Monday, July 25, 2016

us vs. them

(Below is the text of a message I gave at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 24, 2016. It references the following biblical passage:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” - Luke 18:9-14)

I remember exactly how I felt. You know when something makes you so angry that tears immediately spring up in the back of your eyes? That's the feeling I’m talking about.

But as I looked around the room, I quickly realized that no one else was as angry as I was. They didn't even seem annoyed. It looked like they were totally unaware that what this woman had just said could offend anyone who was there that night.

A little back story: I was at a Bible study, and we were having a conversation about mission, and what it means to share our faith with other people. This topic alone made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I’m not really the kind of Christian who tells people about Jesus. I’m more likely to evangelize for a new restaurant I really like than to invite someone to come to church with me. So when the conversation drifted towards how we talk about the gospel to quote “nonbelievers”, I was all set to tune out.

Then someone asked the priest leading the study if people of other religions evangelize the way Christians are known to do. He confessed that he really didn’t know, because he hadn’t spent much time studying other religions. Naturally, I felt the urge to chime in, as I had long ago designated myself the voice of the liberals in this conservative group.

“Well,” I said, “my understanding is that Christians definitely do more evangelizing than any other major world religions. You don’t see a whole lot of Jewish groups trying to gain converts, for example. Depending on how you classify Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, they’re really known for their mission work—knocking on doors, going on mission trips, that sort of thing. If you lump those two under Christianity, the next most mission-oriented religion would probably be Islam, although they’re a distant second.”

When I said this, a woman across the circle from me made a joke: “If they come knocking," she said, "I wouldn’t be answering that door!”

Almost everybody laughed. “Oh my God,” I said under my breath. 

Yeah, that’s really what I said. 

I know she saw the exasperation on my face, and probably heard me, because she apologized to the group a couple minutes later for speaking without thinking. After class, she came up to me individually and told me about how she’s trying to be more accepting of different people. Told me a story about her son marrying a woman of a different race and background. She was mortified by the whole situation. So was I.

This interaction happened a few months ago during a Bible study at a church much more conservative than Circular...although to be fair, that’s not a hard distinction to gain!

I had decided to join this 9-month-long study, called Disciple, because I’m friends with the priest and his wife, and because I wanted to force myself to discuss theology with people different from me. 

It was a struggle to make myself go every week. I could tell dozens of other stories like this one, stories about how uncomfortable I felt, stories of how I disagreed with everyone there, stories of how I often wanted to cry or scream or make a sarcastic comment. (Okay, I succumbed to that last urge more often than I’d like to admit).

I have a lot of stories of situations that, frankly, made me feel intellectually and often morally superior to everyone else in the room. Whether I meant to or not, I often saw myself as the educated, enlightened, accepting liberal riding in on my white horse to save these misguided, backwards people from their ignorance. 

There’s this great podcast, an interview series, that I like to listen to. It's called The Liturgists. I highly recommend it if you’re something of a seeker and like thinking about theology. In one episode, they talk about how to tell the difference between being prophetic and being a self-righteous jerk. I like to think I walk that line pretty consistently, but honestly I know I err on the jerk side a lot of the time.

One of the hosts of the show calls himself Science Mike, which alludes to his profession as well as his tendency to analyze everything and break it down into systems. In this episode, Science Mike ends by talking about his system for deciding when he should, and when he shouldn’t, share something he thinks is a “prophetic truth” with other people. Here are the questions he asks himself:

Number 1: Am I communicating honestly and without hostility? 
Number 2: Am I speaking for someone or against something? At whom or what is this really directed?
Number 3: What will I get out of saying this? Does this bolster me in some way? 
And lastly, number 4: Is this driven by social identity? In other words, am I saying this because a group I’m part of would agree with it, or because I really believe it?

These questions all get a bit technical, but the basic point is this: it’s a good idea to ask ourselves if we’re saying or doing something we think is just or good or righteous, out of a desire to love and to help and to change things for the better, or because we want to feel good about ourselves.

This brings me to the parable in Luke 18. The Pharisee in this passage fails Science Mike’s test with flying colors.

I could have a field day with this one. I’m sure we all could. It’s so easy to see and point out everything this guy is doing wrong…because there’s so much he’s doing wrong! He’s like the poster child for Jesus’ collection of bad examples! In other words…well, he's acting a lot like I do sometimes. 

That’s what I love and hate about parables...they always surprise me. As soon as we identify with someone, pick a good guy and a bad guy, we miss the point. As soon as I vilify the Pharisee, I become like him...intent on pointing out how much better I would behave in his situation. Just like he did to the tax collector, I make him into an outsider…the one who, unlike me, is doing it wrong. One of them.

Every Sunday at Circular, we say, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” I believe we mean it. But sometimes welcoming everyone is really, really uncomfortable. This is true no matter what community we’re talking about and no matter how hard we try. This may be especially true in our current political context. There are a lot of directions to point fingers in. The “us vs. them” mentality is difficult to escape.

At the church where I did that Bible study, “they” might be Muslim people, or LGBT people, or people who don’t wear the right clothes or have the right jobs. At Circular, “they” might be people who say "All Lives Matter", or oppose gay marriage, or watch Fox News every night. 

We certainly wouldn't make them leave or anything that obvious, but I'm not sure they would feel welcome here either.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have principles. Circular’s principles, guided by the life of Jesus, require us to work together to create a more just world. This means paying attention to privilege and trying to level the playing field, or to put it in more religious language, bringing about the kingdom of God on earth.

But we have to be careful about how we communicate our principles, and what we imply the consequences are if someone doesn’t agree with them. 

Do we have a conversation? 
Do we acknowledge our shared humanity? 
Do we respond in love?
Or do we, like the Pharisee in the parable, thank God that we are not like them
Do we, like I did with that woman from the Bible study, roll our eyes and mutter under our breath? 

In the wake of the Dallas shootings a couple of weeks ago, I started seeing a quotation pop up all over the internet: “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” 

You know who said that? George W. Bush. Yeah, that George W. Bush.

Reading this quote, and remembering who said it, gets at the heart of the issue for me. We need to have bigger imaginations than we often do. We need to see possibility in each other, to see the image of God, the face of Christ, in everyone...even, or perhaps especially, in people we disagree with. 

The good news we profess in this community is that everyone is welcome here, and that everyone deserves love and justice. We proclaim this every Sunday. Each day following, we work to make this proclamation a reality in the wider world.

The question is, are we going to carry out our mission of love and justice in a spirit of self-righteousness, or in a spirit of love and compassion for everyone? Really, truly everyone?

I don’t know about you, but I know that I’ll need a little help and a lot of grace to do that. I trust we’ll receive it, if we ask. Thanks be to God.

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