THE LETTER TO THE EDITOR LAST WEEK MAY HAVE been the meanest we've ever received. The writer, unhappy that WORLD had taken gentle editorial exception to the legal strategy of Chief Justice Roy Moore in Alabama, exploded: "I want to see the look of shock on your face on That Day as He says, 'Depart from Me; I never knew you.'"
The disturbing e-mail came the same day that brought news of another bus bombing in Jerusalem, and the day before the terrible blast that killed 125 Iraqis at a mosque in Najaf. New fighting had erupted the day before in Liberia. A mass grave with perhaps 200 skeletons had been discovered in Guatemala. And then the government of North Korea said it was ready to test a nuclear bomb.
Why, I thought, can't people in other parts of the world learn to settle their differences more humanely? What's wrong with the Arabs and the Jews, the Africans, the Central Americans, and the Asians that they resort so easily to violence?
But I also read in that same morning's paper of the scheduled execution of Paul Hill, a one-time colleague in the pro-life movement and a former minister in my own denomination, in a few days for murdering an abortionist and his bodyguard in Pensacola, Fla., in 1994. Meanwhile, two Christian brothers, friends whom I highly esteem, were having at it with each other by e-mail, quarreling over whether one of them had called the position of the other an "abomination." I was receiving hour-by-hour copies of their whole debate.
It's easy, I thought, to point fingers at unbelievers and to think condescendingly how bad they are at settling their differences. It's harder to admit how bad we Christians can sometimes be at the very same assignment.
Christians, to be sure, are at a special disadvantage when it comes to settling differences. They are not relativists when it comes to the issue of truth. Christians are not people who can say cavalierly, "Don't worry. You believe it your way, and I'll believe it mine." Precisely because we believe truth to be specific, even exclusive, we Christians are forced regularly to say that other people are wrong.
Yet how we say it, and more specifically how we as Christians say it to each other, is of critical importance. There's a world of difference between soberly warning someone, "My friend, please don't forget that at the final day, God is going to tell some unsuspecting people, 'Depart from Me, for I never knew you'"-and on the other hand chortling, "I want to see the look on your face when He says that to you."
Way too much of our Christian debate these days takes on the tone of the I-want-to-see-the-look-on-your-face e-mail writer.
All this would be important in any setting, but I think things are about to become much more tense and divisive. Over the next year, evangelical Christians will tear into each other, question each other's motives, and rule each other both in and out of God's kingdom. Non-Christians will titter at our disunity and discomfort-and we will strike out at them as well.
The issue will be whether George W. Bush and the Republican Party should continue to enjoy the allegiance of the overwhelming majority of evangelical Christians. Every week, I hear more and more of this question of whether evangelicals are being taken for granted, whether the GOP treats them the same way Democrats have used the African-American community. Humor them, pick a few of them for symbolic posts, speak at their gatherings-but keep a little distance, too.
One evangelical leader, in an off-the-record setting, complained to me that "we've got virtually nothing of substance to show for having a pro-life president; the gay community has better access to the White House than we do; and every indicator is that when Mr. Bush finally gets to name a Supreme Court justice, it will be his friend Al Gonzales, who is on record as being satisfied with Roe vs. Wade. If that's what we get from an administration with evangelical leanings, what's the use?"
That is the mild version of the argument. In closed-door sessions, it gets a lot feistier, and angrier. I haven't heard anything like the man who said he wants to see the look on my face-but I've watched Christians argue issues for long enough to know how fast debates can degenerate.
The debate, mind you, is a worthy one. The White House and the rest of the GOP need to pay attention. But in the process of that discussion, why give delight and comfort to the evil one?