When the usual shrill leftists took umbrage with Lyle Shelton associating with people they hate at a public event I hosted recently, I thought nothing of it. They frequently troll his twitter account like it’s the latest arena blood sport for their entertainment. Some of those self-righteous zealots also harassed the venue via multiple channels and demonstrated the kind of fascist intolerance they claim to oppose.

The odd fringe-left blog also ran a commentary on just how evil people who disagree with them really are. Such hyperbole & thuggish bullying is quite pedestrian in today’s polarised social commentary, so I dismissed them as beneath dignifying with a response. After the Federal election, the evidence is in that Twitter is not the real world.

But then Eternity News ran an opinion by its founder and editor, John Sandeman, and it does deserve a response.

That publication is not a trash periodical, and Sandeman has a reputation for valuing intellectual honesty. The paper’s stated value is “conversations – even robust disagreements – can be conducted in a manner that is respectful of the image of God that is in all people.” I can get behind that.

I was provoked to write my opinion in that spirit of robust but respectful disagreement because I think Sandeman’s opinion on this occasion missed some important notes, not to mention facts. Further, there are some somewhat popular misconceptions that should be cleared up so Christians can have less polarised & more nuanced, productive conversations on various issues the Bible is not black & white about. Full credit to Sandeman & Eternity for also publishing a much shorter version of this response, along with another response to my response.

The central issue of debate is whether or not Lyle Shelton and I should have posed for a photo with members of the “Proud Boys”, one of whom was making a particular gesture some people find offensive. Accusations that they are a “hate group” and that the gesture meant “white power” fly fast and furious from some prejudiced people eager to reach a judgement without due consideration of the evidence.

Prejudice comes from the prefix meaning “before” and the root word from which we also get the word “judicial”. But putting the necessary weighing of the evidence aside for just a little while, there’s a more important question to answer, and for the sake of the exercise, let’s assume all accusations and judgements are fair.

Should Lyle or I or other Christian leaders be seen publicly to be friendly with people with profoundly problematic ideas and maybe even characters? Is such a public display of friendship able to be equated with unequivocal endorsement of their alleged sins – even assuming they are indisputably guilty as charged?

I’m reminded of the time Jesus went out of His way to publicly display His friendship with Zacchaeus, a stranger to Him but whose character the religious majority had absolutely no doubts about. They knew – and he didn’t deny – he was a vile sinner: guilty of oppressing & exploiting vulnerable people. In front of the crowd Jesus accepted the hospitality of this stranger’s home and shared a meal with him.

I think it’s fair to compare the social value of that exchange with posting a selfie to social media. Ancient Jewish society saw breaking bread with someone as an act of friendship and an opportunity to build relationship. Luke 19:7 says the crowd complained that Jesus would deign to be the guest of a sinner. Today we celebrate Jesus’ willingness to be the friend of sinners and it’s one of the distinctives that sets him apart from religious elites.

So why is it outrageous that a Christian would share a selfie of himself breaking bread with alleged racists? What then about this photo I took with Dr. Leah Torres, an abortion provider from the USA briefly infamous after she tweeted she doesn’t hear babies scream in her dreams because she cuts their cords before they’re born? Was the friendship I offered her un-Christlike? Did the Twitter selfie automatically mean I endorsed her worst ideas?

If we must disassociate and distance ourselves from unrepentant sinners with patently evil ideas I submit there is no worse “hate group” in Australia & the Western world than that with an annual death toll exceeding 10,000 per state. Racism is obviously terrible, but does its death toll exceed the more than 70,000 human lives, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, brutally destroyed in Australia every year?

Abortion providers & apologists are together responsible for that domestic holocaust, yet I gladly welcome them to my public events. Over 90 MPs in the various Australian parliaments are also members of the pro-abortion (without limits) American lobby group, Emily’s List. How can I hope to influence them or anyone else with terrible ideas if I ever only allow people I totally agree with to attend or be seen with me? What an echo chamber that would be!

If we’re going to exclude members of “hate groups” like pro-abortion activists who have literally lethal ideas defying God’s laws like “Thou shalt not murder,” should we also exclude people who’ve had an abortion? Just so you know, that’s about 1 in 3 or 4 women over the age of 30 you can no longer have a selfie with.

What about unrepentant drunkards and fornicators? There are plenty of them too. If the indignation levied at Lyle Shelton’s tweet is to be applied consistently, we’re going to have to virtually interrogate people about their ideas & affiliations before we allow them to buy tickets or enter venues.

Transparently this line of reasoning is foolishness and totally inconsistent with the Jesus Who was the Friend of sinners, Whose perfect love is able to deftly balance grace & mercy with Truth & justice.

We’re sometimes told Jesus wouldn’t go to church if He turned up in Person tomorrow. Instead, he’d go where the spiritually lost are most likely to be, to the pub or club: exactly where Lyle met the Proud Boys.

So let’s now weigh the evidence about those allegedly scandalous sinners. This paper’s opinion piece asserted without qualification that the common “OK” hand gesture being made in the photo was “identified as a white power signal,” and provided a handy reference to the ADL’s web page on various such symbols. It removed any doubt that it is an invariably evil symbol by also linking to a picture of the accused Christchurch shooter making the same gesture.

However, even the ADL’s Hate Symbols Database says uniquely of this symbol among all the others it lists that it is, “A common hand gesture,” very recently appropriated “by many on the right – not just extremists” to trigger people on the left. The guide takes extra care to warn readers what Shelton’s detractors failed to do altogether: “Caution must be used in evaluating instances of this symbol’s use.

Where was that measured, qualified commentary in Eternity News?

Mea culpa: I saw that man make the gesture, I knew it could be controversial, but I said nothing. I was preoccupied with gathering the guests into the room to begin the interview they were there to observe, and was initially just trying to photo bomb Lyle’s selfie. I was even making the famous Winston Churchill “V” sign to be cheeky.

I probably let Lyle down. If I could have a mulligan, I’d politely insist, “Let’s do that photo again without any unhelpful signs the irrational haters will jump on, or I don’t want to be in it.” It’s basic wisdom really, if only because of the potential for distraction from better discussions.

Lyle’s caption rejected the accusations of racism levied against the entire “Proud Boys” fraternity. In the photo, he sat beside the newly elected Vice President of their Qld branch, a proud Maori gentleman – not white. The cognitive dissonance needed to sustain the confected outrage about these blokes is an insult to those persisting in the hyperbole.

Disappointingly, the article then offered as fact the claim that, “the FBI classifies it an “extremist group.” It uncritically provided a link to an infamously leftist publication, The Guardian, as the substantiating source. However this is patently false.

The Guardian based its reckless reporting not on an original FBI quote, but on an internal county sheriff’s incorrect memo. A few seconds on Google reveals multiple articles directly quoting the FBI rejecting this attribution.

Special Agent in Charge Renn Cannon said, “We do not intend and did not intend to designate the group as extremist.

The only organisations who think the Proud Boys are a “hate group” espousing white nationalist views are those which are unmistakeably inclined to the political left of any contended social position like the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC recently lost a law suit and was forced to apologise for listing a Muslim who fights against Islamic extremism in its “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists”.

Like leftists who character assassinate rather than civilly debate with dissenters, the SPLC has lost all credibility. It “has become a caricature of itself, labelling virtually anyone who does not fall in line with its left-wing ideology an “extremist” or “hate group,” “ as was written about them in The Washington Post. The Proud Boys are another case in point.

The reality is that much of the criticism of Lyle’s tweet was evidence of the critics’ own prejudices. As the ADL notes, everyone commonly makes the “OK” symbol. Intellectually honest people must therefore not prejudicially jump to conclusions, but actually ask “Why” before making gross assumptions about other people’s motives and personal character, let alone their relationship with God (as some Christian twits presume to do).

In writing this article I took the effort to ask the man who made the “OK” symbol in the photo, Curtis, exactly that for the record. He answered he wasn’t sure what it meant, he thought it just meant freedom. Without me first giving it a name, he called it the “OK” symbol. Being new to the Proud Boys, he supposed the Proud Boys routinely do it in photos to trigger lefties (as the ADL confirms) because that’s what they enjoy doing. He rejected it having any relevance to white supremacy for him, and said he’d never heard that association before all this hullabaloo.

Other Proud Boys members I’ve questioned since said they do it because another lefty trigger, President Trump, routinely makes the same gesture.

Do you know who else has been photographed making the “white power” hate symbol? President Obama, President Clinton, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The only reason they’re not actually accused of being white supremacist, racist Nazis is because they support the political left.

Sandeman thoughtfully muses, “The question is whether Christians should adopt a “classical liberal” approach to society, seeking a civil public square, or whether that battle has been lost and Christians should ally themselves with the nativist and populist Right (aka Donald Trump) and fight hard.” I can answer that question.

Jesus’ followers should value objective Truth above partisan prejudices. Kingdom values like justice & grace should pervade our motives and agendas. We should be undecided about every party & candidate until we know where they stand on issues the Bible is black and white about – like murder.

We should value liberty to debate issues the Bible isn’t authoritative on, and extend charity to each other when we debate instead of condemnation. We should value wisdom, and encourage our political formation where our spiritual formation is achieved, in the congregations of believers.

When the pursuit of Truth is our corporate objective, no one loses, even when persuaded they were wrong. Ignorance is a liability, and Truth an asset the receiver and imparter celebrate alike without ego. Humility is not grovelling and self-flagellation, but an honest assessment of situations and self as God sees them.

Outside the Church, a civil public square is desirable, but not invariably good. Scriptural commands to rebuke the oppressor and open our mouths against injustice would look more like Jesus confronting the social leaders of Ancient Israel with charges their hearts were full of murder like their father the devil, among the other mean names He called them. He didn’t pull any punches when He was advocating against injustice & oppressive legalism.

Let’s not condemn Christians who are friends with sinners. Let’s be better than this silly imitation of self-righteous hypocrites making partisan-prejudiced assumptions. Let’s be slow to condemn, but judge like Jesus taught us to, first looking carefully beneath the surface.

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