Writings by Cole Huffman

Less Valuing of My Opinionating

Are there times when one shouldn’t share his opinion? Yes, of course. You think your aunt is hyperemotional, and you can’t stand that in a person. Fine, but leave her to it at your uncle’s funeral. Neither she nor any attender that day needs your fulmination on overreaction.

Let’s press the opening question further. Are there subjects where I have no right to an opinion? The old bromide about everyone having a right to their opinion is still held by most Americans, I expect. This isn’t unique to us. From antiquity Luke carefully notes that not just the people of Athens but “the foreigners living there” were each and all opinion mongers, “spending their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21).

Twitter is the Athenians’ wildest dreams come true. Speaking of wild, have you heard about the time young C. S. Lewis was on a country walk with his tutor, W. T. “The Great Knock” Kirkpatrick? On their walk Lewis happened to comment on the unexpected “wildness” of the area. “Stop!” Kirkpatrick shouted, making Lewis jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?” Lewis then fumbled around trying to support his small-talk opinion with substance until his tutor rescued him: “Do you not see that you had no right to have an opinion whatever on the subject?” Twitter is W. T. Kirkpatrick’s wildest nightmare come true.

Speaking of Lewises, how about this from the science writer Lewis Thomas: “There are some things about which it is not true to say that every man has a right to his opinion. I do not have the right to an opinion about acausality in the small world [of physics], or about black holes or other universes beyond black holes in the large world, for I cannot do the mathematics.”

Well, ok, he’s got us there. Unless we’re physicists, you and I have no right to any quirks about quarks. But current events? Can’t “YodaDave66” spill his beer gut on CNN’s comments section whenever he wishes to opine? Can he not send woe-to-you-bro rebuke tweets? “Current events” is all-swim, isn’t it, those fiery things happening in a shared world of over 7 billion people that media outlets run through their news cycles, affectively.

I have a media outlet at Faith in Memphis. The idea behind Faith in Memphis is that ministers are opinion leaders and YodaDave66 might like our guidance seeing his way clearly on issues of the day. So each week the religion editor at The Commercial Appeal emails out to a diverse array of Memphis religious leaders a timely question and publishes select responses in the Saturday paper. I knew this week the question would be our reaction to Ferguson, Missouri.

I wasn’t sure what I thought about it all just yet. My mother was a newspaper editor and I know the gears of investigative journalism done well grind slower in seeking out what really happened than flashy BREAKING NEWS tolerates. Christians online, black and white, were weighing in and speaking out, many taking the occasion to scold “white privilege” and “remaining silent” when places like Ferguson rage. I didn’t recognize myself in their critiques or apologies, and yet as a cybercitizen somehow felt lumped into them.

In response to the religion editor’s question this week about events a mere 400 miles up the Mississippi from here, I turned to Miroslav Volf, quoting a couple of lines from his book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation:

“From a distance, the world may appear neatly divided into guilty perpetrators and innocent victims. The closer we get, however, the more the line between the guilty and the innocent blurs and we see an intractable maze of small and large hatreds, dishonesties, manipulations, and brutalities, each reinforcing the other.” The South African Council of Churches tried to map a way through this maze in their 1996 “Rite of Reconciliation.” South Africa was Ferguson writ large. The Council offered their nation a way forward in the gospel, quoting 1 John 1:8 (“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”) and naming the sins of both white perpetrators and black victims, calling both to come out from behind their self-justifying barricades.

What am I trying to say? People won’t often factor our solidarity in sin when reacting to something like the shooting of Michael Brown, especially something like this that incites passions whether we decry police overstep or defend their right of force. But Volf—who’s right to an opinion on human depravities was forged in the blast furnace of Balkan wars—makes the case that both victim and victimizer have need of repentance, which doesn’t at all mitigate the need for victims’ justice but asserts that victims too need a Justifier.

In his book Church: An Insider’s Look at How We Do it, John Stackhouse suggests “we should value our own opinions a little less if the subjects before us are in fact beyond our competence.” I want to think and respond rightly to the human issues current events raise, but I hope I display greater gospel competency doing so. Might growth in gospel competence make me less valuing (and less trusting) of my opinionating, more desirous to empathize and see all sides in a matter before pronouncing judgment, more careful to build a response that lasts than pop off a reaction in the moment I might later wish to adjust or recant?

Ministry is a high public trust and ministers probably dampen that trust, at times with lighter fluid, if we gasbag on about everything under the sun or bend to the peer pressure of your-reaction-now. In Psalm 39 David reflected on his silence during a combustive time in Israel, how his heart “grew hot within him” as he meditated on the deeply upsetting actions of others. But he kept his mouth shut to pray. When he finally spoke to others it was to say what he spoke to God: “O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (Ps. 39:4). And how fleeting my opinions.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 1:08 PM
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