Of the things I really didn’t expect to find myself doing this weekend – and certainly not at any great length – defending the Mail on Sunday columnist, Peter Hitchens, was probably among the less likely.
It all started after I read this article in the Big Issue. Hitchens regularly refers to himself as ‘the hated Peter Hitchens’. In the article, he explains both the origin of that nickname and how many people regularly seem to misrepresent his views and caricature him in general. The article made a call for people to merely listen to what he actually says and then agree (or disagree) such as they are inclined. So far, all very reasonable.
Now, Peter Hitchens and I are not natural bedfellows. He would vociferously repudiate some of my political inclinations and I am not especially keen on some of his. But I do accept he is an independent thinker, he is often interesting and – despite the fairly large number of things on which we disagree – there are all sorts of things on which we happen to agree too. Rare is the person with which we can agree on absolutely nothing. And we can only discover where and when we do or don’t by actually listening to what they say on its own terms and forming a judgement on it.
You would think that a fairly uncontroversial opinion: read people and then decide what you think about what they said. I dared to tweet something to that effect, noting that Peter Hitchens seems to be a columnist who draws more opprobrium than most based on misrepresentation and mischaracterisation of what he has actually said. What followed was an exercise in Twitter – at some length and with not a few examples – proving the point.
Reply after reply came back that mischaracterised both what I had said, and what Hitchens had said, evidently without having read the original article. My crime – which it was clear had really incensed some folks – was to not simply reject everything Peter Hitchens said a priori without actually reading it. I erred in both reading, and then not entirely disagreeing, with his article.
It didn’t seem to occur to anybody that a Socialist like me – who a former Trot like Hitchens regularly has in his sights – is not a natural ally of Hitchens. Nor did it occur to anybody to actually read what he had said for himself and determine whether they, at least in this one instance, might agree themselves. Nor did many bother asking whether they were illustrating the very point that I was making; a lot of people seem to have such a frothing rage at the very idea of the man Peter Hitchens that to even acknowledge he might ever be right about anything would be (on their view) tantamount to admitting that Satan sometimes makes a good point. This was so strong an impulse that some were even in the absurd position to claiming that Peter Hitchens must necessarily be wrong even when he agrees with them! It was fanatical and, if I’m honest, quite funny.
The reason I am sharing this is to encourage us to avoid this sort of thinking in the church. A danger never far away from the average Evangelical. It doesn’t take much to get the average Evangelical into a frothing rage, frequently over stuff they have not read for themselves and over ideas of things that they know to be ‘bad’ but aren’t always clear why.
Evangelicals have their own particular Hitchens-esque bogeymen. Mention the Pope, or Catholicism in general, and you will send a good many apoplectic. And that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to disagree with. It doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous legitimate points of difference between us that really matter. But some have such a visceral knee-jerk reaction to them that they can hardly bring themselves to admit the fact that we do, actually, share things in common. It isn’t selling out the faith to admit that. Nobody expects you to convert, affirm gospel-denying doctrines, or pretend that any of those things don’t matter, just because you can acknowledge that, essentially, Catholic trinitarian doctrine isn’t heretical (for example). Likewise, we don’t have to like Steve Chalke to recognise that his Oasis organisation does a lot of good in local communities. We don’t have to pretend that the serious theological errors he peddles are anything other than gospel-denying problems to recognise that fact.
It seems to me to be a basic matter of integrity to acknowledge these things. We may have our issues and concerns with people and their theology. We might rightly highlight what those things are. But people are rarely utter terrible. Caricatures are not helpful. We only really know that we deeply disagree with people such as we actually know what they believe and why those things are problems. And we can acknowledge that – even when people are significantly problematic to us and hold seriously deviant views (as we judge it) – not everything they utter is necessarily wrong. That doesn’t mean we have to go recommending them as godly brethren from whom there is much to learn, it is just to acknowledge – what seems to be a basic but often overlooked point – they might sometimes, at some point, say things that are actually true.
Let’s think of it this way. Jesus was quite clear that we should do to others as we would have them do to us. When it comes to judging our views, wouldn’t most of us prefer people read/heard what we had to say before leaping to critique and judgement? Wouldn’t we rather people acknowledged where we do agree as well as where we don’t? Wouldn’t we rather, if people do disagree and are prepared to say so – even if they frequently do so – that they don’t take those bits of disagreement as grounds to disregard everything we might ever say without even considering it? Jesus had no problem denouncing the Pharisees with some regularity; it didn’t stop him pointing out where they got things right too. He resisted caricature. As followers of Jesus, as a matter of integrity, shouldn’t we do the same?
So, if you hate this post, that is okay. Just don’t assume that you will necessarily hate the next one because of it. If you think, based on certain views I hold, that I am wrong; that’s okay. Just don’t assume because of those views that you’ll necessarily think I’m wrong about everything. Let’s do each other the courtesy of hearing each other out before deciding to disagree and, if and when we do, let’s not assume based on one thing that we never can on anything else. If being retweeted by Peter Hitchens several times this weekend has taught me anything, I guess it is that.