There Can Be No Understanding in the Absence of Faith

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Recently a business page erupted over an earlier post that had offended some. The post, a rather mild meme suggesting that we not judge anyone on the basis of outward appearance, was removed and the owner immediately apologized. They claimed that they had not intended to post the meme, that they did not agree with the content, and this explanation was plausible given that the account doesn’t usually post anything besides menu items.

And yet this did not please the mob. These hate-filled individuals continued to assail the business even in response to the post expressing solidarity with their particular cause. There was blood in the water, the sharks circled with merciless indifference to the pleas and the appeasement strategy clearly was not going to ward off the continuing attacks. They were going to be branded as a horrible and insensitive person no matter what they said. No explanation good enough. Nothing they did prior mattered and there was no way to atone. Last I saw they were open talking about closing up shop as the verbal onslaught carried into a second day after another vain attempt to explain.

The perpetually offended can only ever see through the lens of their victimization and can’t ever be pleased. The mistake many people make, like this hapless small business owner, is that they assume they are dealing with someone like them, someone who can be reasoned with, who wants stability and peace. But I knew a few of the characters in this mob. These weren’t all good people trying to make the world a better place. No, not at all. Some, despite growing up in the same community as me and given every opportunity for success, had made a career out of conniving and seem to thrive on creating chaos for good people. They force others to tiptoe around them while themselves being totally uncaring about the suffering they cause others.

Of course, if you call these clingers to grievance out on their hypocrisy they will suddenly find religion and retreat to “only God can judge me!”

Grievance, in the case of this type of person, is a manipulation tool. It is exploitive of a cultural propensity towards compassion. Those who ply the grievance trade are not interested in solidarity or equal treatment, they are miserable people who want supremacy over others and thrive on creating conflict for their own gain. The only way to win is not to play their game.

The Victim Gambit

Years ago I had been invited to join an online discussion forum. I signed up with a sort of naive optimism, thinking it would be a place for intelligent conversation about things pertaining to theology and my religious sect. But my delusion did not last for long. The site was a lightning rod for the damaged and disgruntled, many of them ex-Mennonites or sexual abuse victims, some of them back for their revenge and others to commiserate.

Of course, I had a great amount of compassion for those who had bad experiences. There was no excuse for what they had gone through and I would gladly stand with them against the abuse they had experienced. However, their experience did not reflect my own nor the values I had been taught and I refused to be the whipping boy for things that had nothing to do with me. I’ll take the weight of the world upon my shoulders sometimes, but I’m not one to allow myself to be bullied.

It was in this encounter with grievance personified that I learned an important lesson. You cannot negotiate with those clinging to and defined by their grievance. Even goodwill gestures will eventually be reinterpreted in ways that a normal and healthy mind could hardly even imagine.

Case and point?

There was a woman on the site, maybe ten years my senior, with a slow burning hatred towards men. She had been sexually assaulted years ago and was completely devastated by the experience. But despite this pity me presentation, they struck most people as being a somewhat reasonable voice and who, along with me, had been given moderator powers. Of course it was important to me to have a positive working experience with them for this and other reasons. I did some outreach and very soon learned of her unfortunate experience many years ago and deduced that it still played an outsized role in defining her worldview.

One Sunday afternoon this chronically depressed individual was expressing their misery and woe, again, and I decided I would do something to try to cheer them up. I drove a little over an hour to where they were to chat face to face and had some vague hope that this would help our communication online as well where my voice or intent was frequently misunderstood by them. The afternoon didn’t go badly, as I recall, and she invited me to McDonald’s nearby for a snack. I had thought about paying, but was slow to the draw as I considered how that would be interpreted and decided we should both pay for our own so this would not be misconstrued.

This kind gesture would come back to haunt me. A few years later I did begin to date and things online began to deteriorate. My moderator counterpart had started to act like a jealous lover and I was too dense, at the time, to figure it out. It all culminated with a bizarre accusation from my girlfriend’s mother (also in a very abusive relationship) using the unique semantics of my moderator counterpart. I knew the source and confronted the source. But I was met with denials, they straight up lied to me about their attempt to sabotage my relationship and claimed to not know what I was talking about. However, eventually, keeping up the pressure, they did confess to the nasty gossip they spread and that could have been the end of it.

Unfortunately, that I had caught them did not improve our relationship. If anything, it made them more determined to undermine me. They had the ear of the site founder (someone who was not frequently on the forum and missed much of the ebbs and flows of things) and, over a moderation technicality, playing the victim, petitioned to have me removed. He obliged the request and I was livid. Had I kept my wits and been a bit more coniving or even just explained my side in more measured tones, I would likely have done better. Still, she had far more practice at her gambit and had been behind the scenes undermining me as well.

Now I had a grievance too. I had always taken the role of feeding controversy to help keep up traffic to the forum. It was all harmless fun for the most part, bantering back and forth. But this time I was not in a playing mood, this person had attempted (and failed) to destroy my new relationship, now they retaliated against me for exposing them (in private) by “having my head” as a moderator and so I took it up with the newly minted replacements. It was in this discussion where an accusation came out, from her, that left me completely aghast.

Yup. That’s me!

She accused me, on the basis of my goodwill visit to her years ago, of being a “cheap date” because, out of an abundance of caution and as not to mislead about my intentions, I did not pay for her Big Mac!!!

What?!?

The insane part is that none of these new moderators called her out for this insanity and it would not have gone over well if I too directly explained why she had absolutely no appeal to me. The designated victim always gets special protection. I suppose it would be cruel to say that this bitter, self-pity consumed and misandristic woman was one of the least attractive people I’ve ever met and had absolutely zero chance of a romantic relationship with me? However, with my help, she was able to successfully poison my relationships there and had me flailing without recourse. Little did I know that even a sincere act of kindness could be weaponized against me.

Good Faith Vs Everlasting Grievance

Good faith refers to the foundational assumptions one must make about their counterpart in a negotiation. All relationships are, to a certain extent, a negotiation and we must trust the intentions of the other person or a productive relationship is impossible. If a person always interprets everything you say or do in the most negative light possible there is no way to effectively communicate. If you express sincere intentions or do something friendly, a poisoned person will see this as an attempt to manipulate and essentially bribe them.

Most go along with the victim gambit out of misguided compassion or for fear that they may become the next target of hate if they were to speak honestly against the ‘victims’ own abuses. Many believe that if they continue to give in to demands, if they keep giving special deference to those possessed by their grievance, that over time this special niceness will somehow heal this wounded individual. But the reality is that those looking the other way and excusing the abuses of the abused are not helpful. No, in fact, they are enablers of abuse, they are allowing others to be harmed.

A grievance should always be heard. We should always be willing to address the conditions that lead to abuse and give those harmed by abuse a chance to express themselves. However, there are some with a grievance who are sincerely looking for answers and others who are merely using their bad experience as political leverage and a means to gain power over others. This latter group is faithless and cannot be satisfied.

Score keeping kills relationship

Those in the grievance industry may claim to be interested in conversation, but are truly out for blood and the conversation is only a means to gain entry, a foot in the door tactic or Trojan horse. Whether they are trying to sell you a bill of goods or lay waste to your city, there is no good faith in their effort. When you refuse to give in to every demand, if you stand up to their abuses, the faithless aggrieved person will lash out in anger, they will make nasty and absurd personal accusations, then blame you for their hatred. You are not dealing with the person, you are dealing with their demon that will never be satiated and must be exorcized.

When even good faith efforts to bridge a gap in understanding, when the perpetually offended person refuses to see that the problem (which was set in motion by something external) is actually originating with them and how they subjectivity process, they cannot be helped before they are able to acknowledge this and there is no option left besides distance. Those who continue to dwell in their grievance, even after being heard over and over again, should be ignored.

What Would Jesus Do?

Let’s talk about Jesus. But not the milquetoast happy hippie Jesus that many superimpose over him. Let’s talk about the real Jesus who made no apologies, who spoke critically about those who harbored resentment in their hearts and are consumed by blinding hate. There is a time to test the spirits and put some distance between ourselves and those who who absolutely refuse to hear truth:

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

Matthew 10:14 NIV

This idea that love means infinite niceness and refusal to walk away from anyone is wrong. It is because so many coddled those with a grievance, allow them to continue in their self-deception, that these people learn to use pity and guilt as a means to get what they want. As long as there is incentive to use their grievance in this way they will never reach the end of themselves and get the help they truly need.

Again, not everyone is worth our time trying to understand:

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

Matthew 7:6 NIV

Incidentally, that is preceded by this:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1‭-‬5 NIV

Those who are blinded by grievance are always righteous in their own mind. They are so focused on the sins against them (real or otherwise) that they cannot see that they are the same or worse than those whom they accuse. As justified, without introspection, they are free to heap condemnation on others. They, more often than not, project their own cancerous attitudes onto the imperfect actions of others and can twist even the best-intended goodwill gesture into a terrible transgression. If you open the door for them they will see it as a form of abuse.

It takes wisdom to discern between the person lashing out who can be helped with just a bit of love and those who will only use your concern for their well-being as a means to try to enslave you to their putrid grievance demon. Those who mercilessly assail a small business owner for an errant social media post even after the owner apologized and completely disavowed the message, are beyond what normal compassion can help. Don’t allow them to win, do not play their game, their aim is only to destroy you and are only using your mercy as a means to draw you in close enough to plunge their crooked grievance knife.

Walk away!

Leaving those absent of faith, especially those who claim to be Christian yet are unrepentant about their toxic and hateful attitudes, is sometimes the most loving thing we can do. It can be the only way that finally do reflect on their own true spiritual darkness and reach for the light and love of salvation. Or, at the very least, the distance we keep between us and them prevents us from being poisoned by them. Love never means enabling sin.

Good faith begins with living out, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and all people acknowledging their culpability in the mess as a starting point. Those clinging to an oppression narrative, enveloped in grievance culture, cannot truthfully pray that prayer and should not be considered part of the community of faith until they do. Good faith means understanding “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and forgiving our enemies.

Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

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Denial is our first line of defense.  Even the guiltiest person will plea “not guilty” in an effort to avoid judgment.  And when we read Matthew 23, it is easy to assume that the stinging words of Jesus apply to them but not us.

Denial is a natural response and therefore it was no surprise if we read Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and fail to make a connection between “us” and “them.”  Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys, you know, the ones with better understanding and more complete knowledge.  How could we be as wrong as those whom Jesus condemned?

And when we do have to admit our failures we tend to deflect and downplay them: Sure, we are imperfect, we make mistakes; but who doesn’t, right?

I should know.  I was once an ardent apologist for everything Mennonite.  I believed that by God’s grace, I was born into the church denomination that best applied the teachings of Jesus—which is a sentiment not uncommon among my Anabaptist peers who have not been sexually abused, the witness of a vicious church split, or excommunicated.

Unfortunately, this assumption of our having a corner on the truth is a position built on confirmation bias and arrogance.  Every religious zealot believes that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they are standing on it.  But, unless you believe that all paths lead to God, they can’t all be right.  Likewise, our own assumption that we are right, and our ability to defend it, doesn’t make us any better than them.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.

The Pharisees and religious experts believed that they were on the right path; they proudly considered themselves to be God’s chosen people and resisted his message.  It would be easy to try to distance ourselves from them, to think of them as extraordinarily bad people and deny our commonality with them.

However, if we do that, if we are too proud to consider that we could be on the wrong side of history, then we have the same exact mentality of those condemned by Jesus:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! (Matthew 23:29‭-‬32)

The teachers of the law and Pharisees, like us, identified with the good characters in history and distanced themselves from the bad.  They thought they were different from their ancestors who killed the prophets.  But Jesus turns their attempt to disassociate themselves around and uses it to create a link.  He taunts them, telling them to finish what their ancestors started.

The sad reality is that the proud religious fundamentalists of Jesus’s time did not see themselves as repeating history.  They imagined themselves to be the preservers of a pure religion passed down from the prophets before them and heroes of their own story.  To them, Jesus was a dangerous and false teacher, so they wanted him silenced and conspired to have him killed.

What was so wrong with the Pharisees?

“Pharisee” has become a pejorative word in our time, and yet in the time of Jesus it was a proud distinction.  They were the devoutly religious people; they held themselves to a high standard and kept the law better than their neighbors.

Jesus once told his audience:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

It might seem odd that Jesus uses the Pharisees as a benchmark and then lambastes them later as hypocritical.  Was Jesus inconsistent and changeable?  Moody or bipolar?  I doubt it.

Actually, I believe the Pharisees were the “good people” of their time and trying their best to live righteously.  And, as people respected by their religious peers, they were not accustomed to being called out and condemned.  But, despite their diligent efforts, they were missing something and it was because of that that Jesus poked and prodded them.

The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were extraordinarily bad people.  The problem was that their success in surpassing others had made them into entitled brats who thought themselves superior to others.  Sure, they were pristine on the outside, did the right things to be regarded well, even thanked God for all their advantages, but were they living in faith?

Or were they content to simply do better than others?

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47‭-‬48)

A faithful person is not content to simply do better than others; they realize that their advantages are a gift from God and not deserved.  There is no room for arrogance when this is understood.  The Pharisees may have feigned reverence for God, but a genuinely humble person does not try to create distance between themselves and people of a social lower order.

The Pharisees rejected faith.  They were so outwardly successful that they were able to delude themselves into thinking that they could actually impress God and save themselves.  In their zealous pursuit of knowledge and religious fundamentalism they forgot one thing, and that was faith.

Are we better than the Pharisees?

Probably not.

The Pharisees knew their Scripture extremely well and lived the law more carefully than most of us could even imagine.

That said, good Mennonites have much in common with the religiously educated and traditionally-focused Pharisees.  They were middle-class businessmen—not as political and compromising as the Sadducees, nor violent agitators like the Zealots… and not too different from us.

The disciples Jesus called to follow him were a motley crew by comparison: a mix of poor fishermen, a tax collector, and other losers of their time.  They would probably not even be second-tier Mennonites and certainly not the ones we would select to be missionaries and future leaders.

However, unlike the rich young ruler, who kept the law perfectly and placed his security in his wealth, the disciples put everything down to follow Jesus.

Perhaps it is because they had less to lose?

Whatever the case, nobody is beyond hope and that is why I write.  Many Pharisees did eventually come to faith in Jesus and many Mennonites do too, despite our religious and cultural baggage.  As long as we have breath in our lungs, I believe we can be saved.

But a journey of faith must start with repentance, and I’m not talking about the ritual repentance that wins the approval of parents and religious peers, either.  We need the true repentance of those who know that outside of God’s grace, we are no better than a Pharisee.