By Stephen Marshall-Ward
The fifth indictment in our requiem is, “When the Church permits pain, suffering, and death through suppression, oppression, and fear, God creates peace, hope, and joy through justice, freedom, and light.”
Where each of the previous indictments bring various emotional responses in me, this indictment hurts my heart the most. It is tied to deep wounds felt not only by me but many people – people like me and people very different from me who have been experientially hurt and damaged by the actions of organized religion, specifically Christianity. The Church’s obsession with suppression, oppression, and fear for the sake of control has caused much pain and suffering for many people.
My life is filled with people who have been hurt and even damaged by the actions of their faith communities. Most of those people share when their life plummeted to the very bottom – where they were even suicidal because of their feelings of despair by virtue of everyone they loved and everyone they had ever known being ripped away from them because of some value system that disallowed the people in their lives to love them. Often, this was because of their sexual orientation, their gender identity, who they love, how they love, and with whom they associate. For people to be ostracized and oppressed and caused to live in fear for any of those reasons seems counter Christian to me.
I don’t know why we feel the need to cause pain. Fully developed and functional love should not cause pain. If we truly love and truly understand 1 Corinthians 13, and we endeavor to live it, then I think we will simply care for each other in the most loving ways.
I think back to what it felt like as a young person to sit in my community, the only community I had ever known, and feel so completely alone. I had no safe place to communicate my struggles and I felt if I did I would be immediately misunderstood and/or oppressed. This caused me great fear. The few times that I did reach out and try to get help from within my faith community those fears lived themselves out in ways much worse than I thought they would be. Regularly, I watch people who are still living through such experiences based on the Church’s obsession to control them.
Now don’t get me wrong, I feel wholeheartedly that the scriptures, and specifically Jesus, teaches us that we should be held to a higher standard as we are “called out” to be different from the rest of the world. But I think we often get it wrong. Sometimes, I think we miss the mark completely. I believe that much of the Church has missed what Jesus meant. Jesus did not come to cause pain and suffering amongst his children. He came to show us that God loves us and that we should love each other in the same way – and that love is inclusive, not exclusive. What we know from Jesus’ life and ministry in the gospels is very clear and very different from how so much of the Church postures itself toward people. Jesus and God are One and Jesus’ greatest prayer for his disciples was that they would be one as He and the Father are One. The parables teach us that we are to be people of openhearted acceptance of each other – realizing we are each on a spiritual journey independently and together. As a fellow pilgrim on that journey, I see my primary role to open myself to respect and honor everyone else on that journey, realizing we are all in different places on that journey. I stand a very good chance of learning something from other people on their journeys that will benefit my journey if I open myself to them instead of posturing myself to judge them.
I prefer to approach people assuming they want to do the right thing. Each person’s actions might be motivated by significantly different understandings. For me to make a judgment call against them based on one or two scripture verses that may or may not be taken out of context and then throw those scripture verses at them, ultimately making an assessment that these people are no longer fit to be part of my community seems incredibly arrogant and presumptuous to me. I don’t know what those people’s pilgrimage is like. We are all human and none of us is walking a perfect path. I cannot possibly know what each person is experiencing or what it is like to walk their path. It is their path to walk – not mine. So my goal is to leave myself open – open to learn, understand, and be supportive in their desire to find their best path.
This is my goal: to honor and respect everyone I meet in an endeavor to get to know why they are the way they are and why they have chosen the path they are walking. By doing so, I might learn something. I think the Church should be an example to all of us in this regard – taking a position of openness, understanding, and grace.
My husband and I are watching a series on Netflix called The Crown. During one episode young queen Elizabeth is faced with her sister’s desire to marry a divorced man. She makes it very clear to her sister that as Elizabeth (her sister), she wants to grant Margaret the ability to love the person she wants to love. But her further processing unleashes the following proclamation, “As the Crown I cannot allow you to do this because we have rules.” And those rules are founded in church and rooted in scripture. The Crown had to be an example and couldn’t go against the teachings of the Church. But I believe that, when we get right down to it, what we are talking about here is people – who they love and who they are “allowed” to love. Decades later, Queen Elizabeth allowed her divorced son to be in relationship with another woman. How time, openness, understanding, and grace can change things!
We need to open ourselves to what is most important. Is it really most important that we exclude people based on some cultural construct that we feel controls everyone’s behavior in some “positive” way? Or is it more important that we allow love to flourish wherever love is discovered? I believe the teachings of Jesus would say the latter is most important.
I want to be a follower of Jesus who “errs” on the side of love. Such a posture does not allow me to exclude someone based on some ancient dogma.
It means I want to be loving to all people – gracious and generous in my approach to everyone, respectful and honoring in how I approach them and respond to them, never usurping myself as some sort of authority but only as an open agent of grace and love – not in spite of my faith but because of my faith.
Does the follower of Jesus (and the institution of religion) have a higher calling? Yes. Are we called to be different from the world? Yes. But in what way?
I believe our greatest calling is to show the world how much we love each other – how we celebrate and champion love.