Thursday, January 25, 2007

Can't we all just get along?

I’ve heard the question ‘can’t we all just get along?’ more than once in a discussion/fight within the church. And the questioner seems to assume that Christians in some mythic age of purity all got along. Since we have this passage about Paul correcting Peter and many where the twelve misunderstand and disagree with Jesus, the answer is “No, we can’t all just get along.” There are times when we’re going to disagree and argue.

What we can do is respect each other in the midst of the disagreements. But getting along is just not going to happen, at least not in the sense of avoiding arguments and heated discussions.

When we have fights and think someone else is going wrong we can talk to them openly and try to do so without rancor or condescension. The Christian shouldn’t be too quick to fall into an argument nor too eager to avoid dissension.

Practicing our faith is often difficult. The correct path for the particular occasion can be difficult to see. Have we talked about the issue in private with the person? Do we need to go a step further and talk with leaders in the church? Do we need to go together to confront he problem? And is it really our problem to confront?

Confrontation is necessary as when Jesus overthrew the tables in the temple or Paul confronted Peter about his actions. But I often think we need to use our brains more when we talk to someone about what we see as problems. Is the right approach a dramatic lying on one’s side in the street for days as did Isaiah? But too often our approach is the type that causes Mark Twain to say: Fewer things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” Rather our example should be that of Francis de Sales approach: “Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly.”

The question about ‘Can’t we all just get along’ seems to presuppose that someone has to change and should do so without any discussion or argument – the one person gives in so that there’s no conflict with the other person. Yet if there are passions and beliefs involved not expressing an opinion and not letting the other know what one believes is a form of negating self that is unhealthy.

The mystic loses self in contemplation of God. But the ‘I just want to get along’ crowd loses self in order to achieve a spurious harmony between people. The mystic doesn’t give up their opinion, but subsumes their opinions in a search for the truth or in a search for something beyond self. Not voicing an opinion so that there’s no argument is a different matter entirely.

We who are Christians are called to set a good example, but the good example should not be of the Pharisee who thanks God that he is better than that tax collector over in the corner. That Pharisaism is what Twain is talking about in the ‘annoyance of a good example.’ It is an example that claims to be good while doing it for the admiration of others. And that is the wrong example of faith.

When Paul confronted Cephas he did care about the opinions of others. But not whether the opinions of other people were to his own benefit or detriment. Paul cared about how the opinion of what Christians should do was influenced by the actions and words of all Christians. And so Paul confronted Peter on how he did one thing for some people and another thing for other people.

We are called to live as who we are and doing what we believe. We are called to do so with respect and care for each other, but not avoiding or seeking disagreements. And we’ve all seen the people who are too anxious to find something wrong – such as figuring out who doesn’t say ‘men and women’ or ‘he and she’ on the one side vs. the people who ask about your ‘personal relationship’ or ‘inerrancy of scripture’ – so as to exclude someone from the group. And on the other hand we’ve seen of those who are too ready to placate the disagreements – such as making excuses for genital mutilation as a cultural ritual or caning as not being the beating that it actually is.

This is not an issue of whether the right or the left is correct, but of living what we believe as we call people (whatever side of the issue they’re on) to account for their words and actions. And when we call people to account there will be disagreement and we just will not all get along.

Certainly there are times when we need to put aside our differences and welcome each other. We will need to show that we stand in solidarity with some people as we disapprove of some of their actions. But that is different from the ‘can’t we all get along’ question.. That is going along with H. L. Mencken saying, “I detest what you say but support your right to say it” or the ACLU supporting the right of free speech for organizations that denounce the ACLU. That is standing up for one’s beliefs even as it may hurt one’s cause.

And standing up for one’s beliefs is what being a Christian is all about. And having the humility that recognizes even long held beliefs and doctrines can be wrong is also what it is about when one follows the Christ. We have the example of Paul on the road to Damascus, of Peter and his vision of unclean foods, of Paul castigating Peter for going back on his earlier example and more of Christians – of good people – trying to do their best and getting it wrong.

And that fact, which is illustrated through the whole of Scripture, is why we should not just remain silent so that we can all get along. We should stand up for our beliefs with the understanding that with God’s grace and the help of others they will be tested, found to be true or wanting, and once we figure out which we can go on continuing to live in Christ.

Galatians 2:11-21

[11] But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; [12] for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. [13] And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. [14] But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"

[15] We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; [16] yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. [17] But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ,
we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant
of sin? Certainly not! [18] But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. [19] For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; [20] and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. [21] I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

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