The Shrinking Middle

One of my early dreams for DOOR centered on the idea that it was a good thing to create a safe space to explore who God is.   I do not think I ever anticipated how controversial such a dream would become.  I have always been somewhat amused by the liberal-conservative divide in politics.  It makes for great TV and provides excellent source material for late night comedians. It has been my hope that the church would find a way to move beyond and above such inane divisions.  Lately I have begun to wonder if the church has been sucked into the same mentality as our politicians - you are either with us or against us.  This kind of “either/or” speak makes for great TV; it just doesn’t work anywhere else, especially in the faith community.

Debate, exchanging opinions, and sharing ideas should be the hallmarks of a strong faith community.  I am not aware of any imperative from Scripture that demands we all think and believe exactly the same.  When Jesus was cornered by the religious leaders he simply said love God and love your neighbor.  Love allows space for difference.

This year I have received more emails and requests asking DOOR to take official stands on every imaginable “hot-button” issue – the military, homosexuality, abortion, and marriage to name a few.  In the midst of all of this there are those who think we are too liberal while others cannot believe how conservative we are.

It saddens me to think that that church is buying into the same rhetoric and divisiveness we see in the political world.  When we become like the world around us we also give up the right to be prophetic.  I want to propose that people of faith are most prophetic when they create space for alternative understandings, ideas, and discussions.  It is in these places and spaces that the kingdom of God is revealed in all of its richness and diversity.

The Church

One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to work with church leaders and members from many different faith traditions.  Some come from very structured church communities while others come from less formal more Pentecostal contexts.  There are churches that see the Bible as one of many holy books they would turn to for advice, while others come from traditions where the Bible is viewed as the inerrant word of God and the only Holy Scripture that should be consulted.  The labels people of faith give themselves and each other are telling as well - Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Liberal, Progressive, etc. After almost two decades of interacting and leading all these different “Christian” groups I find myself fascinated by the similarities between the extremes.  Take for example Scripture.  Both Liberals and Conservatives require a high degree of “Selective Reading” in order to maintain their understanding and reworking of the Christian faith.

My more liberal (or progressive) brothers and sisters don’t really like the Apostle Paul.  They seem him as a sexist and homophobe.  More often than not their approach is to simply ignore Paul and focus on Jesus and his message of Grace.

My more fundamental (or evangelical) brothers and sisters have so confused American Civil religion and Scripture that they can no longer tell the difference between the two.  Take for example the “life issue.”  The vast majority of conservatives are both pro-life and pro-war; at best this is an oxymoron.

I cannot help but wonder what it would mean for the church to take Scripture seriously.  Conservatives would have to give up their sexism, homophobia and need for violence.  Liberals would have to give up their eliteness, smugness and educational arrogance.

Here is the good news.  Every week DOOR hosts multiple church groups, representing a wide spectrum of the Christian faith community.  It is true that the church leaders sometimes judge and condemn each other, but the youth have very little interest in finding reasons to divide.  They are interested in a Christian faith that moves beyond posturing, politics and rhetoric.  For them faith is about taking Scripture seriously, loving God and loving neighbor.  When this happens walls of division become unimportant.

Don’t you believe what the Bible teaches?

The other day I was asked to sign a petition.  It had to do with one of those burning “Christian” issues.  At this point you need to know that I am not going to name her issue, as naming it would shift the focus of this blog to the issue. My standard response to petitions is that I am a Canadian and probably shouldn’t sign.  Most people let me off the hook at this point.  In this instance I was once again let off the hook, but before she went on to ask for more signatures she proceeded to lament to me about the state of Christian belief in this country.

“Why can’t people just believe what the bible teaches?”  For her the Bible spoke clearly to her issue.

I have thought about her statement for a while now.  Like her I believe that Bible is clear about some things.  For me loving God and loving neighbors are at the top of the list, but once we get past these two subjects clarity quickly fades.

Think about all the things that divided Christians:

There are many believers who defend a literal six day creation. However, Christians were among the first to suggest that we need to understand the Genesis stories symbolically.

Christians are among the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Christians are among the strongest opponents of these conflicts.

Think about the current debates over gay marriage and women’s right to choose. It is Christians who are the strongest supporters and opponents.

Then there is the healthcare debate.  You can find committed followers of Christ across the “what should we do” spectrum.

Taking Jesus and Scripture seriously does not always provide clear-cut answers.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to accept people of faith who fundamentally disagree with you and your understanding of the truth.  That said, authentic Christianity always allows for the possibility that my particular understanding of the issue might be wrong.

Un-Documentable

In the last three weeks I have been drawn into at least five separate conversations regarding immigration.  The general tone of these encounters has been critical of current USA policy.  At the more benign level people argue that Christianity and hospitality are connected.  This call to hospitality demands that Christians advocate for an open immigration policy.  On the more radical end there are those who say that the USA made its wealth by taking much of the American Southwest from Mexico and continues to reap benefits from unfair trade practices and sweat shops.  For these folks immigration isn’t so much about hospitality but rather it is about reparations.  People are coming here because they want their “stuff” back. As you can well imagine, these discussions are filled with a whole lot of emotion.

The exchange that I keep coming back to occurred this week.  It was with my friend Anton Flores.  He runs a small not-for-profit in La Grange Georgia called Alterna.  Alterna is a group of people that offers community, fellowship and hospitality to the “un-documentable.”  It is important to note that “un-documentable” does not equal criminal or terrorist.  These are people who have come because providing for their family in their home country has become all but impossible.  More often than not the conditions that have driven them to the USA are tied to foreign policies and actions of the past and present.

I empathize with those who wish for stricter immigration laws and regulations.  The desire to feel safe and secure is powerful.  What I do not understand is why the church so often supports these laws uncritically.   Hospitality and making things right are cornerstones of the Christian faith.  As believers our first loyalty is to each other and humanity.  When this loyalty comes into conflict with the laws of the land, our faith commitment must always come first.

Different

Stanley Houerwas is one of those theologians known for provocative statements; I suspect he enjoys making people think.   This is from his book Dispatches from the Front: Theological Engagements with the Secular - “Mentally handicapped folks are segregated, not because they cannot learn, but because they are segregated for being not like us.  Furthermore, we fear those who are not like us.” My initial response was to check out the copyright date of the book, it was published in 1994.  In my mind the societal fear of differences may have been true a generation or two ago, but not in 2012.

Have we made progress?  Do we still separate from one another based on how we are different?  During the last election cycle President Obama regularly said, we are not a collection of red states or blue states we are the United States.  I like the idea that our unity trumps all the things that divide us.  I cannot help but wonder if disunity and differences are what we cling to.

Just listening to politicians talk about each seems to confirm how divided we are.  Politics is not the only place of division.  Sunday morning worship is still one of the most divided hours in the week.  There is Conservative and Liberal options, multi-racial churches are still the exception, family values divide gay from straight, we have hymn churches and contemporary music churches.

This trend extends well beyond church and politics.  Communities divide over school districts, crime rates and ethnicity.  What will it take to get beyond our fear of different?  When I speak to DOOR participants I spend a great deal of time explaining the different is only different.  When we fear different the possibility is created to define different as bad, evil or sinful.

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to tame our fear of different.  When we do this a whole new and exciting world of possibilities open up.

Fear, Violence and Death

This past Monday I was in Los Angeles when I received a text from my wife, “there was a fatal shooting at 29th and Franklin, it happened just as the High School was letting out.”  I live a 31st and Franklin.  The 18 year old victim died.  My son turns 18 later this year so when I hear of an 18 year old being shot to death in my neighborhood, it becomes personal very quickly.  According to my neighbors this was a gang related shooting. The news this week has also been dominated by a shooting in Florida.  An unarmed 17 year old was shot to death justifiably, according Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law.”  In what world is shooting an unarmed teen justifiable?  Can we really claim to be a Christian Nation and have laws that allow us to kill each other?

Philosophically what happened in Denver is as “justifiable” as what happened in Florida.  A gang member was simply standing his ground – protecting his turf.

I can almost understand why people without faith believe that standing your ground is important and correct, but what I cannot understand is how anyone in the faith community could even begin to endorse a law like this.

Stand your ground laws help to legitimize prejudices, assumptions, and stereotypes.  It is not surprising that both of the dead teens happen to be black.  It is this is population that has been victimized most by society’s irrational fears.

We are not going to get past things like racism, prejudice, and fear by creating space for justifiable murder.  If anything, allowing civilians to arm themselves makes these issues more contencious.

Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Jesus had it right all along.  Swords and guns must be transformed into instruments of peace.  When we arm each other it becomes too easy to let fear dictate our actions and fear too often leads to unwarranted violence.