We face a tragic reality in our United Methodist Church today — the inability to disagree in Christian compassion and fellowship. For the past few years I have been promoting a vision, albeit personal, for beloved community. This vision is fairly specific, and contains the following propositions:
Beloved Community is…
- a place where unconditional love prevails
- a place where all are welcome regardless of their purity, privilege, preferences, merit or deservedness
- a place characterized by the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control
- a place where everyone is treated with dignity, justice, respect and mercy
- a place beyond judgment
- a place where we choose to set aside our differences and focus instead on those things we hold in common
- a place where “we pledge to continue to be in respectful conversation with those with whom we differ, to explore the sources of our differences, to honor the sacred worth of all persons as we continue to seek the mind of Christ and to do the will of God in all things.” (Preamble to our Social Principles, Book of Discipline 2008)
These are all variations on a theme; a way of saying essentially the same thing over and over. For me, it epitomizes the gospel message throughout the ages. Imagine my surprise as I continuously encounter Christian after Christian who find this vision offensive, demeaning, coercive, hostile and, need it be said, unChristian. I confess that I am a moderate theologically, a social progressive, and a relational liberal — I believe that all human beings are children of God, all are created in the image of God, and all have gifts and graces that no other human being should ever deny or withhold. I err to the side of inclusion, and would much rather be judged for being too accepting rather than too exclusive. But I realize that there are many who want our church to be “just exclusive enough,” and who draw very different boundaries around who qualifies as a child of God and who does not. I can live with such differences of opinion, interpretation, and worldview. I am saddened that there are others who cannot.
The argument, as I understand it — and I want to confess that I may not be fair here, because I am not sure I fully understand — is that a vision for beloved community that includes those that others exclude in turn becomes exclusive to them — a ‘not wanting to be a member of a club that allows certain undesirable elements in’ situation. To add insult to injury, when the vision is supported by Biblical passages and the Book of Discipline, it makes it that much harder to disagree without looking bad. And when speakers such as myself build training and workshops around such an image, it provides an unfair “bully pulpit” where one vision is presented with no opportunity for debate or rebuff. Lastly, it is believed that there is a specific agenda to promote that denigrates other agendas. In other words, “beloved community” is code language to foist a liberal and political agenda that allows gays, lesbians, the poor, street people, Goths, punks, women who have abortions, undocumented immigrants, Democrats, intellectuals, terrorists and scientists a place at the table to which they do not, by rights, belong.
I used the list in the last sentence I did because I have a file of letters and emails that specifically identify and name each of the groups/individuals mentioned. If you find the list ludicrous or inconsistent, don’t blame me: it comes from those who take offense at my vision of beloved community. It puts me in mind of the recent political campaigns, where candidates seemed unwilling to focus on what they could create or achieve because they were so busy pointing out everything that was wrong with their opposition. No politician was willing to risk casting a positive vision for fear that the other party would annihilate him/her. And many in our culture loved every minute of it. Why would we expect the church to be any different?
I am thankful that the invitation list into heaven is not my responsibility. I cast a vision of what I believe God wants the world to be, and perhaps that is a glimpse into my understanding of heaven. I grew up in the Bible belt, then spent fifteen years in Tennessee — I know there are very different visions of what God’s will look like. But I would much rather live together in the ambiguity of our ability to comprehend the mind of God than to be at war with brothers and sisters whom God intends me to love. My vision to include all people is not a ploy to exclude some. When I talk about acceptance I don’t mean tolerance — merely putting up with those who oppose me just to shut them up. I believe we can find a way through our differences to actually enjoy each other! My love of God and Jesus Christ is much greater than my dislike for any individual or group. So, I will keep talking about beloved community. I will still encourage every Christian leader to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, so that our Christian churches may come to be seen as centers of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control — not simply as believing in nice concepts, but as creating and living the reality of the power of God in all creation.