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Nurturing Community: The Anatomy of a Christian Apology (Part 1 of 2)

Friday, May 2, 2014

Belonging is hard.

But it goes to the very heart of what it means to be a community.  As I try to articulate elsewhere on my blog and in my book, I have noticed a dynamic in my involvement in community volunteering.  It starts with a sense of ownership toward things that need to be fixed, leads to a sense of responsibility from which one discovers their community, and ends with a sense of dignity as one sees the fulfillment of good work done together with their neighbors.

But any time we put ourselves together with others, we bring our expectations and others bring theirs.  And these expectations inevitably conflict; others are disappointed in us and we in them.  I look at these things with the eyes of an Evangelical Protestant, so please forgive my reference here to the Bible.  The Apostle Paul, writing to the early church in Rome, counseled against allowing our relationships to revolve around our expectations and then seeking revenge when they are (as they inevitably will be) unfulfilled.  From Romans 12:19-21:
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This is taken from Proverb 25:20-22:
Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on soda,
Is he who sings songs to a troubled heart. 
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; 
For you will heap burning coals on his head,
And the Lord will reward you.
Interpreters have disagreed on what the reference to "burning coals" means.  Elsewhere in the TaNaK/Old Testament burning coals are associated with seeking forgiveness.  It has also been noted (but not universally agreed on) that if someone's fire went out in the cold evening, they might be found among their neighbors with a bowl carried on their heads, hoping to restart their fire with coals received from others.  In this interpretation, to take coals from your own fire and offer them to another is to offer something not necessarily deserved.

I think there is merit to both ideas because they contribute to the idea of "overcoming evil with good."  A popular interpretation I think to be completely off the mark is to see "heap[ing] burning coals" as somehow exposing someone to shame.  In order to "overcome evil with good" we must attend to nurturing an environment conducive to reconciliation.  Note, however, this is not some Utopian ideal that suggests we can live together without conflict.  It is an ideal which not only makes room for conflict, but expects it as inevitable.

A Christian apology, then, has nothing to do with who owes what to whom.  It has nothing to do, either, with who is right and who is wrong.  A Christian apology shows that we value relationships, and when there is an inevitable break in a relationship, that break bothers us - as it properly should.  The challenge, though, is whether or not we are willing to take this idea outside of our church communities and live accordingly in our political community.

Gays & Gay Marriage: A Difficult Example

I can hear the reader muttering under their breath: "What?  How do you go from the 'Anatomy of a Christian Apology' to gays and gay marriage?"  Here is my answer:

I believe God created the heavens and the earth.  I believe that He created man and woman, each for the other, according to what I'll call "the heterosexual complement of nature."  Even if one does not come to nature from this Christian perspective and sees the anatomical design of the human animal as the product of evolution, that design - and how human sexuality functions in that design - is still right in front of us.

I also believe that the world around us, including ourselves - has been created with an order we can study and understand.  Again, someone can draw this same conclusion from an evolutionary point of view.  If this is true, however, then we should not be surprised to discover that how we experience our sexuality runs to the core of how we view ourselves as a person.

So here is where this gets difficult; here is why belonging is hard.  When my neighbor introduces himself to me and I find out he is gay, I should not be surprised to discover he believes he was born that way.  While that challenges what I believe about creation and "the heterosexual complement of nature," there really is no argument to be had here.  It is one thing to argue about how we should understand a story like that of creation in the Bible.  It is something else entirely to argue with someone about how they experience themselves as a person.  I simply have to assume there is far more about this interplay between our sexuality and our sense of ourselves as persons - and about the life story of my gay neighbor - that I do not know than there is that I do.  But I am also an heir to 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition that teaches me the heterosexual complement of nature.  So I face a challenge: How do I belong to my gay neighbor?

It starts with seeing in them the image of God and ends with a Christian apology.

If I see in them the image of God, then my intentions toward them are an expression of my intentions toward God.  There is a reason the commandments tell us not to create carved "images" of God: He has already done it for us.  If I want to know what God is like, I do not make a statue for the fireplace mantle; I go next door and talk with my neighbor.

And my neighbor just might be gay.

To say, then, that homosexuality is not natural - which is the inevitable conclusion from observing the heterosexual complement of nature - is inescapably and deeply hurtful to my gay neighbor.  If I leave it at that, I have basically made him invisible to me.  And to pattern our life together only on what we believe is to make him invisible to us as a community.  I am left deeply unsatisfied with this in light of the community life to which I believe my faith calls me.  But I do believe, nonetheless, that homosexuality is unnatural.  So where does this leave us as neighbors?

It leaves us at a place where I must say: "I am truly sorry."

I am not sorry because I think I am wrong.  I am not even sorry because I think I necessarily "owe" an apology to my gay neighbor.  I am sorry because I see him - he is my neighbor.  And I realize there is a huge gulf between us - one that is deeply hurtful to him.  That gulf and its hurtfulness troubles me deeply, and I am not sure I know how to bridge it.  I know what the typical theological answers are from my Evangelical tradition, but the gulf between me and my gay neighbor seems to defy those neat and tidy theological categories we seem to prefer.

And so I am left to hope that we can get to know each other as neighbors, and to hope that the future will bring more clarity to each of us on these things.  But this requires we be neighbors today.  If by truly, genuinely saying I am sorry today I can earn a tomorrow with my gay neighbors, we might have the opportunity to build on this by working together in the community to which we both belong.  We might discover what we each bring to deepening our sense of community and to the hard work of solving the inevitable problems of our life together.

I believe this is what the next generation deserves to see from conservatives today:  They need to look at us and see a good neighbor before they hear a good argument.

(In Part 2: I'll take us through an in-depth analysis of a chapter in Genesis that points us in a certain direction when we consider how we relate to our larger community - gays and straights both.)

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