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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Framed, Part 4 (In Sanity)

Written in November, 2012:

This is the fourth and final entry in this series. If you haven’t, I would highly recommend you read the first three before continuing. Would you watch Mulan 2 without first watching Mulan? Of course not! (Actually, would you even watch Mulan 2 at all? It looks…terrible.) Anyway, moving on.

The question I keep running up against whenever I think or talk about the “gay debate” (the best-dressed debate in town) is Can we find reconciliation in the midst of a seriously divisive disagreement? Or, in my more plaintive moments, Is there any hope?

If this conversation were simply about divergent tastes in worship music or crunchy vs. soft communion bread, then “agreeing to disagree” would be a possibility. However, I think such an easy answer is not only impossible in this case, but would do great violence to the integrity of everyone involved – it would be like shouting Peace, peace! when there is no peace.

We must start by being honest about what we believe and gracious in understanding those who do not share our views, especially when the contention is so great. How can any progress be made if everyone is simply talking past each other or dealing with straw-men? The past three posts in this series attempted to recenter the debate for those who claim to take the Bible as authoritative, moving past the tired, worthless arguments that seem to be all the rage these days.

But before honesty there must come a commitment to act in love and humility even at great personal cost. Honesty not grounded in love quickly becomes little more than a barbed whip, leaving open wounds and aching scars everywhere. It is impossible to speak Gospel truth in an unloving way, for once “honesty” becomes an occasion for abuse it ceases to be truth at all. There is an enormous distinction between debating someone because I want to be proven right and speaking what I believe to be true because I genuinely desire good for the other person. The former turns all who disagree with me into obstacles to be destroyed, whereas the latter sees them as the humans they are: complex, frustrating, loved, and not to be manipulated or treated with contempt.

But, still, is there hope? Well, I guess that depends on what we are hoping for. I have little hope that there will be an end to the disagreement any time soon, but I do have hope that the manner in which we disagree can still proclaim the Gospel and bring about intense healing in its own way.

To that end, this particular post was written in response to the GCN’s rather wonderful Justin Lee instigating a synchroblog on the topic of restoring sanity to the dialogue surrounding homosexuality and the church. (I’m going to give you a few minutes to let the now-apparent brilliance of this entry’s title sink in.) Acknowledging the increasingly manic nature of this conversation, Lee and others of vastly differing opinions hope the synchroblog will sound a clear call to return to Christian sanity.

Such a simple call, of course, does not magically eliminate the pain and struggle that will continue to define the experience of many men and women caught in the middle of it all; it does not give any answers to the most tortured of questions; it does not change the fact that, even at their most moderate, we are confronted by two mutually exclusive visions of community. But it does give me hope for future progress and reconciliation.

Christlike love, says William Placher in his ultra-phenomenal book Narratives of a Vulnerable God, is demonstrated when one is willing to make oneself vulnerable to pain and rejection so that the Gospel might be proclaimed. A return to sanity, for Christians, would be a return to that kind of love in relationship with one another. On a broad, ecclesial level, I’m not sure what that would look like; I wish I could offer something more concrete. But it probably isn’t a bad idea to start with person-to-person interactions. Here’s how it might play out in my own life:

As I hold to a more conservative sexual ethic, my convictions are inherently painful to my side-A brothers and sisters. I hate that. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish text and tradition would unilaterally bless same-sex unions, not just for my own sake as a gay man but so that this horrible tension would be dissolved. But, as Walter Brueggeman once wrote, “Wishful thinking is inadequate theology.” So I’m stuck with the reality that I personally have yet to be convinced that the Bible sanctions faithful, monogamous SSUs. I’m stuck with the reality that I represent something deeply traumatic to countless people.

And yet I have side-A, gay friends whose friendships I treasure dearly. I hope they know they are free to talk about their crushes and significant others without fear of condemnation and that I am genuinely happy for them. But I’ll admit, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and celibate unicorns for me to hear/watch affirming gay Christians pursue romance. I often find myself awash in intense desires and confusion, especially because, you know, I still think they’re Christians.

Being in community together will cause both of us pain. It is inevitable that there will be moments in which I simply cannot be the friend or support they need me to be. I can only hope that, in those moments, our friendship, our mutual pursuit of God and his glory, will be able to bear our tears and anger, that we would somehow have the clarity to see where the other is coming from, to feel the weight of their beliefs, and to receive the wound in love and move forward. If we are unwilling to be hurt by others even in friendship, then the only “safe” course of action is to continually manipulate or coerce them to do our will, which is antithetical to the vulnerable love of Christ.

Now, I’m a white, gay male, so the pain and tension I face is going to vary from those of straight Christians of a different gender and ethnicity, and thus I am hesitant to suggest what their struggles could be. Though for the majority of conservative Christians, I imagine the greatest challenge will arise from having to relinquish the power that comes with being a cultural majority and peel off that protective shell of privilege that effectively insulates them from the serrated arrows of others’ marginalized experiences and the whole range of complexity they introduce into previously “simple issues.” I’ve found that, for myself, even though I’ve been exposed to countless examples of poverty and alienation not my own, I am still constantly surprised by how much that tacit privilege blinds me to the suffering of others whose experiences I’ve never shared.

To be clear, I do think those within the conservative evangelical church should be the ones to take the first blows on behalf of affirming brothers and sisters. LGBTQ people have been on the receiving end of religious violence, stigma, and shame for so long… and even with four huge legislative victories this past election [and the two recent SCOTUS rulings] our societies, especially our churches, are far from safe.

I’m sorry, my words feel empty and there is so much more that I want to say. I struggle endlessly with this. I don’t blame anybody who reads this and sees nothing but a refusal to make the necessary compromises to really bring about reconciliation, who only hears vacuous calls for a mutual understanding that does little to remove the root of oppression. I can’t force anyone to believe that I love them.

But maybe that’s ok, for now. Maybe it’s time we stop requiring others to “understand” us before we show them grace. Maybe if we hope to display the exhilarating love of God through the unity expressed in John 17 we must become better at existing in the tumultuous, maddening tension so definitive of this broken world we call home. I don’t have any hope that things will be easy or clean, but the more I get to know men and women of various stances, the more I receive love and acceptance from those who disagree with me, the more I dig deep into the profound mystery of Christ and his body, the Church, I become more hopeful that this borderline obscene call to community amidst fractious pluralism will, by the power of God, be transformed into a clarion beacon shining forth with the furious radiance of the Gospel.

It seems like an insane hope, but, well, sometimes insanity is the sanest option we have.

Thanks for bearing with me in grace.

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What Is Love?

Let’s just get this out of the way.

Now, on to business.

A sentiment I often hear within the evangelical church is, “If we want to love people, we must be willing to speak the truth about their sins. To ignore or sugarcoat them would be the most unloving thing we could do, even if other people don’t see it that way.” The basic idea is that sin, separation from God, is the greatest tragedy, and if you really do care about someone then you will want them to be free from that blinding, oppressive weight even if they refuse to acknowledge it – you will want them to know God. So we must preach the Gospel.

This is all true. But I’m beginning to wonder if the way that sentiment is commonly played out misses the mark of true love, especially when it comes to the church’s interactions with the LGTBQ community.

When someone raises a concern like the one above, my first thought is usually, The LGBTQ community probably doesn’t need to be reminded, again, of what the evangelical church generally thinks about about homosexuality. I’m pretty sure, actually, that the first thing that comes into most LGBTQ people’s mind when they hear the word “evangelical” is the anti-gay rhetoric that seems definitive of conservative Christians’ public discourse.

What strikes me as odd, and dangerous, is that somehow the message of “We don’t think you should be having sex” is considered more essential to the Gospel than “God loves you and so do we.” How the heck did that happen?

Why is it that any message to an LGBTQ person is not considered to be true, or truly loving, unless it contains a litany of his/her/their sins, and yet a message that is only about sin, devoid of any mention of God’s grace or a commitment to fight injustice on their behalf, somehow passes as an acceptable proclamation of the Gospel? As if, from the start, we don’t think LGBTQ people deserve anything better than judgment.

It’s like the church is chasing after them, hurling spears of condemnation and prejudice, all while shouting, “We love you! God loves you! No, seriously! Come back!” And when they keep running we just shake our heads and attribute their retreat away from us as a sign of their gross sinfulness, a refusal to accept the “Gospel-centered” kind of love we’ve offered them.

What the hell is wrong with us?! We treat them like crap throughout history and expect a different outcome? Maybe they reject us because we’ve never really loved them in the first place. Maybe they reject us because we are continually rejecting them.

Where were we when they became victims of abuse, hate crimes, disease, stigma, and bullying? We were either perpetuating their pain or apathetic toward it. And for those brave few who dared to stand beside them and model a different kind of love? We yelled across the chasm of our fear, “While you’re over there, make sure you tell them they’re sinful, otherwise whatever you’re doing doesn’t count!” Then we patted ourselves on the back for being “missional.” It’s maddening!

Ok, wow, deep breaths. The whole thing is just very frustrating for me. I once asked a gay man I was sitting next to on a plane what it would take for him to know he was loved by the evangelical church even if it never became “affirming.” It’s a question I had been dying to ask someone, and after I had so intently listened to his impassioned monologue about his spiritual connection to Diana Ross (who he’d seen over two-hundred times in concert), I figured he owed me. His short answer has stuck with me for the past two years: “I might believe it,” he said, “if you would at least fight the stigma that claims so many lives. But you don’t.”

If the only examples we have of showing the LGBTQ community “love” are the sermons where we preach the “truth” about the sinfulness of that community, then I would humbly propose that we repent of our anemic understanding of love, our exceptional failure to be consistent with how we live out the Gospel, and then to actually do something – not because we need a new conversion tactic but because we are Christians, and it’s simply how we have been called to live.

Read this article. Please, please read it. I’ve posted it so many times on Facebook and Twitter because it stands as a soul-crushing indictment of the loveless rhetoric so common in conservative evangelicalism. We cannot pretend we are blameless anymore, we cannot go on as we always have.

This is not an “easy solution” to a complex problem; it’s a reminder of what we have forgotten, what we have forsaken. How this will manifest in individual lives and church communities will vary, but it must be made manifest. Otherwise, honestly, I don’t think we have anything more to say.

Matt

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