“This is no time for Christian charity.”
That was what stood out among the responses to a recent nationally syndicated newspaper column I wrote about a recent controversial country-music song/video. Jason Aldean was singing about how small towns handle violence better than urban areas. He mentioned his grandfather’s gun, as a warning, among other things. I grew up in New York City, strangely enough, listening to country music, so I’m aware that Johnny Cash among others could get dark along the way. But I’m also a consumer as much as anyone of our politics and our culture today, and I know how violent it can be. And we don’t need more of it.
Well, goodness. For saying such a thing, my phone exploded. There was a lot of simple expletives and ad hominems. But there were more disturbing comments that I honestly wish were coming from robots, not people. (Including comments that are hard not to receive as racist.) I remember in the early days of internet commentary, people would fairly regularly email awful things about how they hoped I’d die a slow painful death of cancer, along with all the people I loved most in the world. Occasionally, I would send an email back, thanking them for taking the time to bother to read and respond. Sometimes the reader would double down with profanities, but more often than not, I would get a response from a person horrified that I actually read their note. The person assumed no human would ever see it. He was just venting in a safe place. Today, though, people say some of the same things attached to a public profile. Perhaps their Twitter handles are aliases. But most of us are aware that our phones don’t exactly keep us anonymous.
Part of why I bothered to say anything about Aldean’s song is because, while I understand how challenging our times are, I also see how abysmal we are as Christians at communicating with people. Whether it is politics or basic human interactions, we fail, big-time. Think of the Catholic Church. As much as I would like to delude myself into thinking that we are converting the world as we were commissioned to, many people don’t see us as credible witnesses to the Gospel. Many see us as hypocrites, because, well, we are sinners who all too often don’t present ourselves as aware of our poverty.
One country music song is far from the most important thing in the world. And yet, every contribution each one of us makes in the world matters. In the small things, we can shed light or curse the darkness. Aldean chose the latter. And people rally to him because they are fed up. I get that. That’s our politics today. That’s the story of how Donald Trump became president.
My beloved hate mail suggests that because I don’t live in a small town, I don’t understand and am happy to surrender to evil and wrongdoing on the streets. Perhaps it’s precisely because I interact with people on city streets that I weep for the depths of suffering that exists in our country today. People are mentally ill and untreated. People age out of the foster-care system with no one to turn to for the simplest of human encounters and advice. Women have children on the street in America while high — there was a recent brutal story in California we don’t even know the full details of because of medical confidentiality. And there is the cruel misery of abortion. Often when I speak to pro-life groups, I’m told to stop insisting on compassion because “the other side” doesn’t care about compassion for what we believe. I’m sorry, but threatening to take care of evil with your grandfather’s gun in casual entertainment isn’t going to heal human hearts and our culture.
The people who expressed their disgust at me — as I write, it is still coming in fiercely — for suggesting music talk more about virtue, insist I hate self-defense. The humble truth is, I just know we — I — need to spend a little more time on living the New Testament and the Beatitudes.
I’m a mess at Christian charity, but we need more of it, not less. It doesn’t mean being a doormat. It means something more radical and beautiful than we are used to.