A mentor of mine recently told me that a huge divide is on the horizon for those of the Christian faith—one that centers on the meaning of the cross and the message of atonement. Even the act of verbalizing that thought out loud is considered sacrilege by many in my Christian tradition. To question something as integral to Christian religious history and heritage as the cross will result, to put it mildly, in a variety of responses from a variety of perspectives.
I would like to entrust the vast theological concerns surrounding this issue to others and focus on another area of study crucial to potentially divisive issues—that of rhetoric and civil discourse. To not put it mildly, questioning the meaning of the cross is considered “fighting words” to multitudes of Christians. That is what I want to address. I believe that how we speak and write about divisive issues, especially ones that purport to shake the very foundations of our faith, is as important as the issues themselves. As crucial as rules for civil discourse can be even in small matters, they are imperative for discourse on divisive issues that have the potential for disastrous outcomes. Before we delve into any potentially divisive issue, it is essential that we first take the time to develop intentional methods of, and ground rules for, how we interact with one another.
In my own Christian tradition, the strongest, most foundational ground rules are to promote love, justice, and unity. When it comes to discourse, we are told in our Scriptures to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), meaning that we do not speak what we believe is truth unless we can speak it in love. To clarify even more, we are told that if followers of Jesus do speak without love—even if we are speaking “in the tongues of” humans and angels—we are “noisy gongs and clanging symbols” (I Corinthians 13:1). Yet when many Christians feel that their beliefs are being threatened, instead of abiding by these scriptural admonitions, they literally respond with “fighting words.” Those fighting words are not often far from the next step that also deeply distresses so many of us—turning to acts of physical violence.
Consistent with the message of Tikkun, my fervent hope is that we will be committed to what I call “redemptive rhetoric.” Although the word “redemption” is seen as troublesome by some who debate atonement, I hope it is not a word that gets removed from anyone’s vocabulary. It is a wildly generous, freeing, term that involves making whatever is wrong, right. Hopefully we all want what is wrong to be made right, including our rhetoric. Redemptive rhetoric involves using “any available means of persuasion” (Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric) to promote love, justice, and unity among our fellow human beings—as well as all of creation. My hope is that before we engage in any dialogue, debate, or defense of our beliefs, we will stop, and ask ourselves: “What kind of response will show that I am not being a noisy gong? What kind of response will be loving, just, and promote peace and unity?” Intentionally divisive, mean-spirited messages should have no place in our discourse. Our beliefs should be able to stand on their own merit. If we do not know how to talk about our own beliefs without getting dangerously close to hate or “bully” speech, then we have no business talking about them. May we all strive to speak the truth in love, no matter the issue. For Christians who are greatly offended by any questioning of the cross and the atonement, may we practice what we preach—Jesus’s message of love for God and others—with how we preach. May others know us not by our hate, but by our love.
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