Last Monday, Robert Bentley was inaugurated as governor of Alabama. You will recall that last Monday was also the national holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. So, following the inauguration, the new governor was the featured speaker at the annual MLK Day prayer service, held at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, where King once served as pastor.
Gov. Bentley’s speech to the large crowd stayed true to his faith heritage as an evangelical Christian and a Southern Baptist. It started off on the expected civil rights theme, repeating a theme from his inaugural address: “I was elected as a Republican candidate But once I became governor … I became the governor of all the people of Alabama — Democrat, Republican and independent, young and old, black and white, rich and poor. I intend to live up to that. I am color blind,”
OK. But as the speech went on, it became less civil rights-ish and celebrating a new start in governing Alabama and more, well…revivalistic. Listen:
“There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit. But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister. Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”
Now if you are a Bible-Belt Christian from the South, grew up going to Sunday School-and-church along with Wednesday nights and Vacation Bible School; know the pledge to the Christian flag; consider some folks named Billy, Annie and Lottie to be saints; know there was a King James who most likely did not play basketball and that bread-and-wine is to be interpreted cracker-and-grape juice, you understand that paragraph perfectly.
You, like the 70% of Alabama’s population that consider themselves born-again Christians and the 1.7 million who identify as Baptist of some stripe, are probably comfortable with that language because you’ve heard it before from the pulpit or in a class. You get the references to the Holy Spirit living inside you, being saved, being adopted into God’s family, having the same daddy with another person so you call someone “brother” or “ sister” – even when you’re not related and rarely eat breakfast together.
You get it because it is our language.
But if you’re not of the Bible-belt evangelical tribe, how does this sound? Well, check out this sampling from headlines across the nation the next morning:
Alabama governor’s remarks on non-Christians raise eyebrows
“Only Christians are my family”, says Gov
New Alabama Gov. Criticized for Christian-Only Message
“non-Christians are not my brothers”
Governor makes Christian-only remarks
Governor insults non-Christians in divisive speech
New Alabama governor celebrates MLK day with bigoted speech
“Christians are my brothers and sisters; others, not so much”
“Governor alienates non-Christians”
“non-Christians are second-class citizens”
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish group that fights discrimination, said it sounded like Bentley was using the office of governor to advocate for Christian conversion. The executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation said “when elected officials make such religious remarks in their public roles, their comments tend to disenfranchise citizens who don’t share those beliefs.”
Ashfaq Taufique, president of the Birmingham Islamic Society said he was unsure of the meaning. “Does it mean that those who according to him are not saved are less important than those who are saved?”
Other non-believers were quite creative and honest in expressing their sense of outrage. And another saw it as a definite political threat: “Bentley may not have intended to insult non-Christians in Alabama, but he did. And Bentley’s view that only Christians are his “brothers and sisters” relegates non-Christians in Alabama to a second class citizen state in his mind. How can we trust Bentley now when he has to choose between two competing bids for a state contract and one is owned by a Christian and the other a Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhist, Muslim, or atheist?”
What to do with this? Let’s applaud Gov. Bentley for sticking to the courage of his convictions and communicating the same things he has for years as a deacon and Sunday School teacher at First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa. That shows not only his heart for Jesus, but also his integrity that refused to be something different in public than he is in private. He was trying to be a faithful witness for Jesus.
The governor is also to be commended for a quick apology for the offense and confusion his remarks may have caused. But he did that without apologizing for or retreating from the gist of the comments themselves, which I think is the appropriate way to handle the issue on all levels — as a Christian with convictions and as a public official.
But there is a much larger lesson to consider here about our interaction with an increasingly secular society. When bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, we simply must avoid our evangelical insider language. We have a code of words and theological concepts about God that we use in our pulpits, classes, conferences and songs that everybody in our tribe accepts as true. There is little explanation or context given when we talk this way, because we just assume everybody is already in on the code.
The reality is that even many people in our churches are simply nodding along, afraid to admit that they have forgotten or never knew what all these words really mean. (That’s another theme for another day)
But an even greater reality is that most people in the broader culture have not the first clue of the underpinnings of the Christian gospel or the teachings of the Christian Scriptures. It’s not that they forgot; they have never known. Talk of the Holy Spirit living within you and accepting Jesus as your personal savior and having the same daddy, etc is simply gibberish to them. It is like a peasant from rural Romania trying to have a conversation with a Japanese businessman in Kyoto. There is no means to communicate, because there is no common language.
The Bible is very clear about this: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14) A secular person, without a relationship with Christ or the help of the Holy Spirit will find it virtually impossible to understand the meaning of God’s Word. They can follow the logic of arguments and outline history or teachings, but not grasp meaning.
How do you respond when you don’t understand something? You may get frustrated or feel like you’re left out or get angry or even be afraid by what is being said. You scramble for any means to make some sense of it. And in this case, you use the grids of current politics, civil rights, tolerance, social science, suspicion and your own past experience with churches and Christians to interpret what the good governor was saying. Thus the headlines and swift push-back.
Governor Bentley’s remarks are certainly true, from a Biblical viewpoint. But he made a drastic mistake in using insider language in a setting in which a significant number of people outside Christian faith were watching and listening.
Much of our evangelism follows the same rut. We take our insider language from Sunday School and use it with our far-from-God friends in non-church settings and then wonder why they look at us with a blank stare or simply decide to block any further conversation on that subject. Our insider language is foreign to the vast majority of people in our culture. And the more they hear us speak it to them and overhear us speaking it to one another, the more they grow frustrated or angry or suspicious. The more they hear us speaking insider, the more they leave us alone.
And so we end up talking to ourselves.
So, what can we do? Paul has it about right: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:5-6)
It’s our responsibility to take the initiative learn how outsiders hear, and then speak in a way that makes old gospel truth startling and fresh and inviting. It is not their responsibility to listen better to us. We go and help them hear us, so they’ll hear Jesus.
We have to find a way to communicate gospel truth to secular hearts in ways that leaves salt on their soul that makes them thirsty for the water of life in Christ.