Interview has been edited for length and clarity
Every year, it seems, our world is becoming more polarized. In American politics, the gap between Republicans and Democrats is growing ever wider. The average Republican is more conservative now than 25 years ago; the average Democrat, more liberal. And, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans are increasingly less likely to hold a mix of conservative and liberal views. In this Manichaean world of us versus them, extremism — on both sides — is rewarded. Moderation is often shunned as foolishness, cowardice, or even betrayal.
Simultaneously (and not coincidentally), Americans are increasingly segregating themselves in enclaves of the like-minded. Whether in our neighborhoods or on our Facebook feeds, we surround ourselves with people and opinions that reinforce what we already believe. Day by day, the “other side” becomes more and more incomprehensible, leaving many of both conservatives and liberals feeling that their counterparts are foolish, morally repugnant, and disconnected from reality. Our self-constructed filters have siloed us into echo chambers, our views appear self-evidently true, and we can only conclude that those who disagree with us are stupid, evil, or both.
In his latest book, “A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us Against Them,” author and pastor Scott Sauls makes the case that Christians, compelled by grace and grounded in the gospel, ought to be the “least offensive and least offended people” in our increasingly polarized world. Chock-full of solid biblical backing and illustrative stories, “A Gentle Answer” presents a surprising and countercultural blueprint for what it means to follow the God of peace in an age when outrage is king.
ByFaith writer Andrew Shaughnessy spoke with Sauls about his book.
Why did you write “A Gentle Answer”?
Sauls: It’s a journey that I’ve been on both in my pastoring and in my writing. On the negative side, I seem to keep getting pulled back into the space of addressing the culture of outrage that we’re in broadly in society and — in some ways — the way it’s crept into the church. On the positive side, I have this desire to promote the gospel’s central message of reconciliation and peace in Christ.
Plus, there’s the fact that this is an election year — I thought it would be good timing, good resource material for Christians looking to engage in our political climate in a more life-giving, countercultural way.
In the introduction you say that this book serves as a companion to your first book, “Jesus Outside the Lines.” How so?
Sauls: “Jesus Outside the Lines” was more of a practical outworking — its primary focus is to paint a picture of what it can look like to go out into the world into different spheres and conversations around things like race, gender, sexuality, politics, and so on, as a person who is filled with the fruit of gentleness, kindness, and an impulse toward reconciliation and peace through the power of the gospel.
“A Gentle Answer” aims to help us become the kinds of people who by default will go out into the world with that kind of posture. The first part of the book is about understanding and internalizing the gentleness of Christ toward us, and then the second part is about embodying gentleness as it is defined and presented in the Bible. It’s about getting the heart ready, and so it actually serves as a kind of prequel to “Jesus Outside the Lines.”
What do you want people to know by the time they finish reading this book?
Sauls: I suppose the main answer is that if you identify as a follower of Jesus Christ then you are by necessity and design called to conduct your life out in the world in a radically different way than the world conducts itself. What this means is that you’ll still be a fighter, but you will attack problems, not people.
If I can find nothing to critique about the political party that I support, and nothing to affirm about the opposing political party, then it’s probably the case that I’m conflating my partisan politics with my Christianity.
Proverbs 15:1 is the key verse for the book: “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” There are missional implications to that statement: being salt and light in a hostile society — a society obsessed with partisan politics from both the left and the right, a society that has really lost its way and is turning in on itself. What it means to be a “city on a hill” is to go out into the world and demonstrate a more excellent way.
That “more excellent way” is defined by 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient, kind, and so on. It’s defined in terms of the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. It’s defined in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, who pray for and don’t curse those who treat you poorly; blessed are the peacemakers and the poor in spirit. We are called to follow in the footsteps of the one who described himself as meek and humble in heart, to invite rest instead of consternation, just like Jesus does.
Eugene Cho recently wrote a book called “Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk” that was aiming for similar outcomes. I think that’s a gospel imperative for Christians. It is in no way ever a godly thing to be a jerk, and so we’ve got to be really careful about … let’s call it “functional discipleship.”
What do you mean by “functional discipleship”?
Sauls: We’re all going to say we’re being discipled by the gospel, by the Bible, by Jesus, by our local church. But many Christians, evangelicals included, are functionally discipled more by Fox News or CNN, by a red state ideological platform or a blue state ideological platform, than they are by Jesus Christ. There is absolutely no scenario in which a wholehearted follower of Jesus Christ can also be a wholesale follower of a partisan political platform. It’s impossible, because both the left and the right are à la carte in their pro-life positions. The right emphasizes a certain segment of the human community — the unborn — which is entirely appropriate and right and good and godly and just to do. But sometimes that emphasis comes at the expense or neglect of advocacy for other suffering, vulnerable groups in the human community. And then on the ideological left you’ve got a situation where immigrants, refugees, or ethnic minorities are advocated for, but the unborn are not.
If I can find nothing to openly, humbly, and publicly critique about the political party that I support, and nothing to affirm about the opposing political party, then it’s probably the case that I’m conflating my partisan politics with my Christianity. And Jesus doesn’t allow for that, because His kingdom is not of this world.
In a year like this one, we’re going to be most tempted away from gentleness, away from the fruit of the Spirit, love, and the Beatitudes, because we’re so enamored with the latest thing that Tucker Carlson or Michelle Obama has said. I imagine that there’s probably more of our younger PCA members that lean blue state than ever before in the history of our denomination. Most of the older ones lean red state. And it seems like the generations could learn from one another’s perspective — dealing with the plank in our own eye before we presume to remove the speck from somebody else’s eye. Now a speck can cause infection, and infection can cause blindness, so Jesus isn’t declaring a moratorium on speck removal from other people’s eyes, as you can see in Matthew 18 and Galatians 6. But we have to own the planks in our own eyes by being quick to listen and slow to speak.
In both our larger society and in the church we’re a lot quicker to speak than we are to listen — and that’s a big problem. We’re a lot quicker to register our opinion than we are to listen to the pain of other people.
One thing that you do really well in this book is hold in tension this idea of the gentle answer — being quick to listen and slow to speak — with the biblical mandate to stand up for the weak and the oppressed. In the book you write:
“We have been commissioned by our Lord to stand for all of the world’s weak, vulnerable, and oppressed. We are indeed called to a form of anger that, while never retaliatory or vindictive in nature, is nonetheless righteous and proactive and protective.”
Could you flesh that out a bit?
Sauls: Well, we have the prophets. We have Moses saying to Pharaoh: “Let my people go,” speaking truth to power. We have Jesus calling religious bullies “a brood of vipers and sons of the devil.” He minces no words. So there is clearly an occasion to fight.
C.S. Lewis famously said that “Christianity is a fighting religion” — it sees what’s wrong with the world and seeks to address it. Christians have fought against poverty and injustice and inequality as long as there has been Christianity. But the difference is that the way that Christians fight is chiefly through persuasion, not coercion; by attacking problems instead of attacking people; by holding in tension this concept that Jesus introduced of being full of grace and truth.
We never have a right to say that somebody else’s pain doesn’t matter, or that somebody else’s pain is not legitimate, especially if we have never walked in their shoes.
So there’s this prophetic and priestly posture that Christians are called to take out into the world and into the church simultaneously. We speak truth and don’t hold back. We preach the Word in love, in ways that invite repentance rather than demanding repentance. Remember, it’s the holiness of God that crushes us, but it’s the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. … We’ve got to follow in the footsteps of our Lord. We are not superior to Him in our wisdom of how this world ought to be engaged.
Given our fallibility as human beings, we’re sure to get things wrong or disagree sometimes. One Christian might think that a situation in society merits speaking truth to power and standing up for the vulnerable, while another might disagree and say that that Christian is stirring up trouble and not taking the appropriate posture of gentleness and respect for governing authorities. The Black Lives Matter movement comes to mind: Some Christians see standing up for Black lives as a matter of biblical justice. Others see it as political troublemaking. So how do we know when is the right time to be gentle and when is the right time to take a stand?
Sauls: I think it’s unquestionable that Black lives are at greater risk of horrible things happening to them than certain other lives, as we’ve seen and experienced on the news. These are big issues. But let’s just say that someone argued that this is much ado about nothing. Even if it was much ado about nothing, there is a people group that is crying out in pain, and that people group’s pain matters.
Take a look at Romans 14: Paul says that eating food that has been sacrificed to idols is neither here nor there because idols don’t even exist in reality. And yet if somebody’s feelings are hurt, if somebody is “triggered” by me eating meat sacrificed to idols, then I will never eat meat again because that person’s feelings matter. Let’s get to the bottom of why that person feels this way and work toward solutions together — that’s the godly, just, Christ-like way of addressing things.
We never have a right to say that somebody else’s pain doesn’t matter, or that somebody else’s pain is not legitimate, especially if we have never walked in their shoes. I never have the right to say to a woman: “Your pain over what you call ‘inequities’ in the workplace is invalid.” Or to a person who lives in poverty: “Your pain isn’t valid because you have Jesus, and you should just be grateful.” Or to a Black person: “Your Black pain isn’t valid because blue lives matter too,” or “because all lives matter.”
Now, that’s actually true — all lives matter. Now, I want to be clear, when I’m talking about “Black lives matter” here, I’m not speaking about the political movement. I’m speaking about the statement. And the statement “Black lives matter” actually means “all lives matter.” That’s exactly what they’re saying: “All lives matter, so we need to start acting like it toward people of color as a society and as churches.”
What in this book has resonated most with people?
Sauls: People are just exhausted by outrage and “us against them” and the hair-trigger culture that we’re living in. They’re tired of seeing news footage where one day an officer’s knee is on somebody’s neck, and another day somebody tries to fight against that by kicking somebody else in the face. People are exhausted, and rightfully so, by the violence and anger, and they’re looking for a more gentle way.
Jesus shows us that way.
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of “Jesus Outside the Lines,” “Befriend,” “From Weakness to Strength,” and “Irresistible Faith.”
Andrew Shaughnessy, a graduate of Covenant College, is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.
Photograph by John Shearer