The Harm Gap

So you finally convince your work colleague Ethan to come to an apologetics talk on Friday night. You’ve been friends for a while, and you’ve had the chance to chat about spiritual matters. He’s at a bit of a loose end, having been through a relationship break-up. Following a coffee after work one evening, you strike up the courage to ask him along. People are often open after difficult times, right? Besides you’d love for Ethan to hear about how Christianity is still plausible in this modern age. After all, he’s familiar with the visiting speaker, who is a well-known apologist, because you’ve shared some Youtube clips with him that were great conversation starters across the cubicle.

So on the night you introduce Ethan to some friends, grab a quick bite beforehand with them all (they clicked well with Ethan, from what you could see), then you head to the talk.

The lecture title is “Can you be happy without God?” It’s sharp, punchy, funny and emotionally on the money. You glance sideways from time to time and Ethan seems to be laughing at all the right spots.

The QandA after is a bit more intense and at one stage the speaker is quizzed about homosexuality, with a questioner pushing hard on why God is even bothered about who we sleep with. The speaker handles it well, giving a big picture answer, using Romans 1 as a launch pad. He gets a round of applause from some in the crowd, which seems a little strange, and one brave, lonesome cat-call. The moment passes, and afterwards you try to pick how Ethan might have felt about the talk, but he says he isn’t up for going out for coffee with the group, and heads home early. Oh well, you can speak on Monday at work.

On Monday at work, however, things seem strained. More than strained. Ethan brushes off your approaches to talk about the event. In fact he seems distracted and somewhat distant. It’s only on Tuesday that things heat up. Turns out he’s asked to shift desks, to the other side of the office. He avoids eye contact, and is too busy to hang out at lunch. You notice the HR representative chatting with him later that afternoon. You go home wondering what has happened.

It’s only on Wednesday, when you are called into the HR department, and your supervisor is sitting there that it clicks. After exchanging pleasantries the supervisor starts the real conversation:

“We just wanted to have a chat with you, to get your side of what might have happened.”

 “Happened? About what?”

 “Just some concerns we have about how you and Ethan might be able to continue working on the same project as we move forward.”

“Why wouldn’t we?  Is there something wrong with our work? Has Ethan got a problem with the way I work?”

 “Well not exactly about the way you work. He’s come to us requesting he move teams. He’s a bit upset about that Christian meeting you took him along to on Friday night. I know it’s in your own time, but we’re committed to making the work space a safe place for everyone, whatever their views and opinions. We want to discuss with you whether it was appropriate to ask a work colleague to an event like that.”

 “Really. Ethan hasn’t said to me. Besides that’s not a work issue, it was a private event.”

 “Well it’s become a work issue now, and we have to resolve it for the sake of good relationships in the office. Perhaps it would be helpful if you began by explaining why you invited Ethan to something that he found a little bit triggering.”

 You can see where this conversation is going. And if you think that could never happen, then you’re actually behind the eight ball already. Companies and civil service departments across the Western world are already taking measures to ensure that work colleagues cannot put other work colleagues in so called “harm’s way” when it comes to non-working hours functions. And in our current climate harm includes any event or public that could appear coercive around matters of sexuality, or that speaks of sexual diversity as something less than positive.

Harm is now the language being employed around the sexual ethics of the church. Gospel evangelism is being pitched as coercion. Psychological safety is now paramount for any who are sexual minorities, and the church is under the microscope for its beliefs in these areas. So called “conversion therapies” are now being banned across many jurisdictions, with fines and threats of imprisonment the penalties. It’s a discombobulating world, in which modern day work pitches itself as a place of identity production, a place of social change, and a means to promote lifestyles and values antithetical to the gospel.

To invite someone to a talk or event at which they hear a viewpoint on sexuality that challenges or disturbs their lifestyle will not simply lose you a friend, it could lose you your job! The result is that many Christians are self-censoring when it comes to evangelism. They’re not sure whether what they say – or more likely what a public speaker might say – will cause them to have an “Ethan” moment.

So what can we do in this context, in which harm and coercion is now the language surrounding both the Christian message and Christian method? How do we maintain a commitment to sharing the good news about Jesus when it is not simply seen as bad news, but as dangerous, harmful news? It’s early days in this whole “harm” movement, so without going into too much conjecture as to where it might end, perhaps it’s time to rebuild an evangelistic strategy that takes the gospel, and the times we live in, seriously. The days are long gone that we can saunter up to a colleague’s desk and drop a copy of Two Ways to Live on her desk.

So what might this strategy look like? First up we need to maintain integrity in our workplaces, and to their legal and HR requirements. There’s nothing noble about thumbing our noses at our corporation and inviting a colleague to an event that could possibly breach modern HR regulations around the safety of a colleague. It’s time to take stock of what conversations we can control and what ones we cannot. Outsourcing evangelism to a generic speaking engagement may no longer be appropriate in the workplace.

But secondly, and in light of that, perhaps this is the era of a much more personal evangelism strategy in which the objective is no longer to get someone to attend an event, but to get to know them well enough to know the right questions to ask of them. And not only to know the right questions, but to be truly interested in the answers, not merely using them as launch pads for our opinions. Such questions must be open questions that don’t require black and white “yes or no” answers. In an era when terms such as “coercion”, “hate speech”, “violent speech” are common, we have to practice the art of cultural negotiation, and pick our way through conversations carefully. Self-censoring is not the only option, but by thinking carefully about our strategies, and the words we employ, can be helpful.

Thirdly, we need to be better acquainted with why this cultural moment is occurring. I call this a “Sexular Age” – a time in which sexual expression unhindered by anything other than consent – reigns supreme. Our sexual identity and practice is being promoted as good news! It is another gospel. Hence it’s worth reading some material as to why the language of harm is being used of gospel proclamation. My own book Being the Bad Guys: How to Live For Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t deals with the underlying philosophy behind this push, while Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution explores this matter more academically.

Fourthly we need to realise that to be a follower of Jesus means that everyone – straight, gay, bi, or whatever – must sign a blank cheque that Jesus gets to fill in. That means the amount is different for everyone. Don’t look at your workplace, study location or your friendship group as simply a hotbed of sexual licence. For many people money, or experiences, or status and position are far more important than their sexuality, and these things will keep them from Jesus. Ironically many people vehemently opposed to your gospel message about King Jesus may be just as on board with you about the sexual disfunction of our world!

Fifthly don’t assume everyone is a culture warrior. Most people are somewhere in what is called “the exhausted middle”, watching the missiles fly overhead left and right. It’s possible to have good honest conversations about what you believe about Jesus to many people at work, without it sounding coercive at all. If Jesus language is your natural language from the get-go you can hardly be accused of angling for converts, or of being sneaky in your approach. After all, the workplace is supposed to be diverse!

And finally, don’t underestimate the drawing power of a well-lived life in the workplace or university setting, a life in which you don’t seek praise you don’t deserve, a life in which you don’t gossip, in which you don’t blame-shift if you get something wrong, and in which the care of others is a priority, whether you get to evangelise or not! We are called to godly lives in the workplace that adorn Jesus. Be ready to give an answer, as Peter says, and do it with the gentleness and respect that a culture with its antennae open to coercion or harm can hear. Like Daniel in Babylon, your biggest advocate may be the office boss, because she or he can tell the positive cultural difference you make in the workplace. Make it hard for them to sack or demote you!

Now many of these strategies seem pre-evangelistic or merely apologetic in their approach. But perhaps that is the times in which we live, times of rapid discontinuous change in which we have to constantly assess and reassess how we shape our gospel presentations, and times in which we can construct wise and persuasive ways to proclaim the gospel that challenge the harm assumption. That narrative still has some unfolding to do, but in the meantime we can prepare ourselves for its eventualities, first by deeply understanding the claims it is making, second by living blameless lives among our colleagues and friends, and third, by constantly showcasing Jesus as the one who did no harm to anyone.  And fourthly, and perhaps most confronting, by wearing the scorn and shame in the way he did, even though he did no harm. It could be that Jesus is calling us to a path of suffering for his name that will, ironically, draw people to him simply because we suffer injustice for the sake of his name. Who knows, we may have to give up our jobs one day for the sake of our witness to Jesus, no matter the precautions we take, but remember he gave up his life for us. He will keep us from harm.