The Luxury of Division

First: Julie Rodgers (who apparently isn’t dead, despite the funerary tone of many articles) is a dear friend who has endured far more gross scrutiny with far more grace than most people would be capable of. Her urgent passion to serve those who have been marginalized by society has made the world a better place, and I am sure that wherever she decides to minister next she will witness to God’s love through deep friendships, hospitable spaces, and simple human kindness.[1]

Second: A few years ago I was visiting a small Palestinian town that had lost much of its surrounding land to illegal settlements and was facing restricted access to its ancestral olive groves. After a Catholic mass in the morning we all (local Catholics included) attended a lunch hosted by the evangelical church before being shown around the village by the Greek Orthodox priest. I couldn’t help but marvel at the familial closeness displayed between those from various church traditions as they worked together to welcome this obtrusive group of college students into their threatened home. It was more than mere cooperation; it was genuine friendship.

While chatting with one of the hosts I mentioned how struck I was by the ecumenical character of the village and the solid relationships between the different Christians. He tilted his head. “Our land is being stolen, people are leaving, the olive groves are being terrorized, and we are at risk of forgetting who we are. Unlike some places in the world, we do not have the luxury or the time to be divided.”

In 21st century American churches, however, division seems to be almost all we have time for.

This past week, like most weeks before it, has been a bit of a beast. I can’t be the only one worn down by the sheer volume of blog posts and Twitter explosions that dominate social media. I get it, though. Really. Theology is important, and the topic of faith and sexuality is deeply significant.

But what makes weeks like this so ugly is not the presence of controversy so much as the absence of charity. More exhausting than the immense drama that surrounds disagreements on sexual ethics, perhaps, is the sheer glee with which some people disavow/expose/denounce/break-ties-with others, the speed with which social media can become a mass-grave of ‘good opinions’ thrown out while they were still warm. Far too many commentators seem completely unconcerned that their caustic words are directed at actual human beings made in God’s image, unmoved by the reality that their sentences may be poisoning someone’s understanding of what Christian ‘love’ really looks like. I know quite a few people who have received this week like a wound.

We’ve forgotten that we, as humans, belong to each other, and I don’t know what to do about that except grieve.

But, actually, maybe that’s the appropriate response. Maybe that’s the first step to a more honest witness. Grief, at least, begins with an acknowledgment that people have been wounded, relationships have been ruptured, and communities have often been sources of pain and stigma.

Lament beholds the broken world as it is and forces us to consider how we might enter into that brokenness, how we might need to change to become more effective agents of healing and redemption. And this, I think, clears a small space in which empathy can take root and grow into friendship or community with people different than ‘us’ (whatever ‘us’ looks like for someone).

Friendship, or even just ‘relationship,’ isn’t some magic panacea that soothes all division and removes the need for difficult conversations. Hardly. There are still the fraught issues of policy and church life and public response and so much else to deal with. But at the same time I have been consistently surprised at how resilient friendship is, how it can bear the weight and tension of various disagreements and still be a source of beauty.

I find it hard to believe, then, that the most faithful way to pursue Jesus’ high priestly prayer – ‘that they may be one…’ – is through reflexive tribalism; there has to be a better alternative. Painful disagreement may sometimes be unavoidable, and division inevitable, but I think we suffer when we as Christians allow rejection and alienation to become habits, when we cease to lament the tragedy of fragmentation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that Palestinian village this past week. I know it isn’t perfect, that there are still struggles and disputes and miscommunications, but I am thankful there are people in the community who, at the very least, have recognized that they need each other, that they don’t have the ‘luxury’ of treating each other as disposable. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the Christians in that village have a healthy relationship with the Muslim population as well – in their volatile context they each see the other as necessary for their own well-being and for the future of the community.

I’m not holding up that village as some sort of model or analogy. I’m not even sure what that would look like. But I am saying that I witnessed something profoundly Christlike in their acknowledged connectedness, something that I feel we in the States have too casually abandoned.

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[1] Julie, if you’re reading this, please wait at least two years before becoming a psychopathic axe-murderer or else I’m going to look so stupid.

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