Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Criticism

Criticism is like the ugly stepchild in our Christian practice. It's there but it's treated like it should never be there. For some it's like the ultimate sin against 'unity.' Some use it when necessary but feel guilty all the while. Some use it manifestly way too much and probably it's because of these that we are in a constant state of reaction to it -- "Well we don't want to be like so and so." But when something is obviously wrong, doesn't it need to be exposed? When we see some tendency that could, if followed to an extreme, hurt the whole group, must we not say so?

Where do we strike a balance? I completely understand the necessity for limiting a critical attitude toward our brothers and sisters and even leaders (I refuse to say especially leaders -- lots of people want to give them an eternally free ride) as they branch out and try new stuff with God. It really is possible to poison the atmosphere for everyone by coming in determined to find fault everywhere. But I've been there where criticism was completely outlawed. Just apply the right labels. "You're being divisive." "You're being soulish." "Come under the covering of the leaders." The result is as ugly as any situation where criticism runs rampant. Making criticism totally verboten creates a situation where people are truly sheep. And they mill around not being aware of what is unhealthy right in front of them until the whole show collapses and everyone wonders what went wrong. That can't be good either.

Rather than outlawing criticism completely, are any rules of the game we can bring to bear on the process of criticism so that it can have a positive effect instead of the effect that we fear -- that is, a general loss of focus on our Lord and the establishing of his kingdom on the earth and subsequently, that horrifying but observable state of having grieved away the Holy Spirit? Is there a way of making it OK to question practices and motives without shooting either the questioned or the questioner? Is it possible to be realistic, practical, objective and still loving? I mean without sober second thought, we run the risk of losing our integrity to the larger group and especially the leaders. Oh yes, the leaders. When things are great, the leader has the heady feeling of riding high. When things are not, the great thing is to keep up appearances so as to avoid criticism. Is this hypercritical? I think not. Leaders are human and subject to every human failing. If we don't watch for this kind of thing, we do damage to our own integrity, the integrity of the church and we don't help the leaders any either.

I think the bottom line is to remove fear, if possible, from the equation. Fear has the effect of turning everything into an attack. If the honest critic fears that reprisals will come his way for saying what he believes needs to be said, he will naturally come defensively. The atmosphere of the communication starts to feel vaguely warlike. Similarly leaders, and lets face it, they receive most of the criticism because what happens is usually credited to or blamed on them, need to reduce the amount that they fear criticism because that fear will filter the most kindly meant and well presented counter-opinion and turn it into an attack. The warlike feeling becomes noticeably less vague. In place of fear, we need mutual love and trust, which do not happen by chance and are earned over long association, after truly getting to know each other.

Yes, there are bitter people who simply delight in finding fault. Like so many other situations they ruin it for the rest of us. Every freedom can be soured and unhealthy until it is removed. But let's be careful about throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as the old saying goes. I get a bit nervous when very well meaning people want to outlaw criticism, or a critical spirit, or whatever. I understand what it is they don't want, simplistically put, a negative atmosphere, and I don't want it either. But still I cherish the right and responsibility to speak out, to raise issues, or such like, hoping desperately that I do it in love, because the alternative, passive silence, is equally unacceptable.

1 comment:

  1. On further thought, I suppose what I am trying to say is that just like conflict, criticism is part of our humanity and any sustainable structure in our churches has to be able to facilitate and benefit from the right sort of criticism. So I guess the point is that it might do, just as there are helpful techniques for managing conflict as an alternative to denying it, to put some thought into techniques for giving and receiving criticism...