Thursday, May 22, 2014

Separating Friend from Foe

Recently, I experienced something unexpectedly hurtful. I left a comment on a feminist website explaining the particulars of my religion, Quakerism. My intention had been to show where religion and feminism met. In feminist parlance, I was putting on display the intersection between two related disciplines and schools of thought. A comment I received shortly thereafter entirely missed my intention.

"This comment comes dangerously close to proselytizing and should come with a warning”. I felt that this was both unfair and ridiculous. I’ve never knocked on doors with the intention of spreading the Good News, nor have I thought that behavior was even my place. The language of this warning implied that any religious expression was noxious and harmful. He or she was assigning far too much credit to me. I only wish I had the power to be as destructive as this person assumed I was. In reality, I’m just one person with his own interpretation and convictions, hardly a danger to anyone.

In a recent issue of Friends Journal, Mariellen Gilpin writes about Religious Wounding. This took the form of a Friend who enjoyed invalidating her perspective during Worship, denigrating her own truth and the vocal ministry she shared.

After any message that used Christian metaphors, she would stand up almost immediately and reduce our words to their least common denominator. If more than one Christian happened to speak, she would speak more than once—she was an equal opportunity denigrator of Christian language. I think she liked me and wished the best for my recovery, but she was allergic to God—the “G-word”—along with the sonorous phrases of the King James Version and those old familiar hymns.
For her, there was truth in every religious tradition except Christianity. No matter how relevant or helpful the messages might have been, she would dump her feelings about God onto Friends who loved God. She wounded me emotionally. She chose to banish the God of her childhood, and wished to orphan me as well.

The Reverend Dan De Leon, minister of a liberal United Church of Christ in College Station, Texas, discussed this same problem in a slightly different setting. It was the focus of last Sunday’s sermon.

Taken out of context, suddenly words of comfort are transformed into words of entitlement and exclusion. That verse taken by itself has been used as a means of proving that Christianity is the best religion there is, and that out-of-context interpretation has led to elaborate doctrine that says, “Because I believe in Jesus, I am going to heaven. And because you don’t believe in Jesus, you are not going to heaven,” assuming that’s what Jesus was talking about when he says that he is the way.
I've seen that Bible verse on t-shirts: Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” –John 14:6. I imagine that verse is put on t-shirts in an effort at evangelism, but evangelism is good news. That’s what evangelism is: good news. Evangelism is not a debate. If someone is standing in line at Chipotle and they notice someone standing in front of them with a shirt that says, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” –John 14:6, that person reading the shirt is not going to go, “I’d better give up Judaism then.” “I’d better stop being a Muslim then.”  “I’d better stop not believing in God and get to church. Thanks for wearing that shirt, buddy. Bullet dodged.”

The point is that taking that one verse out and having it stand alone changes the entire chapter, changes the entire discourse from a message of comfort to a message of exclusion. And exclusion does damage. Exclusion hurts. Is that the message that we Christians want to share with the world? I’m in. You’re out. Is that the message that Jesus left with us on Easter?  You’re in. You’re covered. Everybody else is out. Even for us who do trust in God and trust in Jesus Christ, where’s the comfort in a message like that?

It’s traditional in Quaker Worship to second or wholly agree with a previous speaker. What one says is, “Friend speaks my mind.” Though Dr. De Leon is not a Quaker, I second his argument in spite of it. My father always used to tell me that God granted us two ears and only one mouth, so that we might listen more than we talk. I take no offense to the vast amount of listening that has gone into being a male ally. I only ask that when I add my own intersections between disciplines that I am treated with respect, not fear. I could have very easily sought first to put aside the anxieties of others, regardless of how ridiculous they might be in reality.

Minorities of all shapes and sizes make strong claims that they shouldn’t have to be responsible for educating others, especially those in positions of privilege. I tried this approach, and found it made my life easier to put my professor hat on and explain myself. Even then, I’m not sure everyone was willing to listen, but I have found that I at least carved out space for myself. There I was not always put on the defensive. We must listen to each other on equal terms.

Whoever claimed I was dangerous had a very active imagination, and perhaps even fantasies of persecution. True enemies never have to be rooted out. Instead, they let everyone know directly their malicious intention and their intended target well beforehand. Think of how many prospective allies have been turned away by those with an ax to grind, forever fearing the worst. Determining friend from foe is a life skill, and one we cannot afford to overlook anymore.

No comments: