The 2012 Global Atheist Convention is coming up in about a fortnight here in Melbourne. It’s got me thinking about apologetics. Here’s my assertion: ‘truth’ is not the same as apologetics. It’s an old saying that there’s nothing apologetic about apologetics: it’s confidently defending Christianity. But I’m not so sure that ‘truth’ is always the best way to do that. This seemed particularly relevant to me recently as I considered the objection that the church has been responsible for so much injustice around the world and throughout history. No doubt you’ve heard this kind of line before – when our congregation was asked to come up with examples, we named more than 10 in about a minute.
One common response from Christians to this objection seems to be that Christians have also done good stuff – the abolition of the slave trade, or the invention of hospitals, for example. Of course, that’s true. But is it a ‘truth’ that really moves the discussion forward? I think in the end it sounds like rationalisation: ‘Sure Christians did bad stuff but the good outweighs the bad.” Is this how the Bible treats sin? Absolutely not! There’s no sense in which good deeds outweigh or counteract bad! The ‘truth’ of good stuff that Christians have done may actually do a disservice to Christianity at this point.
Or take a second common response to the objection that Christians are responsible for injustice: that the church is made up of sinners. Of course, this is ‘true’: Jesus came to seek and save the lost; it’s the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy! Looking at the history of the church, I’d say we classify as pretty ‘sick’. But does this ‘truth’ move discussion forward either? Doesn’t it just end up saying that the church is full of failed people so we ought to expect the church to fail? Think about it: if you’re one of the church’s abuse victims, can this ‘truth’ in this context say much more than, ‘You should have expected to have been abused because the church is full of sinful people’?
Do you see how ‘truth’ can actually be damaging in these situations because it’s misapplied? No apologetics is merely about ‘truth’; it’s almost always pastoral because objections to Christianity are almost always personal. I doubt that the objection that the church has been unjust is ever objective: sure the discussion often starts with the Crusades, but you only have to read the news to see such violence re-perpetrated in yet another priest charged with pedophilia. Such objections are not the distant memories of the past but the real and horrific personal experiences of the present.
So what is an appropriate response to this objection? I suggest nothing other than total, unadulterated repentance, and not the ‘yes, but’ kind or ‘sorry, but’ either, but the kind of repentance which takes responsibility without excuses or justifications. It’s more than saying that the injustices of the past are sad or unfortunate and then moving on to our ‘rational’ arguments. To rush over our sin is akin to skipping over it completely, as if it weren’t really that bad. It shows that we haven’t adequately understood the seriousness of our crimes or the damage they have done. This doesn’t allow us room to hate our sin, just to feel mildly regretful about it.
There are times when defensiveness is not the best defense; when ‘truth’ doesn’t defend the gospel but brings it into greater disrepute. Yes, there are times to state the good things Christians have done; there are appropriate moments to point out that the church is made up of sinners. But let me suggest that doing so in reaction to the objection of the injustices of the church is counter-productive. It reeks of blame and one-upmanship, as if our goal is to win an argument, not people.
If you want to express the gospel in the face of this objection, why don’t you model our nakedness and helplessness before God: that we are not any better than anyone else, but at the same time, we have nothing with which to self-justify. Isn’t the church’s role as a repenting community the antidote to its injustice? Repentance in this case means fully owning our brokenness and, rather than rationalising it, turning from it with the same ferocity that the objectors show.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.