“We can’t go on together,” sang Elvis in 1969, “with suspicious minds.” It’s a song that laments the breakdown of trust, resulting in the corrosion of a romantic relationship.
More than 50 years on, these words could apply to the American experiment, with increasing levels of distrust toward government officials, media and news outlets, and the “experts” in various fields. Some of this suspicion is justified, as is often the case when trust is violated, and when people see the rules for discourse and debate applied unfairly. A healthy dose of skepticism toward top-down approaches in business and government is necessary for a free people’s flourishing.
What’s more, we’re living through one of the most disastrous periods in American history if you’re looking for reasons to trust in institutions and their leaders. Glaring failures in leadership—waving off criticism by appealing to one’s credentials— lead people to react with suspicion, and understandably so.
Suspicion in the World and the Church
But suspicion takes a wrong turn when we filter everything and everyone through the lens of distrust, always on a quest to discover an ulterior motive. This is one of postmodernism’s most pernicious effects—a hermeneutic of suspicion that claims every proposal or position is just a power play in disguise. Even deeds that appear altruistic must be tainted somehow by the lust for power.
Once suspicion pervades a society, the slightest disagreements—even among people who generally share the same beliefs—get interpreted as signs of betrayal. Seeds of doubt are sown into every interaction, and often it’s the people closest to you who become the subject of your suspicions. After all, you’ve written off the people opposed to your beliefs as the “villains.” You expect your opponents to act the fool; it’s when someone close to you doesn’t toe the party line, or asks uncomfortable questions, or pushes back on something you feel strongly about that you raise an eyebrow and wonder: Are they really with us? Or are they a villain in disguise?
The worldliness of succumbing to suspicion—assuming nefarious intentions behind every position—should not show up in the church. But alas, we too often fail in this area.
Consider how some of the fiercest debates today, as opposed to 10 years ago, are not between “progressive” and “conservative” Christians, but between varying shades of Christians in those respective camps. Brothers and sisters who attend the same kinds of churches, agree to the same confessional commitments, and share the same general outlook on life turn and devour each other over differences in political priorities, or disagreements over the wisdom of particular policies, or the way we should view certain politicians, authors, or theologians.
Suspicion and Race
Let’s take just one example: recent flare-ups in the church regarding how best to oppose racial discrimination and achieve racial reconciliation.
One of the more insidious recommendations to come from Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility is her push to shift the question away from “Did something racist take place?” to “How did racism manifest itself in this situation?” This move is pernicious because it leads to the fundamental, unquestionable assumption that racism is ever and always present, and it puts an intolerable weight on common human interactions. If you assume the presence of racism, whether intentional or unintentional, underneath every uncomfortable exchange between people of different ethnicities, you’ll inevitably find some way to connect nearly every possible slight, disagreement, or hurt feeling to racism. Behold, the postmodern hermeneutic of suspicion applied to race!
Ironically, we see the same impulse on the other side of debates over race, with this hermeneutic of suspicion still reigning supreme, just applied in the opposite direction. It’s the assumption that Critical Race Theory has infected and pervaded most evangelical churches and denominations, so that now the mere mention of race, or the acknowledgment of systemic injustice, or saying things that Martin Luther King or Frederick Douglass or preachers in the Black church have said for generations (well before the rise of CRT in legal circles) are enough to raise suspicions and cause people to assume, You must be one of the woke! It’s the mirror image of Diangelo’s toxicity: if you assume the infiltration of an ill-defined CRT is everywhere present, you’ll find ways to connect dots and write people off, including those who are closest to you theologically.
To be clear, there really is such a thing as racism, and it is to be rejected. And yes, the worldview that gave birth to and stems from Critical Race Theory has steered some writers and thinkers away from biblical Christianity. It’s natural for those who have previously been on the receiving end of racist attitudes and actions to assume that racism may play a role in various encounters. And it’s right for those who have watched with dismay as once-orthodox believers slide into apostasy to seek to hold others accountable to prevent them from succumbing to the same fate.
But there’s a difference between prudence and paranoia, between discernment and distrust, between sensibleness and suspicion.
Suspicion breeds suspicion. Cynicism gives birth to cynicism. The more you suspect others, the more reasons you find to justify your suspicion.
“It would be better to be deceived a hundred times,” Charles Spurgeon told his students, “than to live a life of suspicion.”
Love Hopes All Things
In far too many cases, the church of Jesus Christ looks too much like the world in how we suspect the worst of those closest to us, pounce on perceived deviations from whatever we’ve concluded is the “party line,” and then find ways to make every new interaction more evidence for the narrative we’ve constructed. We chastise the world for looking at everything through the lens of suspicion, and then we turn around and do the same in our churches and call it faithfulness.
Suspicion is not wisdom, so let’s not confuse it with discernment. We don’t begin with the assumption of guilt and then look for evidence; we begin with love and assume the best—bearing with one another, pursuing the truth together, carefully listening to discover what someone means by the words they use, and sharing fellowship as we proclaim and promote the essential elements of the Christian faith.
Love hopes all things (1 Cor. 13:7). Love assumes the best. Love refrains from hasty judgments. Love does not turn every disagreement into a debate, nor every debate into division. Love refuses to assume the worst motives. Love bears all things, hopes all things, and believes all things. Love does not mean closing our eyes to real wrongs or acquiescing to naivete. At times trust will be broken and must be rebuilt, but even here, we know it’s to our glory to overlook an offense (Prov. 19:11), and our posture remains one of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In a world of suspicion, let’s make sure the saints of God stand out.