On Holy Friendships
My thoughts these days are drifting towards relationships, or the lack thereof in churches.
I’ve been thinking about this in light of a recent blog post on CivilPolitics.org on the dearth of cross-party friendships. The post linked to a longer article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the issue. The author, Neil Gross notes that such friendships have benefits for the whole of society:
President Obama last month took a group of Republican senators to dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, in Washington, to discuss the sequestration crisis and a wide range of other policy matters. The next day he asked Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice-presidential candidate, to lunch at the White House. Another meal with Senate Republicans is planned for April 10. The goal of those meetings? To score PR points—but also to build personal relationships that might erode partisan gridlock.
It’s too early to tell whether the president’s outreach will work, but social-science research suggests that friendships that reach across the political aisle may be good for democracy: They facilitate cooperation by reducing extremism and enhancing trust. In a 2002 study, the political scientist Diana Mutz assessed the effects of political diversity among friends. Study participants who reported friendships with those who were unlike them politically had a better grasp of why people on the other side held the view they did. Those participants were also more tolerant…
The problem is that, in both Washington and the country as a whole, friendships that cross party lines are becoming rare. The political scientist Robert Huckfeldt and his co-authors found that in 2000 only about a third of Americans who supported George W. Bush or Al Gore for president had someone in their political-discussion network who backed the other candidate. And in a study of wider acquaintanceship networks, the sociologist Thomas DiPrete and colleagues discovered that such networks are segregated by politics as well.
It should not surprise anyone that such a lack of cross-party friendships are lacking in the church as well. I’ve noticed more and more how liberal Christians tend to stick with each other, while conservatives keep with their own kind as well. In a post from last year, I explained that this wasn’t always the case:
It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.
The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills. At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.
I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up. She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor. You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other. “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on. But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.
What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today. Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore. Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other. Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.
As I move within my different circles, I’ve noticed how liberal and evangelical Christians don’t talk to each other at all. They don’t see to like each other and say not-so-nice things when they are in their own groups. Since I work for the Presbyterians and pastor a Disciples church, I’ve seen how we all self-select or how we wish we could not have to deal with “those” people. I’m reminded of talking to another pastor a few years ago after a difficult vote. The pastor wished our denomination was more like the United Church of Christ, our sister denomination that tends to be far more liberal. I was privately irked by the pastor’s comments, because what was being said is that life would be easier if we didn’t have to deal with “those” conservatives.
In our society, it is becoming easier and easier to not have to hear diverse viewpoints. As much as I like social media, it has the tendency to shelter folks from other opinions and reinforce our own views. It’s been interesting to see people on Facebook who seemed more temperate in the past become more zealous over time. People will put up the latest graphic that makes fun or demonizes the other side.
We are less interested in trying to build bridges, than we are in setting the damn bridge on fire. In the name of social justice or orthodoxy, our places of worship are becoming less graceful.
Recently, social conservative writer Rod Dreher shared his experiences meeting the well known gay blogger Andrew Sullivan. The two have tossled more than once on the issue of same-sex marriage, and yet something surprising happened over time: they became friends. Here’s what he said, responding to Andrew’s take of an evangelical church he attended where a mutual friend’s funeral took place:
It will not surprise anyone to learn that Andrew and I will simply not be able to agree on theology. It may surprise some to know that I can live with that, because Andrew is a decent and kind and very much alive person (though I can see his difficult side too; we all have them, as did — very much — David Kuo; as do I). Listening to Andrew speak with passion the other night about his love of Jesus Christ, and his experiences of Christ’s presence, was moving, because so genuine. Hearing of him speak of his own deep suffering as a child and as a young man — stories I hope he will be able to tell one day in his writing, because they were incredibly powerful, and gave me a new perspective on him and why he believes and feels the things he does — deeply reinforced for me the Gospel interdiction on withholding judgment from others. We really don’t know what others have endured, and how they have managed to hope in spite of hopelessness. I found myself back at my hotel room that night praying for Andrew, that Jesus will help him carry the things he has to carry, which to a degree that startled both of us, I think, resemble some of the heaviest burdens I myself have to carry.
If that makes me a squish, well, it makes me a squish. The older I get, and the more I become aware of my own frailty, my own vanity, my own hard-to-govern passions, my own weaknesses, and the more I come to grasp how freaking hard life is, the more inclined I am toward mercy. It’s not out of big-heartedness, necessarily, because unlike my sister Ruthie, I am not big-hearted. I am petty and jealous and quick to anger. My worst fault is my unbridled tongue. Rather, I think any inclination towards mercy on my part comes from a recognition of how much I need it myself.
The words that are most important here is that Rod could live with not agreeing with Andrew’s theology. Live with. Tolerate. Knowing that you might never change another person’s views and coming to a place where that’s okay. To know that sometimes, it’s better to be loving than to be right. Grace.
What I wish for the church today is that we could live with a little more grace towards each other, especially when we don’t see eye-to-eye. We need to get to a place where we can disagree and argue and still hug each other afterwards.
Maybe if we were more merciful we would be willing to hear each other. Methodist pastor Stephen Rankin wishes that people not refer to things with the various political adjectives that keep us separated:
We absolutely must enact a moratorium on political labels as identifiers for the “kind of Methodist” that someone thinks she or he is. Calling a particular theological position “progressive” or “conservative” perpetuates (ironically) the very groupthink that we often say we deplore. These words are code that do nothing more than allow people to decide whether they like the theological idea or not without having actually to engage the idea itself. It thus stops necessary reflection even before it gets started.
Using political labels, therefore, like “progressive” and “conservative” and, in some ways “evangelical” does nothing but short-circuit and maybe even ruin the possibility of important and serious conversations. Let us please stop using them, at least long enough actually to talk and listen to one another without these maddening distractions. I am not naive to think that we’ll stop using them altogether, but let us please become very self-aware and spare in our use of them. And we should agree never to use them as conversations stoppers in public debate.
Our society is so fractured, and our churches mirror this sin. What needs to happen is for Christians to not always work so hard to be right. I’m not saying we give up our views, but to know that relationships matter, even when you don’t see eye-to-eye.
I know this will seem weird to others, but I hope one day to become friends with a social conservative. We won’t agree on the issue of sexuality. We might even think the other is sadly mistaken. But I want to have a friendship with someone I don’t agree with to learn to love someone for more than their having the right viewpoint. I want to love them as Christ did and does: with grace and mercy.
So, if there are any social conservatives who have always wanted a sassy black gay friend, I’m available.