Putting down the hatchet

Fifteen years ago, I landed my dream job. Well, OK…my dream internship, anyway. I was working for a conservative, religious lobbying group located just eight blocks from the White House. We were on the front lines of the culture war.

When I arrived in May of that year, I was assigned to work in what they called the Cultural Studies department. As it turned out, there was only one culture we studied, and we didn’t “study” it so much as try to eradicate it (motivated, no doubt, by the irrational fear that they were trying to do the same to us). It was, as you might have guessed, the gay rights movement.

A few weeks into the job, I attended a strategy summit of like-minded lobbying groups. The topic: how to eliminate public funding for one group we all particularly despised. The stakeholders at the table took turns proposing various tactics, most of which involved some effort to publicly discredit or otherwise embarrass someone important associated with this particular group.

For one fleeting moment, it occurred to me: everyone around this table, myself included, would have argued passionately that our political agenda was shaped by our religious convictions. Yet those same convictions seemingly held no sway over the means we used to advance our agenda.

Personal attacks.

Public humiliation.

Character assassination.

A few weeks later, I was given an assignment: write a booklet defending what we thought was the traditional view of biblical sexuality against the alternative view being promoted by supporters of the gay Christian community.

One day, as I was in the middle of this assignment, my boss met me in the hall and handed me a manila folder. The tab read, “Campolo, Tony.” My boss looked at me and said, “This is for the booklet. I want you to go after Campolo.”

Tony Campolo is one of the best-known progressive voices within the church. For my colleagues and me, though, the fact that he was a progressive voice with evangelical credentials beyond dispute was no minor source of irritation. People like Campolo didn’t make sense to us; they weren’t supposed to exist. We saw them as walking contradictions. Campolo held the same view of sexuality as most evangelicals, yet he was a proponent of gay rights. He often criticized his fellow evangelicals for, as he once put it, “being tempted into hysterical animosity against gays and lesbians.”

This guy was a thorn in our side; something had to be done.

So I took the folder back to my desk and opened it. To be honest, there wasn’t a lot to work with—a few pieces of correspondence between Tony and my boss (which mainly served to illustrate how deeply my boss disliked Tony), a few news clippings… and a photocopy of a flyer purporting to be from a group called Queer Nation, advertising a “demonstration of support” in honor of Dr. Campolo.

It wasn’t much, but it was all we had to work with. So “guilt by association” it was. If your actions earn the praise of a radical group like Queer Nation, we reasoned, then you can’t be up to much good.

So the booklet was published. My employer shipped thousands of copies to supporters across the nation. When I returned to college for the fall semester, I gave my political science advisor a copy.

One day, he met me in the hall and stopped. “I read your booklet,” he said. “That part about Campolo… that was a hatchet job.”

It wasn’t angry or accusatory. Just matter of fact.

All I could say in reply was, “I know.”

My advisor never said another word about it. I still got full credit for the internship. But his words stuck with me.

And you know what the worst part was? That flyer — the one we used to go after Campolo — turned out to be a fake. My employer had to print a retraction in which they tried to say we had only mentioned Campolo to illustrate how gay activists take advantage of well-meaning, too-softhearted-for-their-own-good Christians.

But that wasn’t what my boss told me when he handed me that manila folder. That wasn’t what led me to write what I did.

“I want you to go after Campolo.”

This was no kindly-intended warning. It was a hatchet job.

A lot has changed in the last 15 years, including some of my personal and political views. (Let’s just say I don’t think my old employer would ask me back.) But what I learned from this experience is that if you’re a Christian — left or right, it doesn’t matter — and if your religious convictions lead you into political activism, do not bring Jesus into it unless you’re prepared to let him shape not only the causes you support, but the way you go about it — and above all, the way you treat your political adversaries.

Just because everyone else plays dirty doesn’t mean we get to. It doesn’t change the fact that Jesus told us to do good to our enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile. When we’re insulted or attacked, we don’t have the luxury of retaliation; we’ve cast our lot with a Savior who refused to fight back when he was attacked. We don’t have the right to seek power for ourselves and those who think like we do, because our teacher — our example — relinquished any claim to power so that he could become the servant of all. And guess what? He calls on us to do likewise — to repay insult with kindness, evil with good.

Yes, even in politics.

After I graduated college, I was still bothered by what I had written. Even though a retraction had been printed (albeit a dishonest one), I still felt the need to set things right. So I wrote to Dr. Campolo, introduced myself, and apologized.

The response I got back was unmitigated grace and forgiveness. Not one hint of malice or resentment. He actually thanked me for reaching out — me, the guy with the hatchet in his hand.

Tony Campolo modeled for me what it looks like to allow Jesus to shape your political engagement — not only the causes you choose to support, but the way you go about it.

So this election day, may we — left, right, and everyone in between — engage (if we so choose) in spirited, vibrant conversations with those on the other end of the political spectrum.

May we stand up and speak out for the causes that are dear to us.

But may we always remember that on the other side of every issue, every debate, every election is a human being made in God’s image and loved just as dearly as we are.

42 thoughts on “Putting down the hatchet

  1. All I can say, Ben, is wow… A striking criticism of the political atmosphere in our nation and the way we as Christians get sucked into it.

    I wish I had the quote in front of me but it echoes to the sentiments put forth by various characters in “The Lord of the Rings” when it comes to using the ring for “good”… both Gandalf and Galadriel, immensely powerful forces for good, recognize that imbued in the tools of the enemy is the power to ultimately corrupt even the best of intentions…

    I wouldn’t go so far as some and say it is evil to be involved in politics…but we as Christians must take extra care and discernment before we step into that muck and mire…are we able to resist the pull towards such compromises…or do we risk falling as well?

    Thanks for these excellent words.

    • Thanks Robert. That’s actually one of my favorite scenes in LOTR!

      I’ve come to the conclusion that the best we as Christians can do when we engage in politics is to make sure we’re doing so on behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, etc…and not for own own self-interest or advancement. It’s hardly a guaranteed way to avoid the pitfalls of political engagement, but it’s a start…

  2. Awesome. Thanks for being open and honest, brother. I’ll take a repentant hatchet man any day over, well, anyone unrepentant. 8^)
    You nailed today’s climate. Our hearts beat together on this. I shared a photo a week ago suggesting how cool it would be if both the candidates went into the debate remembering the other was the image of God. My wall lit up like a Christmas tree, and not all with agreement…

  3. Wow. I worked for what sounds like a very similar organization in Washington 11 years ago, and what you write about the disjunction between motivations and methods exactly describes my experience. Exactly. At that time I would have said that I agreed with every one of my organization’s positions, and yet I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the methods my bosses were comfortable employing to achieve our goals. When my contract was up, I left and didn’t look back. In fact, I think I’ve been harder on them (and the other “family groups”) than on almost anyone else. You’ve reminded me that I can and need to become more compassionate, more full of grace, more forgiving towards everyone in the way you describe–including my former employers. This is a good word. :)

    • Thanks Sharone. I think Campolo was as good an example as any of what it looks like to extend grace & acceptance toward those on the other side of the fence. He did that for me back in the day, so it’s the least I can do for those I disagree with…

  4. I loved this article, Ben.

    I had a neighbor in DC who worked at a similar organization, one interested in holding on to the heritage that the Christian right was creating. Every day he went there, every day they fought homosexuality, and every day he came home to look in the mirror at the attractive gay man.

    I hated that for him.

  5. Your testimony reminds me of a Wesley quote regarding politics:
    “I met those in our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

    I emailed you regarding Election Day Communion, but I never got a response from you. I thank God, though, that my family is part of a church with leadership that embraced the idea when I shared it with them. Thanks, again, for sharing it with us.

    • I’ve never seen that Wesley quote before, but absolutely love it. I’m saving it so I can pull it out every 2-4 years for… well, the rest of my life, in all likelihood. I don’t imagine the election day will ever come when it isn’t painfully relevant.

      Thank you so, so much for that quote. Truly.

  6. Thank you so much for this inspiring post, Ben. I saw it on a friend’s Facebook wall and recognized your name! Sounds like you are choosing to be a conscientious objector in the culture wars.

  7. Powerful stuff. Thank you so much for sharing your story of making things right with Tony, and thank you, too, for showing us the grace Tony extended to you. Thank you, especially now, for inspiring us to conduct ourselves as Christians in the midst of this election season–we need voices like yours! I’ll long remember your post, and will share it with others.
    Linda Thomas

  8. Clicking a “like” button here doesn’t go far enough. I remember you writing that booklet, but never knew some of the stories like this behind it. I think the one thing that Christians are waking up to slowly is that wherever you land on the issue of homosexuality, your actions related to it should still be consistent with Biblical mandates. It seems like we’ve forgotten that with a lot of the “A Christian doesn’t do X” emphasis that has become so prevalent in our century.

    • I do find it strange that even though homosexuality as we know it may not even be mentioned in Scripture (and if it is, only a handful of times), it has become seemingly THE defining issue for many Christians (myself included, once upon a time). This causes something of a problem, because Jesus and Paul both said THE defining issue is how we love our neighbor. (Jesus: all the law & prophets hang on this one command. Paul: love is the fulfillment of the law.) So the thing for which the biblical mandate is murky at best, we turn into a black-and-white issue. And the thing on which the Bible is painstakingly clear, we treat as if it were a murky issue, conditioned with all sorts of caveats, exceptions and “get out” clauses.

      But like you said, I think it’s changing slowly…and for the better.

  9. You have spoke the truth beautifully. This has been on my heart since the political season started and I have wondered if I am the only one who feels this way….It’s good to know I’m not :) Thank you voicing this!

    • Thanks Apryl. And for what it’s worth, you’re not. That’s what led a couple friends of mine to start something called Election Day Communion. To date, more than 700 churches have signed up to …so I think there are a lot of people who are ready to be done with all the polarization.

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  13. It is so frustrating as I driive in my car. The sweet time of praise to the father is interrupted by hatred and disdain during hourly “news” segments and commentary. It’s my special daily worship that helps me stay kingdom focused. How can they not see the contradiction between the music and the words?

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  16. I have to agree with stimbop above – clicking “Like” isn’t enough. We can’t say we’re serving God’s goals and then turn around and not serve them his way. I love that Mr. Campolo was so gracious at the end. Can you imagine your former boss acting with such grace? There are some days I want to shout at people – “didn’t you read The Book?” By their fruits you will know them.

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  19. Campolo & yourself must be better men than I could ever be. Conservative Christians have been responsible for things that I’ll never forgive, but I don’t have the right to do so in any event. One rarely hears of the actions I am referring to, & most who could articulate it better than I, have died. During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, they fiercely & successfully opposed the use of any public funds for research into HIV. The subsequent delay in the development of effective treatment options denied thousands even a fighting chance at survival. Through the years, I have buried 57 of the most remarkable men anyone could ever hope to know in life & have the privilege of calling friends. They may have died from the opportunistic infections & cancers in any event, but they were denied any opportunity to continue living.

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