The universal cover story in recent days has been the controversial covers of two magazines – one much more visible than the other.
Newsweek, a dying American journal, tried to resurrect itself by crucifying Christianity in a December twenty-third cover piece written by Kurt Eichenwald.
Charlie Hebdo, a scrappy French magazine, intensified its reputation for outrage by sometimes running scurrilous depictions of Mohammed on its cover. The magazine will not die but its primary staff did.
In the midst of this fiery journalistic confluence the striking difference between two worldviews became clearer than ever.
Newsweek titled its Christmas-week cover story "The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin." Most evangelicals and many other Christians would agree with Al Mohler's view that the Eichenwald article is a hit-piece, laden with inaccuracies chronicled by Mohler.
If Charlie Hebdo was offensive in its cartoons of Mohammed and other religious figures, Newsweek's Eichenwald was repellent to many Christians in his characterization of evangelical conservatives and pro-life, pro-traditional marriage Catholics as, among other things, "God's frauds."
Thus we have two magazines, each exercising their right of free expression – however insulting. The murderers who attacked Charlie Hebdo offices to avenge their prophet revealed how some within their religion believe they should have responded to what they regarded as a provocation.
But what should authentic Christians do about Newsweek and Eichenwald?
I am not naïve. I have been sickened by the graffiti in Belfast in which both Protestants and Catholics displayed the cross as a symbol of their hatred and violence. I grew up and was a young newspaper reporter in the Deep South during the Klan era, when burning crosses was a part of their repugnant liturgies of loathing. I know violence has been committed in the name of Christendom – but not in Christ. In fact, Jesus is clear about how His people should respond to Eichenwald and all others who reproach them.
First, pray blessings upon Kurt Eichenwald, his family, and his associates. "Bless those who curse you," said Jesus, and "pray for those who hurt you." (Luke 6:28 NLT) To speak a blessing on someone is to pray for goodness and well-being to characterize their lives. To pray is to intercede, which means standing in the "gap" for someone. (Ezekiel 22:30) Thus, if Eichenwald is regarded as an enemy of Christianity, the first act of the authentic Christian is to lift him up in prayer – not judgmental religious ranting in God's direction, but Holy Spirit-led prayer in the atmosphere of love and grace.
Second, Christians should thank Kurt Eichenwald for providing an unintended stamp of authentication. When we bless and pray for our enemies, we will "be acting as true children of (our) Father in Heaven." (Matthew 5:45 NLT) Further, if an individual Christian and church are genuine, they will be persecuted in the right way – as Christ was persecuted. However, there's no room here for holy smuggery or sanctimonious whining when one is persecuted for attacking enemies in the name of Christendom. When Jesus was reviled, He did not revile in return, and when the Lord suffered, He did not threaten, writes Saint Peter. (1 Peter 2:23 NLT)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Hitler-era German dissident, understood the inevitability of persecution and revilement for Christ's followers. "Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak," he wrote. "Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now." To be hated for the right reasons by individuals and establishments is a mark of genuineness for Christians and churches.
Third, embrace the biblical view of vengeance. The Apostle Paul was among the most reviled followers of Jesus in his own day. He is especially hated now by many who disagree with his teachings. But here's what Paul, the follower of Christ, wrote centuries ago: "... never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God... If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink..."
"As a Christian," wrote Bonhoeffer in the worst of times, "I am called to treat my enemy as a brother and to meet hostility with love. My behavior is thus determined not by the way others treat me, but by the treatment I receive from Jesus."
Fourth, know the difference between satire and scorn. Genuine Christians are not to "sit in the seat of the scornful." (Psalm 1) This does not mean that followers of Christ are to give only bland platitudes. Our speech is to be well-seasoned. Jesus used satire in His confrontations with pompous religious and civil power-holders, but He did not scorn them. Satire sets issues in a frame that makes their contradictions and hypocrisies abundantly plain. Scorn goes to the very core of human value and dignity. Those who practice it are in danger of Hell, Jesus says. (Matthew 5:22-23) There are churches and movements labeling themselves as Christian whose styles destroy the witness of Christ because they rely on scorn.
Much scorn has been heaped on Jesus Christ by contemporary secularists, from artists who display the cross in a glass of urine to young women in Vatican Square who pretend to use it as a sexual object. Christ-followers are not to respond with hateful scorn, but with loving and lively – even satirical – engagement.
The great meaning of the cross is that it is the collision-point of God's absolute justice and grace. Grace triumphs. Forgiveness is possible. Many years ago while speaking in a church in Chambery, in the lovely alpine region of France known as Savoy, my wife and I came face to face with one of the most beautiful demonstrations of this we have ever seen.
There was an old man with a face of remarkable kindness who attended every session. He told us that the Nazis had arrested him when they swept into France, and placed him in a prison camp where he was savagely beaten. Like Louis Zamperini in Japan, the Frenchman remained "unbroken." In fact, he said, he was thankful for the cruel treatment under the Nazis.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it helped me learn how to forgive," he replied.
That beats guns and bullets and bloodshed every time.