Refusing to listen to people we disapprove of

A couple of times recently I’ve had occasion to think about whether and when it’s right to refuse to engage with people whose views or actions we don’t like. The first of these was when somebody who went to Israel’s centre for the study of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem with the same Council of Christian and Jews organised group as me decided not to attend a reunion gathering because the CCJ would or could not “disinvite” Israel’s ambassador in light of Israel’s actions in Gaza. At least one of our group feels unable to attend an event at which the ambassador is present while the assault on Gaza continues. The second was during an exchange in the United Reformed Church Facebook when somebody expressed their negative assessment of Roman Catholicism in highly intemperate language. It was denied that Roman Catholicism was Christian, doctrines were ascribed to Roman Catholicism and described as demonic heresies. In response another member of the group stated their intention to withdraw not only from that thread but from the whole group if the person concerned was not denied access to it.

In both cases I feel sympathy with the opinions of those actually withdrawing or threatening to do so. Israel’s actions in Gaza are appalling and its overall policy towards the occupied territories is deplorable. Similarly it is profoundly wrong and at variance with the ecumenical vocation of the United Reformed Church to deny the catholicity of Roman Catholicism. My own theological positions, indeed, tend to stress “catholic” rather more than “Reformed” and to be interested in and open to influence from Roman Catholic thinking, which I fully accept as one part of the universal and apostolic Church.

However in neither case do I think it right to refuse to be part of a conversation in which people with whom we disagree or of whose actions we disapprove. All parties have to have the right to express their opinions, although it may sometimes be right for the collective to decide that some may not be party to some parts of the conversation using, ideally, criteria that are clear and defined in advance. Thus I would be prepared to agree that some URC forums be closed to people who clearly and repeatedly deny or reject positions established in our Basis of Union, provided that it was properly shown that they did so and agreed that they did.

The Facebook group in question is not, in fact, established on that basis. There is a code of conduct and some of the remarks in question could be held to have breached it but that equally could be argued not to have done so. To refuse to engage because someone has expressed views we find abhorrent seems wrong to me.

On Israel I see no possibility of progress without proper engagement with the state and its representatives and am, I think, opposed to the idea of boycotts directed towards it. There is a real and very serious problem for Christians in our relationships with modern Israel. A state that defines itself simultaneously in ethnic (secular Zionism) and religious (religious Zionism) terms and also appeals to liberal norms of equality under the law and democratic sovereignty is a major challenge to contemporary theological reflection on politics, especially where our proper attitude to Judaism itself is such a problem for us.

To retreat into an outrage that refuses even to recognise Israel as a full member of the community of states (implied to me in all boycott types actions) seems to me a fundamental mistake.

  1. Elliot said:

    Personally (having read the Facebook discussion in question) I think a lot of confusion would be avoided if the URC gave up the pretense and title to be ‘Reformed’ and standing in the tradition of the WCF (particularly on this issue ch25) and the Savoy Declaration (on this issue ch26). It would be more honest for the URC to rename itself as the ‘United (uniting?) Church’ or something, and to jettison chapter 17 of the Basis of Union as that is a fundamentally dishonest chapter given the heterodox theology that prevails in the URC vis a vis the confessional documents that that section seeks to make their ‘implications clear’.

    The question that bothers me is that if one does not hold that the RCC is apostate (which, like your offensive separatist on the Facebook page, I still do) – what basis is there to remain out of communion with it? If it has now become a true church, with saving doctrine then as the largest representative of the visible church in the West what justification is there to remain in separation from it?

  2. Elliot said:

    I should correct myself – I should say the RCC is ‘almost apostate’

    • The “almost” makes a big difference! It would be interesting to know both what is current Roman teaching and practice amounts, in your view, to apostasy and also what prevents it quite being so.

      I agree that it would both be more honest and better in other ways to drop the word “Reformed” from our name, although it does honour an important part of our past.

      I’m not sure I agree with you about section 17 of the BoU. While it is true that there are some in the denomination who can’t be regarded as conforming to it I think almost all of our ministers, if pushed, would attempt to argue that they did. It certainly seems to me to have considerable value in giving broadly orthodox teaching (I see little or nothing in it that is narrowly Reformed) a degree of authority.

  3. Elliot said:

    Nick, I would say ‘almost’ for the usual Reformed reasons (doctrines of grace, of the sacraments, Mariology, the doctrine of the intercession of Saints, its express view on the relegated ‘communion’ status of non-episcopal churches, ultramontanism, its hierarchy). Taking the Catechism as its statement of faith – what exactly is current that is not reflected in the usual criticisms of the Post Tridentine RCC? However, I acknowledge there are some very interesting and pertinent modern theologians in the Church of Rome and I cannot say that Rome is apostate as for all the things I object to in its theology and practice, it still preaches the Gospel to its members and, taking an Augustinian view of the sacraments, it still has operative sacraments. I am not of the view that church government is of the essence of/a mark of a church, although I would hold that a congregationally centred church with additional conciliar layers when necessary is the optimal to the Biblical model – essentially I hold of Rome what Rome holds of churches without mono-bishops and the other additions to the hierarchy.

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