Lost in Translation

An old acquaintance posted a link to this story on Facebook.  The newly installed governor of Alabama was addressing a “church crowd” and made the comment that other Christians share a special relationship to him.  They are his “brothers and sisters”, whereas those who are not Christian don’t share this relationship, and he wishes that they did.  The acquaintance who posted the link was disturbed by it, and understandably so.  She’s not a Christian (by her own admission).  And it pains me when people who may be open to Christianity but not necessarily familiar with it read these sorts of stories and become upset by them.  

First off, these statements by Governor Bentley are completely unnecessary.  If he’s speaking to a church crowd, presumably they have some understanding that Christians share a special bond through Jesus Christ.  We are knit into a family that ignores genetics, culture, gender, and pretty much any other aspect by which we traditionally divide and separate ourselves.  I’m assuming that Governor Bentley has been equally vocal about his Christian faith previously.  As such, there’s no point in making this sort of statement.  It’s preaching to the proverbial choir.  It doesn’t accomplish anything.  Worse still, it causes more problems by far than if he had never said it.  Christians need to be aware of the cultural context in which we speak and act, particularly as elected officials.
Why?  Because – particularly as an elected official – you’re never off the record.  You’re never sure that what you’re saying will remain in the proper context.  The comments of Governor Bentley reflect his Christian faith, and while those sentiments are commonly expressed in various fashions amongst Christians, they don’t make sense to non-Christians, and we need to express ourselves in this knowledge.  Governor Bentley is finding out the hard way – if anyone could avoid this conclusion by now – that what we say travels these days.  Around the world and back, literally.  What was intended (I presume) as a confession of faith amongst fellow Christians is now evaluated in terms of his potential lack of impartiality as an elected public official.  What he said will be heard completely out of context far more than it will be heard in context.  This should give those in the public eye cause to pause before they open their mouths.  If you’re on a platform with a microphone in front of you, think before you speak.  Think while you speak.  This is part of your job.
This story highlights the degree to which Christian parlance is no longer well understood among the general population – or the extent to which the press is willing to play dumb for the sake of a juicy sounding headline.  Biblical parlance talks about believers in Jesus Christ as brothers and sisters.  Many denominations make use of these titles in addressing one another (Brother Bob, Sister Susan, etc.).  The implications are clear – we who were not family by our own blood have been made family by the blood of Jesus Christ.  We have become a part of God’s family by adoption through faith.  
This is without a doubt a wonderful and beautiful thing!  By Biblical standards there is nothing more valuable, more important, and more honorable than to be part of the family of Christ, brothers and sisters through Him.  The implications are universally positive for anyone who has been brought into this family.  There is no higher honor the world can convey, no greater title, no gift of greater or longer-lasting value.  Quite literally, the Bible teaches that there is nothing more important on earth in a person’s life than whether or not they are part of the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
To non-Christians, this is not apparent.  To those who are actively part of another faith (as the article cites), this is clearly not a shared perspective.  A public, generic, non-relational invitation by speech to all non-Christians to become Christians by an elected public official in a public speech is going to be viewed as intolerant.  It is intolerant.  It is audacious.  It is offensive to those who do not believe.  The Bible tells us this will be the case, and experience bears it out.  We need to not be surprised at this and craft our speech accordingly.  The days when public sentiment and the press choose to be indulgent of such expressions appears to be over.  Get used to it.  It shouldn’t be a surprise if you read your Bible.
Finally, the nature of the statement is itself problematic in it’s brevity.  I think it highlights the confusion that is often present in Christian minds regarding the relationship of Christians to the world and to non-Christians.  There is no singularly accurate way of expressing this relationship.  I think it is best expressed in two modes – our relationship to one another simply by being part of creation, and then our relationship to one another in Jesus Christ.  
We are quite literally brothers and sisters with everyone on this planet.  We share the common ancestry of Adam and Eve.  We share a common creatureliness with one another.  This is Biblical, and this is good.  We ought to view one another in this light, because it helps to inform our treatment of one another.  We’re less likely to start shooting blindly at people we consider our brothers and sisters rather than our enemies.  We’re less likely to struggle with issues of forgiveness and praying for those who strive against us when we see them as brothers and sisters.  We are less likely to pass by someone in need if we see them as a brother or sister.  
So in this sense, Governor Bentley’s statement is inaccurate.  Every person is his brother or sister.  But that’s not what he was referring to.
He was (I presume) referring to the special status of brother & sister in Christ that is shared only by those who profess Jesus as their Lord and Savior by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit.  And in this sense, no, not everyone is part of the family.  What gets overlooked or ignored by those on the outside of the family is that the priority laid on every member of the family is to be in prayer for those who aren’t yet in the family.  To be praying earnestly and living our lives in ways so that the message of Jesus Christ might be made as clear and attractive as possible.  It’s not an issue of threatening others to convert to the faith (though historically some Christians have clearly made this error).  It is a very real distinction, but one that will not be made fully clear (and that we are not responsible for making fully clear) until Jesus returns.  
Clearly, if you disagree theologically with this stance (as a Muslim will), or believe religion of any kind to be inappropriate (as an atheist will), these statements will come across as offensive or insulting or perhaps even threatening.  This requires at least a certain level of refusing to attempt to understand the context of Governor Bentley’s words, which is not very reasonable or entirely fair.  But again, the words need never have been spoken in the first place, and then we wouldn’t have this spectacle.
Finally, I find hugely ironic the quoting of the Muslim president of the Birmingham Islamic Society on the appropriate conduct for Governor Bentley.  Considering the BIS is dedicated to the propagation of the Islamic faith amongst  “Muslims and non-Muslims“.  What are the odds that Mr. Taufique would object to Governor Bentley’s belief that people should be Christian, since Mr. Taufique’s organization is dedicated to the belief that people should be Muslim?  Talk about shooting fish in a barrel – that reporter really had to stretch to get that sort of response, didn’t he?  
As for the veiled threat that the governor’s remarks were close to violating the First Amendment, I would suggest that reflecting one’s personal faith – even as a public official – is nowhere close to utilizing a public office to somehow coerce or require conversion to one’s faith.  The popular notion that a Christian should never mention that they are a Christian if they are a public official is a ridiculous and completely illogical attempt to muffle the fact that many (though certainly not all!) public officials do have a very vibrant faith life.  
Other thoughts?

One Response to “Lost in Translation”

  1. fashion Says:

    From Russia with love)

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