It is no secret that American culture in 2016 is rife with hostility.
The glittering technoculture that supposedly heralded a new era of transparence and good feelings has instead fostered new platforms on which people trade ad hominem putdowns. Perhaps the single image that most sums up our New Public Discourse is an emoji representing human excrement. On sites like Instagram, dueling packs of celebrity super-fans trade such images, piling up pixels that represent not only the overheated feelings of the masses, but perhaps the state of our cultural conversation.
What are Christians to think about our current moment—culture in the paranoid style, we might call it? More urgently, how should we handle such invective when it comes our way?
I have no silver bullet for this moment, but the stories of two public figures have made me think of late. They are an unlikely pairing: Lebron James and Alexander Hamilton. Recently, the NBA rookie Ben Simmons shared with the New York Times that he has learned from Lebron not to respond to critics: “I’ve learned a lot just being around LeBron,” Simmons said. “People say things about him all the time, but he would never say anything back. That’s what I learned from him: Don’t retaliate to articles or pieces or to things that are said about me.”
Maybe Lebron doesn’t always follow this policy, but hearing about it took me aback. The amount of criticism that a megastar like James takes would boggle the mind of a normal person. His advice to a much younger athlete was, however, not to prove everybody wrong by one’s words, but to take the hit, essentially. As Simmons said, “Don’t retaliate.”
Other celebrities take a different approach. I recently finished Ron Chernow’s excellent Alexander Hamilton, the book that spawned the now-famous musical. Chernow’s study of the architect of the American financial system shows that, when it came to taking fire, Hamilton often shot back at his critics. He penned missives, newspaper pieces, and challenged numerous adversaries to affairs of honor, episodes that could easily lead to dueling—literally, the two opponents shooting pistols at one another. This, in fact, is how Hamilton met his earthly end. Aaron Burr, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, killed Hamilton with one shot in 1804. Hamilton’s beloved son Philip had died a few years before him in a duel, leaving an almost impossibly tragic stamp on the house of one of America’s greatest statesmen.
Christians today may not fight a duel, but many of us will not fail to find our honor besmirched, our name taken in vain. This is particularly true for leaders. The best way to raise opposition to one’s views is to hold them publicly. Leadership in Christ’s church, then, will mean weathering many storms, including many instances when one’s character is impugned and one’s doctrine is reproached. Too often, those who disagree with us will declare us guilty without a trial.
Many of us will be grieved at the disagreements and criticism we must face in a fallen world. We will be tempted to lash out at those who seek to wound us. In this sense, we at a human level know very well what Alexander Hamilton felt as he tried, over and over again, to clear his name. Sometimes he acted rashly, but in other cases, his opponents spread malicious falsehood against him. Reading his story, one cannot say that Hamilton ever came to a resolution with such attacks. They troubled him greatly for as long as he lived.
We understand why. But we also recognize that, in Christ, we are offered something better than a hot-take opportunity. By his blood, Jesus Christ makes us his own, adopting us into his Father’s house, clearing our guilt and giving us a new name. In Christ, we no longer need to perform image maintenance and reputational management. The world may hate us, but if we are held secure by Jesus—and every believer is (John 10:27)—that is enough, fathoms more than enough, for us.
This does not preclude any response to critics. At times, one must speak up. There are real falsehoods that deserve a response. But we will never be able to undo opposition in a total and final sense by our own strength. Important as it is for us to engage in select discussion, there simply is no ultimate vindication of ourselves we can accomplish. Only Jesus can clear our name. Only Jesus can overcome our enemies. Only Jesus can quiet hate, and destroy evil, and right every wrong ever done to his people (and every wrong we ourselves have done, sadly).
We need this. Living in a sin-cursed world means that the wind is often in our faces. It is not usually at our backs. If we doubt this, we should engage a member of Christ’s church who lives in a country without religious freedom, and find out their perspective on the matter. Bare-knuckled opposition may be a new experience for many American Christians, but it is not a new experience for the global church, let alone the historic church.
You can be the best athlete in the world, like Lebron James, and you will still draw unending criticism (some deserved, some not). You can be a key architect of American politics, and you will often be roasted, not celebrated (as Hamilton was). The same is true for every believer, impressive or not. Every person must reckon with an angry, divisive, tear-you-down world. The question before us is this: in such moments, will we allow insecurity and worldly fears to rule us?
Is Jesus our reputation, the custodian of our image—or are we?
The good news is this: if Jesus is our all, we can take the heat, for we will soon gain the world. Somebody tell Instagram, because that is a truth worth creating an emoji over.
Editor's note: This was originally published at The Center for Public Theology.