Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Gospel of Both/And, Not Either/Or

by the Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett

[Editor's Note: Matthew Dutton-Gillett has previously written for The Episcopal Majority here and here. This essay was accepted for publication on October 11.]

The other day, I heard an interview with an Episcopalian who was of draft age during World War II. He told some of his story about registering as a conscientious objector. He said that as he thought about Jesus, he simply could not imagine Jesus wearing the uniform of an American soldier – or of any soldier, for that matter – and picking up a gun and killing other people. Being unable to conceive of Jesus fulfilling this kind of role, this man could not conceive of himself fulfilling such a role. And so he registered as a conscientious objector, and undertook an alternative form of service – a form of service more in keeping with his understanding of Jesus and of the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed.

One of the things that most struck me about this man’s story was how much courage it must have taken to choose that particular path. World War II was probably the last unambiguous war in which the United States was involved. As Hitler’s forces overran Europe and beyond, and as the world began to learn the horrific truth of the Holocaust, the evil that Hitler represented became more and more clear. Imagine the kind of personal courage and conviction it must have taken to decline to join that fight, to refuse to take up arms even against such manifest evil. It was not a popular choice. Many people of that time, if not most, did not understand conscientious objection. It seemed unpatriotic, unmanly. The government even produced propaganda films that cast conscientious objectors in a negative light. No matter what your feelings about making such a choice, you have to admire the principled courage required to make it.

I think that present-day Episcopalians could learn something from this man’s example. What is at stake for our church today is nothing compared to what was at stake then, but the principle exemplified by this Episcopalian is instructive. When faced with a moral dilemma, he tried to imagine how Jesus would respond in the same situation. Such an imaginative undertaking is, in reality, a creative application of the Gospel, for it requires one to integrate everything one knows about Jesus from Scripture, and seek to discern a way forward. Such an act of discernment surely involves not only the application of Scripture, but also an openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.

What would happen in our church, in our communion, if we were to engage in a similar act of discernment? When I do so, I find myself being drawn into a painful tension that cannot really be resolved. It is, I think, a place very close to the place where the bishops chose to stand in the statement they issued at the end of their New Orleans meeting.

The bishops’ statement, if examined carefully, seems to be attempting to do two things that are almost impossible to do at the same time. On the one hand, the bishops are attempting to preserve some kind of unity within the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church. In their clarification of B033 and in the position they took with respect to the blessing of same-sex unions, the bishops are attempting to say, “Let’s not walk away from each other just yet.” On the other hand, the bishops are also attempting to take a just stand with respect to gay and lesbian people, and to insist that their dignity as human beings and baptized Christians be respected. And this is where that place of painful tension is found: in the attempt to value unity and relationship while at the same time valuing and insisting on justice and dignity toward a marginalized people.

This tension is, I think, precisely the tension of the Gospel, the tension in which Jesus himself lived and from which he carried out his ministry. As we look at the teaching of Jesus, it is clear that he refuses to abandon relationships for the sake of justice, nor does he abandon justice for the sake of relationship. He will, it is true, allow people to walk away from him if they choose to do so. But he never chooses to walk away from anyone. He certainly challenges people, and is even directly and indirectly critical of people about the choices they make. But he does not refuse to be in relationship with them or to sit at their table.

In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes clear that those whom we define as our “enemies” are not, on the basis of that definition, to be excluded from our sphere of concern. Indeed, he tells us that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. When we are stung, we are to turn the other cheek. When someone seeks to take something from us at law, we are to give them even more than they are asking for. There is no conceivable situation in the teaching of Jesus in which we are permitted to classify anyone as expendable.

At the same time, Jesus spends much of his life among those who were the marginalized and outcast of his time. In that same Sermon on the Mount, he raises the bar on divorce in part to emphasize the sacredness of the married relationship but also – and perhaps primarily – to defend women against the unjust whims of their husbands. He goes among lepers, he talks with Samaritans, he heals Gentiles, he respects the dignity of children and reaches out to the poor and the sinful. By word and action, he makes it clear that these marginalized people are also to be included in our sphere of concern, and perhaps even are to be the primary focus of our God-given mission. And part of that concern is about justice.

We all know what happened to Jesus as a result of living in this tension. Living in this tension is a crucifying place to stand. It requires something to die in each of us. But it is also the path that leads to a larger and more abundant life.

If Anglicanism falls apart, with “conservatives” going their way and “liberals” going their way, the world will not be surprised. Because that is exactly what human beings do and have done over and over again throughout history. They choose sides, they throw rocks at their enemies and they ultimately split up – or else destroy one party to the conflict. Most of the world will not see the break up of the Anglican Communion as a great heroic defense of Truth. They will see it as a failure even among Christian people to live any better with each other than the rest of humanity. The falling apart of the Anglican Communion will not be an evangelistic triumph for the True Faith. It will be a conspicuous example of the inability of the followers of Jesus to actually follow him.

It seems that the further we proceed down this pot-holed, twisting road, the more we have begun to think of our situation as a choice between unity and justice, between orthodoxy and heresy. But a close reading of the gospels reveals quite clearly that these are false choices. Jesus does not ask us to make these choices. The only choice Jesus asks us to make is this: will we take up our cross and follow him, or will we not? And if we choose to take up our cross, then we are choosing to live in the painful, seemingly impossible place where there is no “either/or,” but rather “both/and.” And, surprisingly, we are also choosing to live in a place where there is no orthodoxy or heresy, but only faithfulness.

Let none of us forget that God makes the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust, on both the righteous and the unrighteous. And, simply invoking the name of Jesus and crying out “Lord, Lord” will not guarantee that our faithfulness is recognizable to the Christ.

The bishops are asking for space to be made in which we might come to terms with both unity and justice. And that reflects both the courage and call of the Gospel. What would Jesus do? Let us answer very carefully.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a gay man of deep Christian faith, thank you for a thoughtful piece. After years of struggling to bring my faith and basic identity into some coherant form I continue to live in the very tension that thoughtful Christians like you must live if we are faithful to the One whom we follow.

10/17/2007 9:13 PM  
Blogger Steven Craig Miller said...

Father Matthew writes: If Anglicanism falls apart, with “conservatives” going their way and “liberals” going their way, the world will not be surprised. Because that is exactly what human beings do and have done over and over again throughout history. They choose sides, they throw rocks at their enemies and they ultimately split up – or else destroy one party to the conflict. Most of the world will not see the break up of the Anglican Communion as a great heroic defense of Truth. They will see it as a failure even among Christian people to live any better with each other than the rest of humanity. The falling apart of the Anglican Communion will not be an evangelistic triumph for the True Faith. It will be a conspicuous example of the inability of the followers of Jesus to actually follow him.

It seems to me that a good analogy here is a bad marriage. At what point in a bad marriage is it better for everyone concerned for the couple to divorce? As an outsider (a Lutheran), I read about the Anglican communion's bickerings year after year after year and wonder why they stay together. My wife and I don't fight, we're not perfect, but we have learned how to get along without fighting. Of course, all analogies break down at some point, it would be foolish to push the analogy too far. But I wonder, might it not be better for both parties to split up so that they could go on with their lives without all the fighting and bickering? Isn't their a healthier way to live one's life? Or have you been fighting for so long you've forgotten (if you ever knew) how others live? Isn't a really bad marriage worse than divorce?

10/18/2007 7:11 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Dutton-Gillett said...

Thanks for your comment, Mr. Miller. From a therapeutic point of view, you certainly make an excellent point. In my pastoral practice, I have certainly seen situations in which the marriage is so broken that it can't be fixed. And perhaps the Anglican Communion has reached that point. My larger point, however, is that divorce is not what we are called to. Jesus never opted for divorce in the sense of separating himself from others -- though he certainly allowed people to separate themselves from him. To live in the call of the Gospel is to live in the tension of unity and justice. To walk away from each other is one way to resolve the tension, but I don't believe it's the way of Christ. It is the way of human sinfulness. I think that while marriages bear a great responsibility to maintain the relationship, the New Testament seems to place a great responsibility on the church to maintain relationship, and perhaps this is where the marriage analogy really breaks down.

Thanks for participating in the conversation.

Peace,
Matthew Dutton-Gillett

10/18/2007 7:27 AM  
Anonymous Leah said...

I wonder if it is useful to think of the Anglican Communion as a "marriage?" In my view, a marriage involves two independent entities, not a multitude.
I am not a student of history, but as I observe (from within, as an American Episcopalian) I am actually quite heartened by the stubborn insistence that the Anglican Communion is a valuable and time-tested relationship that has weathered such tensions before, and is strong enough to maintain unity in the midst of acrimony and dissension. I am quite proud of the model that I have seen demonstrated. I also think, speaking personally as a moderate-to-liberal member of a church in Utah with a gay rector, that I would rather be rejected than do the rejecting. I have no problem remaining in communion and turning the other cheek as recommended by our Lord. If the Communion is going to break over this, I would prefer the wrangling majority to remain together and continue to wrangle, while the rigid, unyielding, self-righteous majority walks on the other side of the road and draws their skirts out of the way. One last note: who was it that got in trouble for "eating with sinners" originally? Please, let's all remember him, and remember why we are a Communion in the first place?
I think the very best recommendation is indeed to ask "what would Jesus do?" and not only that, but ask, "What did Jesus do?" (As in setting an example for all of us to follow?

10/19/2007 11:39 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Let's detangle the gospel of Jesus Christ which is unconditional promise, fullness, and peace from linking it with the both/and of our current tensions, shall we? Saying the gospel is the tension itself between unity and justice is more Anglican-self-proclamation and is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Certainly there is tension in this life between this unconditional promise and the reality of this life, but that tension is not the gospel.

10/19/2007 10:25 PM  
Blogger Scott+ said...

Said in posting:
to take a just stand with respect to gay and lesbian people, and to insist that their dignity as human beings and baptized Christians be respected.

The right answer is to show them the love of Christ and encourage a change in lifestyle. It is not loving to claim to bless sin. People are to be given dignity because they are people not because of their sin.

10/22/2007 10:55 AM  
Blogger Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

Christopher: You wrote: "Saying the gospel is the tension itself between unity and justice is more Anglican-self-proclamation and is not the gospel of Jesus Christ."

I disagree with you here, Christopher, and it appears Matthew does, too. I don't think that the Gospel is the tension, I think it causes tension because it mandates both prophetic witness and continuous engagement. We cannot simply tell our conservative brothers and sisters to go away, since Jesus would never have done so. We can, however, speak the truth of the love of Christ for the marginalized and, if folks don't like what we are saying, they can leave, just as Christ allowed folks to leave that didn't like what he had to say.

10/23/2007 2:16 AM  

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