Wednesday, March 23, 2016

By your love

Ours is a culture of criticism. So pervasive and universal is this culture that, even when we know that criticism is a bad thing, we seldom notice ourselves criticizing others. We only notice and feel their criticisms of us and so quickly retaliate, in a moment hoping to swallow theirs, or drown it out, purge the air of it, so that our illusions about ourselves can be preserved.

Not everyone, in fact probably very few, will agree with me when I wrote ‘criticism is a bad thing,’ that is, if they even noticed. Sometimes we forego the chance to criticize a lesser fault in others, so we can bring an even greater one to light. The former will include the latter anyway, we reason. But as I say, probably most people don’t think that criticism is all that bad.

Well, I do. I know there are ideas expressed this way with admiration, ‘he has a fine, critical mind,’ meaning that this person can be relied upon to make wise choices, to have solid opinions, and generally to be a better than average human being. Criticism as a profession even has a vaunted respectability, ‘biblical criticism’ and ‘higher criticism’ being examples.

But criticism, though it can be euphemistically termed ‘constructive criticism,’ only rarely lives up to the name. Most people who criticize others in the form of giving advice, making observations of other’s habits, customs, work performance, or general behavior, or just plain malicious lampooning, especially in the public and political arena, are not being constructive.

No, they want to fulfill the irresistible urge to tear down the man standing next to them, or his friends or relatives, so that without exerting any further effort of their own, they can stand taller. Yes, ‘bigger, stronger, faster’ has a divine right, even a responsibility, to criticize and thereby instruct and correct the less luckily endowed. The ‘white man’s burden’ is now everyone’s.

So what do you do if you find yourself engaged in a marriage or partnership, living in a family or neighborhood, working in a company, or fellowshipping in a church where criticism under its many disguises—humor, sage advice, even love—forms the basis of every personal encounter? Well, the best thing to do, I think, is to keep your mouth shut. Don’t dare defend.

Christ has something very interesting to say about this, ‘Offer the wicked man no resistance’ (Matthew 5:39). ‘But,’ you protest, ‘these aren’t wicked people. They’re just kidding around. It’s just friendly banter.’ Well, yes, perhaps they aren’t wicked people, but the words that come out of their mouths, whether in jest or seriously, are verbal volleys aimed to maim.

The world is not ‘Christian’ and so we can’t expect our neighbor to treat us, to speak to us, with the respect, even the awe, that is proper to ‘man created in the Image.’ True, but I am here addressing at least those who call themselves Christians, or at least think they are following Christ. I speak to myself as well as to you. What fires do we fan when we criticize others? What bridges burn?

The culture of criticism may be universal, but we can stand apart from it. How? Again, by not defending, not ourselves nor others. By not returning the jibe. By staying silent, or by changing the subject. By seeking peace, by promoting dignity—again, even if only by remaining silent. If we are Christians, how are we known as such?
‘By your love,’
says Jesus, in whose presence all criticisms pale.

It is a hard struggle to leave the culture of criticism behind. It can be a lonely struggle at first, but gradually others appear near you who likewise have laid down their arms. Paradise, yes, even the Tree of Life, still exists on this same earth that criticism has corrupted. It is invisible to most of us, but as we seek peace, pursue it, yield ourselves to mercy, giving it, receiving it, unseen becomes seen.

We do indeed find ourselves ‘surrounded by an immense cloud of witnesses,’ all heading with us to ‘the City not-made-with-hands,’ where He whom we did not recognize as He came among us we begin to discern. We see where our brother ends and where Christ begins, and we finally come Home. Home, yes, home at last, and even this earth is refreshed to be the dwelling place of the Most-High.

Yes, ‘trampling down death by death,
and to those in the tombs, bestowing life.’

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