One of my favorite comedians is Demetri Martin. He has a joke that goes something like this:
“When it comes to children, it’s okay to like them, in general. It’s when you like them specifically you start to get into trouble. For example, ‘I like children.’ That’s an okay thing to say. But, ‘I like 12 year-old boys.’ All of sudden, that’s not okay.”
This is funny because it’s true. But the truth of it in Christianity isn’t as funny.
For example, when your pastor says from the pulpit, “I’m a sinner,” we consider that “authentic” and “real.” In our day, it’s almost a requirement. But, if ever your pastor got specific, that would get super awkward super fast. If instead of “I’m a sinner” he or she said, “Last night, I indulged in sexual thoughts about my secretary” or “I often neglect my family for my work and they resent me for it,” all of sudden, their confession is not admirable but questionable.
But this post isn’t about pastoral sins but about how this “general/specific” discrepancy allows us to be a walking contradiction: thinking we value unity within the Christian church while also engaging in endless fights with other Christians. That is, this “general/specific” problem is really a form of self-deception. It’s our way of pretending that we are dealing with an issue without actually ever having to confront the issue.
So, when I ask people whether or not they believe that Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Evangelicals, etc. can all be faithful and growing members of the body of Christ, I almost always get a resounding, “Yes!” When we are talking generally, we love Paul’s focus on unity and the Jesus telling us that the world will know us by the way we love one another.
But when I get specific, the self-deception begins to shine through. When I say, “Can a faithful and growing Christian believe in evolution?” the “uh, well, I’m not sure” statements begin. Any specific statement will work: Can a faithful and growing Christian be pro-choice? Be okay with homosexuality? Believe that the Bible has errors in it?
Of course, this works the same way for the more “progressive” Christians who fight with the “conservatives.” They too are for “peace and unity” and affirm that Evangelicals can be faithful and growing Christians. But when you get specific, people get uneasy. Can a good and faithful Christian believe in a literal and eternal hell? Can they believe in a 6-day creation? Can they be against homosexual acts?
This unfortunate reality reveals that all our talk about diversity and acceptance is just a ruse. We simply cannot accept true diversity in the Body of Christ. Our personal identification with Christianity is so wrapped up in our specific beliefs that to admit that others with other beliefs are “in,” is to threaten my very idea of what a Christian “is.”
But we already know that. We already know that we don’t like true diversity. That’s why we keep making the circle of those who are truly Christian smaller and smaller. The more “true Christians” look like me, the less diversity I have to tolerate. If I can show that you aren’t “in,” I can relieve myself of my duty to love you as a fellow Christian.
So instead of admitting that we don’t really value diversity or instead of doing the hard work of learning to love the truly different, we just do what the world has always done, we exclude “them” from those I am called to accept.
But it seems that Jesus and Paul both spoke of true diversity.
True diversity is not hiding our very real differences. But true diversity is also not using our very real differences to exclude people from the table of fellowship and dialogue. True diversity is found in that incredibly complex and difficult space in between. That space that accepts our specific differences but is not threatened by them.
I pray that our churches can become spaces of diversity. I want to work toward and pray for a Church where we can replace “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” with “Ask! Tell! so that we can all hear what the Spirit of God is saying through and to the Church.” May we become secure enough in our specific beliefs that we can celebrate the fact that the Spirit of God works in wonderfully diverse and mysterious ways.
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
-Paul, Philippians 2:1–4