What Christians can Learn from the Juan Williams Incident

8984039-large I have a love-hate relationship with censorship.

I appreciate censorship of the obscene. I have three young daughters and feel like our society is getting more and more perverse all the time. So, any mild cover provided to their eyes and ears I appreciate. Having said that, I loathe the thought police. Not people who pay close attention to biblical teaching and doctrine…the thought police—those who insist everyone think the way they do or else. Or else what? Or else you will be labeled as stupid, apostate, oppressive, a liberal, or right-winger, a Calvinist or soft on baptism—or too legalistic about baptism…or…

You get the point.

There was a time I believed the thought police only existed on the right of Christianity. Now I realize they come from the center and left as well.

I’ve been processing the firing of NPR’s Juan Williams since last Wednesday when I first became aware. I will confess that I absolutely LOVE Juan Williams. I don’t share his politics (at all, really), but I have always respected him as a fair-minded liberal, an insightful news analyst on both Fox News and NPR. I have respected him most for his stunning book, Eyes on the Prize—simply one of the finest books on the Civil Rights Movement ever written.

As a bit of a news hound I hear or read some Juan Williams several times a week, and have for a number of years. So, to hear that he had been fired for making “bigoted” comments was completely shocking to me. Also, to hear that NPR was taking a hard line on news persons offering personal opinions on air…well, anyone who listens to NPR with any regularity knows there is, at best, selective application of that “rule.” I watched the entire segment in question between Williams and Bill O’Reilly and was still shocked that Williams was released. In context, his comments were a transparent preface to his broader point–that Americans shouldn't paint all Muslims with the same brush. Then, I saw the video speech the next day by NPR’s head, Vivian Schiller, in which she said Williams’ beliefs were between “him and his…psychiatrist, or his publicist…take your pick.” I then saw she apologized briefly, through press release (rather than directly to Williams).

Hmmm…

I’ll just begin by saying I don’t believe the firing was fair, handled well, or smart. On the contrary, it was wrong, unkind, hypocritical, fumbled from the get go, and altogether foolish. Williams is not only a fine man of character according to virtually all who know him…he is a tremendous talent and was the only African-American male NPR had on it’s air.

Here’s a depressing truth for the day…

Churches do this all the time. Lecture programs do this all the time. Bible departments do it too. Ministerial social cliques even do it.

What’s it?

Dismiss or label people for saying what they believe to be true if it’s against the party line. These party lines are real trip wires and when someone comes upon one, even unknowingly, things can get ugly. This doesn’t always mean a firing. When it does, it’s often done ugly-like. Williams-like. When it doesn’t mean a firing, it sometimes just means a lid put on someone’s “star,” or social isolation.

For the record, these party lines exist on the left and the right of Christianity. I know because I’ve been behind the scenes with both sides. They both do it. Even the "center" has a though police force–as centrism is an orthodoxy that often morphs into rigid ideology with time. Left, right or center, party line towing is a fact of life in church and ministry. It’s a sad but true reality that needs to change. Call me an idealist, but I have to believe that a little diversity of thought is good thing…if for no other reason than to give new insights and the prophetic voice some possible foot in the door.

Here’s a short list of trip-wires that can lead to a Juan Williams like incident at the hands of left, right or center Christian ideologues:

  • Who’s in control–the elders or the minister?
  • Instrumental music…yes or no
  • Big church vs. small church
  • Role of women in the church
  • Church growth vs. “Faithfulness”
  • Views on social justice 

That’s the short list. I’ll bet you can add to it.

Here’s why I think we need to pay attention to things like Juan Williams’ firing: because we don’t want a society, church, or Fellowship in which someone can be hushed, dismissed, and treated poorly for such small reasons. At least, I don’t. We have to leave room for the dissenting voice, for the prophet, for new insights…and yes, even for honesty.

I’m at a place in life where I don’t mind someone being biased, or even pointed. However, I want them to be fair to others. Don’t misquote others (in or out of context). Don’t caricature people or write them off for life. But, I want you to be honest. Honesty is a good thing. I’ll take honesty with authenticity over acquiescence through fear any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

I’m not for some sort of “fairness doctrine” or affirmative action for theologies. I’m making the case against the thought police and for open, honest, fair dialogue that may even get quite heated at points. But, to me, that’s part of what it means to argue like Jesus.

What would you add to the list of party lines?

Want to add any thoughts on the Juan Williams firings?

Whose party lines are the most strict–left, right, or center?

How do we leave room for honest and debate without comprising our convictions?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Share Your Thoughts

3 thoughts on “What Christians can Learn from the Juan Williams Incident

  1. How strange that he should be condemned for admitting his own struggle with prejudice. Isn’t it precisely that kind of transparency that we need to get at the root of our racial fears? Good thoughts, Tim.

  2. Nicely written. (Let’s not try to figure out whether the left, right, center are the worst! Let’s confess our own & leave others to confess theirs.)
    Two thots:
    1. Interesting to me is that Juan Williams actually was making an NPR-sympathetic point (context). Suggests that conflict being more personality or knee-jerk than a real listening. Or, there was a lot more to the firing than that incident! Your point about such is well-taken.
    2. The implicit ad hominem attack on Juan (e.g., talk to his therapist) or of any of us on each other should alert us that something is amiss in ourselves. I notice that sometimes such name-calling attacks are couched in lofty language or identity politics or even calls for the other person to be more Christian while not examining self motivations (i.e. trying to remove a speck from someone else’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own (to quote the One we follow).
    Very tricky to tell others how they should improve. This is not a refutation of a mutual call to each other that we should all be self-examining. It is an emphasis on self-examination first and giving a sympathetic hearing to others–ask ourselves, “what is this person’s real concerns? why are they saying this?”
    My prayer for today is to become a more careful listener and self-examiner. I welcome others prayers for me in that.