Civil dispute among “tribal members” is nothing new to Christianity. Most likely, it all began (and is personified in) the person of Judas Iscariot. One man, so close to the savior, having spent time and resources in order to become a disciple of Christ, only to betray Him with a kiss.
And throughout history it’s continued…. Paul and Barnabas, Constantine and the Desert mothers and fathers, the schism of 1054, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, and so on. In fact, it seems only PART of our history and tradition is born out of love for each other, the rest is born from dispute….
Sure, it’s easy to try and forgive an enemy with a completely different value system than you. The real question is: how do we take the words of Christ to “love your enemies” seriously, when, our enemies happen to be professing Christians themselves?
An enemy with common beliefs, such as another Christian, is a completely different ball game. They are most likely someone you know, and know you should love and hold reverence for….but sit on the opposite side of the table from. They are members of your own tribe, “cut from the same cloth”, and a confounding, ambivalent mess of what to do and NOT to do in the name of decency and human relationship.
For many of us, it’s not hard to think of who our fellow antagonists in the faith are. In my case, it’s easy. In particular, members of my own family, who’ve bought into the American Evangelical ways of thinking lock, stock, and barrel….
Many years ago, these family members were mildly annoying (and oddly enough, slightly entertaining). Their “cringeworthy” rhetoric, pounding fists, regurgitated phrases from their favorite pundits, and trumpeting out “biblical truths”, were common tools-of-the-trade in our family conversations. There were always awkward silences at the Thanksgiving dinner table, and I learned, over time, how to pivot off their hateful/awkward comments, in an attempt to soothe the growing distance between them and the rest of the crowd. Often, my wife and I would leave family gatherings with a sigh of relief, feeling as though something sacred had been dirtied and not knowing how to process it. Something always felt…”off”.
Sometimes we’d laugh about it, other times we furrowed our brow and tried to process just what in the hell happened. Jesus’s name had been invoked, but the spirit of Christ was not present…..Did this concern us enough to say or do anything about it? Should we confront them, or leave them alone?
Often, we chose to leave them alone.
Enter the Trump era, and everything changed (or finally came to a head?).
The joke was on us, and all those times we wrote off our Evangelical friends and family, soon became instantly regrettable moments, as we watched American Politics and American Christianity get in bed together in the most strangest of ways (right now, as I’m writing this, Trump is speaking as the key-note speaker of the March For Life rally. Yesterday, we learned of his lawyer paying a porn-star to stay hush about an alleged extramarital affair….yet these kind of activities, involving deep moral decay mixed with intense self-righteousness have become a common occurrence these days.) . We should have seen it coming, but were blindsided, and the dynamic shifted from, “Gosh, can you believe how silly our Aunt, Uncle, Grandparent, etc. is?”, to “Oh my God, how did this happen and who are these people?”
The results, for me, were immediate. RAGE. Rage for all those times I could have said something. Rage for all the stupid things they were saying. Rage for how they now felt justified in what I once thought was only a “fringe” way of thinking. Rage how their ideology and subsequent vote, in my opinion, put my kid’s future at risk. Rage at all the ignorance, both in myself, and in them.
What did I do about it? It’s a work in progress…. The part of me that feels hurt and betrayed by people who, for YEARS, plowed me over with their ideologue ways, and misunderstood my listening as “agreeing”, is still healing. For now, there will be a few less plates on the Thanksgiving Day table…..
But ultimately, I know what Christ calls me to, and no matter who’s wrong or who’s right, love is the final edict. There has to be a plan for eventual restoration, but how?
The parable of the elephant and the blind men:
In this ancient Indian story, a group of blind men hear about a new creature, an elephant, which has entered their village. They quickly decide to find out for themselves what this creature is, and, after finding it, surround it on all sides, feeling it with their hands in order to “see” it.
One of them, holding the trunk, describes it as a snake like creature. Another, holding the tail, describes it as more of a rope like creature. Still others, feeling it’s sides, describe it as a wall, while others holding the ears, picture it as flat and lightweight. They continue on in this way, each one thinking they’re accurately describing the truth of what the creature is, until (in most versions of the parable), they end up in fisticuffs over their disagreements.
Eventually, someone walks by, seeing the group of blind men in a dog-pile skirmish, and asks them what’s the matter. They explain to him their disagreement, to which he replies by describing, in detail, what he’s seeing. He describes the animal, and gives them the whole picture of what, exactly, an elephant is.
After this bystander leaves, they return to the elephant, each taking up where they left off. This time, their descriptions take on a civil and humble tone. As a result, the conversation reverses from the angry, aggressive dynamic, and each blind man becomes elated to hear what his fellow blind man has to offer the conversation, even if it contradicts his own revelations.
In many ways, their final experience with the elephant leaves them with a rich and deeper understanding of the creature, more so than any single person who see’s it with their own eyes.
What’s the moral?
If, in this parable, we define the elephant as “truth”, we see truth about the world (and truth about God) cannot be achieved by one single individual. It has to be the effort of the many. Ancient Greek philosophers understood this, and it might do us some good to revisit the idea that no individual is the omniscient stakeholder on truth. Each of us hold a “piece” of it, and by combining our pieces together, we realize the entire picture of what truth really is.
It’s paradoxical, it’s somewhat contradictory, and it’s beautiful. It means each of our opinion’s matter, even if they oppose each other. It means no single pastor, pundit, politician, or president can arrive at any plausible (yes, I just used horrible alliteration…almost unintentionally) solution without enlisting the opinions of others…..especially those they disagree with. It also means no religious leader or government official should be operating without proper checks and balances in their decision making.
More than that, it’s presents us with the idea there is A WAY by which we arrive at the truth, and without following THE WAY, we will not find the truth. IN ALL CASES, THE WAY TO TRUTH PROCEEDS THE TRUTH ITSELF. In other words, if we all gather ’round the elephant and fight over our little piece of knowledge, we will go nowhere and accomplish nothing. But, if we choose to approach our decision making with humility, objectivity, listening, soliciting ideas, and engaging in conversation which honors those who disagree with us….we have everything to gain.
If getting to the truth is a journey, we need a common, universal map or context by which we agree on. In fact, Greek philosophers understood this when they labeled different forms of fallacious reasoning (more info here). They were trying to help us set up the proper guideposts to get to the conclusions we desire. The rules of reasoning exist to help us understand what we are doing and where we are going.
This is a beautiful concept when you think about it. It means we all come to the table with a certain amount of clarity, and a certain amount of blindness (that concept alone should knock us down a few humble notches, right out of the gates..). It means solutions may come and go, but one universal truth stands among humanity for all ages and all time….our ability to love directly determines our ability to arrive at truth together.
Here we are, each holding our own piece, choosing to bring it to the table and offer it as part of the solution, or, withhold it, as though it’s more valuable than everyone else’s, only becoming part of the problem.
What does this mean for me, concerning my family and fellow church members who sit opposite the aisle?
It means, although I hold certain beliefs which might label me as a “liberal” or “progressive”, my Christianity is just as valuable as a “conservative” Christianity, and vice versa. It means I need to continually be in equitable conversation with those who see God and Christianity different than me. I should never expect anyone to change their beliefs, only THE WAY they communicate about those beliefs.
Trying to steamroll me over with your ideas? Then, you are NOT invited to the table. Acknowledge we are all going into this thing a little blind and one-sided? Then, let’s reason together and see what comes of it.
Whether you’re family, friend, or a fellow parishioner, if you lack humility and the ability to honor others, you disqualify yourself as a viable voice in the quest for truth….. This is the measuring stick, or plum line we should all be using, and if there are those who don’t abide by it, we can only dust off our shoulders, point out their mistake, and pray for their restoration.
It’s a shift in our “either/or” ways of thinking, and opens us up to the endless possibilities of humankind. If I begin to see those I stand ideologically opposed to as a necessary voice in my community, I begin to shift my ways of seeing them as “enemy”, to potential “ally”. My goal turns from apostatizing them with my beliefs, to helping them see how they can be a better contribution to the conversation. More than that, seeing them in this way places immediate importance on who they are and what they believe in. It moves the terms of the debate from a conditional “greater-than, less-than” perspective, to seeing us ALL as equals. After all, isn’t that what’s written in our Constitution?
I’m not looking for conservative Christianity to go away. In fact, quite the contrary. I’m acknowledging the need for it’s presence, especially in my own life. After all, I did spend the first 40 years of my life transitioning out of conservative beliefs….it would be foolish of me to think I didn’t owe it some reverence for helping shape who I am.
However, turn-about is fair play, and as a “progressive” or “liberal” Christian, I wouldn’t expect anyone to assume my point of view invalid because of the labels I fall under. Truth is, I think about subjects such as the legality of abortion, sexuality, sin, the Bible, the person of God, and politics VERY differently than many conservative Christians…..but the choice is ours: Either be humble enough to acknowledge, and respect, each individual’s freedom of belief, OR, turn against each other and watch the world burn. I’ve spent many years journeying in my faith, and don’t plan on going anywhere. Not only do I stand on the notion I am of equal value in my country, but also, of equal importance in the eyes of God.
Diplomacy and mutual respect are hard, and making decisions in that kind of spirit is often long and time-consuming. However, if Christ Himself showed compassion and long suffering with Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Him, that’s good enough an example for all of us. At some point in our lives, we too have betrayed Jesus with our own words and actions. Turning away from our mistakes and asking forgiveness is the path of Peter (who denied Christ). Staying on the same path and allowing our past mistakes to dictate our future trajectory is the noose Judas hung himself on.