I like to start off a lot of Bible stories by talking about the Simpsons. It’s a seeker-sensitive way to demonstrate a point, and I’ve done it for years. Jesus was clearly more interested in speaking with the unchurched than he was the pious and devout. So I’ve tried to follow suit…but that’s not the full picture of Jesus. When he was a boy, his mom had to deal with him running off to hang out at the synagogue; when the Bible picks back up on his life as an adult, the very first thing he does is get baptized by an unkempt radical preacher named John. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that he has very little use for religious pomposity or anyone who thinks piety is a competition — but Christ loves sinners and saints alike.
As much as I like using the Simpsons to help create an environment where people can feel safe and comfortable to discuss religion, philosophy, and morality — I’ve been wondering about how many of the stereotypically “devout” tune out as soon as I start with “Bart Simpson once converted to Catholicism for better comic books…”
Last week, Rachel Held Evans — who has long tried to be a progressive voice within Evangelical Christianity — announced that she was taking a break from blogging for a while, feeling defeated, angry, and hurt by trying to hold community with Evangelicals and Progressives alike. When you look at the World Vision straw that broke the camel’s back for Ms. Evans, it’s easy to see her exhaustion. Divisions have formed, people hold their beliefs so strongly that they want to run away from the other side as quickly as possible. It’s like a giant game of tug-of-war where both sides threw down the rope and Ms. Evans grabbed each line by the hand and has tried to hold them together as they pull away.
She’s not alone. There are many voices like hers, but when you look around on Sunday morning, churches all over this country seem intent on drawing battle lines. Maybe it’s always been like this. Maybe it always will. But is that what God wants of us?
- In the 16th century, people were willing to die or kill over the schism between infant baptism and adult baptism
- In the 17th century, people were excommunicated and fled towns fearing angry mobs reacting to their radical preaching that we are saved by faith alone, not through our own works
- In the 18th century, Bible verses were quoted on both sides of the “brother-vs-brother” debate on the abolition of slavery, with both sides knowing down to their very cores that they were right and that God was on their side
- In the 19th century and into the 20th, suffragists fought for the right for women to vote, churches again rallied to fight each other, armed with scripture to support their own beliefs
- Now set off into the 21st century, you can hear Bible verses spouted every Sunday morning about why we should stand in opposition to one another on gay marriage (and probably a host of other issues)
The ideological war of Christianity has been raging since Paul first raised his hand in a sea of Jewish Christians and radically suggested that “no, you don’t need to be a Jew first to follow Christ.” And after 2,000 years of this — like Ms. Evans — I’m tired. I’m tired of being told “our group knows what’s right, and we want nothing to do with you because you’re wrong.”
It’s easy to look at centuries of Christians arguing from one perspective and say “it’s clear that the more inclusive side of Christianity has been proved right time and again — God is with us!” or look from a different perspective and respond “Biblical heresies were proved wrong time and again — God is with us!” What if there was a better way?
What if when the Bible says “reject foolish and ignorant controversies, because you know they breed infighting. And the Lord’s slave must not engage in heated disputes but be kind toward all” (2 Timothy 2:23-24; see also Phillipeans 2:1-7) it means even us, you and me, even now, regardless of who is right; what if when it says love your neighbor, it means that love needs to be shown even when — especially when — our neighbor disagrees with us? (After all, loving your neighbor is easy when your neighbor agrees with you and affirms you.) What if when Jesus is telling us about a prodigal son and a devoted son, and their father’s treatment of both of them, God is telling us a story of how we should rejoice with one another, and that the only thing keeping this life from being the party that God wants to throw us is our own stubbornness?
Am I saying you should reject truth? Absolutely not. The whole point of Christianity is to better know the heart of God. But we have to realize that we are not God, which means that goal is one we have not achieved, we must always be striving for it. So let’s not call each other names, let’s not be convinced that we know the hearts and minds of our opposition any more than we know the heart and mind of God. As we always strive to know God better, let’s always strive to know each other better. Let’s listen for truth wherever it may be found, because by hearing each other out, we’ll know each other better, we’ll know God better, and maybe…just maybe we can start that party that we haven’t heard God inviting us to because the shouting was drowning out God’s still-quiet voice.