But the lesson which our blessed Lord inculcates here, and which he illustrates by this example, is that God is in all things, and that we are to see the Creator in the face of every creature; that we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical atheism; but with a true magnificence of thought survey heaven and earth and all that is therein as contained by God in the hallow of his hand, who by his intimate presence holds them all in being, who pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is in a true sense the soul of the universe.”
Sermon 23, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, III” I.11
I thought I would try to deflect criticism by blaming John Wesley (opening quote). It is obvious to me that many United Methodists refuse to accept such bleeding heart sentimentality. We certainly refuse to see God in people we don’t like or people who are different, but interestingly we seem only willing to recognize God in those who think, believe, and act as we do. Yes, even in the community of believers we choose to draw dividing lines and attack one another with insult, disrespect, indignity, slander and ill-will. Operating from our labels and categories, we seek to convert those who disagree with us, and if we cannot convert them we hope to eliminate them, and short of that, we will attempt to shame, humiliate, degrade, insult and discredit them — all in the name of Christian love. What a fabulous witness to the world!
And this is not a rational and practical condition. We can only live in a perpetual state of indignation if we work at it. We need to twist other people’s words and ascribe to them malicious intention. We go to great lengths to misunderstand and to take comments out of context in order to be outraged. We dig in our heals to defend our own positions with no intention of listening to anyone else’s side. Then we add insult to injury by “taking the high road” and inviting those we disrespect into “dialogue.”
Don’t get me wrong, dialogue is a significant part of our solution, but not dialogue designed to score points, prove superiority, tolerate those we feel are ignorant, or as a pretense for ‘Christian conferencing.” Deep understanding, reconciliation, unity, and a healthy environment for differences and disagreement don’t seem to be values on the table.
What all this bickersome in-fighting communicates to the world is that our faith and life together is no different from the rest of the world. There is really no reason to seek community in Christ because we treat one another as heinously and hurtfully as any given audience on the Jerry Springer Show.
Some will come back to me and say, “I don’t think this is true of most Methodists — I think you’re being too harsh.” Okay, fine, then how many are too many. How much name-calling, insult, degradation, slander, hostility and attack is “acceptable?” If the church were a bowl of soup, how much poison or filth would be tolerable in that soup?
A pastor-friend of mine commenting on health care in the U.S. said, “No one should be given a free ride. I am so sick of these sanctimonious liberals who want to spend my money to care for criminals, addicts, lazy, and foreigners. People need to take responsibility for themselves. This isn’t being mean; it’s tough love — holding people accountable for their own lives. What would Jesus do? He would say ‘take up your own cross and follow.’ I am my brothers’ keeper, but no some leech off the street. People who support universal health care are idiots, thieves and liars.”
Let me just say up front, I disagree with almost everything in this statement, but my real problems are two-fold: first, the use of justifying language to validate one’s position (labeling this “tough love), and, second, to automatically disrespect and denigrate anyone who holds a different view. Where is the possibility of conciliation here? Where is the possibility to bridge the chasm separating points of view? Living in the absolutes precludes the central tenets of our faith. Saying “this I believe” is a wonderful starting point, but we too often continue with “and all other belief is wrong.” Christianity is not a contest to “win.” Christianity is not a legislative debate. Christianity is not a TV talk show. Christianity is a way of being, and it holds as a high value unity, reconciliation, and community. Any time Christianity is defined in terms of “us” and “them” it has lost its way, especially when we waste our precious time and effort drawing the lines WITHIN the fellowship. We, as individuals, must get over ourselves so that we have a fighting chance of becoming the “we” God calls (and expects) us to be.
If we can’t talk nice, be kind, act with respect, and embrace humility, we are dead in the water. Will we ever all agree? No. Will we ever have a “sin-free” church? Not likely. Will any segment, splinter, caucus or cause contain the “whole truth?” Are you kidding? We need to begin from the position that we are all created in the image of God, God is still present through the power of the Spirit, and that our highest responsibility is faithful stewardship of the precious relationships we have been granted through God’s grace. From there, we need to drop the “tough” from our love, and just live the fruits of the Spirit with one another unconditionally — offering love, sharing joy, creating peace, committing to patience, with extreme kindness, abundant generosity, deep faithfulness, true gentle-ness, and radical and comprehensive self-control. It’s time to get our egos out of God’s church, and provide a witness to the world that there is a better way.