Wise as Serpents, and Harmless as Doves

A person in Baltimore, Maryland, shouting in protest of Donald Trump's election as President of the United States.
This protestor in Baltimore, Maryland, on 10 November, was one of many who took to the streets of American cities after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in a victory that surprised pollsters and mainstream media. Elvert Barnes / found on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 license

16 Nov. 2016: The United States has now come through one of the most rancorous presidential election campaigns in history. Unfortunately, the candidates weren’t the only ones exchanging acrimonious remarks. Their followers—if not in person, then online—also became guilty of spitting venom at each other and spreading disinformation. Sadly, some of these people styled themselves as Christians. If these things happened during the campaigning, what will happen when one of the most controversial Presidents ever elected takes office? Christians may find themselves confused over when and how to respond to situations that may arise. At this time, in this article, I want to address some general principles Jesus and His apostles gave us for responding to times of turmoil and civil unrest.

Don’t Cry Wolf

The 2016 U.S. presidential election has merely brought into relief a growing division between what I will generically call liberals and conservatives. This wound has long been festering not only in the U.S. but throughout the world. I believe it is likely the result of a political swing toward liberalism (with the occasional reversals that always accompany general trends) that began decades ago. This swing is now reaching such an extreme that, along with certain catalyzing economic and world events, it is prodding conservatives to react against it. The liberals in their turn, respond to the conservative reaction, and so on. Obviously, if this escalates, it could lead to civil war and the instability that could trigger international conflict.

Everyone should keep in mind that totalitarian leaders have often used unstable political situations, unrest, and the breakdown of law and order as an excuse to suspend democratic institutions and wrest control. Of course, it could be that none of this will happen, and I pray that it doesn’t. Regrettably, some people seem bent on stirring up trouble. As if the presidential campaign didn’t cause enough alienation, almost immediately after the results were in, protestors took to the streets shouldering “Not My President” signs. They did this despite the fact that many of these same people were no doubt among those who were outraged when Donald Trump said he might not accept the election results if he thought they were rigged against him. The protestors rationale is that Mr. Trump won only by Electoral College votes.

Let me diverge a little for a good purpose. Whatever you think about the United States Electoral College, we shouldn’t ever really get rid of it because it serves as a convenient whipping boy. The losers can comfort themselves by rejecting the outcome and blaming the Electoral College system. Yet the fact remains that Donald Trump (like him or not) clearly won the majority of electoral votes as prescribed in the U.S. Constitution. That is reality, and healthy minds accept reality. Carrying signs through the street that imply that you don’t accept that reality and smashing windows to show you’re having a temper tantrum won’t change that reality and certainly doesn’t help your credibility. Donald Trump has not yet taken office, so he cannot yet, as President, have violated anyone’s rights.

Protestors in Baltimore holding up a placard saying Trump Is Not Our President, Black Lives Matter, and a rainbow flag.

As the signs and banners in this photo show, post-election protests weren’t clearly focused on anything except that the protestors didn’t want to accept the results of a legal election. Elvert Barnes / found on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 license

So, what are these people really protesting? The U.S. system for electing Presidents? The fact that their political opponents number more than they realized and exercised their right to vote? I point this out, not to be unkind, but to show that, while there might come a time to protest, we’d better have a clearly focused reason.

The Golden Rule

But this article is about Christians, and how we are to behave. You may think that you are politically right or politically left. Don’t lean so far to one side that you fall off the path. Jesus said, “How narrow is the gate, and restricted is the way that leads to life! Few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:14). The world offers us many ways, but none of them are Jesus’ way. Jesus’ way is the Golden Rule: “Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). You want to be treated with understanding and respect and, especially, love. Give that to others.

Jesus taught, “Blessed are the meek! For they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5, LITV). The word “meek” is translated from praus. Biblical Greek scholar Bill Mounce says it is “the positive moral quality of dealing with people in a kind manner.” Politicians and their followers gnash at each other over a political office, but those who treat each other kindly will inherit the earth. This runs contrary to our natural instincts, but if we believe Jesus, we know it is true.

Again, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Being merciful is not giving people the punishment, or at least the tongue lashing, we believe they deserve. I think the biggest roadblock to mercy is pride, but if we can swallow our pride and show mercy by not giving tit for tat, we can often defuse a tense situation.

When you allow yourself to be led by the Spirit of God, you will “put off all these: wrath, anger, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:8, English Majority Text Version); you will, “Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but only what is good for building others up as the need may be, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29); and you will, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:6). Keep in mind, ” A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). In times of trouble, then, we should look for opportunities to treat others with respect and respond gently.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

“A lot of people are calling for healing,” Austin City Council member Greg Casar told reporters covering post-election protests in his city. “I think we should reject that” (“Anti-Trump protests, some violent, erupt for 3rd night nationwide“). Reject healing?

Casar has apparently chosen not to be a peacemaker. Paul tells us, “If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). We who are called the children of God are to be peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Jesus is telling us to instigate peace among others. As Vincent’s Word Studies says, we should “seek to bring men into harmony with each other.” This requires not only harmlessness but wisdom.

Wise as Serpents

Jesus told His disciples, “Behold, I send you out as sheep amongst wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). This is a key Scripture, not only in helping us heal the wounds between others, but in keeping out of trouble ourselves. We wander among wolves. Yet, we should live harmlessly. “Harmless” is from the Greek word akeraios, which literally means “unmixed,” as in unmixed wine or unalloyed metal. God had the Israelites typologically picture this by commanding that they not wear clothing of mixed fibers: “You shall not wear a mixed stuff, wool and linen together” (Deuteronomy 22:11). We must be simple, not duplicitous. That is, we must mean what we say and not be two-faced. We must be open, with no bad intentions; totally harmless.

Gleanings from the Web:
“The American white-collar class just spent the year rallying around a super-competent professional (who really wasn’t all that competent) and either insulting or silencing everyone who didn’t accept their assessment. And then they lost. Maybe it’s time to consider whether there’s something about shrill self-righteousness, shouted from a position of high social status, that turns people away.”

Thomas Frank, “Donald Trump is moving to the White House, and liberals put him there

How do we survive among wolves while remaining harmless? “Serpents” comes from the word ophis. This word is related to our words optometry, optics, etc., which have to do with eyes and vision. Serpents were considered wise because they don’t have eyelids and, thus, never close or even blink their eyes. They look as though they are always alert and, when hunting or threatened, seem to continually study their prey or enemy. This was extended to attributing to them an overall wisdom. And, of course, speaking of Satan in the Garden of Eden, the Bible tells us, “The serpent was cunning above every animal of the field which Jehovah God had made” (Genesis 3:1). Jesus is saying that, while we should be like doves who are simple and harmless, we should also be always on the alert to discern the motives of others. We shouldn’t be looking to accuse others, as that will only stir up strife. On the other hand, we should be like Jesus and understand man’s sinful depravity and not entrust ourselves to them (see John 2:24-25).

Gleanings from the Web:
“America didn’t die. In fact, what happened last night is America being very much alive. Half the country felt ignored and angry and disenfranchised and they wrested control of the government from the people they felt ignored by. That’s how democracy works.”

Tim Urban, “It’s Going to Be Okay

Paul spoke of the same principles: “For your obedience has become known to all. I rejoice therefore over you. But I desire to have you wise in that which is good, but innocent in that which is evil” (Romans 16:19). Instead of name-calling, casting blame, stirring up strife in the streets, and trolling and arguing on social media, Paul tells Christians to, “Do all things without murmurings and disputes, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you are seen as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15). Jesus told us we are a light set on a hill above the carnal strivings of this world: “You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do you light a lamp, and put it under a measuring basket, but on a stand; and it shines to all who are in the house. Even so, let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

What Now? Look Up!

Gleanings from the Web:
“At the end of the day, this is an opportunity to learn and grow and consider another world view. This is a wakeup call to get out of safe spaces, politically correct thinking, shatter echo chambers, and challenge yourself to consider the other side of the fence. This is an opportunity to reach out and truly learn to understand each other.”

Trent Lapinski, “Dear Democrats, Read This If You Do Not Understand Why Trump Won

We might be concerned about what will happen now. While we should use the wisdom God gives us through the Holy Spirit and the Word of God to discern the times, Jesus told us not to be troubled: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, give I to you. Don’t let your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful” (John 14:27). When we have our minds on the heavenly, we see the earthly for the shadow it is. “If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). In this way, we can have peace: “In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). And when we have such peace, we can better help others.

Our message to this troubled world must not be conservative or liberal or marked by any of this world’s politics. We are to declare the manifesto of the spiritual world, the kingdom of God. The Gospel of the kingdom of God is the only prescription for genuine healing between peoples and the only news of real hope. Troubled times should stir us to make sure we are doing all we can to insure that the Gospel is published to the world.

If civil authorities tell us to disobey God, then we must disobey them (Acts 5:28-29). If such situations begin to arise, I will try to discuss specific principles and actions in future articles. Otherwise, we must submit to the civil authorities God has established to keep law and order in our society. Not only that, but rather than criticize them and tear them down, we are to pray for them: “I exhort therefore, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and givings of thanks, be made for all men: for kings and all who are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Timothy 2:1-3).

In fact, let’s not pray only for our leaders. Let’s pray for each other and the many volatile situations that are troubling our world. Much more than wrangling over politics, “The effective prayer of the righteous is very powerful” (James 5:16, EMTV).

So, let’s neither stir up strife nor be afraid. Instead, let’s treat others according to the Golden Rule, being merciful, working for peace, acting gently but wisely, praying and keeping our minds on heavenly things.

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