Getting straight about that serpent-dove thing

Most readers of this blog would identify as moderate Baptists who view their more ideological brothers and sisters as well-intentioned, but misguided, extremists. Moderates are sensible mediators between extremes who eschew both conservative and liberal forms of group-think, political correctness, and excess.

There is such a thing as principled moderation, but real-world moderates are more prone to fudge, ignore and obfuscate when there appears to be no constituency for the truth. If the truth has no cheerleaders, we ask, how can it be true?

Here’s the uncomfortable reality. Moderates will ignore an issue, no matter how pressing, if a clear majority stands in opposition, or (as is more often the case) there is considerable support on both sides. If a proposal can’t generate at least an 85% approval rating, the thinking goes, it’s a bad idea.

Real-world moderates normally occupy an uncomfortable patch of social ground inhabited by a sizable conservative minority, a small but influential contingent of egghead liberals, and a whole lot of people who are too concerned about paying the mortgage and negotiating domestic minefields to give much attention to social issues. Real-world moderates try to keep conservatives and liberals in separate rooms whenever possible while directing the bulk of their attention to helping a harried majority cope with the trauma of middle class existence.

Moderate pastors are big on Matthew 10:16, a comforting passage where Jesus admonishes his disciples to be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” The trick, we say, is to stand for the gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God without doing irreparable damage to your career or inflicting unnecessary harm on your congregation.

But that isn’t what Jesus was getting at. We must be wise as serpents, Jesus tells us, because we are surrounded by wolves. The truth Jesus gives us has no natural constituency in a wolf-infested world. That’s why there is always work for prophets.

Most leaders, be they conservative, liberal or moderate, are pragmatists. In unambiguously conservative or liberal circles there are certain ideas and issues that must either be celebrated or deplored—there is no middle ground. Conservative preachers have no choice but to oppose abortion while their liberal counterparts must defend “a woman’s right to choose.” It doesn’t matter what the preacher believes deep down, the issue can’t be dodged and there is only one acceptable position. The same relentless logic applies to the issue of gay marriage. Conservatives must oppose it as unbiblical while liberals must teach that all forms of human love flow from the heart of God.

Of course there is little chance that a truly conservative or liberal pastor would arrive at conclusions wildly at odds with the tribal consensus—it’s the only position to which one is regularly exposed so it seems rational, logical and self-evident.

Moderates rarely enjoy this luxury. Our preachers have precisely nothing to say about abortion or homosexuality (nothing comprehensible at any rate) for the simple reason that neither of the conventional positions have sufficient support within our tribe to prevail if push should come to shove. Moderate pastors manifest serpentine wisdom by falling silent or changing the subject.

Some issues are ignored because they almost never impinge upon middle class white Protestants like us.

Immigration may be an important issue, but since we are all native born citizens it doesn’t touch us.

The criminal justice system may be largely designed to control poor people in minority neighborhoods, but since we all live in pleasant neighborhoods, it isn’t our concern.

There may be a host of factors that drive poor people to the streets and it may be frightfully difficult for these folks to make their way back home. But since no one we know is in danger of becoming homeless, we have more pressing matters to contend with.

In the unlikely event that issues like immigration, criminal justice, or homelessness are broached in affluent, predominantly white churches, the preacher will be met with blank stares. “Why are we talking about that?” the congregation asks. “Christians are all about the gospel and the kingdom; secular issues like immigration, homelessness, and prisons are literally none of our business.”

Moderate preachers, like their white conservative and liberal counterparts, rarely broach these issues. Being wise as serpents, we say, means restricting yourself to an agenda that people will support while avoiding issues that will sew division or confusion.

That’s not what Jesus had in mind, either. There is a proper sequence to this serpent-dove thing. The gospel of the kingdom belongs to dovelike innocents. Serpentine wisdom is out of place when we’re discussing the contours of the Christian mission. When sons and daughters of God suffer, we must care because God cares. Every section of the Bible—the law, the prophets, the writings, the gospels, the epistles, even, properly interpreted, the Apocalyptic literature—drive us to the same simple conclusion. The undocumented, the homeless and the incarcerated live at the heart of gospel concern.

Only when we have that straight are we free to be as wise as serpents. Prophets must speak even when the truth has no constituency; but we should select our words with great care.

First, we must speak the truth. There is no justification for self-serving nonsense.

Second, we speak the truth with all the grace we can muster. We must approach the bias, ignorance and fear of our audience with compassion.

Third, we speak the truth strategically. We aren’t trying to start a riot or win a vote; we’re tilling soil so kingdom seeds can take root in the world.

True moderates are willing to enter into broad alliances that move us far beyond our comfort zone while encompassing only a single issue. While moderates nurture a pious silence, prophetic voices on the religious right are embracing causes like immigration reform, homelessness and what they call “over-criminalization”. Sure, they couch their advocacy in the dialect that resonates within their tribe. Sure, their arguments appeal to conservative fears and enthusiasms. That’s okay.

There is a time for all Christians of all ideological persuasions to be wise as serpents. But first, God must bring us to that painful place where, broken and humbled by the perplexities of life, we find ourselves praying with the innocence of doves.

Alan Bean

Author's Website
About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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  • Digger

    Wow. I kept waiting to be slammed for being conservative. I kept waiting for the hard-sell of post-modernism. One way or the other, I was sure that this article was going to slide down the mountain, praising one side and condemning the other.
    Well written! The line of grace was easily followed from beginning to end. I hope to incorporate more grace like this into my thinking and into my writing. Thank you Dr. bean for modeling Christ for me today.