It’s time for thought­ful di­a­logue

The temp­ta­tion to di­vide our­selves into us and them, where we are good and they are bad, has never been greater

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BELIEF - By the Rev. Laura Mayo

Who is in? Who is out? Who de­cides? I’ve been fol­low­ing the ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­ceed­ings of Su­gar Land res­i­dent Sam Young with a strange sort of sol­i­dar­ity as he has openly ob­jected to his church’s pol­icy of al­low­ing bish­ops to meet with chil­dren one-on-one and has now been ousted for it.

I am a Bap­tist min­is­ter, and any­one fol­low­ing Bap­tist news in Texas or else­where is likely aware that church after church has been dis­fel­low­shipped. Covenant Church, an ec­u­meni­cal, lib­eral, Bap­tist con­gre­ga­tion, where I am the se­nior min­is­ter, was never al­lowed in the Bap­tist Gen­eral Con­ven­tion of Texas.

Back in 1965 when our church was founded we re­fused to make bap­tism a req­ui­site of mem­ber­ship and were thus de­nied mem­ber­ship in the con­ven­tion. We re­moved our­selves from the larger South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion in 1992. We wrote a re­spect­ful let­ter ex­plain­ing that their views of re­fus­ing LGBTQ in­clu­sion in the church and dis­al­low­ing women clergy meant we could no longer part­ner with them. We left them. But many Bap­tist churches, in­stead of choos­ing to leave, have been

kicked out of their state con­ven­tions and/or the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion. They have been told they are no longer wel­come.

Mor­mons and Bap­tists are not the only ones try­ing to sort out who is in and who is out. We’ve been learn­ing for years now of Catholic priests, some of whom are known to be sex­ual preda­tors, moved from one church to an­other rather than re­moved from the priest­hood.

On June 18, some 640 United Methodist Church mem­bers and lead­ers signed their names to an open let­ter ad­dressed to Rev. Ster­ling Boykin, a pas­tor at Jeff Ses­sions’ home church in Mo­bile, Ala., and Rev. Tracy Wines, a pas­tor at the UMC con­gre­ga­tion in Ar­ling­ton, Va., where Ses­sions reg­u­larly at­tends. They brought church charges against their fel­low mem­ber and the U.S. at­tor­ney gen­eral for the zero tol­er­ance im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy that re­sulted in the sep­a­ra­tion of chil­dren from their par­ents at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der. The for­mal ac­cu­sa­tion charges Ses­sions with nu­mer­ous vi­o­la­tions of the de­nom­i­na­tion’s Book of Dis­ci­pline, in­clud­ing child abuse, im­moral­ity, racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and, for his ci­ta­tion of Ro­mans 13 to de­fend the pol­icy, the dis­sem­i­na­tion of doc­trines con­trary to the stan­dards of the UMC.

Who is in and who is out is no easy mat­ter — we can un­friend with the click of the mouse but dis­fel­low­ship­ping from our com­mu­ni­ties should not be so sim­ple. In­deed it is not sim­ple: Who de­cides who is in? Who de­cides who is out? On what grounds should such de­ci­sions be made?

Many, when seek­ing to sup­port ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion or dis­fel­low­ship­ping, point to the only pas­sage in the Gospels that of­fers any ad­vice on the sub­ject: Matthew 18:15-18 (New Re­vised Stan­dard Ver­sion). It reads: “If an­other mem­ber of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the mem­ber lis­tens to you, you have re­gained that one. But if you are not lis­tened to, take one or two oth­ers along with you, so that ev­ery word may be con­firmed by the ev­i­dence of two or three wit­nesses. If the mem­ber re­fuses to lis­ten to them, tell it to the church; and if the of­fender re­fuses to lis­ten even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gen­tile and a tax col­lec­tor.”

Be­fore we get into this ad­vice, it is worth not­ing what comes be­fore and after these words in the chap­ter. Just be­fore this ad­vice is the para­ble of the lost sheep. In this story (found in Matthew and Luke), Je­sus tells of a shepherd who has 100 sheep. He loses one of his sheep and leaves the 99 to go and search for the one that is lost un­til it is found. And then, just after this ad­vice we read: “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if an­other mem­ber of the church sins against me, how of­ten should I for­give? As many as seven times?’ ” Je­sus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ ” (Matthew 18:21-22, NRSV; there also is a ver­sion of this teach­ing on for­give­ness in Luke).

When we con­sider the process out­lined in Matthew, we must con­sider that it is sur­rounded by wel­come and for­give­ness and that it en­cour­ages di­a­logue. Con­flict does not have to mean an end of com­mu­nity; it can mean dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions, it can mean real lis­ten­ing and authen­tic shar­ing.

Ev­ery group with which we are af­fil­i­ated has con­flict be­cause peo­ple are unique. Di­ver­sity is a given. En­gage­ment within di­ver­sity is not. It takes work. Work, not just tol­er­ance (although some­times tol­er­ance is the only hope for Thanks­giv­ing din­ner). Diana Eck, pro­fes­sor of com­par­a­tive re­li­gion at Har­vard, writes: “Tol­er­ance is a nec­es­sary pub­lic virtue, but … tol­er­ance is too thin a foun­da­tion for a world of dif­fer­ence and prox­im­ity. It does noth­ing to re­move our ig­no­rance of one an­other, and leaves in place the stereo­type, the half-truth, the fears that un­der­lie old pat­terns of divi­sion and vi­o­lence.”

Eck en­cour­ages a par­a­digm of plu­ral­ism which “does not re­quire us to leave our iden­ti­ties and our com­mit­ments be­hind. Plu­ral­ism means hold­ing our deep­est dif­fer­ences, even our re­li­gious dif­fer­ences, not in iso­la­tion, but in re­la­tion­ship to one an­other.” Tol­er­ance is in­deed a thin foun­da­tion and in many ways and in many places it is giv­ing way. In­stead of di­a­logue and plu­ral­ism, ig­no­rance, stereo­types, half-truths, fears and old pat­terns of vi­o­lence are be­com­ing dom­i­nant ways of be­ing in the world.

The temp­ta­tion to di­vide our­selves into us and them, where we are good and they are bad; where we are wise and they are fools, has per­haps never been greater. Tol­er­ance and agree­ment on ba­sic prin­ci­ples seems to have been largely tossed aside for pas­sion­ate al­le­giance and un­mov­ing con­vic­tions. There is so much divi­sion in our world right now; so many places where peo­ple are be­ing kicked out, shunned; so many places where leav­ing might be the best op­tion; so many dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions that need to be had; and so many con­ver­sa­tions that have been go­ing on for years that seem to be get­ting nowhere.

So very of­ten the peo­ple I strug­gle the most to love, to wel­come, to truly lis­ten to share my last name, my re­li­gion, my home­land. I don’t be­lieve I am alone in this. Our pas­sions are most in­flamed by an in­ti­mate other. Vir­ginia Bur­rus, a scholar of Chris­tian his­tory, has called heretics “the most in­ti­mate other.” We only find heresy in what we know — what we are in­ti­mately con­nected to. We find heresy be­cause it mat­ters to us.

What do we do, for ex­am­ple, when some­thing is be­ing es­poused as Amer­i­can that is anath­ema to our un­der­stand­ing of jus­tice and free­dom for all? It is hard to know how to be true and authen­tic and still main­tain re­la­tion­ships. It is hard to know when the re­la­tion­ship is no longer life-giv­ing and should be aban­doned.

Some­times we need to walk away. Some­times we need to stay and keep hav­ing dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions. Think Kenny Rogers’ “The Gam­bler:” “You gotta know when to fold ’em, know when to hold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

Some­times it is time to fold ’em and walk away. And some­times it is time to hold ’em — to stay the course. Ei­ther way, let’s sur­round our de­ci­sions and our di­a­logue with wel­come and for­give­ness. If our com­mu­nity mat­ters to us, then when we dis­agree, let’s talk about it. Let’s truly lis­ten. And where con­ver­sa­tion is not pos­si­ble, maybe we need to read these words from Matthew, have any dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions we need to have, and then if noth­ing changes, fo­cus our en­er­gies and our pas­sions where we can be part of so­lu­tions.

My hope is for a re­newal of civil con­ver­sa­tion, of di­a­logue. Di­a­logue means both speak­ing and lis­ten­ing. Di­a­logue does not mean we agree but it does mean we en­gage. Di­a­logue is the way sib­lings of rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent ide­olo­gies come to­gether to care for an ag­ing par­ent, it is how neigh­bors of vary­ing re­li­gions and cul­tures and tra­di­tions can re­spect and cel­e­brate each other as they care for a com­mu­nity gar­den; it is how we, as a di­verse city, can come to­gether to care for each other as we did after Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

After all, if we are go­ing to take the ad­vice given in Matthew 18, not only do we need at least three con­ver­sa­tions, but if those don’t work, we are en­cour­aged to “let such a one be to you as a Gen­tile and a tax-col­lec­tor.” How does Je­sus treat gen­tiles and tax col­lec­tors? Matthew the tax col­lec­tor is wel­comed as one of the dis­ci­ples. Je­sus eats with Zac­cha­eus the tax col­lec­tor. Tax-col­lec­tors as a gen­eral group are reg­u­larly listed among those with whom Je­sus spends time. Gen­tile in­ter­ac­tions are less com­mon. The Gospel of Matthew con­tains two in­ter­ac­tions be­tween Je­sus and gen­tiles. In both cases, Je­sus heals a gen­tile.

In these days when so many Amer­i­cans are turn­ing away from di­a­logue and to­ward dogma, it is an im­por­tant re­minder that the only place in any of the Gospels where any­thing like ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion or dis­fel­low­ship­ping is found is nes­tled be­tween wel­come and for­give­ness, en­cour­ages dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions, and in the end, re­minds us to con­tinue to treat each other with re­spect and kind­ness.

Rick Bowmer / As­so­ci­ated Press

Sam Young was ex­com­mu­ni­cated by the Mor­mon church for crit­i­ciz­ing sex­u­ally ex­plicit in­ter­views of chil­dren.

El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Sam Young protested the Mor­mon church pol­icy of one-on-one, sex­u­ally ex­plicit in­ter­views of chil­dren.

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