Bono, lead singer of U2, in his autobiography “Surrender” shares his journey of becoming a rock star to being a rock star and an activist. He and his wife became involved with raising awareness about the AIDS crisis in Africa. The unrefined Irishman quickly learned that if you wanted to address such a huge crisis you had to work the systems that held most if not all of the economic global power. Naturally, he went to Washington.
He had to find common ground with those whose minds he sought to change about the AIDS epidemic. The problem was when he was finally making headway in the Clinton administration the Bush administration moved into the capital. Once again he and his team had to first get into the door again and even if that did happen they had to do the hard work of finding common ground if they were going to convince this new administration to support battling the AIDS crisis.
He recalls meeting John Kasich, the congressman from Ohio, who instantly and surprisingly, was the first to seek common ground. He threw Bono for a loop when he asked him what his favorite Radio Head album is. When he later shared that with Tom Yorke, the lead singer of Radio Head, Tom Yorke was aghast that Bono would spend a single second with a fiscal conservative budget-cutter like John Kasich.
That’s when Bono realized that in forming relationships with those on the opposite side of the Political divide that “I’ve deprived myself of a core weapon of the most combatant of political activists: animus toward the enemy. It’s not so easy to go into battle without one.”
Upon further reflection on the process of finding common ground with lawmakers in DC, Bono later writes it is a “simple but profound idea that you don’t have to agree on everything if the one thing you do agree on is important enough.”
Similarly, Paul began his conversation with the Athenians by finding something they could agree on. He does so respectfully, and humbly, and he does so without compromising his own belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Before this passage, Luke tells us that Paul is deeply distressed at all of the idol worship taking place in Athens. He doesn’t show it, however, when he is invited to speak at the Areopagus (give context of what this is).
He applauds the Athenians for being “extremely spiritual” in their endeavor to acknowledge all deities. So much so there’s even a shrine to honor the “unknown god.” Paul doesn’t begin with statements such as “You’re terrible people for worshipping idols and are going to hell unless you confess your sins,” but instead he begins to build a bridge between himself and the Athenians so that the Athenians would be able to see Jesus as their bridge to God.
He continues to speak their language to explain who it is they are truly seeking. The one true God cannot be found in shrines made by human minds nor does the one true God need anything from humans. Paul makes it clear, however, that we humans need God. For it is in Jesus Christ that we are given life and breath. In him we “live, move and have our being.” Paul goes on to quote their own poetry to make the point that through Jesus Christ we are brought into God’s family.
It is a wonderful example of evangelism done well. Paul doesn’t berate them but instead meets the Athenians where they’re at in their own spiritual journeys. He also doesn’t put on any airs that he’s better than them because he has faith in Jesus Christ while they don’t. Instead, he acknowledges their hunger to know God. A hunger that exists in every human heart even when we don’t recognize it in ourselves.
Paul’s exchange with the Athenians is also refreshing. His tone is free of anger or sarcasm. He is not condescending. I try really hard not to watch the news these days unless it’s about the weather. The last news segment I watched featured people who were obnoxiously rude and disparaging of particular politicians with whom they didn’t agree. They sounded like grade school bullies. At one point they called a representative they didn’t agree with a “dummy” and “Mr. Stupid who wears bad ties.” How childish can you be? Yet these were grown men reporting “the news.”
Such discourse isn’t just found on cable news (both conservative and more liberal outlets). It’s found in online conversations as well. I try really hard to stay out of Grand Haven Informed for the same reasons. If you’ve never ventured into that Facebook group I recommend that you do so in small doses and that you read little to zero of the comments.
It saddens me and I think it saddens you too that we live in a time when speaking kindly to one another is hard or seemingly impossible to do. Paul gives us a wonderful example of how to respectfully reach out to those who see the world differently than us. He’s speaking to the elite of the Roman empire who support and benefit from the very system that oppresses Jews, Paul’s own people, and made it possible for Jesus to be arrested, unjustly convicted, and put to death. Paul had good reason to lay it into this crowd of elitests and philosphers, but he chooses not to.
He’s speaking to people who aren’t Christians, but still compliments them on their spiritual hunger. In this day and age, there are Christians, who because they are so militant in how they think Christians should worship and live their lives, they are condescending, loud, and mean. In treating others so badly it’s quite evident that they’ve missed the part where Jesus says: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
For he sees in them what exists in all of us: The tendency to look for Jesus in all of the wrong places. Paul doesn’t focus on their idol worship, but instead focuses on why they worship idols in the first place. All of their shrines represent the Athenians desire to connect with the power that blessed them with life, breath, and their very existence. A desire that also exists in each one of us.
While I was a student at Princeton Seminary I worked retail part-time at a Banana Republic in downtown Princeton. None of the clothes really fit me so it was a safe place for me to work. One day a lovely Korean family walked in and I greeted them and made some small talk. With this family was the most adorable little girl who was maybe 4-years-old. After I finished chatting with them I went about some other duties and that’s when I feel something grab tightly onto the bottom of the back of my shirt. This of course startled me so I whipped around because whatever grabbed me did so with great force. To my surprise, it was that sweet adorable girl.
I obviously don’t look Korean, but from behind I had the same black hair and similar haircut as the mother of this little girl and I was also wearing the same color shirt. I’ll never forget the look of fear in that little girl’s eyes when she realized she had grabbed onto me, a complete stranger instead of her mother. The force with which she grabbed onto my shirt made sense. She was separated from her Mother and therefore scared. She was frantic to be with her mom again because she knew she would be safe with her mom. Just a few seconds later her mom reappeared and all was well.
We’re not that much different than that little girl. When we are scared, anxious, or feeling unsafe we will run to find safety. In our fear, however, we tend to grab onto the wrong person, thing, or ideology. Any person, thing, or ideology that makes us feel safe, hopeful, and whole. The thing about idol worship is that it can look very similar to Jesus Christ. Just as that little girl mistakenly grabbed on to me because, from a certain perspective, I looked like her mom.
The idols we tend to worship are often blessings God has placed into our lives. The problem is when we worship the blessings instead of the God from whom those blessings come from. We can fall into the trap of worshipping God’s justice rather than Jesus Christ himself. We worship our families and friends instead of the God who blessed us with our loved ones. We worship our kids instead of giving thanks to God who blessed us with our children. We worship movements and ideologies instead of the one who put within us a sense of right and wrong.
It would do us well to realize we live in a very difficult time in history. No matter where you land in the political landscape we’re all afraid. Seeing those we percieve as enemies as people who are just as afraid as anyone else about the future will give us empathy for why they see the world in the way that they do. In doing so we would be following Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.
We are just as prone as that little girl and the Athenians to grab onto anyone but Jesus Christ when we feel lost, afraid, and alone.
It’s why Paul gently encourages them and us to look to Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ we not only find what we yearn for, but we also find our very selves. For in him we live, move, and have our being.
In finding common ground and encouraging them to look to Jesus, Paul doesn’t compromise his own beliefs. While he is respectful, he tells the truth about them and about Jesus Christ. It’s time to repent. Repent means to change direction. He is imploring the Athenians to turn their backs on their idols in order to turn to Christ. We need to do the same. It’s something we do not just once, but time and time again. It’s because time after time we will grab onto anyone or anything but Jesus Christ when we feel lost and afraid.
It is also true that time and time again, Jesus will always forgive us for doing this and will bring us back to him. The more we find ourselves being brought back to Jesus by Jesus himself, the easier it will be to find him when we find ourselves once again in a fog of anxiety and fear.