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
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.
Sam Young was excommunicated by the Mormon church for criticizing sexually explicit interviews of children.
Sam Young protested the Mormon church policy of one-on-one, sexually explicit interviews of children.