De-Loved Community

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.

26 replies

  1. Thank you Dan, again, for thoughtful words. They give me hope when it is easy to believe there isn’t hope…for United Methodists, for Christians, or for US citizens. God Bless

  2. A parallel series of propositions:

    Beloved Community is…

    • people prevailing through love – even as sin occurs

    • people welcoming others regardless any discomfort raised by the perceived purity, privilege, preferences, merit or deservedness of those others.

    • people characterized by the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control — while facing their own greed, gluttony, envy, sloth, pride, lust, or wrath.

    • people treating others with dignity, justice, respect, and mercy – whether treated with such or not.

    • people willing to hold judgment in abeyance, while tempted to do so.

    • people practiced in setting aside differences to focus on where commonality can be discerned.

    • people able to be both critical and constructive, individual and communal, contextual and incarnational, and to apply such practically in daily life (¶104, “The Nature of Our Theological Task”)

  3. Thanks for this Dan. I recently had to leave a fellowship over these very beliefs. The gay, the homeless, the sex addict, the sinner was seen from the eyes of pity, but acceptance would mean that they had a place at the table and that was a bridge too far. The sinner always needs to be in the “those people” category rather than one of us.

    I was reading in the gospel of Matthew about the call of Matthew (Matthew 9: 9-13) and noticed something that I had not recognized before and honestly have not heard this preached. The Pharisees see Jesus eating with Matthew and his tax collector friends and they ask the disciples “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” v. 11

    Jesus hears this and makes this statement-to the Pharisees!- “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ for I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” vs. 12-13.

    The irony of Jesus playing into the belief system of the Pharisee’s strikes me as humorous. Of all people who were unhealthy the Pharisees would top the list, yet when he told them that he was not there for the healthy, and excluded them from the healing process, they agreed. Jesus was not for them.

    Truth be known, the people who feel that they are too holy to associate with sinners actually fall outside of the ministry of Jesus. I pray that I always be the needy one, the sick one, the one in need of a doctor, because I always need Jesus.

    Amazingly I find the most acceptance and true worship in recovery communities where persons learn early on that we are and remain powerless to change without turning our lives and wills over to the care of God.

  4. “I err to the side of inclusion, and would much rather be judged for being too accepting rather than too exclusive… 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.”

    The ambiguity of God’s mind speaks to me and is what makes the homosexuality issue hard for me. I often say it is above my pay grade to sort this out. And I don’t like the fact it has been singled out and comes acrosss as The Sin. But being a follower of Christ is about living a transformed life. Where does “go and sin no more” fit in? Without some sort of “boundaries”, some expectations of change, how does it not become a simple free for all with no meaning?

    I recently read an account of Surgeon General Koop rallying evangelicals to minister to the homosexuals with AIDS, all the while calling their lifestyle sodomy.

    A pastor posted a blog about accepting homosexuality puts us on a “slippery slope”–what’s next, incest? That is between two consenting adults and doesn’t hurt anybody else. Evidently that has raised its head in Hollywood.

    And all the while, for me, I’m leaving the UMC because I finally came to the realization that the gospel is “the best kept secret” for someone who has nowhere else to hear it and get an understanding of its impact on their life. There is no mechanism for that particular crucial piece of information to trickle down to the pew in a consistent and understandable fashion.

  5. Extraordinarily well written. Thank you. I too long for this Beloved Community and we do have moments when it is very evident in my small church but it is anything but evident in The United Methodist Church as a whole.

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