Holy Community

You know what my gut reaction was to the week Rachel Held Evans just spent in blogging about how women are equal to men, and should have an equal voice in ministry?

Shock and horror. Not because I disagree with her—quite the opposite—but because in my (wider) faith community, that's actually a debate. How could I possibly affiliate myself (even by proxy) with people who believe that women are somehow less than men? (Or any other of the long list of upsetting Evangelical beliefs.) This is perhaps the most common question I am asked by non-religious acquaintances who find out I’m religious. And to them I say:

Good damned question.

Obviously the unspoken assumption here is that there are some people or communities so repugnant that a morally-minded person should avoid even remote association with them at all costs. I don’t think I disagree with that. For instance, I feel like that about the KKK.

But honestly, folks, other than the KKK, how many of our choices are really that straightforward?

What about our choices in friendship? Should I stop bringing my neighbor a pie at Christmas because she’s (hypothetically) a conservative Catholic and doesn't support birth control for women or LGBTQ rights? Should I leave my book group because it turns out many of them are hawkish Republicans? Should I ditch my old college friend who said something remarkably offensive about Jesus on Facebook? Should I ditch my old high school friend who ridiculed evolution on Facebook? What about my friends who are anti-vaccine activists? Should I ditch them?

What about organizations? Should I not join with Occupy Wall Street because many Occupiers hold views more extreme than my own, some of which I think are damaging? Should I refuse to apply for a nursing position at a Catholic hospital because I disagree with their stance on women’s health? Should I quit my job at my own hospital because they’re union busting?

What about donations? Can I give time or money to my conservative neighbor when she has hip replacement surgery and can't cook for herself? If her church (which I ideologically can’t stand) is organizing meal deliveries on her behalf (lots of churches do this), can I involve myself with them for the purpose of donating food to my neighbor?

Wait, it gets better!

If, say, I’m passionate about sand water filtration devices in Africa, but the only organization that’s really promoting sand water filtration devices in Africa holds ideology I disagree with, can I still donate time or money to them? Can I donate if I agree broadly with the ideology and the work, but have deep disagreements about one or more of the specifics of their policies? What if I agree with everything the organization thinks and does, but they themselves give money to organizations I oppose?

How far do I have to remove myself from offensive ideas before I can really feel comfortable?

What would my life look like if I excised from it all contact with people different from myself? 

What worries me is how sometimes these discussions start sounding like purity contests. As if we and our group are ideologically perfect, and we need to draw heavier and heavier lines around ourselves to protect us from The Other. As if fellowship was contamination and a diminution of our own holy righteousness. I can’t think of a worse, more damaging, or more isolating way to go about it.

(Nor a more anti-Biblical way, but that’s another blog post; the curious might read Luke 18:9–14 and Mark 2:13–17, just to see what I mean.)

Let me put it out there: We are none of us that pure. All of us hold beliefs that, on closer examination, are questionable. The worst form of hypocrisy is not a failure to practice what we preach, but rather holding others to different standards than those to which we hold ourselves. 

I prefer to approach dilemmas by asking, “Where is love in this? How can I show my love most faithfully?” Approached in this manner, the answers to difficult questions may still be different for different people—but no matter which decision we make, the conversation has changed.

My personal answer almost always involves a loving, challenging engagement with a group I want to be part of and yet whose ideologies trouble me. (I am not talking about abusive relationships or organizations.) In my experience, a strategy of loving engagement changes more than just the conversation.

I’m going to tell a short story about one of my closest friends. I’ll call him by his middle initial to preserve some privacy, and freely admit that anyone who knows both of us probably knows exactly who I’m talking about. Compromises, compromises.

When S. and I met, we disagreed about almost everything we discussed. Just to start off a very long list, I was an agnostic studying evolutionary biology, and he was a conservative Christian creationist. You know. Minor disagreements like that. Nevertheless, we became friends. Yes, we argued. We offended each other. We probably even yelled once or twice. We never seemed to lose sight of the belief that ours was a friendship worth having. Ten years later, we’re still close friends. I’m a liberal Christian. He’s spiritual but not religious.

I won’t say that we changed each other. Lots of things in both of our lives changed us. Further, neither of us entered the friendship with that intention. Sure, we both wished that the other one had the “right idea” about all sorts of things, but convincing each other of it was not the point of the friendship. If it had been, the friendship would have fallen apart. Coming into any relationship with that sort of patronizing idea is one of the quickest ways to sabotage it.

I will say that via our ongoing, challenging, frustrating, rewarding, and loving friendship, we both were changed.

If I can change anything in my world, that’s how I think I can change it.