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Be Kind to Each Other

I listened to the story of a gay man yesterday. It was a story both tragic and tragically typical. It was a story of knowing he was “different” from his very earliest memories, of being mocked and ridiculed throughout his school years, a story of confusion, anger, and pain, a story of desperately trying to come to terms with an identity that just didn’t fit, a story of a string of unsatisfying relationships, a story of isolation and deep loneliness that persists to the present day.

It was also, of course, a story in which the church played a role. I wish I could say that it was a positive role—that the community that bears the name of the Friend of Sinners had provided a place of refuge and peace for this person… I wish I could say that. But I can’t. We all know that this isn’t how the story usually goes. We know that “rejection” and “guilt” and “judgment” and “fear” and “misunderstanding” are among the words that appear at this point in the story.

I had lunch yesterday with a denominational representative. Among other things, the “issue” of homosexuality came up (I hate using the word “issue” to describe real human beings, but I suppose we are always bumping up against the limits of language…). Like many denominations past and present, Mennonites are currently wrestling with how we are to think about and relate to the LGBT community. And like many (all?) denominations, there is a broad range of opinions on the matter, many of which came up over lunch. We talked about affirmation vs. inclusion, about biblical interpretation, about how far we could or should go, about same-sex marriage and the ordination of clergy, etc. It was all very familiar ground and, quite obviously, we didn’t “solve” anything in an hour over pizza.

I like theology. And I like being right. I like these things more than I should, undoubtedly. But as I reflect upon these two conversations from yesterday, I find myself asking not, “What ought the church’s position to be when it comes to homosexuality?” but a rather uninspiring and un-theological, “I wonder why we can’t just be nice to each other?” Perhaps this sounds like a cop-out or like I am being irresponsible as a “church leader” who is supposed to pronounce upon these matters. I don’t know.

The older I get, though, the more I am convinced that so many of the problems that face us could be solved or at least ameliorated by simply being kind to one another. Even a quick survey of my ordinary yesterday makes this plain:

  • Hearing the story of this gay man
  • Watching some of the kids on the soccer team I coach snickering and giggling at the kid who’s a bit chubby, can’t run very fast, and makes weird and awkward comments all the time…
  • Hearing the family in our neighbourhood where the parents are splitting up and they can’t seem to stop yelling at the kids and each other
  • Observing the crude and demeaning level of popular discourse
  • Looking at my own life and seeing how easily I lose my temper, get defensive, use words to wound

The list goes on and on. How desperately we are starving for just a bit of human kindness in our world.

1 Corinthians 13 must surely be one of the most over-quoted and under-practiced passages in all of Scripture. “Love is patient, love is kind…” Love is kind. We could stop right there and have more than enough to keep us occupied for a while. Love doesn’t mock or ridicule or belittle. Love doesn’t exalt the self or the rightness of one’s opinions or doctrines. Love doesn’t sneer and snicker and deliberately misrepresent. Love is not arrogant or self-righteous or rude. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

What kind of reputation would the church have if we truly believed that Paul’s words in this passage were to govern our every human interaction? What would our communities look like if this was our starting point as followers of the Crucified One?

If the people who bear the name of the One who truly loved like this had always been committed to acting like this, I wonder how many gay people would be telling stories like the one I heard yesterday? I wonder how many times we would be hearing things like, “I’m still recovering from the gracelessness and unkindness I experienced at church after I came out” or “The church piled just guilt upon confusion and uncertainty” or “I’ll never set foot in the church again” or “______?” I wonder how gay people would feel about the church if we were as committed to a 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love as we were to having the right position on an issue?

One of the best things about following Jesus—I truly believe this—is that we are set free to simply love people and to be kind to them. We don’t have to be afraid of them, we don’t have to “fix” them, we don’t have to change them, and we certainly don’t have to try to make them look more like us. In fact, we’re not supposed to do any of this. Rather, we are simply set free to love our neighbours as Jesus loves us and to invite them to participate in this love. But this gift of freedom is one that we don’t always understand or appreciate or even want.

Perhaps because we don’t really believe it could be true. We don’t really believe that life could be that simple. We seem to think that the point of life is to solve the puzzle, to draw the boundaries, to unlock the mystery of existence, to figure out which is the right worldview, the right ideology, the right religion, as if that was the point of life. As if the point of life was for our tiny little finite brains to attain enough “rightness” about enough important “issues”  and questions to merit eternal life.

But the point of life isn’t to solve the puzzle; the point of life is to learn how to love. Full stop.

Love is patient, love is kind…

If we, as followers of Jesus, don’t learn and live this basic truth about the very heart of reality, I suspect we will come before the throne of God at the end of days weighed down with our shiny artifacts of “rightness” and “purity” and “doctrinal precision” and God will smile with pity on us and say something like, “That’s a very nice noisy gong you have there… a very interesting clanging cymbal. But I wish you would have been kinder to each other.”

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mike C. #

    Well said, Ryan! Well said.

    The echo of loving one another struck a chord. That would really simplify our world, wouldn’t it. The resonance / irony arose from a recent trip I took to Istanbul, Turkey. While I was there I had the opportunity to watch the Whirling Dervishes. The Dervishes are a sect of Islam that have been ostracized (at least in part) because they promoted loving all of humanity, irrespective of religion.

    Sad that something so ‘simple’ as love from the heart is made impossible by the machinations of our brain!

    May 30, 2013
    • Thank you, Mike. I agree—it is sad that we sometimes make things so much more complicated than they need to be. Jesus didn’t leave much room for doubt, in my view, about what our priorities ought to be and about how far the obligation to love ought to extend.

      I have only read about Whirling Dervishes—must have been something to see!

      May 30, 2013
    • mike #

      On a related note: G.I.Gurdjieff learned the Dervish style dance supposedly from a Sufi school/monastery and put an Eastern Orthodox Christian slant on it. It was believed that spiritual wisdom could be imparted mystically by the dance. Gurdjieff developed a school of teaching of esoteric christianity callled “The Fourth Way”. It includes some of the most interesting and fascinating psychology I’ve ever encountered.Gurdjieff’s most renowned student’s who later became teachers themselves include P.D.Ouspensky and Maurice Nicoll.

      May 31, 2013
      • Very interesting…

        June 1, 2013
  2. Thanks Ryan. I think the intellectual work is still necessary but so much more of it should go into analyzing our statements of belief and church structures in how they set us up for these sorts of scenarios (and they do!). There is a reason why the tribes on Survivor never used their time to explore new ways of living in community.
    The challenge of course is the extent to which we will open up some of the ‘core beliefs’ and to what extent that will allow us to question, and when necessary, discard some of our forms.

    May 30, 2013
    • Absolutely, David. I’m not in any way suggesting that we abandon thinking carefully about these matters (and the structures that incline our engagement in a certain way) in favour of a kind of squishy, vapid “niceness.”

      I guess I was just thinking that we are often only too eager to embrace the intellectual work at the expense of the ethical imperatives gestured toward above. The positions we arrive at mean less than nothing, in my view, unless they are accompanied, even preceded by, a commitment to love according to the pattern of 1 Corinthians 13.

      May 30, 2013
  3. Ryan Robinson #

    The majority of us are heterosexuals and it gives us a pair of problems:

    1. It allows us to create an outgroup to ostracize and make ourselves feel better than. And even though it is clearly contrary to Jesus and the New Testament – even to large portions of the Old Testament law – we all like to think we’re holier or closer to God. Because of its ties to the political issues, this particular minority is an easy one to pick on. I’m glad that a lot of Christians are slowly realizing that even if it is a sin (I don’t think so, but that’s a different conversation), our job is to love and welcome them, not to scare them away and scar them for life with our judgementalism.

    2. Since it isn’t personal for us, we can get away with pretending that we are the wholly objective ones. “Well, they’re the biased ones who think that they should be allowed in our little holy club; they just want to get away with the most heinous sin ever, but I’m obviously not biased at all.” It doesn’t directly affect me (other than via friends and family), so it can stay comfortably as a political issue for me if I let it.

    To put that together, I think it is important that Christians deal first and foremost with the person. You will probably know somebody who is same-sex attracted, probably some who act on it and probably some who don’t. And there may be a point where they invite you into their lives to wrestle through it with them. But it is always about the person first, not politics and not even abstracted ethical judgements.

    May 30, 2013
    • I agree with what you say here, Ryan, particularly in your challenge to focus on real human beings first.

      I might add a third problem. We tend to fear those who aren’t like us—particularly those who aren’t like us in something as deeply rooted and foundational as our sexual identity. And especially in a cultural context that trains us to think that our sexual identity is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) parts of our identity in general.

      We might profitably ask some questions about the hyper-sexualization of our identity in our culture and the default individualism that often comes along with it, but I think that as followers of Jesus we ought to be leading the way in pointing to a possibility of engagement with all people that is free from the fear and mistrust of difference. Unfortunately, this is not always or even often the case.

      May 30, 2013

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