Monday, August 15, 2011

Learning to Like Others

In this age of Facebook, it's perhaps to be expected that one immediately thinks of "liking" something as being as simple as clicking on the appropriate link when one agrees with something that someone else has said. And, indeed, I've found that I use the Facebook "like" feature much more often as an "I agree" button than to denote any kind of actual affection. Perhaps I've lost sight of what it means to truly "like" something....

I spent this past weekend visiting family on the occasion of a cousin's wedding. Such trips invariably serve to remind me of the importance of these people in my life. People with whom I often differ greatly, but whom I still hold in great affection. Perhaps this weekend was a needed part of my process for revisiting what it is "like" somebody....

This morning, I found a couple of friends who shared a pair of recent articles that hit upon the question of how much evangelicals are or aren't "liked" by others (even if only one of them actually uses the language of "like"). Here's how one of those friends puts it:
We evangelicals need to read these articles: one by a pagan, another in Christianity Today. They speak to the same theme and come out with similar conclusions: "That claims to 'minority' status by Christians in North America are constructed on flimsy technicalities or outright distortions of the privilege they currently enjoy." http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildhunt/2011/08/invisible-christian-privilege.html and http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/august/americans-do-like-evangelicals.html.
I read through these articles with interest, in part because I've talked about these issues of "how evangelicals come off to others" and "how evangelicals think of themselves as a minority" in the past. For example, I've acknowledged that evangelicals really do seem to think they're "under attack" even if evidence to the contrary is readily available. I've also complained that evangelicals often behave in a way that causes our reputation to be negative in the eyes of those who aren't already "with us." While I'm not quite ready to retract those posts, reading the Christianity Today article (especially doing so in conjunction with the Patheos article) does make me wonder if I've been looking at the issue from the wrong angle. For example, I've suggested in the past that evangelicals should behave better, and thus am particularly struck by this part of the Christianity Today piece:
Some evangelicals today, meanwhile, are strongly advocating that Christians reform their image in the world by acting more Christlike. No doubt we should act more Christlike, but an emphasis on "acting better" to create affinity between evangelicals and others might be misguided if that affinity already exists; it potentially overstates and even creates social barriers and conflict. Furthermore, this emphasis might actually deter evangelism, reduce commitment to Christianity, and even drive some Christians out of the faith.
That paragraph could very easily be talking about me. I have suggested a need to "act better" in the past, because I do think that evangelicals have "acted badly" in many respects. But if the writer of the CT article is right, following my advice may not get us to where we need to go. Here's the next paragraph:
If American evangelicals do have an image problem, it's not our neighbors' image of us; it's our image of them. The 2007 Pew Forum study found that American Christians hold more negative views of "atheists" than non-Christians do of evangelical Christians.... Now, I am not a theologian, but this seems to be a problem. We Christians are called to love people, and as I understand it, this includes loving people who believe differently than we do. I'm not sure how we can love atheists if we don't like them.
What we have to do is actually far harder than getting our behaviors right. We have to learn to actually like those with whom we differ. And this is at least as true for me as I think about (certain kinds of) evangelicals as it is for evangelicals thinking about non-evangelicals (I think the issue is larger than just evangelicals vis-à-vis non-Christians, if only because of the sheer amount of in-fighting we often engage in within Christianity). I haven't spent enough time working on how much I like some of my friends who nonetheless hold opinions to the right of mine (this is admittedly more of a struggle for me, personally, than with those who are further to the left, despite my often having little in common with them, either). Clearly, changing our attitudes in this way isn't something we can do easily.

Perhaps we can't do it on our own at all. This is clearly a heart-change issue, and for that, we need God's help. But may that fact not cause us to give up hope that such change can happen. Instead, may we actively seek for that change to be made in us.

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