In a video posted to YouTube in January of this year, Preston Manning (former Leader of the Opposition in the federal government) addresses a crowd at Regent College (Vancouver, B.C.) on the topic of Christian witness in the public square. There are many comments and suggestions he makes that are well-worth considering, but perhaps the most important thing he has to say is this: “If there’s one guideline that would enhance the contributions of Christians believers to public discourse on any issue, it is not ‘Be vicious as snakes and stupid as pigeons.’ It is ‘Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.’”
Preceding that little quip, Manning demonstrates how Christ himself used gentleness joined with wisdom to turn aside questions intended to trip him up. When asked a yes or no question whether it be lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he does not give a yes or no answer. He wisely realizes that answering the question in the way it has been posed will paint him as either a sympathizer with the Roman occupation or as in league with the zealots who want to overthrow Roman rule. And his eventual answer—to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s—not only frustrates the evil intent of his questioners, it also gently teaches listeners from both sides of the issue (collaborators with the Romans like Matthew and zealots like Simon) that God’s thoughts on such matters are much deeper than are their own. The public hears him and is “amazed” at his answer because he does not allow his opponents to define the terms of engagement.
So too, when the woman accused of adultery is brought before Jesus, he does not answer the crowd’s question in a way they expect. “Deny the Law and proclaim mercy,” they demand, “or affirm the Law and forgo mercy. There is no other way.” But Jesus, of course, finds another way. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”—again, a wise answer that prevents Christ from condemning the woman to death while nevertheless affirming the severity of the sin. None born of women can claim to be without sin, save Christ. And he—the only one with the authority to pronounce judgement—chooses, in mercy, to forgive instead. “Neither do I condemn you.” In gentleness Jesus meets this broken woman where she is and shows not anger but compassion; and this compassion then gives him the personal authority to speak into her life in a way the Law of Moses never had: “Now go and sin no more.” As Preston Manning says in this video, “Incarnation precedes proclamation.” It is in identifying with the lowly that Christ opens their heart to hear what he has to say. So too, if we would be heard in the public arena, then we must learn to speak as Christ did. Like Christ, we too are called to identify with the lowly (Philippians 4:5-8). We must not speak merely at people but instead with them.
If we as Christians could learn to speak in this way, with that deliberate commingling of gentleness and wisdom, perhaps then we would find our voice better received in the public arena. When we are asked leading questions, let us refuse to answer in the way we are expected. Let us be wise, like Christ, and avoid entrapment. But let us also, like Christ, use the opportunity to meet the broken and suffering in their lowliness, proclaiming mercy and forgiveness of sins. (As Manning says later answering a question later in the video, “If we don’t identify with the suffering, I don’t think we’re the right person to make the moral ennunication.”) For it is to such people that Christ came; as a doctor to the sick. And, indeed, we are all of us sick.
As a bit of clarification, I build a bit in the above paragraphs on some of the things Manning says in the video; so if you want to disentangle my thoughts from his (and see how some of this might work out in practice; for example, in the current debate on physician assisted suicide) you’ll just have to watch the video. And really, you should. It’s not even hard work. I was good enough to embed the video right here in this post. All you have to do is click. (A word of warning: there’s a few minor audio glitches in the first couple of minutes, but they clear up relatively quickly. And while the video looks lengthy, Preston Manning’s talk is actually just the first forty minutes. Mary Povak, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation in B.C., offers a response, and then the two take questions.)