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. Brother Dan — another great exposition on where we’re at and where we need to go and be ……..

    The tolerance vs. acceptance concept has me thinking…….(well the whole piece has me thinking, actually….)

    What immediately popped into my mind is Wesley’s teachings on the Path to Perfection — perhaps another way to look at what you are saying is that we MUST BE on a journey to that end?

    -Pax- my Friend — keep up the good work

    Todd Anderson

    • Without being trite, I think an agricultural metaphor applies. The cultivation of fruit is fairly strict, intentional, time-consuming and radical (rooted?). Taking Paul’s list from Galatians as a starting point — the intended crop includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity (goodness), faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (or similar variations depending on translation). The preparation of soil, sowing of seed, nurture, feeding, care, thinning, pruning, fertilizing, tying, watering, protecting, processes are all necessary before the first healthy fruit ever appears. This seems to be what we want simple shortcuts to avoid… But the fruit once grown isn’t finished. Harvest and distribution are essential if the fruit is ever to serve the purpose for which it has been produced. Our culture likes the idea of having fruit, but we struggle more with the giving of/sharing of fruit. The concept that we would go to all the trouble of producing fruit just to give it away drives many people crazy. Yet, this is the apparent purpose for which Jesus (John 15) and Paul (various) envision fruitful living. We tend to want to think of the fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) as descriptive concepts, passive feelings, or simply nice ideas. We are caught completely off guard when we realize that God’s will depends upon these fruit as concrete intentions, creative potential, and fundamental expectations of performance. Can these fruit grow wild without intention or cultivation? I suppose, but the fruit will not be sufficient. Only through an intentional commitment to cultivate excellent, succulent, nourishing, delightful fruit will we be able to grow an orchard with the power to transform the world. I believe Christian communities need to make an explicit and clear commitment to become centers of love, joy, peace, patience, etc., and align their programs and processes to help produce fruit in each and every member. It is a great and compelling metaphor, but it depends on intentionality and commitment. Once again, setting a high bar that many may not be willing to accept.

      • Thank you, Dan. I appreciate the time you gave to my question. Could I ask you to — here or elsewhere — reflect a bit on how you see grace active in this process? Reading what you wrote above, I am tempted to a works righteousness. I don’t think you intend that (or maybe you do). What does it mean to say that only God gives the growth?

        Again, I’m sure you have other things to do, but I’m curious how you integrate all that.

      • I see the full blossoming of God-given potential as a partnership and deeply tied to the whole concept of free will. A seed contains the full potentiality of the finished, fully grown, mature plant, but if the seed never finds soil mand nutrients it remains barren. I believe that each human being contains the full potentiality to manifest any of the twenty spiritual gifts that Paul identifies. The Holy Spirit can activate any gift God chooses — yet we can deny God’s will be refusing to use the gift. And just as the same tool has the potential to craft a fine cabinet as a rough birdhouse, it is the skill and competency of the one who wields the tool that makes all the difference. What God gives has incredible potential and is always of the finest quality — but that doesn’t mean it will produce excellent results if it is misused. I had a friend in college who bought only the finest photographic equipment — then took snapshots with it. The potnetial of the camera was incredible, but the phots it took were pedestrian and poor. Our intention and commitment is to be faithful stewards of the treasure God entrusts to us. The fruit of God’s Spirit is of the highest quality. What a tragedy (sin?) if we take it for granted and do not do our part to ensure a bountiful harvest… God works with us and through us, but we dishonor God if we expect God to work in spite of us or to make our pathetic efforts produce miraculous results.

  2. I like your vision, and I share much of it. My comment has to do with application. In the relatively short time I’ve been a Christian and then clergy (well, 17 years is short compared to the big picture), I’ve consistently witnessed a messy church–not just my denomination, but others as well. I am still passionate to the point of tears (thank God) about the sort of vision you share. But people are what they are–the full range of the spectrum…fractured, screwed up, ill, mistreated, alienated, angry, bitter, content, happy, working hard, building a better life, seeking a better life, etc etc. Mix that in a pot and you get a murky stew. Yes, God’s grace prevails. But I have no idea how sometimes. Sometimes I don’t see any evidence of it. I often see shades of ugliness prevail. The grace is usually some invisible ingredient that occasionally gets noticed by some special seer or prophet. We are just small parts in something that gets worked out in terms of generations. We don’t often get to see the fruit of our labor. How many Christians died before realizing much of anything resembling their vision or fulfillment of their mission? For a long time, I kept struggling with how to accomplish the sort of vision you describe–how to be effective. I’ve settled on simply showing up and doing my thing. I got the vision as my discipline. I’ll pause a few minutes each day and retreat into a private devotion to remind myself of my calling. If I get shot/hanged/imprisoned/abused/mistreated for it, so be it. I may sympathize with Calvin, but my heroes are the Jesuits. Thanks to Chris Lowney’s book Heroic Leadership for helping me to see this.

  3. From an email I received. I share it because it raises two points that the author felt I unfairly misrepresented.

    “I must confess that I am glad you are not my pastor. Your understanding of the Bible is immature and potentially dangerous. The issue is not who is a child of God but who lives as a child of God and who chooses not to. Rebellious children may run away from home and renounce their family, but they remain children of their parents. Our problem is too many children rebel but they don’t want to pay any kind of price for their rebellion. Your vision of beloeved community destroys any reason for a Savior — if everyone belongs, and it doesn’t matter what we say or think or do, why bother? I can love a criminal or a street person without taking them into my home. My home is for my family who wants to be there. It isn’t for everybody. There are people I don’t want in my home, and people who don’t want to be in my home. My home is beloved community, and I don’t think you have the right to tell me who I should be letting in. That’s my call. And in the church, it’s God’s call, and He has made it. This isn’t about being mean or unfair to anyone, but about making people take responsibility for their actions. Our table has some rules. It is for straight, law-abiding, clean, well-behaved men and women who are obedient to God. Anyone who wants to be at the table has to follow the rules. You make it sound like Christians are trying to keep people away from God’s table, when in fact it is these very people who are choosing not to do the things that will make themselves acceptable. We are not keeping anyone out, but we are very clear on what it takes to come in. It is up to every person to decide they want to be part of the community, but we should not be blamed for not saying what is wrong is right just so they don’t have to change to come in. What you propose is changing all the rules so that no one is left out. That’s why people don’t like your vision. It is un-Christian in the worst way.”

  4. I don’t believe that all people are children of God. The Bible doesn’t say so. Yes, all are created by God. But the only people in Scripture who are called children of God, are “those who accepted Him” (John 1:12), those are adopted children of God.
    God loved and loves the world, including all, absolutely, but not all are children of God, according to Scripture.
    Just as not all (or all poor people) are called brothers of Christ in Scripture. Jesus calls his male siblings “brothers.” In Matthew’s famous chapter we find the the two of the three other times that Jesus called some people “my brothers”. It is wrong to teach and believe that Jesus calls all poor and needy people his brothers. He doesn’t. Nowhere in Scripture.
    After his resurrection Jesus sends Mary to “my brothers” (apparently his disciples) with a message.
    So, when we read, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ it is not correct to interpret that as to encompass all poor and needy. On the contrary, those are the children of God who proclaimed the Gospel of Christ. Salvation doesn’t depend on feeding the poor, but on accepting Christ. Now, feeding the poor IS very important, but we are not saved by feeding the poor.

    • Thank you for framing this in terms of belief. I have no interest in proof-texting scriptures to debate individual interpretations — I base my belief that we are all children of God on many good passages from other parts of the Bible. I fully understand the position of many who rely on a different set of scriptures. John’s community was on an endangered species list, if you will, and much of the language is exclusionary and defensive. I can see very easily how using a Johannine basis would result in a completely different vision from a Lucan/Pauline vision. I confess that Luke, James and Ephesians influence my faith much more than John (gospel/epistles/revelation). It is very difficult to engage in a modern discussion of vision relying solely on a pre-modern, primitive, Middle Eastern/Mediterranean, primarily Greek text. Is it possible that God is still revealing to us new visions that build upon, yet supercede those received in an earlir place and time by a very different culture?

  5. Dan, your vision is wonderful, and I am sorry that you get so much hostility in return.

    But I think some of the questions or resistance you get comes from legitimate questions about what we mean by saying we accept everyone.

    Let me use myself as an example. I am obese. I have never had a problem with being accepted despite my obvious disordered and harmful relationship with food (and exercise). But if a community loves me and wants me to be the me that God desires me to be, it should not merely accept me, but help me to see this problem. It should certainly not refuse to speak of healthy eating habits and good exercise out of fear that I might be hurt by that. It should not say being fat is just who I am.

    Now, there are good and bad ways to talk to me and build me up and encourage me, but the “beloved community” does not really love me if in the name of acceptance it decides it cannot speak to me of health and cannot speak to others of it either.

    What I hear you suggesting is that even if I remain obese, I should not be kicked out of the community. That feels to me like a loving thing. Who knows? I may repent at some point. Every community has weak members and strong ones (as Paul wrote about in Romans), but when the very meaning of health has to be rewritten because someone like me won’t stop eating potato chips, isn’t that a harmful thing to the community?

    I’m sure there are some Christians who respond to your vision out of wicked motives and their own sin. I would not dare defend every criticism. But I do think there is some ground of legitimate question asking here that seeks to understand boundaries and the central values around which the community is formed.

    • Even your analogy breaks down for me, John. I would still question the right or validity of people to judge you a bad person for being overweight, or denying you the right to leadership or participation or fellowship because of your weight/eating habits/exercise commitment. I offered the full list of those deemed unacceptable to challenge the myth of a few that homosexuality is the root issue, and that nothing else matters — yet, homosexuality seems to be the issue that brings out the worst in people. I received another email from someone who compared obesity specifically to homosexuality, so I will speak to that, even though you, John, offered it more generically. In our modern/post-modern era, we choose to address human sexuality purely as a moral issue — but we feel free to ignore the definition of “moral” employed by the primitive Hebrew people in favor of our own modern filtered variation. Sin — and by extension, morality — was a communal issue: that which harmed the strength and growth of the people of God was sinful; an abomination. This is why homosexuality is one thread in a larger fabric of restictions — masturbation, bestiality, marrying outside the faith, divorce, adultery, incest, etc. None of these things produce healthy off-spring, and many can actually weaken the bloodline. To engage in activities that ignored the mandate to be fruitful and multiply for conquest and dominion was immoral and sinful. In our modern day interpretation of moral sin, we look at the beahvior of the individual and how it makes us feel. We have moved beyond an understanding of physical intimacy as exclusively for the purpose of procreation in some ways, but not in all. We also have evolved to a place where the sexual act is not the defining characteristic of a marriage; some actually marry for love, and sexual intimacy is not the obsessive-compulsive end-all, be-all determinant for a “healthy” relationship. We have chosen to make homosexuality a moral sex sin, not because it is Biblical, but because it is currently the cultural intepretive filter we use in the modern era. Primitive Hebrews would most likely not know what the heck we’re on about — it simply has nothing to do with why it was a sin for them.

      The obesity illustration is very much about the individual and his or her choices — where we end up most often today in American society. Gluttony, as a sin in context, is about fairness and taking more than one’s share — having at the expense of others and taking more than is necessary. This is the sin against the community, and is what is immoral. A case can still be made for the immorality of one culture consuming much more than its rightful share. In my mind, this is a much more grave and important concern than what a same-gender couple does when they go into their bedroom. Perhaps being overweight is a moral issue, but were we ever to say overweight people should not be ordained, I think we would be in a very bad place, indeed. (At least for me it would be a bad place — as I am significantly overweight myself…)

      And you offer me one more place for an important clarification. I have received 71 affirmations of the vision of beloved community and only fourteen complaints. Five times as many people have praised the vision as have criticized it. I think this is probably a very representative ratio for people who like the concept of beloved community and those who oppose it (as defined).

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