In working at The Marin Foundation and having conversations about faith and sexuality over the last few years, I’m finding that it can be a bit of a balancing act in maintaing a healthy outlook that can lend itself to engaging in productive ways. The conversations along the spectrum of belief are filled with our hopes and idealistic visions to the sobering and often difficult realities. If we predominately focus on either end of the pendulum from current difficulties and reality to our hope and idealism rather than holding them in tension, it can lead to cynical disengagement or self-righteous irrelevancy.
Being somewhat of an idealistic person, I love the world of ideas and contemplating what could and (in my mind) should be and the means by which we can arrive there. I tend to enjoy learning about the nuances of complex issues and place a great deal of importance on values, principles and ideals in seeking to navigate positive ways forward. This has been an influence in leading me to try to devote my life to bringing about positive change through different service programs in the past and my current work at The Marin Foundation. But leaning too much on our idealism can lead to developing unrealistic expectations in a dream world. I’ve also seen in myself and observed in contentious conversations the way this can manifest itself into a self-righteous and congratulatory attitude towards our own understanding and selves and condescension towards those that disagree with us.
Rather than acknowledging incremental progress and meeting people where they are at, we start seeing idealistic standards and ultimatums divorced from compassion:
Until you believe that same-sex relationships are not sinful, your apologies and efforts do not mean anything to me.
There is nothing good about same-sex relationships and you need to repent of your relationship if you want to pursue a relationship with God.
On the other end, we may gravitate towards cynicism and disengagement if our focus is primarily on the current state of things and we’re mainly seeing the negative, difficult and painful aspects of reality. When not held in tension with hope and our vision for a better world things quickly spiral downwards:
Those people (whomever disagrees with and is opposing me) are ignorant and evil and there is not much hope for them to become better. They’re obviously not capable of growing and learning to productively engage, so we need to beat them and make them irrelevant.
This type of thinking does not acknowledge the image of God in our neighbors (and their inherent potential as a result) and the redemptive impact of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that is reconciling humanity to God, one another and the created world around us.
In these conversations about what currently is and what is possible, it can be easy as well (and affirming to our egos) to see others involved in a dualistic fashion as morally good or bad rather than allowing contradictory realities to exist in tension with one another. While I wholeheartedly believe that we can move into being self emptying and giving to a greater degree, I’m not convinced that our actions tend to be purely characterized by altruism. Like much of reality, our motivations are often a coincidence of opposites in that we (typically) want to do good but the process of becoming who God intended us to be is characterized by our distance from that very goal which directly influences our motivations.
Our attempts to categorize people as good or bad will always fall short as only God can fully know the inner recesses of a person’s heart. We may encounter a person whose life is a mess (or we view as sinful) and they may still be behaving in damaging ways, but their heart may be projected towards Christ. It may be projected towards goodness, beauty and truth. They might just be in much earlier stages of their development in their relationship with Christ when it comes to transformation. And on the other end we might come across someone that has become adept at forms of moralistic behavior modification. They may have been in Christian circles for a long period of time and learned how to behave like they perceive a ‘good’ Christian should. They may be able to keep up with relatively positive behaviors and appearances for a while even if they are being motivated more by the preservation of their ego and public persona rather than their relationship with Christ. Besides, it’s likely that we all have found and will find ourselves at both ends of the spectrum. It’s why grace is so important.
It makes sense that we can easily demonize others that disagree with us and are working in direct opposition to our interests as bad or even evil. We feel the pain of their actions and may be acting out of self defense or preservation. It helps simplify and categorize our world and explain behavior. Seeing people as simply sinful/bad can help us to feel right with God and morally upright ourselves. If we can project the negative aspects of humanity onto others that we see as less than or evil it can even help us to avoid conducting the difficult and painful assessments of our own heart. I’m reminded of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. where he said:
How hard is it for people to live without someone to look down upon – really to look down upon. It is not just that they feel cheated out of someone to hate. It is that they are compelled to look more closely into themselves and what they don’t like in themselves.
When we allow God to help us look deeply into ourselves my guess is that we will not only continue to realize to greater degrees that we are made in the image of God (and as a result are instilled with inherent worth, dignity and beauty) but are also capable of every evil but by the grace of God. Along with the inherent beauty and goodness we will likely find the appetites and disorders in our own soul that we see wreaking havoc in the world around us. And we might even see our enemies and ‘those people’ that are opposing us as wounded people who are loved dearly by God in both their beauty and brokenness.