced to the apostle Paul’s teaching, ‘If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames’ (1 Corinthians 3:14-15). Strange that the Church thought it could administer salvation by fire as well as water.

Sorrowfully, we have not really made much progress. Most murders, as much as other ‘crimes against nature’—for that is what murder is—are committed ‘spiritually,’ not physically. I think we have all had this experience. Slander, for example, is a ‘spiritual’ form of murder—the modern name for this is ‘character assassination’—and its effects are almost always more painful, damaging, and long lasting, than a bullet to the head would be. When we are caught in the act of speaking our mind and telling somebody off who certainly deserves to be put in their place, we excuse ourselves, ‘I was only trying to help. There’s nothing wrong with telling the truth in love, is there?’

There was a time when Christians actually knew when what they might say would be abusive, and restrained themselves. They didn’t try to excuse themselves with, ‘Well, he deserved it!’ or ‘If I don’t tell them, who will?’ There’s a difference between telling a person the strange berries they just picked and are about to eat will make them very sick, and telling a man who is about to smoke another cigarette as he pulls one out of a package fairly covered with health warnings, that he shouldn’t smoke. The first is an instance of advising ignorance, the second an example of chastising informed choice. Both can be called ‘telling the truth in love,’ but the former really does this, while the latter merely heckles.

In a famous scene from The Wizard of Oz, a mean, old spinster brings an official writ to seize Dorothy’s little dog Toto because she claims it’s dangerous. Dorothy lashes out at her, ‘You go away or I… I'll bite you myself!’ before she is told to go to her room. Auntie Em, almost loses it too, ‘Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. For twenty-three years, I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now... well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!’ and she too leaves the room in tears. Only the uncle stays on, and when Ms Gulch tries to justify her position, he just looks at her, sighs and says nothing. There’s a Christian man for you.

There’s a type of Christian who feels ‘the white man’s burden’ to go and tell the heathen (these being not people of color any more than he might be a white man, racially) how wrong they are about everything—their life style and beliefs, how sinful they are in their ‘natural’ state—and what to do ‘to get right with God.’ This may have worked in times and places where people really were backward and illiterate, but it doesn’t work here and now, nor is it appropriate. People can read. Whether they go to church or not, read the Bible or not, they’ve been exposed to ‘the Western heritage of faith and reason’ sufficiently to know when they’re doing immoral acts, or at least falling under Judaeo-Christian censure.

It must be a gift to know when to speak, and when to keep silent, because not many people have it. I know I don’t. But not having that gift is no excuse for not trying to speak well, that is, to know when a word well spoken will avert disaster, and when a word wrongly spoken might create one. This, of course, applies to acts as well as words. I have been hurt too many times to even count by those who, trying to correct me, have failed in their attempt, and driven the knife deeper. And I have done the same to others, more than I can count. This seems to be the human condition, and one of the chief defects of the natural man. I can only hope that I will be forgiven, but I know for sure I will not be unless I have forgiven others.

In the short time that lies before us, brethren, let us love, and forgive, one another, and in peace let us pray to the Lord, ‘Lord, have mercy!’

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