Whenever you preach, preachers, for the love of God –
Represent the opposition fairly.
Standing in front of an assembled congregation and making claims about God, the world, and what God has to say to this world will inevitably place certain ideas, practices, and people on the opposite side from your propositions. Depending upon which tradition you’re in, this could be anything or anyone. This is inevitable. Your presentation of the opposition, however, is not.
You control the way you speak about those you disagree with.
There are some obvious exceptions to the rule of fair representation (i.e. satire), but unless you want to continue making hay in your weekly sermons to the choir and peddling concocted versions of your foes in a litany of straw men, you should probably keep a few things in mind:
1. People generally act in accordance with their experiences.
There are reasons unknown to you that contribute to the decisions and perspectives of others. As much as you might believe that you’ve figured out a “type” of person or the weaknesses of a movement or the unChristian nature of this or that, remember that you don’t know everything.
And if by chance you are omniscient, you probably aren’t in the habit of slamming others in sermons for believing something different than you because you know belief isn’t always a matter of choice.*
2. Silent enemies are easier to caricature.
Preaching tends flow like a monologue, making the slide into misrepresentation incredibly easy, sometimes automatic. This is especially true of dead opponents, like certain religious groups in the New Testament (read: Pharisees) or the “heretics” in church history, for which we have only one-sided testimony.
As a general rule, try to listen before speaking on another’s behalf.
3. We’re not always preaching to the choir.
A congregation of two people is not a homogeneous group. Even within a solitary individual there reside competing ideas, thoughts, and identities; you cannot afford to assume that the “type” of person you’re taking an underhanded jab at isn’t in your midst.
And I, for one, love Facebook sermonettes, but bear in mind that Friends of Friends often see what you’ve written and some of them are the most ardent supporters of the movements/people that you’re handling unfairly – and, sadly, none of them know your low-key good nature.
4. Your listeners might learn to see others along the lines you draw.
So try not to be surprised when they rise up one day and treat you the same way.
*For an illustration of this, stop for a second and try to believe that you are on a Ferris Wheel. Try as hard as you can, you won’t truly believe it (and if you succeed in believing, have a few go-arounds before calling a doctor).
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