Who would Jesus take a selfie with?

When Lyle Shelton, Australian Conservative candidate, took a picture with the Proud Boys, the Twitter-sphere said “repent!”

In our picture we have covered the face of Lyle Shelton with Jesus, using a controversial selfie Shelton took with members of the Proud Boys and Christian conservative writer Dave Pellowe. The question is, are the Proud boys, who are accused of being far-right, people whom Jesus would associate with? Pellowe, who apparently photo-bombed Shelton and the Proud Boys, volunteered to write a “yes” case. The “With all Due Respect” podcast team, Megan Powell du Toit and Michael Jensen, say Shelton should not have endorsed an extremist group. Eternity covered the Shelton Twitter explosion here.

‘Jesus took selfies with sinners,’ says Dave Pellowe

When Lyle Shelton’s Twitter feeds exploded last Thursday, I thought nothing of it. It’s another day ending in y. The central issue of debate is whether he should have posed for a photo with members of the “Proud Boys”, one of whom was making a particular gesture some people use badly. Accusations that they are a “hate group” and that the gesture could only mean “white power” flew from people eager to reach a judgment.

Should 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 he was guilty of oppressing people. In front of the crowd Jesus accepted the hospitality of this stranger’s home and shared a meal with him.

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 infamous abortion provider? Was the public friendship I offered her un-Christlike? Did the Twitter selfie automatically mean I endorsed her worst ideas?

Dave Pellowe and Dr. Leah Torres

Dave Pellowe and Dr. Leah Torres

If we must disassociate and distance ourselves from unrepentant sinners with patently evil ideas, I submit there is no worse “hate group” in Australia and the Western world than that with an annual death toll exceeding 10,000 per state. Abortion providers and apologists are together responsible for that domestic holocaust, yet I gladly welcome them to my public events.

If we’re going to exclude members of “hate groups” like pro-abortion activists who have literally lethal ideas defying God’s laws such as “Thou shalt not murder,” should we also exclude people who have had an abortion?

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 and mercy with truth and 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.

But let’s 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.

However, even the ADL’s Hate Symbols Database says this symbol is unique among all the others it lists in 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?

Lyle’s caption rejected the accusations of racism levied against the entire “Proud Boys” fraternity, because they do. In the photo, he sat beside the newly elected vice-president of their Queensland branch, a proud Maori gentleman. The cognitive dissonance needed to sustain the confected outrage about these blokes is an insult to those persisting in the hyperbole.

The article then offered as fact the claim that, “the FBI classifies it an “extremist group.” Research reveals this is patently false. FBI Special Agent in Charge Renn Cannon said, “We do not intend and did not intend to designate the group as extremist.”

Do you know who else has been photographed making the “white power” hate symbol? President Barack Obama, President Bill 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.

Obama, and two Clintons do the "okay" sign

Obama and two Clintons do the “Okay” sign

Jesus’ followers should value objective truth above partisan prejudices. 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.

Dave Pellowe is a Christian conservative commentator who also writes for The Spectator and Quadrant.

‘We are foolish if we think there are no dangers with Christians making common cause with extremists,’ say Megan Powell du Toit and Michael Jensen

We are writing this together to demonstrate this is a non-partisan issue. The recent storm over Lyle Shelton’s photo with the Proud Boys has raised serious questions about how to interact in the political space as Christians. We both feel this merits a considered statement from Christian leaders beyond the incident which gave rise to the storm.

In the photo, one of the Proud Boys is making the “OK” hand signal which has come to be associated with white supremacy. We do not presume to know his motivation. We are also aware of the complex background to the use of the gesture by far-right groups.

However, more troubling than the gesture is that Shelton seemed to be, as a public figure, endorsing a group widely known as a violent extremist group (see, for instance, this piece in the conservative National Review and this piece by an Australian academic). The tweet would have been a problem without the hand gesture.

This is the tweet: “Good to catch up with the Proud Boys at the Mt Gravatt Bowls Club. Contrary to popular opinion they are not Nazis, just blokes who are sick of all the PC nonsense.”

This tweet makes it clear that Shelton was at least somewhat aware of the reputation of the Proud Boys. It would have been wise of him to do more research on them before he tweeted this.

And we would hope that, if he had, he would not have said this. And while he has repudiated violence, which we applaud, we also believe he should offer a more strongly worded retraction. You can’t control who you meet, but you don’t have to offer an endorsement of them.

There is a culture war going on and Christians are often tempted to join it. But we urge Christians to resist this temptation. Of course, society often involves working with those with whom we do not entirely agree. It is noble to be able to work together for the good of all despite difference.

It is also good to come alongside all people to bring them the love of Jesus. Jesus, after all, ate with sinners. However, let us not equate spending time with people to making common cause with them, or endorsing them. Jesus continued to speak against sin. There are some groups – left and right – whose philosophy or behaviour is so destructive to society that we must stand against them, while still seeking to care for those within them.

Who should we put in this category? This is something we all need to consider according to conscience. But we would say the Proud Boys are an example of the type of group with whom no common cause can be made. Extremist groups that advocate for violent means are destructive to a peaceful society, and are the antithesis of a gospel of love. As Paul said in 1 Cor 15:33 “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’”

We are foolish if we think there are no dangers with Christians making common cause with extremists. They will influence us. By seeming to endorse them, we lead other Christians into bad company.

In that same passage of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul instead calls believers to remember the hope they have in Christ. Of all people, we should not give into fear. We do not need to resort to morally compromised tactics, for we know we have a better world to come. We therefore call all Christians to a deeper hope, which manifests in a love and integrity that is a witness to our Lord.

Rev Dr Michael Jensen, is rector at St Mark’s Anglican Darling Point, NSW, an author, and public commentator.

Rev Megan Powell du Toit, is an ordained Baptist minister,  Publishing Manager of the Australian College of Theology, and editor of the journal Colloquium.