Sam Harris is one of the well-known band of atheists whose vitriolic rantings and button-pushing avowals seem to draw audiences like reality television. His observations are shouted angrily; his ideas are often inflammatory. His frustration with Christians is spouted with sarcasm, antagonism, and resentment. And something in one of his recent works made me wonder how I might have contributed to it. In an open letter to American Christians, Harris begins, "Thousands of people have written to me to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians believe that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own."(1)
When one understands apologetics as a defense of the Christian faith, voices like Harris, who attack Christianity and its morality with fluent hostility, seem to justify a defensive stance. How can one respond to those who readily earn and live up to titles like "Darwin's Rottweiler" without barking a few hostile lines of their own? Is it ever Christ-like to respond to Harris in the manner that Harris responds to Christ?
There is no doubt that Jesus frustrated more than a few scribes; he was fairly harsh on the rich, and he responded angrily to the commercialization of the temple. Yet while these are the scenes we might summon to substantiate hostile words when the God we love is debased with insult, Harris is right. Jesus told anyone who would listen that the greatest commandment is to love God with everything that is in us, and the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as we would ourselves.
In fact, in this scene it is interesting that Jesus noted the second greatest commandment at all. No one had asked this question (we generally are not interested in runner ups), and yet he willingly offered the information. He made note of the second commandment as if it was so near to the greatest commandment to warrant formal connection. Elsewhere, Jesus furthered these instructions so that we would be sure that "neighbor" was not a word with which we could take creative license. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44).
As in many of Jesus's instructions for being a disciple, his approach hardly seems reasonable. Here he seems to ask that the Harris's and Dawkins' of the world be given a respect which they deny others. In fact, we are told that their disrespect is not something that should bring defensiveness but rather enigmatically blessing. Love and pray for those who persecute you. And, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12).
Of course, this is not to say that Jesus did not gently point out the poverty of certain arguments and bias of their sources, blatant double standards, and willful inconsistencies. And in the case of the new atheists, this might include the altogether unwarranted optimism for a world rid of faith. But Christians would do well to remember that Jesus's harshest words were never reserved for those of other faiths or belief systems, but those from within his own faith. And regardless of the belief system in front of you, Jesus commands respect, humility, and some real degree of the love you claim to know. "Since God so loved us," writes John "we ought also to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us" (1 John 4:11-12).
Obeying the greatest commandment must never be the motivation for disobeying the second greatest. If the bombastic detractors of the Christian faith refuse to see its God, might they at the very least encounter the reality of God's command to love them in spite of it.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation: A Challenge to the Faith of America (New York: Bantam Books, 2007), vii.