U-C: What I See

Sunday, November 21, 2004

On theological blindspots


I've been on the road for two weeks this time. I spent a day with the Committee on Theological Education, visited with students at McCormick Seminary till late into the night, and then went to S. Louisiana Presbytery for five days of itineration there. Then Jean Marie Peacock and I were joined by almost one hundred moderators and moderators elect from Presbyteries and Synods for the Moderators' conference here in Louisville. The focus of the conference was "building the multi-cultural church" and it was great. We also had intensive workshops on the work of the Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity and on the issues around Israel/Jewish Relations/Palestine. Also, we managed to fit in a couple of workshops on the ins and outs of the work of moderating. Immediately before this trip, I also spent a weekend in Sacremento at the fall polity conference with Stated Clerks (and some time with General Presbyters as well).

Here's the conversation that seems to be most on my heart over the last few weeks. I am very interested in how we find common ground with one another on many of the divisive issues that confront us as a church, but the conversation that interests me the most is how we can get to a consistently biblical, life-affirming ethic. So much of our church is divided into two camps - liberal and conservative - and when our energy is focused on those two ends of the spectrum, it seems like we're in a dead-end cycle. It's not even so much that we can't agree with one another - it's more like we can't love and be in relationship with one another.

Often, the "moderates" seem to call us to another place that I find equally unfulfilling. Somehow, moderate too often seems to mean that we simply agree not to talk about the things about which we disagree "for the sake of the church." That seems unsatisfying to me, because the question it leads me to is "so what?". If we all are expected to sell-out on what we believe, then what is the point of being together.

However, I believe that there is a "third way." That would be to simply go about the work of being church as consistently and faithfully as we can - together. Some of my thinking on this has been shaped by rereading Stanley Hauerwas' book "Resident Aliens" this summer. In other ways, my thinking is shaped by my training in conflict resolution work and peacemaking.

My wife Kitty reminded me this summer of a drawing from our training with Christian Peacemaker Teams in which there are two people in conflict with one another who are seated at a table. On the table, one can clearly see the positions that each party has taken, and they are leaning away from one another and seem quite cemented in around those positions. Under the table - unseen by the other party - are their needs. The work of resolving conflict is often the work of getting the needs onto the table so that we can try to respond to those.

When I sense that I am in conflict with someone, I try to remember this drawing. I start by asking that person what his or her needs are, and sharing my own as well. Often it is quite challenging to get unstuck from our positions. However, I almost always find that it is easier to respond to someone's needs while having my own needs met than it is to agree to someone else's "position" without violating my own.

In the debates that we find so divisive in our denomination, I am fascinated by the question of how each of us will state our needs and also work to respect the legitimate needs of our brothers and sisters in the church.

When I speak with conservatives whom I respect and with whom I am genuinely trying to be in "right" relationship, I often hear a great need for commitment to a theologically consistent reading of scripture. With most of them, I find it helpful to state their need in this way, since I actually can think of no one I've met in our denomination who is so committed to the inerrancy of scripture that he or she is actually living everything found there.

But I am very interested in that need for consistency, and I find that it is actually shared by many liberals I've met as well.

So here's my personal, high self-disclosure example. If I want to speak as a peacemaker about Jesus' consistent ethic for the value of life, then I'm going to have to search deep within my own heart for those things where I haven't been willing to hold that position consistently. For me, my blind-spot is going to be around the topic of reproductive choices and abortion.

Here's my problem. I have been raised in my church to constantly examine the ways in which women are not offered the same choices and opportunities as men. Worse, I am deeply aware (though I will never fully understand) the realities of gender discrimination and violence against women and the fact that many, many women I know and love are survivors of abuse, discrimination and violence against them. I consider myself a supporter of feminists, by which I mean that I am committed to doing my best to end that kind of discrimination and abuse, and to constantly examine my own life for ways in which I am participating in violence against women.

Further, I am painfully aware of the excruciating situations in which women have found themselves in the midst of unwanted pregnancies. I have supported women who have made the choice to get an abortion, and I have been grateful when I've done so that they have not had to do so illegally or in unsafe conditions experienced by women just a few years older than me.

The problem, of course, is that this dialogue has become so polemic that it takes an act of courage for someone "liberal" like me who desires to be supportive of women to admit my own ambivalence about the question of abortion. The assumption is that if I am to be a "good liberal" in the church, this is one of the many issues on which my belief has already been staked out for me. All I must do is affirm that finally, this is about a woman's right to choose.

Of course, my difficulty is that I do believe that Jesus calls us to a consistent ethic that affirms all life. Further, I believe that God is at work in creating life from the moment a couple begins to dream of a child. If that is true, then I must be willing to say that I will do all I can to stand against abortion, or at least to try to create a world in which women and their partners never have to face this difficult choice.

Both liberals and conservatives confirm my dilemma by using exactly the same argument against one another. Conservatives who are deeply religious write to me all the time when they learn my views on war and violence in order to insist that I must be consistent about valuing the life of the unborn. And I hear faithful liberals (not an oxymoron) who critique their conservative brothers and sisters for being so invested in life for the unborn while refusing to stand consistently for life when it comes to making war or the death penalty.

I think they both are correct. I believe we must work to create a safe space where we can admit our doubts both with folks with whom we agree and with whom we disagree. That means we need to do it in a way that doesn't open us to attack from our own folks, nor to an onslaught of arguements to try to push us further from those with whom we disagree.

If we can create that space, perhaps we'll begin to find a way of renewing our fellowship together as a people of God. I have discovered that there are both "progressive" liberals and "progressive" conservatives. By that I mean that they are people who are willing to examine their own beliefs and to struggle honestly and respectfully with those with whom they disagree.

As I've traveled this month, I've begun to ask the Presbyterians I meet to come to the table prepared to make two affirmations when they disagree with one another. One - "I love you." and two, "I might be wrong." I believe both statements to be deeply rooted in our scriptural tradition, and I think they have the power to revolutionize who we are with one another.

So finally, here's the conversation that interests me for "It's your turn." Please write to offer places where you have held on tightly to a position and you are willing to examine your own theological blindspot. Please do not write to critique mine or anyone else's when we begin to share with one another. Frankly, on the one that I have offered (and I could probably name others), I don't believe you can offer any new information to me that will help me with this. I've seen the videos, met women and their partners who have a variety of opinions, read lots of books, and been the object of all of the attacks from pro-life groups that I care too. What would help me most would be the chance to speak with others about areas where they feel a similar struggle, and to work hard (together) on each of our blindspots.

I am confident that Jesus believed that we are strongest when we share our struggles and our differences of opinion with one another in love. He certainly surrounded himself with a variety of ways of approaching the world when he chose his disciples. My assessment is that he didn't spend a lot of time siding with one of them against another when they had differences of opinion. Rather, it appears to me that he called them all to find that "third way" - his way - that challenged them all.

May God support and lift up all of us as we struggle to be faithful.