Hardened hearts

August 2nd, 2022

Let’s be honest: the whole “Do not let your hearts be troubled” thing is easier said than done these days. Buffalo, Uvalde, Supreme Court decisions, Akron, massive casualties in a tractor trailer, Highland Park, wars and the rumor of wars, inflation, ecclesial division, political division—I could go on and on—but those are just the most recent headlines worth mentioning that easily trouble hearts that care.

Those of us who are clergy should have hearts that care, and therefore it is especially easy for us to feel troubled in times like these. As we lead from our pulpits and other areas of influence alongside those we shepherd, we must remain vigilant in guarding our hearts in such troubling and divisive times. We must ensure that a fair amount of care is given to protecting our hearts from becoming hardened. A hardened heart can easily lend itself to hate, especially in a climate that promotes hate.

Far too often these days, it seems like even the clergy offer responses that look and sound and read a lot more hatefully. Many justify their rage by calling it (or at least alluding to it as) “righteous anger.”  Righteous anger can be important, especially for those utilizing a prophetic voice. However, there is a difference between righteous anger and hatred. Righteous anger is the posture of prophets in the scripture when their care for God’s people and God’s creation leads them to speaking out with force and conviction. Righteous anger is a prophetic response to human action being unjust and out of kilter with what God wants most. Hate is a deep-seated feeling born out of a disdain for some other person, group, or thing. Hate is not of God. The line between righteous anger and hate is a thin one, and even prophets can confuse the two. After all, it is hate that drives the prophet Jonah into the belly of a fish. And yet, while God has the ultimate power to utilize even something as poisonous as hate for the sake of redemption, God would still prefer those angry responses be born out of love and care as opposed to hate. 

Available from MinistryMatters

In a troubling age where so many times righteous anger feels like the right response, we must tend to our souls and be honest with ourselves to ensure the response of repeated righteous anger does not turn into feelings of hate. Clergy siblings, we must guard our hearts so that they do not become hardened.

In his beautiful memoir Brother to a Dragonfly, the Baptist preacher and Civil Rights activist Will Campbell shares the story of the moment when he realized that his heart had become hardened toward the people whose hearts he was working to change. A fiery Campbell was very much on the front lines, quick to call out family member or stranger alike who defied the movement toward justice and equity.  He was all about getting into good trouble at any cost. However, after years of taking that posture his heart had hardened and he began failing to see the humanity, the very likeness of the image of God, in his opponents.

One day, his intoxicated brother Joe and a friend named P.D. called Campbell out for his failure to see his enemies as people. A young seminarian colleague of Will’s had recently been murdered, along with another individual, for being active participants of the movement in the South. Will was rightfully outraged. As he lamented and made phone calls mobilizing folks to respond to the murder, Joe and P.D. sat and mourned with Will over the loss of his friend. At one point as Will’s anger raged, the religious critic P.D. asked Will, “Brother, what you reckon your friend Mr. Jesus thinks of all this? Brother, what about that definition of Christianity you gave me that time? Let’s see if it can pass the test.”

What was Will’s definition of Christianity he'd once given to P.D.? P.D. had asked Will to give a definition of Christian faith in ten words or less. Reluctantly, Will gave P.D. a response that he felt at the time would resonate with P.D. and still sum up the faith in as few words as possible: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” As Will’s friend lay dead from a bullet fired in hate, P.D. fired a haunting question back at the preacher: “Was Jonathan (the murdered activist) a bastard?” In the tension of the moment, Will begrudgingly said, “Yes.” Then, P.D. pushed harder, “All right. Is Thomas Coleman (the murderer) a bastard?” Will said, “That one was a lot easier. Yes, Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”

P.D. whispered another question to Will, “Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?”

What happens next is beautiful. In the words of the preacher Campbell:

“Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation…I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter…I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication. An attempted negation of Jesus, of human engineering, of riding the coattails of Caesar, of playing on his ballpark, by his rules and with his ball, of looking to government to make and verify and authenticate our morality, of worshipping at the shrine of enlightenment and academia, of making an idol of the Supreme Court, a theology of law and order and of denying not only the Faith I professed to hold buy my history and my people—the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled. Yet sitting then in his own jail cell, the blood of two of his and my brothers on his hands. The thought gave me a shaking chill in a non-air conditioned room in August.”[1]

Campbell described this lesson from P.D.—born out of a terrible tragedy—as a conversion, a turning point in his ministry. Will Campbell would continue to fight for justice and equal rights with even greater fervor after that moment. The difference was, his fighting was no longer motivated by hate of the other, but instead out of a love for all. What Campbell discovered as his love for the enemy expanded was that it was far easier to do the meaningful work for needed change when you have an authentic relationship with those who you wish to change. Will Campbell befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan and as a result gained influence over them—an influence he never had when they were the hated other, prosecuted and damned by his hardened heart.

The Thomas Colemans of the world are many. They sit out there weekly in our red and blue pews. We, ourselves, are to some degree like him. But we are also like the aforementioned Jesus, and so are the folks in the red and blue pews. Our ability to affect positive change in the hearts and minds of our congregants who we may disagree with on major moral matters is negated if our hearts are hardened, and if our repeated cries of righteous anger go unchecked and transform into hatred. If there is hate in our hearts, sisters and brothers, we are no longer prophetic—we are a part of the problem.

I had a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago in which we shared our frustrations with the hateful extreme responses to events that are projected on our screens daily. I remarked, “Collectively, America and the Church have become a donut. I feel as if we have no center. We go round and round, and while we may be sweet on the surface, we are bad for our health.” 

“Where is our center?” I moaned.

“The gospel is our center. The gospel centers us,” my friend responded.  

“Ah, yes, I guess you are right.”  

In that moment, I felt my heart soften, just a tad.


[1] Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (University Press of Mississippi, 2018), 188.

comments powered by Disqus