When are we allowed to start hating someone? This was the question raised by our speaker. A couple of weeks ago DOOR’s Beloved Community Council met in Chicago. This is an annual gathering that brings together DOOR staff, board members, and participants to talk about diversity.
This year we invited Jeff Chu to be one of our presenters. Jeff’s book Does Jesus Really Love me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was certain to stir up some controversy and uncomfortableness among this group. One of the things that I have learned during my time at DOOR is that all of us have a breaking point, where diversity shifts from something to be admired and sought after to sin. This is especially true among people of faith. Currently sexual orientation is that hot button issue.
I did expect some in the circle to be uncomfortable. What I did not expect was for me to be uncomfortable. Part way through Jeff’s presentation he started talking about Westboro Baptist Church, a church known for its extreme ideologies. While researching for his book, Jeff spent a few days with the church and its leader, Fred Phelps, conducting interviews and trying to understand how they came to believe what they believe. In many ways this is a congregation that unites both the liberal and conservative sides of the church. Everyone is uncomfortable with their tactics and hate messages.
Quite frankly I expected Jeff to join the chorus of people who have condemned this fringe group. Instead Jeff showed a picture of a 6 year old holding a sign that stated God hates gay people. Then he went on to describe this boy, during his time with the church he got to know the boy. This boy was just starting to read; he really didn’t know what he was holding. He only knew the adults in his life approved, like any 6-year-old he obeyed his parents and held the sign.
This is when Jeff asked the question. When is it OK for me to start hating this boy? When he can read? Once he reaches the age of accountability? When he is 20? Is there ever a time when people of faith get a pass on extending grace even to those who would do us harm?
When does someone else’s “diversity” or “difference” give me permission to hate or exclude? Usually at this point someone will respond with “the Bible clearly states,” this in turn becomes a reason to exclude. This quickly becomes an unwinnable argument, not because we are right, but rather because we are stubborn. History tells us that every time people of faith come up with reasons to exclude, eventually they end up seeking forgiveness for their hate. I suggest that Scripture is abundantly clear about our need to love the other, even when they are different. I have yet to hear about people who ask forgiveness for loving too much.
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Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. I still remember my mother quoting this nursery rhyme to me after being teased. It was her way of helping me to get over the hurt of being made fun of. On one hand she was right. Being teased did not cause me any physical damage; I was never rushed to the emergency room because of name calling. To this day I am still haunted by some of the labels that were given to me – loser, scardy-cat, preacher’s kid, and wimp.
In the years since, I have become convinced that the good advice this nursery rhyme appears to provide is actually horrible guidance. It is true that sticks and stones can do a great deal of harm, but we mislead ourselves when we think of words as risk-free.
This past week I have been preparing for a seminar on White Privilege. The power to label and define others is one of the more sinister aspects of this privilege. Think about words like enemy, gang-banger, insurgent, drug-dealer and urban-rat. If I were to ask you to create an image for each of these labels chances are that it would not include people of Anglo descent. On the other hand if I were to ask you to form an image for America, apple pie, Barbie, GI Joe or a great leader chances are that an Anglo image
will form in your mind.
Words are powerful; do not let anyone tell you different. They have the power to build up and tear down. Labels can make us unreasonably fearful or envious. Fear based labeling is both dehumanizing and sinful.
One of the primary images for humanity in the New Testament is family. When we use language that dehumanizes, ridicules and looks down on other people we cease to be Christian.
A number of weeks ago I a spent a day with a group of pastor’s from southern California. Most of our time was spent listening to stories of what God was doing.
As the day progressed I became increasingly fascinated by the diversity around the table.
· A Korean pastor
· An Indonesian pastor and his wife
· A couple of ethnic Mennonites
· A Swedish pastor with a strong French accent
· An African pastor
· Some denominational staff
Near the end of our time together, the Swedish pastor raised his hands in frustration and said, “you people need to learn how to use simple English.”
Those around the table for whom English was a second language all nodded in agreement.
My initial reaction to this exchange was that we need to provide programs that help recent immigrants better understand North American English Culture.
The more I thought about this the more uncomfortable I became with the arrogance of my thinking. Is the solution to all miscommunication teaching people to think like me? I hope not.
Finding ways to communicate across multiple cultures will not be easy. How do we train for this? How do we conduct meetings when multiple cultures are represented? Is it possible to have a group of inter-cultural friends? Can church happen in an inter-cultural setting? I hope so.
To be honest, I am not sure how we arrive at a place where inter-cultural appreciation and understanding is normal. That is where I want to end up. It is certainly the kind of world I want my boys to live in.