The following Musing is drawn from the beginning of chapter 8 of my “Let’s Talk” book titled “Followers of Jesus Creating Inclusive Conversations Within Churches.”
As I gather with friends for coffee and cookies after the Sunday morning worship service at my home church we often talk about the Cubs or the Twins (with me trying to slip in a few good words about my Cardinals) or the upcoming snowstorm or the latest happenings in our small town.
But we judiciously avoid talking about some hot-button issues about which we know there is significant disagreement within our diverse congregation—issues like same-sex marriage or political affiliation/engagement.
Of course, such lighthearted banter among friends is good. But it is problematic if at our church we never talk about our strong disagreements concerning difficult issues because we have embraced weak views of the Christian values of acceptance and peace instead of stronger views that have the potential to lead to deeper acceptance and more meaningful peace.
I applaud those church congregations who have made a commitment to the core Christian value of acceptance. One such church that I know well has been criticized as the church where “anyone can go.” That should be taken as a compliment. But I present two challenges for such churches.
First, it is too easy for the word acceptance to be interpreted in a very weak sense as mere tolerance. To illustrate this caution more concretely: A church may accept both gay and straight members and yet harbor sentiments among some of its members such as, “It is OK if those gay Christians worship with us, but once they are given positions of church leadership, I’m leaving for another church.” (This is an actual quote from a member of a church that has admirably committed itself to the core value of acceptance).
Secondly, it is too easy for a church that is committed to a core value of acceptance to interpret a related admirable commitment to the value of peace in the weak sense of absence of conflict, with the effect that those who worship at that church keep the peace by not talking to each other about their disagreements.
So, while I applaud Christian churches that claim commitment to the Christian values of acceptance and peace, I want to challenge these gatherings of Christ-followers to aspire to stronger manifestations of acceptance and peace, as follows:
First, I believe that the word acceptance is too weak since it is too easily interpreted as only coexistence, sometimes in the extremely anemic sense of just putting up with someone. I prefer to think in terms of belonging.
As a Christian, I should help every other follower of Jesus in our group of believers to experience a strong sense of belonging. By this I mean that the other is received as one who is beloved. We should love everyone because everyone is loved by God. Therefore, the idea of just putting up with the married lesbian couple who attend our church is pernicious. Rather, out of love, we should get to know them, which starts by empathetically listening to their stories of the ways in which they have attempted to be followers of Jesus and the enormous obstacles they have faced during that quest.
Secondly, in a related way, all Christian churches need to move beyond a weak negative view of peace as absence of conflict to a strong view of peace as shalom: a state of affairs where everyone in the church community is flourishing in the midst of their diversity. Such flourishing precludes silencing anyone. Rather, it understands that we will flourish together only if we listen respectfully to each other’s stories of the ways in which we aspire to be faithful followers of Jesus and the differing challenges that we have faced. In other words, we do not flourish when we suppress our disagreements. Rather, we flourish when we get our disagreements out on the table and talk respectfully about them, thereby opening up the possibility of learning from one another.
As you should expect by now from my previous Musings, there is a foundational premise that underlies my challenge to Christian churches to move from weak to strong views of acceptance and peace. All Christians agree that Jesus calls those who claim to be his followers to love others (Mark 12:31). But too many Christians ignore or violate a particular deep expression of such neighbor-love. As already stated, my foundational premise is that to create a safe and welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to express that disagreement and to then talk respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love.
But how can Christian churches put into practice a commitment to strong views of acceptance and peace? My proposal for your consideration will be presented in my next and final Musing in this series.