The Other End of the Telescope

Cape Town 2010, the Lausanne Movement’s gathering of 4,000 Christians representing the evangelical Christian church around the world, is an extraordinarily rich experience. I have been posting various notes on the Christianity Today Magazine blog, blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog. You can follow almost everything that happens here on the Lausanne website, http://www.lausanne.org/cape-town-2010. I’d also recommend Krish Kandiah’s blog, krishk.wordpress.com.

I had an interesting experience regarding controversy as seen through different ends of the telescope. My companion and colleague David Neff, editor of Christianity Today Magazine, had seen an AP story featuring a horrific newspaper front page from Uganda. The newspaper named the “Top 100 Homosexuals in Uganda,” gave their addresses, and featured all this under the headine “Hang Them.”

We are thousands of miles from Uganda, but there are many Ugandan church leaders here, and David and I thought we should approach them for a response. It’s difficult to find anybody in a swirling body of almost 5,000 people, but we did finally locate a friend of ours, David Zac Niringiye, an Anglican bishop in Kampala. Zac, as he is known, is usually quite outspoken, but he clearly didn’t want to comment. He asked us to leave the issue alone–he thought it was some kind of far-from-the-mainstream attempt at provocation that was best ignored. He subsequently made some phone calls and found that no one in Uganda had ever heard of or seen the newspaper, and they knew nothing of the “story.” Since the story has had no followup, I suspect that others did similar checking and found that it wasn’t real.

But I was struck by a parallel to the Florida pastor who wanted to burn the Koran. I was involved in discussions at Christianity Today whether we should draw attention to his publicity stunt or let it die quietly. For many evangelicals the less said the better. However, it eventually became clear that the media fires were burning too hot to let it die; and it also became absolutely clear that for the sake of Christians living in Islamic countries or working with Muslim people, a clear, strong condemnation from Christians in the US was extremely important.

News has radically different meanings if seen from the local context or the from far away. We may know that so-and-so in our context is an insignificant nutcase, representing no one and merely seeking publicity. But people on the other side of the world don’t know that at all.

I don’t know the answer to this, but I lean to the side of speaking boldly. I recognize that when we speak boldly we often speak stupidly, however, inflaming the situation and creating even greater misunderstandings. It takes great wisdom to know when to speak and when to be silent. Part of that wisdom comes from understanding what our silence and our speech sounds like to people on the other side of the world, far from our context.

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2 Responses to “The Other End of the Telescope”

  1. mindy Says:

    Thank you, Tim.

  2. James Swenson Says:

    This is timely for me. At my university, we’ve been having the same debates over how to respond to racist and homophobic graffiti on campus. It’s hard not to feel that we’re amplifying the impact of the original incident; at the same time, I think it’s important for the victims of these acts to hear the school condemn the hate.

    At a forum on our grafitti issue, a professor said, “There is no such thing as a silent anti-racist.” I took it as a challenge to speak to my students on the issue, and to ask them in turn to speak up against all the everyday bigotry with which they come into contact. So I think I agree with you that it’s important to speak boldly.

    On the topic, see also the recent New Yorker piece [http://tinyurl.com/29lw4yk].

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