Thursday, June 29, 2023

A Disturbance in the Force

“Stop forcing your beliefs on me!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that cry when debating with unbelievers. In fact, I’ve heard it so much that I’ve begun to think there might be something behind it. After all, when many kinds of people from many kinds of backgrounds and situations seem to be arriving at the same kind of sentiment, there must be some cause for it, right?

But for a long time I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what it is. The problem is the wording: “You’re forcing …”

Am I? Really? How is that?

I thought we were just talking. I thought that all I was doing was gently asking you to consider another view of things. In fact, I sincerely had your best interests in view: I was trying to tell you that God loves you, and that he’s made a way for you to come to know it. Really, I was just hoping to see you saved. And I don’t think I made any kind of threat; I was talking about your free choice all the way.

But you thought I was “forcing” something on you? How did that happen?

Literal Force

Back in the 1970s I read The Persecutor, a biography of Sergei Kourdakov, a defected Soviet agent who told the story of Natasha, a Russian Christian whom he had abused in the days when he was paid by the Soviets to beat up anyone who was found to be a Christian. Kourdakov recounted how he and his fellow agents found Natasha at a prayer meeting in a home, and they beat her until the flesh on the backs of her legs was bleeding and bruised — only to find her again, a couple of days later, at yet another meeting in another home. Stunned by her commitment, he recounts, Sergei began to rethink his devotion to his homeland. When he jumped ship off the coast of Vancouver, it was a culmination of a process of conviction started by her simple faithfulness.

Too bad it probably never happened. Good for Natasha, I mean — but bad for the rest of us who found that story quite inspiring. But there have been plenty of real stories of Christians being persecuted, all the way from first-martyr Stephen to the Syrian Christians of today. We don’t need any phony accounts: we’ve got plenty of the real kind.

I’ve got to admit, though, that if someone ever did something like that — beating a person bloody for her faith — that would certainly be a good example of the use of force to compel belief. I’m a lot more mystified, however, at how often I hear people talk about Christians, in particular, “forcing their beliefs on” someone.

I’m pretty sure they’re not talking about the type of thing Kourdakov allegedly did — or anything like it. Still, there’s a great deal of ire and pique in the way the charge is ordinarily expressed. “Don’t go forcing your beliefs on me”, “Who are you to force your beliefs on me”, “You have no right to force your beliefs on anyone”, and so on.

What’s with all this “force”?

Forceful Language

Okay, it’s clearly not the first type of force they’re referring to. I think we can safely say that. Christians aren’t running around beating up on people who think differently than they do. In truth, they cannot: for, as philosopher John Locke pointed out so well long ago, to do so is actually a denial of the gospel. Christians — at least real Protestants and evangelicals — simply can’t use those sorts of tactics. And it’s not merely for moral reasons; it’s because all real Christians are committed to the principle that faith is indispensable. That is, they have to believe that belief makes a difference — indeed, that it makes all the difference, the heaven-and-hell difference — to whether or not a person is genuinely saved at all.

As Locke pointed out, God does not ever want anyone “forced to heaven”. Such a thing, he says, cannot actually even be done: for God, who knows the heart, is not fooled by the mere actions or roles a person is forced by others to perform. He weighs consciences, not merely externals. And anyone who would ever try to compel another person’s belief by force would thus not simply be doing something self-defeating, but would actually be caught working against God himself, who calls all men to give account on “The Great Day” for their own beliefs and for such actions as they were free to perform. To persuade is not wrong; but to compel belief … such a thing is ungodly. Certainly “force” is the opposite of conversion, therefore.

But we don’t do that. Protestants had no part in the Crusades or the Inquisition. And in Europe’s famed “Wars of Religion” following the Reformation, those who held a belief like Locke’s took no part. Those wars were mobilizations of ethnic and regional groups who, however adamantly they may have used “religion” as a banner, were committed to political change by violent, mass-mobilizing means — the very sort of thing Christ himself forbade.

“My kingdom,” he told Pilate, “is not of this world; if it were, my servants would be fighting.” But they weren’t, they’re not, and they never have been.

Forced Explanations

So whatever people mean today when they talk about Christians “forcing their beliefs on people”, they can’t mean anything obvious. Christians cannot use force. To do so defeats them. At the same time, it’s perhaps too easy to dismiss the charge because of the inexactitude of its wording. Sometimes people don’t say quite what they mean: they say more about what they feel. And if they are guilty of getting the description wrong, they may be excused for their use of hyperbole if the feelings in question are sufficiently strong to warrant a metaphor.

So let’s be charitable and take it that way. “Force” is a metaphor for something, some feeling or experience that unsaved people are trying to tell us they sometimes have when we talk to them. Being charitable means that in return they will have to stop talking nonsense and fess up to the metaphor, acknowledging that they really have no reason to imagine Christians represent any kind of political danger or power-threat. They can imagine it if they like: but the charge is so absurd, unwarranted and incompatible with both history and the true spirit of Christianity that no knowledgeable person can countenance it. Christians do not “force” anybody to do anything — at least, not in any literal sense.

But back to their point: if they don’t mean real force, then what could they possibly mean? And how do we account for the commonness of the wording, even if it cannot reasonably be taken in a literal sense?

Forcing the Issue

This brings us to a different usage of “force”. Browsing around the internet, I see that it’s used in some different, non-literal ways. For some, forcing their beliefs on other people is what someone is doing if he is a doctor and refuses to perform an abortion; or a baker, and refuses to make a cake for a gay ‘wedding’. In this case, the force seems to issue from the fact that the person is refusing to sanction, support or participate in the licentious behavior of another. And for some reason, this is seen as an exercise of force.

It’s not. Ironically, while the complainants are all too quick to impute a sort of violence to the choice-of-conscience being made by the Christian in question, they are usually totally uninterested in the real violence they themselves are exercising in bringing to bear the State’s mechanisms of legal coercion or in working to inflame public rage. But refusing to butcher a person’s child, made in the image of God, on the altar of a woman’s second immoral “choice”, or, on the other hand, simply to decline to contribute one’s services to a deluded and depraved sexual “union” is not to force anyone to do anything. Wicked women can seek other doctors. Perverted men can “unionize” in all the ways they wish. Nobody can stop them. But legally compelling a Christian to participate in such things is a clear case of force in the Type One mold — and though the methods are not quite as violent, is not one stroke morally better than the Kourdakov case.

So if what we are saying when we talk about Christians “forcing” their beliefs on people is merely their opting out of someone else’s choices on the basis of conscience, then again, the charge cannot be taken seriously. And anybody who makes it is merely engaging in hyperbole again — but this time with the additional flavor of gross hypocrisy. So I think we can dismiss “force” Type Two from our reckoning. The only real force being used is by the alleged victim. The rest is simply the same thing the alleged victim is claiming to affirm: the right of a person to follow conscience in an uncoerced way.

Forcing a Realization

So what is this “forcing belief” thing really all about? Is it all really nonsense? Before I say so, I’d want to check that out for sure. And if we think carefully, I think we’ll come up with one sense in which the “forcing” metaphor might be justified … if only as a sort of wild overstatement. And under that wild overstatement there just might be some element of reasonableness: let’s see if we can dig it out.

Reading charitably again, I think there is some sort of sincere feeling or experience behind the claim, and I think it’s this: it’s the experience of being confronted with a viewpoint you find that you simply cannot avoid. The “force” element comes from the fact that what you are being told does not permit any side-doors or escape hatches, and yet confronts something you are at great pains to continue to believe. It bangs your worldview into a new shape, and tells you, “This is not optional, not a choice, not something you can take or leave. The facts are solid, the case is proved, there is no other way, and you must now face the truth; and from now on, no matter how you would wish otherwise, you will not have a choice not to know this!”

Such a realization is blunt, uncompromising, indifferent to your preferences and totally unyielding to your wishes. It doesn’t care if it offends you, hurts you, or even costs you everything you have. It’s a whack in the face. And that is (experienced as) a genuine case of force.

That is, it is a case of what we call objective truth. Objective truth is never optional. It can be as gracious and gentle in delivery as a feather or as heavy-handed and hard as a sledgehammer: but in both cases, it’s simply unrelenting. It’s going to be true whether or not you believe it, whether or not you like it, and whether or not it ruins all the things you value. It’s just so.

You can’t really dodge it. You can pretend, you can evade, and you can build castles of whimsy in your brain; but because it has reality on its side, the truth is simply not going to give in. Instead, by fighting it you will lose touch with reality itself. By preserving an illusion in the face of the facts, you will sever yourself from the-things-that-actually-are, and drift off into fiction like an untethered astronaut: you will not again feel the ground under your feet unless you stop the pretense and return to reality — and reality will already be there, waiting, when you do.

Forceful Messaging

It is in this sense, then, that Christians are accused of “forcing” their view on people. To “force” is a metaphor for “presenting as universal, objective and obligatory”, or “presenting as absolutely true”. And the charge is somewhat warranted: after all, though much of what a Christian says can be as inclusive, culturally-sensitive and optional as our world likes, the core of the Christian message — the gospel — is never going to be that way. It’s a message of truth, for all people, for all situations, and for all times. There is no alternative in it; no “other way” people can choose to come. It’s Christ or nothing.

And the world hates that. It hates it because it deprives people of what they love most — autonomy, choice, the option to “do it my way”. It says there is no other way but the humbling way of the cross. There is no freedom but in bowing to God. There is no choice but the straight and narrow way. In a society that worships personal autonomy, the gospel is very bitter medicine. Its basic terms are an offense to (post-)modern pride.

Yet reality simply does not relent. So the combination of truthfulness and offensiveness inspires the experience of being “forced” to a realization that is entirely unpalatable. “How dare you,” the relativists hiss, “You think you can impose your view on the rest of us? Who do you think you are?”

Well, we think we’re nobody, actually. We are not the “force” that is convicting you. If our message were powerless, you could dismiss us instantly, just as you would wish. But what we’re telling you is the simple truth.

And you know it.

You may say you don’t, but you know you do. The thing that’s really irritating is the voice of God behind the message. Mark all of us Christians as hypocrites and charlatans if you will: but you will not escape that message once you hear it. It will be forced upon you; and you will never be able to forget it for the rest of your life. You are now forced out of your comfort zone. From now on, your denial games will no longer work. Your happiness in your old worldview, the one that delivered you from even imagining this message, will never be the same. Sooner or later, you will be forced to face the truth as you now know it. You now have no choice.

Full Force

To tell someone a message like that … is it an act of force? I can see how people would say so. There is unquestionably some violence being done against their existing values and beliefs, and the process is not entirely voluntary or welcome. We are doing something to people when we preach a message like that. In a very profound sense, the gospel is a force: it forces itself upon our consciousness, it forces us away from all our illusions, it forces us to recognize our sin, it forces us to the place of repentance, and it forces us to our knees before God. Actually, no act of physical conquest could be more complete. Physical conquest takes control of the body; but spiritual conquest takes possession of the soul.

The upshot here is that there is no reason for Christians to be surprised at all when someone accuses them of forcing their views on people. That is exactly what they do. And when the resentment follows, though it is most often targeted as a personal attack on the Christians’ character or consistency, the charge is actually most apt against the message of the gospel itself.

It’s forceful.

It was meant to be.

And if it’s not, then what we’re preaching is just not the gospel.

Next Thursday: Further on the Force Farce

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