Who should have a place at the banquet table laid out for us by God? This is a question that keeps coming up in my life at the moment as I listen to conversations about immigration, homosexuality, capital punishment, and abortion. In each case, one significant issue emerges: who is acceptable and who is not (or who is deserving and who is not; who is “us” and who is “them;” who do we choose to include and who do we choose to exclude)? There is always a dividing line, and the basic disagreement is always about where to draw the line.
We live by our boundaries — those we choose, those imposed on us, those that are explicit, and those that remain hidden but powerful, nonetheless. We all draw lines. They define us. But where we draw them says a lot about who we are, what we believe, and who we believe God is.
I draw big, looping inclusive lines. One of the few true heroes I have known personally — and one of only two people I have ever known to willingly sacrifice his life for others — was a Mexican man named Juan. Juan was in this country illegally, brought his family, worked hard to provide a home for himself and two other families (in the country legally) and he rescued a pregnant woman and her two daughters from a fire at the cost of his own life.
One of the kindest, most generous and loving women I ever knew was a lesbian who gave her life to caring for children. She was a gentle, but firm teacher of the very best moral practices of civility, respect, consideration, patience, kindness and love. I conducted her funeral — the largest I have ever done — and over 1,100 people attended. People still speak of the impact she made on their lives, and credit her with helping them to be who they are today.
I know a man named Trent who actually killed another man with his bare hands. He was executed in the late 1990s for his crime, but not before he gave his remaining days to helping at risk youth through advocacy, letter writing, community organizing, and crafting legislation — all from prison. He dedicated himself to helping other young men not follow the path that led him to prison and execution. He inspired a number of churches to get involved with street youth, to help them find alternatives to violence and destruction. He became a man of prayer, faith, and vision, and he helped save the lives of many poor young men. A memorial fund was established in Trent’s honor and his work continues fifteen years after his death.
An ultra-conservative pastor I know — and with whom I disagree about almost everything — crusades against abortion in some of the most abrasive and sometimes hateful terms I can think of. Yet this man has tirelessly raised money for orphans around the globe, literally providing for thousands of children through his efforts. He does most of his work anonymously, seeking no credit for anything he does for children. He has organized dozens of non-profit entities all dedicated to caring for abandoned and lost children all across the world. While not kind to those who choose abortion, he is sacrificially and unselfishly committed to a kindness for others. I cringe when I hear him spew hate against women who choose abortion, but I am humbled when I see what he has done to give life and hope to others.
As I listen to people argue about immigration, homosexuality, abortion, and capital punishment as “issues” for debate, I cannot help but remember the people — real men and women who fit “the categories” but defy “the labels.” Who among these people does not deserve a place at the Lord’s banquet feast? In my opinion? They all deserve a place. None of them are perfect, but all of them are beloved. None of them is righteous, but all of them are good — made in the image of God. Each of them has done wrong, but each of them are incarnations of grace. I can focus on the behavior of any, and choose to draw my dividing line between them and myself. Except I can’t.
I cannot judge. I cannot pretend that I am superior to any one of them. Have I committed murder? Well, no. Have I broken the law? Only every time I drive. Am I a pillar of morality, integrity, and propriety? Don’t even go there. Have I ever willingly risked my life for another? Not that I know of? Have I crusaded tirelessly to make sure others have a life as good as my own. I don’t think so. The problem I would have with drawing a line that excludes others is that I am faced with all the lines others would draw that would exclude me.
I’m not saying what anyone else should think, feel or believe. All I can share is that I don’t want to keep living my life building dividing walls of hostility between “us” and “them.” If I had my way, we would find a way to bring everyone to the table, creating a new reality where everyone is “us.” Does this mean anything goes? No. But it means that we find ways to protect our unity and oneness in God’s image even as we navigate the safe, wholesome and accountable ways to deal with our problems. I simply don’t have time to decide about others who is acceptable to God and who isn’t. My concern is whether I am doing all I can to find my own place at the table.