“But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.” Luke 10:10-11
Jesus gave these instructions to seventy-two disciples as He sent them off to spread the Gospel message. The underlying idea is one that is desperately needed in today’s social landscape: we shouldn’t try to coerce others to believe as we do.
Jesus was encouraging His followers to be direct about the consequences of not seeking repentance from sin, while also respecting the personal liberty of others. Sadly, Christians have not always been faithful to this principle. History is replete with examples of Christians failing to respect the personal liberty of others. One of the worst examples of this being when slavery was justified as a way to bring the “savages” to Christianity. Thankfully, faithful Christians like William Wilberforce helped to change that.
Christian or not, I think most people can see the wisdom in allowing people to believe as they want because it leads to a freer society, which is a goal that many share. Even though we’ve grown to understand that we shouldn’t physically coerce people to change their views, we still have room to improve.
Today, instead of trying to win people over with arguments and reason, many have become content with name-calling and demagoguery. “You don’t agree with abortion? That’s because you hate women.” “You think affirmative action is bad? You’re a racist.” “Disagree with the US foreign policy? You’re un-American?” This type of language is divisive and, unfortunately, I think that’s the point. When people use that type of language they’re not trying to convince, they’re really trying to bully, harass and intimidate. Nobody wants to be thought of as bigoted, racist or unpatriotic. The accusation alone, if said loud enough and repeated, is enough to poison other people’s mind about the accused. Once they’ve been characterized that way, a person automatically becomes defensive and is less likely to engage. How can progress be possible in such an environment?
Passionate debate and disagreement is fine, however demagoguery of people on the other side of an issue is dangerous. In the most extreme cases, it can lead to violent oppression. For example, one of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East is based on the fact that Sunni Muslims don’t respect the personal religious freedom of Shia Muslims. As a result, they’ve been killing each other for centuries.
It’s easy to believe that the US could never devolve into that kind of scenario, but that might be naïve. We’ve seen it happen. We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the peaceful protest in Selma, Alabama that was violently cut short. A healthy respect for freedom of thought and expression has to be defended and cultivated, it doesn’t happen on its own. It starts with each individual refusing to encourage dangerous rhetoric and it continues by a deep and abiding love, not only for those on our side, but for those with whom disagree.