Never light a fire in a field of dry brush and think you can control it. Pastors to this all to often in Churches as they try to wrestle congregations to their will. They find the dividing lines in the churches they serve, pick a side, and whip up their supporters into a consuming frenzy. It’s a very real temptation, and even the most well-meaning pastor will fall into the trap eventually. It’s what the pastor does next that really tells you about their character. If the pastor demonstrates enough holy self-awareness to take a step back and attempt to infuse some Christian charity into the situation (note, this does not mean, “stop actively pursuing Jesus”) it’s a sign of a pastor who is keenly aware of their own need to guard against the destructive power of sin. If the pastor keeps helping to sow division and anger then, well, you might be dealing with a demagogue who needs to be directly confronted.
I have to tell you, the scariest thing I’ve ever heard from a congregant is, “I’m on your side.” If you ever want to send me back to the drawing board to scrap every idea I have, say that statement to me. If people are on “my side” I have to think, “Are you sure we’re on Jesus’ side?” I don’t want to lose sight of Jesus so much that I spend all my time trying to obliterate the “enemies” in our midst. If I’m inspiring that desire in others, then we have a problem.
This doesn’t just happen in Churches though – any time you have a ideological division the temptation to whip up the crowd into a frenzy against the “enemy” is great. I’m watching this happen to the increasingly desperate McCain campaign. At some point in the past few weeks Senator McCain’s campaign decided to use the tactic of fear, uncertainty, and doubt against Senator Obama (mostly they used “fear”). It got vibrant responses from the crowd, but it appears they underestimated the power of stoking the flames of fear in a crowd already awash in rumor. As the crowds got increasingly furious, Senator McCain himself felt the need to step back and tell his supporters that fear isn’t the way forward. In response, his supporters booed. It appears the firestorm might be beyond containment.
I learned something about Senator McCain in the last several days. In a moment of desperation he chose a dangerous tactic to use, this is a truth that needs to be spoken. Yet, I also saw that he is someone who is aware of the world enough to see how, in his passion to win, he was fanning flame of destruction. I saw someone who was willing to be burned by the very flames he helped light because his campaign had gone on to the path of destruction. Maybe he backed off to save his own name, but at least he showed the wisdom to try.
In this episode, however, Senator McCain learned a terrible lesson. Once you unleash the spirit of fear, you become a after-thought to your “supporters.” You no longer matter, all that matters is devouring the “enemy,” and if you have to be consumed for that to happen, it won’t bother the mob one bit.
In the Church, the Spirit works to wake the mob to it’s own sin – so that seeds of Christian charity can take root. Forgiveness and grace can prevail in the Church because Jesus works to make it so. In politics, we have no such assurance – and, as the mob begins to burn it’s own candidate, be sure to say a prayer that grace and truth might yet prevail.