Individuals and organizations raising awareness about social justice issues may adopt one of two different approaches: harsh or gentle.
- One website may jar the senses with black and red block lettering then drive readers to tears with their emotive descriptions; their speakers might pound podiums and flash graphic images on power point slides. They believe shock and guilt move people to action.
- Another organization’s approach may be more sensitive than sensationalist. They consider their mysterious audience not as a mass but a conglomeration of individuals. They know they have the power to rattle some individuals with painful memories of abuse, rejection or hunger (etc.) and to abruptly yank others out of innocence into detrimental shock. So, even though the facts are tough, they find a way to speak to everyone with love. Their pupils do not exit their websites or conference rooms feeling ambushed or foolish or guilty or overly upset because the teachers trust their audience to respond without first being disturbed. They value not only the end of big issues but the effect of the information on each listener.
Likewise individuals, like you and me, choose how we will communicate about these important issues in one-on-one conversations and in social media posts. Will we speak harshly or gently?
I remember my introduction to the foster care movement. I was sitting on a friend’s couch. She was very passionate about the plight of orphans, but not very compassionate toward clueless tender me. When I voiced the common concern that losing foster kids, whom families have grown to love, back to their biological families must be painful, I was shaken by a cold rebuke. “First off, they are not ‘foster kids!'” she scolded, “They are ‘children in foster care.’ Also, fostering is not about the family’s personal experience but about the good of the child.” I was embarrassed and wanted to run away more than I wanted to ask for more insight. What other fallacy would she accuse me of? I felt safer changing the subject than going on. I fully agree with my friend’s points now and I am thankful that she corrected me, but I am not thankful for the way she corrected me.
I too am guilty of insensitivity. I remember, shortly after I learned about labor trafficking, I contacted a few candy companies chastising them over their unethical practices. How was I so selective on whom I would have compassion? The poor administrators reading through customer comments did not deserve those messages. A kinder formal email would have held much more power than did my proud, impatient rant.
Pride. Impatience. Rants.
Many activists have little patience for those they deem apathetic or uninformed on social justice issues. Without patience, it is impossible to be gentle.
Even in the face of great injustices, mighty Christ was gentle. Even before pilot, mighty Christ was gentle. Even while being betrayed in Gethsemane, Christ was gentle. Even washing his betrayers feet in the upper room, Jesus was gentle. Yes, Jesus turned over some tables and yes, he spoke sternly to the Pharisees, but he was more put off by people’s pride than lack of charity. If we are honest with ourselves, it is pride that drives most impatient rants, not Christ-like love. Jesus even approached evil-doers themselves with mercy, knowing kindness leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Prophets and apostles did their share of rebuking too- God certainly calls specific people to express righteous anger at specific times. But most of the time for most people, he calls us to be gentle. When in doubt, default to gentleness, to patience and humility. A hostile tone or judgmental word speaks louder against Christ’s compassion than for the victims we are defending.
Some reading this post are not convinced (or know someone who would not be convinced) that gentleness is the best approach. They shake their heads thinking, “gentleness does not convey the urgency that these matters require. The Bible says to never be lacking in zeal. What zeal is there in memsyflemsy gentleness?” Yes. Zeal. Romans 12. But the Bible also says, in Colossians 3:12, Galatians 5:23, Ephesians 4:2, Philippians 4:5, James 3:17 and 1 Timothy 6:11, to be gentle. God commands us to be gentle. I could stop there, but I will go on.
Could our hesitation to be patient and kind, even in addressing dire problems, be evidence of distrust in God’s sovereignty? Do we think we need to supplement God’s plan for justice? Do we trust God to bring justice at all? Do we doubt his interest or ability? Or do we second-guess his way of bringing it?
We know God wants to bring justice- numerous Bible passages emphasize his empathy for the needy and oppressed plus he calls himself the God of justice. We are not wiser than God that we should choose which commands to obey. Often, we rise to his call to do justice but then serve God in a spirit that is not his own. Instead, we can trust that his plan is greater than any we could conjure up and rest in doing his work his way.
God does not demand mindless obedience, he promises to orient our minds with his (2 Peter 1). Gentleness is not a product of mortal self-control; it is an overflow of divine peace. You may be writhing, “but how can I have peace despite these injustices?!” It comes from God. In the same passage where Paul says to “let your gentleness be evident to all,” he also says to be anxious about nothing but pray in every situation “then the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ.” Therefore, when understanding is not transcended by inexplicable peace, that may a sign of unbelief, not zeal. Once we sit at the wellspring of peace, we will pour out gentleness.
When Christians reject God’s command to be gentle, we can drive unbelievers away, young believers into confusion, and no one nearer to helping the oppressed. Gentleness is powerful. Gentleness takes confidence, confidence that comes from a great hope in someone strikingly trustworthy- someone trustworthy enough to deliver peace so great that despite living in a world with terrible injustices, we can still be gentle.
When listeners and readers see us teaching gently, they may crave our peace and look for God. And when they meet God, the bringer of justice, He himself will move them to action.
Patient Giver vs. Snappy Grouch (gentleness in parenting)