Telling the truth

In church this morning, we read a part of the Christmas story (Matthew 2:13-23) that doesn’t often make our pageants: the massacre of the all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem by King Herod. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph flee to Egypt. Jesus begins his life as a refugee in Africa. It is an event that is remembered as the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.600px-Matteo_di_Giovanni_002

It is a deeply disturbing and troubling story, particularly to a culture that has come to associate Christmas with shepherds, wise men, the odd sugarplum fairy, and lots and lots of presents. It is easier to think about those things than it is to think about soldiers marching through the streets of Bethlehem looking for children to kill.

But by including this story in his telling of the Christmas story, I think Matthew is doing an important thing: he is telling the truth. The Christmas story contains this brutal and awful bit because the world that Jesus was born into really could be brutal and awful. Our world is no different, whether it is in violence in the Central African Republic, Syria, or South Sudan, or the more hidden brutality of children who go to bed hungry, people without a home at night, or any of the number of social problems in our society.

Christians are people who tell the truth. Christians are people who describe the world around them honestly, praising and rejoicing at appropriate times but also frankly confronting the difficult and challenging parts of our lives. The church is a community of truth-tellers.

I thought about this when I read about what Bishop Hilary Garang of Malakal, South Sudan told the BBC the other day: this violence is not right; we need mature leaders who are capable of settling their differences without resorting to violence. That is a moment of truth, particularly when political leaders are going around saying that their enemies have to be eliminated.

But you don’t have to go all the way to South Sudan to tell the truth. This week, Rowan Williams—who is now, inter alia, the patron of a food-bank organization—criticized the government for its comments about people who seek help from food banks. He said, in part:

It is not political point-scoring to say that these are the realities of life in Britain today for a shockingly large number of ordinary people – not scroungers, not idlers – but men and women desperate to keep afloat and to look after their children or their elderly relatives.

In austerity Britain, where the need for food banks has exploded in recent years, this is simply telling the truth—even and especially if it makes those in power uncomfortable.

Christian truth-telling begins with ourselves. That is why our services have times of confession when we can honestly assess our own lives and hear the true words of forgiveness and absolution. Churches are places where when people ask us, “How are you?” we don’t have to feel pressured to say, “Oh, just fine,” but can say, “Well, actually things aren’t going so well. Will you pray with me?” That the church isn’t always this place is an indictment of the church that we should face honestly.

There really is a lot of hope and peace and love and joy in the Christmas story—just as there is in the world. But the Massacre of the Holy Innocents reminds us that that is not all there is. Christians are people who honestly face both the joys and the challenges of this world, who tell the truth about them, and who work to bring about God’s peace for our communities and this world.

A “turn out the base” church?

For all the billions of dollars and all of the negative TV advertisements that dominated the conduct of the recent American election, it’s not clear that any of it made much difference. TV advertisements are supposed to change people’s minds. But it’s becoming clear that the election just past was not about changing people’s minds: it was about getting people who already agree with you to vote.

That, at least, seems to be the most common explanation for Obama’s victory. His campaign “micro-targeted” people they thought would be sympathetic to them, worked aggressively to ensure they were registered, and then watched as the votes rolled in.

For anyone who has ever been part of an organization in the midst of disagreement and argument, this is a seductive prospect: I don’t need to win this argument because people already really agree with me; I just need to get them to stand up and be counted. The focus shifts from changing people’s minds to drumming up support among those who already agree. Changing minds and winning the argument is challenging work. Believing that everyone already agrees with you and all you have to do is turn them out is not.

The results of this line of thinking are clear for all to see: for instance, the half-serious calls for some states in the U.S. to secede. To which some Obama voters have responded, “Go ahead!” There is little thought that perhaps this is an opportunity here to engage in conversation, change minds, and move forward together.

What’s worrisome is when this same dynamic creeps into the church. People on all sides of theological arguments appear to believe that engaging in conversation with folks on other sides of the argument isn’t really necessary anymore. Instead, we focus on creating churches full of people who already agree with us and who can be reliably counted on to support us in our side of the argument.

The thing is, when we do this, we’re not really being the church. Just this evening at evening prayer, the New Testament reading (in the Church of England Common Worship lectionary) was from Matthew 5: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (vv. 23-24) That is, find the person you disagree with and work on reconciliation.

The church is the community of the baptized. The trouble is, there are no political prerequisites for baptism. (Grace doesn’t work well with prerequisites.) That means that by its very nature belonging to the church is going to bring us into contact with people who are different than us and whom we need to engage in conversation because we believe that we have something to learn from them and that our individual knowledge of God is insufficient.

I am sure that political strategists are already at work building a computer program that is even better than the Obama campaign’s was and that future elections will revolve more and more around turning out the base and less and less around engaging in conversation about the future.

I just hope the church doesn’t end up like that too.