Saturday, March 3, 2012

On Being Right

I had a lively conversation with some of my students yesterday. We talked together about some of the more significant issues that Christian leaders are facing today: Same-sex marriage and ordination, illegal immigration, religious pluralism, and so on. These are issues that were not on the larger cultural table even twenty or thirty years ago, at least to the degree that they are now.

We talked about how we are always struggling with assumptions about what is acceptable, biblical, and right, while at the same time being confronted with principles that create difficult tensions for us. So our faith tradition might, for example, stand in opposition to same-sex marriage. Yet, if a same-sex couple were to approach one of us and ask for help and counsel, would we refuse them? What if their adopted child had been coming to our church with a friend, and the parents later showed up, wondering if they could be part of such a community of faith? What if we lead a church in a California or Arizona border town, where emotions run high regarding illegal immigration, and a family in our neighborhood—a family without proper US documentation—needs help, do we reach out or turn away because of their illegal status? Either way, do we feel an obligation to turn them in to the authorities?

These are not random, hypothetical questions. They happen. And without deep, theological reflection, we run the risk of sacrificing human beings on altars of rightness. The tensions are not insignificant, and Christian leaders need more than a list of rules in order to respond with integrity.

Here’s a precedent from the Bible. The rule for the first followers of Jesus was that, in order to enter into this new life and to receive the Holy Spirit, a person had to become part of the Jewish community. It made sense: Jesus and the disciples were Jewish, they were all in Israel, Jesus said that he came for his own people, and so on. But when the Holy Spirit fell upon a group of Gentiles in Antioch, a tension was created. Now the rules were crashing against a new reality that involved real human beings and the apparent work of God. The early Christians struggled with this, and the former rule of ethnic affiliation ultimately gave way to the new principle of God’s intentions for the world (see Acts 10-11).

We need to think a lot about where we begin with people. There is a tendency for us (and with most people) to put others in categories (gay, illegal, divorced, apostate, etc.) and react with sets of rules that keep things orderly. That way, we can end with things left in tact (this didn’t work for the earliest Christians, who found their whole world turned upside down when the Spirit fell on the Gentiles). Rather than begin in those categorical places of “sin” (as if we don’t fit in any of those categories), we might consider beginning with other people as co-humans made in the image of God, co-sinners seeking new life. That place of commonality changes our assumptions about others and draws us into the recognition of God’s common grace (as my Reformed friends might say) to us.

Along with Peter and the early Church leaders, we must hold loosely to our rules. After all, the people of God have a long and chronicled history of getting things wrong. We are not exempt from that.

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