Here is the backstory. Some years ago, while I was still pastoring, I gathered my books and drove 100 miles north to spend a few days in a friend’s camphouse to study and pray. I stopped for lunch at a family-style restaurant in the next town and soon found myself seated across from two older gentlemen in faded overalls. I was trying to read, but the one directly across wanted to talk politics. I said I was from New Orleans and had no idea what Mississippi was doing. He didn’t skip a beat, but asked who we were going to elect as governor. That led to a discussion on a candidate who had been a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. I assured the man he had no chance, that he believed things our people do not hold. “For instance?” he said. I said, “He believes in the superiority of the white race.” “Well, that’s a little hard to argue with,” he said. I laid down my book and said, “I’ll argue with it.” All around us, people of both races were tuned to this discussion.
He wanted to know why it was that through history whenever blacks and whites lived together, the blacks ended up as slaves of the whites. I’d heard that before. I said, “Sir, you’ll be happy to know that didn’t happen often. But if it did, it speaks more to the inferiority of the whites, that they would make slaves of their neighbors.” He didn’t miss a beat. “That brings up the matter of slavery. I see you have a Bible there.” Yes? “You know there is nothing in the Bible against slavery.” I said, “Are you serious?” He said, “Give me one verse in all the Bible that says slavery is wrong.”
What happened next was classic. While my mind was whirring, trying to think of a verse (I knew there is no single verse condemning slavery; that was a term paper of mine in a course on the Civil War in college), the man’s friend turned to him and answered his question.
“How about ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’?” I came out of my seat. “Great answer!” It was the perfect comeback. I could have kissed that guy on the mouth. (It’s a figure of speech, mom.)
The first guy conceded nothing, of course (they never do). When he wanted to keep talking, I said, “My friend, you’ll need to excuse me. I have some reading to do.” But I didn’t read a thing. I sat there staring at the book, thinking about what had just happened, and enjoying that perfect answer to a perplexing question.
In time, I built a sermon around that story, making it the springboard for a message on the “Second Commandment” of our Lord from Matthew 22. I preached it in various places, especially to civic groups. On one occasion, I delivered it to a legislative luncheon in Montgomery, Alabama, at the invitation of Dr. Rick Lance, the executive-director of their state convention.
I loved that message. In fact, it had no dark side. It was like a child that thrilled my heart, never let me down, and who was my pride and joy.
Then one day, I turned the message into an article and mailed it off to a state Baptist weekly whose editor was a friend. He printed the message as a guest editorial, I received good response from readers, and that was that.
Except it wasn’t.
The pastor gets a sucker punch.
A few days later, I received a letter that was like a slap in the face.
A man living near the capital city of that state wrote the following:
“Dear Reverend McKeever:
I read your Guest Opinion in the 28 August 1997 issue of (name of paper) with a sense of deja vu and disappointment–disappointment in you as a minister/theologian and disappointment in a system that promotes and perpetuates sophistry.”
Well, he had my undivided attention. Give the writer credit. The letter was signed, so this was no anonymous backstab.
After attacking a couple of points in my message, he said, “Your evasiveness and lack of intellectual honesty is one of the reason, after graduating from seminary, that I decided not to stay in the ministry. It took me several years to figure out why I could not get straight answers to straight questions in seminary. You, and professors like you, with your theological positions to defend, and with your considerable knowledge and education, refused to share that knowledge with the less educated, like me. You continually obfuscated simple issues like the ones above. And we wonder why our church members are so biblically illiterate! Shame on you and those like you!”
This was some 15 years ago. This week, in going through old correspondence files–trying to toss out every non-keeper–I came across this letter and our subsequent exchange. Yep, I answered him. Whether what I said to him was right is debatable. (Even to me. I honestly do not know. My wife thinks I was unduly harsh.)
His letter is neatly typewritten with no errors. Mine is handwritten, leading me to believe I dashed it off and mailed the original quickly instead of the wiser approach of letting it sit overnight before deciding.
I wrote to him:
“Dear Mr. (Name):
That was quite a letter. I had no idea that there were people around like you. May I just say, sir, that it is indeed good news that you are out of the ministry. If you still have a copy of your letter, please refer to your accusation that I’m involved in ‘sophistry,’ then look at your fallacious reasoning in paragraph four. You certainly must know a lot about faulty logic since it seems to be your stock in trade. I suspect you did get straight answers in seminary, but were so out of balance they seemed crooked to you. (Signed) J.M.”
I read that this week and thought, “Wow. Did I really say that to that man? That was a little strong, wasn’t it, McKeever?”
He wrote back a week later:
“Thank you for responding to my letter. However, you failed to say anything; you only attacked me.”
He was right that I had not even tried to respond to his attack on my message. (My wife says I was defensive.) In fact, he said I used “cutsy responses” (cutesy?) instead of honesty. Then, he sent me a list of 69 books “which deny the divinity of Jesus,” daring me to share the list with my church members.
He went on like that for a page and a half and ended with “I await the response of your church members to my books.”
Well, we found out the truth about him, didn’t we? The first letter made him seem to be a victim of sloppy teaching. In his second letter, the mask is off and he is a die-hard skeptic out to do as much damage as possible.
My response to him at that time was one of the briefest ever:
“Mr. (name): Proverbs 26:4-5. This will end our little correspondence. J.”
That text says: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly lest you also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
I think I know what that means in this situation.
If I engage this man on an intellectual level to answer all his arguments and the points made by the authors of his books, I validate him and his skepticism. He automatically considers himself wiser than the run-of-the-mill Christian, he keeps piling up arguments and philosophies–and I am instantly way out of my depth here–and we will get nowhere.
The man would then walk away feeling that because he is smarter than me (I concede that he may well be), his point of view has carried the day.
But just because a Christian loses a debate does not mean he is wrong. Just because a skeptic wins one does not prove he is right.
Few die-hard skeptics were ever brought to childlike faith and humble repentance by philosophical discussions, debates, and argumentation.
In second-guessing myself, I honestly do not know what to think of my two little letters to the man. Perhaps I was harsh and thoughtless. But, this is what I did.
I never heard from him again or heard of him, before or after.
Monday morning quarterbacking.
My wife wonders why an article about this. I reply that pastors have this sort of thing happen from time to time, and the writings on this website are intended to help them. “How will this help?” she wanted to know.
Good question. Maybe it won’t.
However, even though at the end of the exchange with the man, I saw him as the evangelistic skeptic who had been masquerading as a victim of bad teachers and sloppy theologians, I did not know that up front. If I had it to do over, I wish I would have called a mentor and read it to him, then asked for his counsel, whether to answer the man and how. (I feel certain my primary mentor would have said, “Throw it away. Don’t waste time on this guy.”)
It’s hard to know.