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This week I happened upon a news story about the above billboard–posted in New Jersey by the atheist advocacy group American Atheists–and the subsequent backlash that ensued. As you look at this billboard (you can click on it for a larger view), I want you to pause for a moment and reflect on your feelings about it. What kind of a personal reaction does this billboard cause?
If you’re anything like me, your feelings are probably a mix between anger and hurt. After all, Christmas is such an innocent season of hope and goodwill. My observance of Christmas is a positive one, not an aggressive or angry one, so the attack feels completely unwarranted.
However, almost as soon as I processed those thoughts my mind immediately turned to this convicting counter-point: My feelings are probably similar to those felt by non-Christians when they see Christian billboards commanding them to repent. The spirit of these two types of billboards is not so different.
The reality is that every religion or system of beliefs has within its ranks a visible few who steal the spotlight with their over-the-top behavior and offensive tactics. Atheism is certainly no exception, as self-righteousness and anger are common human conditions that plague us all. And that is a perspective I have to keep in mind when faced with situations like this one. To borrow the language of the billboard, this perspective is the “reasonable” response.
But what is the Christian response? That is the real question I need to ask. While reason tells me to keep a cool head, the Gospel of Christ tells me to go even further. Consider Matthew 5:38-45:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
It’s easy to forget how difficult it is to follow Christ. Jesus’ words sound great in theory, but my true feelings are quickly revealed with just the slightest bit of provocation. While it is tempting to respond tit-for-tat in these situations, a response of grace, love and gentleness is the real sign of faithfulness to God. Anyone can argue loudly but very few, when slapped on the cheek, will turn to have the other slapped also.
As we enter this Christmas season, remembering in quiet awe the miracle of Jesus’ birth, let’s not forget that the Incarnation is also a map for Christian living. God humbled Himself and became a man, suffering the persecution of a broken world when He deserved nothing but eternal glory. Blessedly, we are transformed by that act of grace, and we are to be a similar means of grace in the lives of others. When we feel unfairly attacked or judged, we are free from the burden of defending ourselves and are instead compelled to love in radical ways. I can think of no response more fitting as I celebrate this happy season.