When I lived in Chicago over a decade ago, a friend who loved theatre invited me to what he claimed was the best theatre troupe in the area. So we set a date for a guy’s night out.
The next Friday night, we stood in line at a very hole-in-the-wall kind of place, surrounded mainly by young hipsters and people dressed much cooler than us. My friend had done professional theatre in the past and had become a committed Christian in recent years. But just like me, he still loved live theatre and was excited about what the evening would hold.
The show we saw that night was edgy, innovative, and dazzling. I was soon convinced my friend had not exaggerated about the quality of these performers. They wrote all their own material which was in vignette form: basically short sketches. Some were comic, some deadly serious.
By the first 30 minutes they’d already won me over and I was their biggest fan. Then they did something that lost me completely.
In the next sketch, they asked for audience participation. They would call out statements, and we would respond by raising our hands if they applied to us or we agreed.
In the course of several rapid fire questions, they finally said, “I voted for Bush”. With that, my friend’s hand went up in the air. At that moment, the entire company of actors stopped and scowled at the audience members who’d raised their hands. They scanned the room, shaming them individually.
Since I’m a pastor, I don’t talk publicly about who I vote for. But my friend, a very nice guy who was quite talented in his own right, was now being ridiculed for his vote. It went on for about 10 seconds – not really that long, but an eternity when you’re being singled out and hated.
After the actors moved on, nothing was ever the same. My friend and I sat through the rest of the evening uncomfortably. I felt terrible for my friend, who’s only “sin” was his political convictions. What had started as a terrific experience had devolved into a painful one. And it was all because a talented actor had decided to make a point at someone else’s expense.
They had not won an argument that night. They’d only restarted an old one, and had succeeded in polarizing the opposite side.
This brings us to the Friday, November 18th, 2016 performance of Hamilton on Broadway. Vice president-elect Mike Pence was attending that evening, along with his daughter and her cousins. From what Pence said, they were all greatly moved and inspired by the show.
But then, one of the cast members read a statement at the closing bows. The statement singled out Pence personally. While it was on the surface respectful, it proceeded to lecture Pence on how people are scared now and it was his job to represent ALL Americans…as if that’s something he didn’t already feel the weight of.
Sure, I get the drama of the moment. “Speak truth to power”, right? And I get how many people in the theatrical community, people whom I love and cherish, feel Trump and Pence do not represent them. And I fully acknowledge the constitutional right of the cast members to make that statement publicly.
True, no one yelled “fire” in that theater or endangered any lives. But what they did was undercut the last 2-hour sermon they’d finished preaching masterfully. From what I know about the musical Hamilton, it was a sermon that hit home much more effectively than any curtain speech ever could.
But with that curtain speech, they lost the argument they’d been making effectively all evening long. In effect, that speech “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory”.
Here’s what many of my friends on both sides of the aisles have trouble deciding: they don’t know if they want to truly win the argument, or simply be argumentative. There is a difference.
We all say we want to change the hearts and minds of the other political side. That’s terrific. But when we use an adversarial approach toward the other side, a funny thing happens: the other side perceives us as precisely that…an adversary.
For example, I’ve noticed something interesting about non-Christians I talk with about Christianity. If I come at them as my enemy, I can be assured there’s no chance whatsoever they’ll ever become a Christian. Heck, even if I truly win the argument and leave them speechless, they still won’t embrace Christ.
Ironically, I will have just taken a book about love and beaten them bloody with it. And they’ll walk away angrier at God than they were before. So…what have I accomplished?
Two Mormon missionaries knocked on my door last week. I could tell by their faces they were incredibly young and very scared. Before they could get much of their rehearsed speech out, I quickly inserted, “Hey, you guys much be hot and thirsty walking around out here all day. Why don’t you come in and let me get you a soft drink?”
They stared at me in stunned silence. Deer caught in headlights should be looking to these guys as role models.
“Sir, the neighborhood association said no soliciting.”
“But I’m inviting you inside,” I replied. “You’re not soliciting anything, are you? Got something for sale?”
“Well, then we don’t have anything to worry about, do we?”
I quickly ushered them in toward the couch and shuffled off to get some sodas. I came back with two for each of them, so they’d have one for the road.
More dumbfounded expressions. Deer were starting to gather outside my window, feverishly taking notes.
“No one has every done this for us before, sir. Thanks so much!”
I explained how I wouldn’t normally invite strangers in.
“But if I’m going to be murdered by a stranger at the door, I kinda doubt he’d be a Mormon missionary”. That gave us all a good laugh and broke the tension.
We went on to talk about where they were from, and how long they’d been on their mission. I did get a chance to tell them frankly where my beliefs differed from theirs. They seemed a little surprised that I knew specifics about their faith and how it conflicted with traditional Christian beliefs in many areas.
“I will say this about the Book of Mormon, though. I guess you guys never thought it would be turned into a hit musical, did you?”
Another big laugh around the room.
But now that I’d made it clear what I believed, I said one more thing. I told them how impressed I was they’d stand up for their faith by going door to door. I know that’s a scary thing to do, and I said I admired their commitment. I also mentioned how awesome I thought Mormon’s emphasis on family has been through the years.
After about a good 40 minute visit, they thanked me, gathered their remaining sodas, and headed out the front door. As they were leaving, I said, “You guys remember this house if you’re ever in the neighborhood again. It’s the big brown one near the corner, and you’re always welcomed to stop by and cool off. Seriously, please come back any time!”
Tell me, how much better chance do I have to convince them the validity of my faith now than I would if I’d argued with them at the door as they stood in the hot sun? And should they ever start doubting what they’ve been taught and begin desiring a Jesus who doesn’t expect the perfection from them that Mormonism demands, who do you think they’ll come to?
They’ll start looking for the big brown house near the corner.
Here’s the key – I’ve noticed over the years I’ve never won an enemy to Christ, only friends. Therefore, I endeavor to make every person I meet my friend. That way, I’m one step closer.
My hope is that as the political season dies down, so will our desire to make enemies of the other side.
Maybe we’ll make fewer curtain speeches and will just sit down and listen to each other respectfully.
Maybe throwing down the gauntlet will be replaced by throwing away our swords.
Maybe we’ll start competing not for who has the best argument or the most cutting tweet, but for who can express his views in the kindest, most whimsical way possible.
Maybe we’ll learn what Jesus meant when He said, “Love your enemy”.
This Christmas, how about we all ask for a little “goodwill toward men”. Because that’s the gift that truly keeps on giving.