The death of Christopher Hitchens brought out some of the most extreme reactions I have seen in recent memory, and I think the trending on twitter for #godisnotgreat says it all. I won’t link to it because, frankly, I want to pretend it doesn’t exist, but many people decided to share their thoughts on Hitchens roasting in hell, quivering under God’s judgment, and so on. I would say, ‘use your imagination,’ but it won’t take much.
I couldn’t help but feel a sense of empathy for Hitchens’ fans. For many, he was a source of inspiration, someone who helped them navigate the murky and difficult waters of life with eloquence, reason, and that wonderful British wit I always find so fun. That’s not to say I agreed with him on much, and I am not pretending to. Regardless, he was an extraordinary thinker and writer, and he will be missed by millions.
This brings me to Paul, Jesus, the New Testament, and twitter. Social media has become (or always was?) a cesspool for virulent, violent rhetoric focused against those who are perceived as enemies. And because it is never directly to one’s face that these things are said, people can say anything they want without immediate consequence. This is dangerous, as a lack of direct accountability means that our words, in all their power, can become ruthlessly damaging as we also experience a decrease in empathy. In other words, we experience less of what makes us human.
I found myself thinking about Paul and Jesus, in what they wrote and taught (respectively). They encountered plenty of opposition, and both could be very ‘direct’ when confronting their interlocutors. But here’s the catch: These debates were internal. Paul was dealing with Christian Jews, and Jesus was dealing with fellow Palestinian Jews. Yes, Paul lands some zingers, but he was chastising people that, according to him, knew better. Jesus acted as a prophet, in this regard, seeking to alter the people’s expectations of the Kingdom of God. Both were the most direct when rebuking their own.
One striking counter-example is particularly illuminating. Paul finds himself standing in front of the Areopagus in Athens, giving an account of his “foreign divinities” to pagan (in the technical sense) leaders. His tone and manner were very, very different. He was eloquent and relevant, quoting the Greek writers Epimenides of Crete and Aratus. His graciousness in Athens stands in striking contrast to his letter to the Galatian Christians, where he sounds much angrier and meaner.
Why is that significant? The Athenians weren’t followers of Jesus, nor were they Jewish. He had no reason to be corrective or condescending, and instead explained the way he saw the world while also respecting the culture. It seems that we Christians would do well to take this to heart. Our interactions with those outside of our faith will be far more helpful when they are gracious and compassionate. And when dealing with each other, love. Be direct, but love. And maybe don’t take things quite so personally. And call your mother every once in a while.