Like most people these days I get my news from a trusted source: Facebook. The social network tells me what I need to know, whether that be information about natural disasters, a photo of the Obama’s dog playing in the snow, or what on earth is happening with Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, and their newborn baby. From the tragic to the sublime - but more often cute - to the ridiculous is usually how it goes in the world of social media. Recently, a news story that embodied several of these elements popped up in my newsfeed. Phil Robertson, the gruff, big bearded patriarch from Duck Dynasty had gotten himself into hot swamp water over some ill-advised comments he made to a GQ interviewer concerning homosexuality and the history of African-Americans in this country. When I noticed some friends of mine changing their profile pictures to portraits of Mr. Robertson and posting articles and statuses that incorporated the statement “I Stand With Phil,” my curiosity was piqued.
I was moved to action, though, when the son of my former pastor posted a crudely made diptych poster of Peter, James, and John juxtaposed above a photo of Phil Robertson with his brother Si and his sons Jase and Willie. The image of the disciples featured this statement: “A long time ago, a few bearded fishermen helped bring Christ to the world!” These words were imposed over the shot of the Duck Dynasty men: “2,000 years later a few bearded duck men are helping bring Christ back to a nation! Hey, that’s a fact, Jack!” It was at this point that I knew I had to do some investigating–as someone who has never watched an entire episode of Duck Dynasty–to find out more about Phil, his family, and this entire situation. The results of my research were distressing. Phil, an outspoken Christian celebrity, had made some rather crass and insensitive remarks about homosexuals and homosexuality. He explained in the interview that his family has a love the sinner, hate the sin mentality and it’s not their job to judge whether people are headed for hell or heaven. “That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?” Robertson also suggested that African Americans were not only content with their situation but more “godly” in the Jim Crow South.
I am convinced that if Mr. Robertson had the temerity to voice these opinions in a class at the seminary I attend he would have had people lining up to “to nuance” or more likely “push back” on the controversial and bigoted views he was espousing. In the aftermath of these comments being made public there was pressure put on the A&E Network from GLAAD and other LGBTQ advocacy groups to pull Phil from their most successful television show, which also happens to be the biggest reality show on cable television currently boasting a whopping 14 million viewers per episode. GLAAD suggested as an act of contrition Phil “should look African American and gay people in the eyes and hear about the hurtful impact of praising Jim Crow laws and comparing gay people to terrorists.” When the network made the decision to suspend Phil from the show, legions of loyal fans and conservative Christian groups like AFTAH (Americans For Truth About Homosexuality) came out in support of Robertson’s right to free speech under the Constitution and demanded that A&E reinstate him. There were more than 250,000 signatures the Faith Driven Consumer organization’s IStandWithPhil.com petition gathered from fans coming to Phil’s defense seemed to demonstrate that there were many Americans eager to see Phil restored to his proper place as the head of this beloved reality TV family. As a result of the deafening outcry from fans, A&E made the decision to lift Phil’s suspension and allow him to come back on the show. For those that thought the Culture Wars ended with the death of Dr. Jerry Falwell and the election of Barack Obama, the uproar over Phil Robertson and the battle lines that were drawn along ideological lines made it clear that we as Americans (and as Christians) are still more deeply divided on the pertinent social issues of our day than we might like to believe.
Now what concerns me most about this situation is not so much that some of my family members and friends (who would identify as Christians) are fans of the show but that there are people who are championing a man like Phil Robertson as being a positive representation of Christianity to America and the world. When David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, published his book unChristian in 2007, he explained that the most commonly held perception among 16 to 29 year olds, both in and out of the church, is that Christians are anti-homosexual; this has become one of our primary defining characteristics.3 Whatever your deeply personal views and biblically informed convictions are when it comes to the topic of homosexuality, I don’t think any person who is earnestly and honestly seeking to be a disciple of Jesus Christ of Nazareth wants to have the Christian faith painted with this brush. Do we want to be narrowly defined by what we or our fellow Christians are against? I don’t. This is why it troubles me that my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ would “stand with” a man like Phil who reinforces the negative stereotypes that people have of Christians and Christianity in general. We cannot use the Bible or the “Christian” label to justify speaking in a callous manner that does damage to people’s hearts and the cause of Christ, nor should we support those who do.
When I saw my friend’s post comparing the men from Duck Dynasty to the apostles and making the bold claim that they are “helping to bring Christ back to a nation,” my immediate thought was that we need better role models, who not only look the part of a disciple but act the part as well. Taking a quick glance at my Facebook newsfeed again it didn’t take long to come across another well-known Christian with millions of fans who is a much better example of what it looks like to be a Christ follower sans a big bushy beard. Throughout his short tenure as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has quickly won the hearts of believers and non-believers alike. Eschewing the aloof and insensitive approach when it comes to confronting hot button issues – when addressing homosexuality he said, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” – or when faced with crowds of “sinners” – he is often photographed smiling with arms wide, practically running to embrace and pray for the lost, the sick, the rejected, the hurt, the confused, the deceived, the broken, the used and abused – in doing so he seems to embody the father in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, willing to humble himself to sprint toward the rebellious child who is desperately in need of being rescued and restored to his family.
Here is a form of Christianity and devotion to Christ that is marked by irresistible love, joy, and compassion. Francis’ life is compelling because it is modeled on Jesus’ own lifestyle of loving people not simply with “words but with actions and in truth.” If the perception is that Christians are the first ones to pick up stones—like the religious men in the Gospels, hell-bent on punishing the woman caught in adultery—then maybe it’s time we think twice about who we are really imitating and who we want representing us to the wider world. In his famous primer on Christian faith Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote that, “Christ came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has — by what I call ‘good infection.’ Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” When we unequivocally throw our full support behind a man like Phil Robertson and point to him as a shining example of what a Christian aka “a little Christ” looks like, how does that reflect on us? What does it communicate to our friends and neighbors about the Jesus we have committed our lives to?
Pope Francis has said “it is necessary to proclaim courageously and in every situation, the Gospel of Christ, a message of hope, reconciliation, communion, a proclamation of God’s closeness, his mercy, his salvation, and a proclamation that the power of God’s love is able to overcome the darkness of evil and guide us on the path of goodness.” This Gospel message of incredible hope that the Church has been entrusted with communicating to the world risks becoming an offensive “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” in people’s ears when a prominent Christian in the public spotlight like Mr. Robertson is believed to be speaking for all of us when making ignorant and uncharitable statements about people that God loves. In his oft quoted “Love Chapter,” St. Paul uses the Greek word agape when explaining the type of all-consuming and sacrificial love required of us as followers of Christ. The question is, do people see this kind of love flowing through our speech and actions; behavior we claim is inspired by our Christian faith?
In a time period when the cultural conversation regarding homosexuality and other highly charged issues has become so polarized, Francis cautions us to remember that “in ideologies there is not Jesus.” He recognizes the simple truth that an “ideology does not beckon” but in fact “chases away the people.” What he shows in leading by example is a way to live the Gospel in a way that demonstrates the agape love of Christ that pours itself out in self-denying service to others and actions marked by profound love, warmth, and kindness. Quite simply this could be viewed as a lifestyle that embraces the motto: “Love More, Talk Less.” What’s ironic is that people who live like this are the kinds of people who, like Mary did with her friend and Savior Jesus, you want to sit at their feet to hear what they have to say. There are so many “harassed and helpless...sheep” in and out of the church who are looking for good shepherds they can trust to not only protect but to show them true, unconditional, pure love, the love a parent has for his or her child. This is ultimately a longing for God’s love. Instead of erecting more roadblocks to faith through thoughtless words, can we be the vessels that God uses to draw the people that he dearly loves to Himself? Maybe then our reputation will be based less on what we preach and more on how we love.