There’s a scene in Sorkin’s masterpiece, The West Wing, where President Bartlett (that unicorn democrat of fable & fiction) has just learned that a military aeroplane has been shot down over Syria. His personal physician and friend, a passenger on the aircraft, has been killed and President Bartlett is vengeful. It’s not just that America has been wronged—this is personal. The question that sucks up all the oxygen in the situation room is simple: how are we going to respond? Contrary to the “proportional responses” presented by the joint chiefs, the President, pained and grieving, slams his hand down on the table and exclaims that he wants revenge: “A disproportional response! … We come back with total disaster!”
It’s strange how often that scene has come to mind as I’ve listened to friends from various contexts describe their experience with hurt—how they have been on the receiving end of a “disproportional response” as they’ve fumbled their way through life and ministry.
Our churches seem to be becoming indistinguishable from our surrounding culture when it comes to how we respond to hurt.
I’ve written on a similar dynamic before, but I think it’s worth revisiting because it’s something that we’re seeing in increasing measure in our society. Perhaps more concerning, our churches seem to be following suit—becoming indistinguishable from our surrounding culture when it comes to how we respond to hurt, offence, and disagreement. The “disproportional response” seems to be the new black.
Another recent article highlighted the degree to which this dynamic has pervaded our culture, citing the case of Weekend Sunrise host Matt Doran. If you missed it, there was a public pile-on last year when Mr Doran flew to London to interview iconic singer, Adele. His failure? He hadn’t listened to her new album prior to sitting down with her. After news broke of his apparent faux pas, he explained that he’d assumed he wouldn’t be provided with Adele’s new album prior to its public release (unbeknownst to him, Sony had emailed a link).
It wasn’t exactly newsworthy. Yet the public response was—because it was brutally disproportional.
For weeks, Mr Doran’s character, integrity, and professionalism weren’t just publicly scrutinised, they were torn to shreds online by everyone from journalists to comedians. Even a public lashing from his employer and a lengthy (and frankly, humiliating) public apology broadcast on television weren’t enough to satiate the masses. There were almost universal calls for him to be sacked … because he didn’t listen to an album.
It’s no longer enough to cut down the poppies, now we have to scorch the earth they were planted in too.
There’s something deeply disturbing about our cultural moment when it comes to how we respond to being hurt, offended or disagreed with. It’s no longer enough to cut down the poppies, now we have to scorch the earth they were planted in too.
When it comes to our churches, this should give us pause and prompt us to deep, and maybe even painful reflection. Are our churches places where loving one
another, bearing with one another and exercising costly forgiveness are still the kinds of things that mark us out from the surrounding culture? Or are we slowly becoming battle-hardened as our minor hurts, offences and disagreements become occasions for a disproportional response? The inevitability of cultural creep is one that the church has always faced. However, where some cultural moments enrich our experience of trusting and following Jesus together, other moments threaten that unity. Surely this is one of those.
Ironically, as Christians, we’re intimately familiar with the fact that it’s neither the proportional nor the disproportional response that we’re shown by the God whom we’ve hurt, offended, and disagreed with. Instead, we’re met with the cross of Christ—God’s statement to us all that our very real offence (which really does warrant a dramatic response) has been answered with a deep, profound, and costly love. You could call that “disproportional grace”.
Our very real offence has been answered with a deep, profound, and costly love—‘disproportional grace.’
As recipients of that love and grace, we’d do well to consider just a few of the ways we’re called to respond to those who hurt/offend/disagree with us. As people who value Scripture, these are just a few verses that should inform our posture:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:12-13)
Let your gentleness be evident to all. (Philippians 4:5)
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (Hebrews 12:14-15)
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)
Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9)
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)
Brothers and sisters, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34)
The next time you’re feeling put out, it’s worth taking a moment to ask yourself a few quick diagnostic questions:
- Is my response being informed by contemporary culture, or the gospel?
- Does my response reflect the love and grace I’ve been shown in Christ?
- Is my response a disproportional response?”.
There’s a better way. Even Sorkin gets it.
At the conclusion of that excellent episode of The West Wing, you see President Bartlett relent. The tension is palpable (it’s not a fifty-buck crime!) But the disproportional response is left off the table, because that’s where it belongs.