When Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson harshly mocked Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw because of his eye patch and flippantly remarked, “I know he lost his eye in the war or whatever,” no one expected the former Navy SEAL and decorated war hero to respond to the insults in the way that he did.
The mockery of Crenshaw’s combat-inflicted disability, motivated by Davidson’s disdain for his political views, resulted in such a strong public backlash that Davidson fell into depression and self-loathing. He wrote in an Instagram post, “I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”
Having lost his eye in combat in Afghanistan due to an explosion, some might have expected Crenshaw to say of Davidson, “Well, it serves him right.” He could have added to the backlash or simply ignored the comedian. Instead, the veteran privately reached out to befriend, encourage, and speak life-giving words to Davidson. He told the comedian that everyone had a purpose in this world and that “God put you here for a reason. It’s your job to find that purpose. And you should live that way.”
Instead of firing back, Crenshaw built a bridge. Instead of shaming and scolding, he spoke tenderly. Instead of seeking vindication through retaliation, he sought friendship through peacemaking. Instead of adding to the cycle of outrage, he soundly defeated outrage with a gesture of unconditional love.
Moved by compassion for the pain that Davidson had brought upon himself at Crenshaw’s expense, the man trained in military strike and defense offered a gentle answer—so gentle, in fact, that it turned away the wrath of another man’s political ire and the wrath of that same man’s subsequent self-loathing.
Then, on Veteran’s Day weekend, the two came face to face on Saturday Night Live to make amends. Crenshaw offered warm remarks and high praise in reference to Davidson’s own father, who was a New York City firefighter who died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when Davidson was seven years old. At the end of the segment, when he thought they were off camera, the embattled and humbled comedian leaned over to Crenshaw and whispered, “You are a good man.”
Such stories raise a question for us all. In conflict, do we tend to take offense and strike back, or do we extend kindness and offer a gentle answer? The question applies when we are at odds with a family member, when we butt heads with a colleague, when our views are criticized online, when our children don’t listen to or respect us, when someone rejects us because of our faith or our race or our social rank, or when we feel misunderstood by those of a different generation or economic situation or culture. There in the tension, Jesus is there for us, just as he has been there for Dan Crenshaw and the many others with similar stories.
Those of us who identify as Christian have been given a resource that enables us to respond to outrage and wrath in a healing, productive, and life-giving way. Because Jesus has loved us at our worst, we can love others at their worst. Because Jesus has forgiven us for all of our wrongs, we can forgive others who have wronged us. Because Jesus offered a gentle answer instead of punishing us for our offensive and sinful ways, we can offer gentle answers to those who behave offensively and sinfully toward us. But make no mistake: Jesus’s gentle answer was bold and costly. His gentle answer included pouring out his lifeblood and dying on the cross. Our gentle answer will be costly as well as it beckons us to die to ourselves, our self-righteousness, our indignation, and our outrage.
In short, because Jesus has covered all of our offenses, we can be among the least offensive and least offended people in the world. This is the way of the gentle answer.
I have written my latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them to help move the needle forward in this. My sincere hope is that it will provide a roadmap for individual Christians, small groups, campus and other parachurch ministries, entire churches, and even networks and denominations, to defeat outrage and advance love. As in all Christian mission, these endeavors are best embarked upon together rather than in isolation.
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of several books including his latest, A Gentle Answer.