Unfriended

“While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” ~ Matthew 9:10-11

This past fall, in the final ramp up to the election, I saw an increasingly common message in my social media feeds. Each individual message varied slightly, but more or less the message would read:

I care very deeply about X, and it seems to me obvious that all ethically minded people believe X. Therefore, if you don’t believe X, you are a villain and I don’t want to associate with you. You have no place at my table. Reveal yourself so I can unfriend you and waste no more time on our relationship.”

The first time I saw it, I thought nothing of it. “Ok, interesting … a little dramatic.” But then I saw it again. And again. Then I saw you could download a tool to automatically remove any Trump supporters from your friends list. Then I saw a tool to do the same for Clinton supporters. And then I started hearing people “unfriending” people in the real, flesh and blood world. People would say to me, “I just couldn’t believe my friend/cousin/brother-in-law supports Trump/Clinton … I’ll never speak to him again. I don’t want toxic people like that in my life.”

I understand the impulse. I am a person of strong, fiercely held beliefs. I believe in an objective moral order. I frequently clash, and strongly, with those who disagree with what I believe are tenets of the moral law. How liberating it would be to end those conflicts by painting my foes as irredeemable villains and dismissing them from my presence: “Be gone, fiend!” And then I could turn to myself in my own satisfaction and pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this foolish person who I have so rightly chastised.”

And yet, it seems such a sentiment is very far from the mind of Christ. Indeed, he told us such prayers will never make us justified. To unfriend someone–to cut someone out of our circle of relationship because they have failed us in thought, word, or deed–suffers from some serious misapprehensions.

First, it misunderstands conversion. Maybe your foe is really wrong about something: truly, grievously wrong. Do you think casting anger and resentment at them will make them see the error of their ways? Do you hope to convert them with disdain and hatred? Maybe the truth is that you just want to punish them, to get revenge on them for their small-mindedness … and it should go without saying that desire for revenge has no place in a heart that sincerely invites Christ to dwell within it.

Second, it misunderstands friendship. Friendship is not an endorsement of all the thoughts, feelings and political stances of your friends. If anyone who is my friend sees our relationship as an endorsement of my inherent sanctity or of the moral purity of my beliefs, you should unfriend me now because I will disappoint you. I am a sinner, and a struggling pilgrim on the way home–I will say and do many more stupid, sinful things before I reach my destination. But friendship is not based on us being judge, parent, or schoolmaster to our friends. Friendship is based on love and, at the end of the day, all love is unearned. It is a free gift, given in spite of the recipient’s weaknesses–otherwise, it is not love at all.

icon-friendship
“Icon of Friendship: Christ and Abbot Mena”

And finally, since so many of these “unfriend requests” come as the result of a political disagreement, it is worth noting that this action also misunderstands the way Christians are to be political. The Church is political. We believe in Incarnation, and that means our beliefs will take shape in this world. The Church has a responsibility to engage actively in the struggle for peace and justice. But the Church’s first and foremost responsibility is to be the Church, which means that it has to look like Jesus. Jesus’ priorities shape not only our political agendas, but how we are to pursue them. To quote John Howard Yoder (and Charles E. Moore’s recent reflection on him in Plough), we cannot “wield power and wealth ‘as instruments of coercion and pressure, obliging an adversary to yield unconvinced,’” but must instead “show what life is like when God is on the throne.” If we are forbidden to wield power and wealth coercively, how much less ought we use love and friendship in such a manner? Jesus would not have done so, and thus, neither should we.

Christ ate with sinners and, in fact, specifically sought them out. He told us to never judge our brothers and sisters while we still have logs in our own eyes, and to never throw stones while we ourselves stand sinful before him. He commanded us to love our enemies: modeled this for us, loving us unto death while we were still his enemies. Love, mercy, and friendship – even to those who don’t seem to deserve it. That is the Gospel. Even on Facebook, even in an election year.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

People watching and categories

I have a confession to make. I’ve noticed something about myself while I have been bopping around Chicago the past few days.

Here goes: I tend to be really judgmental. There, you have it. What an ugly admission.

Let me explain. As I walk down streets, go through crowds and sit at train stations, I try not to ignore people. Basically, I do a lot of people watching. As I watch people, I try to be open to whatever interaction I may have with them.

"People Watching Zone" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I play a little game as I people watch. That’s where the judgmentalism comes in. I guess what categories people fall into and what their life might be like. I imagine stories about the characters I encounter based on a few clues: what they are wearing, what’s in their hands, and their body shape.

I am totally jumping to conclusions and trying to read a book by its cover! This all happens exclusively in my mind, simply for entertainment or as a distraction from the studying I ought to be focusing on. It’s like I have a habit of playing a little traveling game, meeting people and then making up stories. I am just not sure that it’s a good habit.

I hope it’s not mean or un-loving. But, still, I realize it’s judgmental.

I know I am not unusual for noticing things about the people I meet and making guesses about them. I am pretty sure I am not strange for categorizing people and things.

The thing is, I am learning that it’s not necessarily helpful or holy to categorize people into different types of groups.

For example, this was in my reading for the moral theology class that am taking:

“We can neither divide the morally relevant features, the related moral norms and principles, nor the people involved into neat little compartments labeling the “good” white, the “bad” black, and/or the “ambiguous” grey. Life and therefore morality are not monochromatic, and any moral evaluation that would seem to suggest such a simple dichotomy should be suspect. Our moral analysis has to capture a wide variety of colors, textures, and hue, while trying to weave together from an assortment of loose threads a tapestry that really does promote the flourishing of all people and give God praise.”                                            

 – Bretzke, James T. (2004, p. 145) A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press p. 145 

I’ll admit it. I frequently oversimplify my intake of the world and people around me because of my bad habit of categorizing.

In order to inspire appreciation of how our Christian lives need to “capture a wide variety of colors, textures and hue … that really does promote the flourishing of all people and give God praise” I have created a little photo mediation. Enjoy!

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The Pain of Climate Change

Last fall, I heard a story on the radio that caused me to have all sorts of physical reactions.

It was the end of a busy day of ministry, and I was cooking dinner for the sisters I live with, a group of Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. I was casually listening to the evening news while I set the table. Then, I heard a story unlike anything I had ever heard before. For those four minutes, I was frozen, staring down at the empty plates while I listened. I was completely stunned. After the story ended, my mind and heart hurt from what I heard. I gasped and groaned and prayed out loud.

What I was hearing, what was disturbing me so deeply, was the news that a tiny island nation in the Pacific Ocean, Kiribati, (pronounced KIR-e-bass) is in trouble. Due to the stresses of rising sea levels, Kiribati is likely to be completely uninhabitable by 2030. The people must find somewhere else to go or they will not survive.

A nation is dissolving. A people must abandon their home. This was preventable and it is not their fault. It’s our fault. We have destroyed their community, their nation, their lives – and we don’t even know who they are. . .

[This is the beginning of my first column for the new online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.]

Photo of Kiribati from Business Insider

 

consciousness, change and Joseph Kony

A lot of interesting things are happening in the movements for change in our society.  Videos are going viral, the Occupy movement continues, we’ve experienced an Arab Spring, and our nation is divided so much about issues (like wealth, poverty, war, abortion, contraception and sexuality) that I’m beginning to wonder if the two-party political system is failing.

General global consciousness is awakening.  More people seem to be concerned and talking about social problems and issues of morality than I can remember happening in the past.  Naturally when we start discussing the things of right and wrong, we begin talking about God and religion.  Our true human nature drives us to desire justice.  For Christians like me we learn what real justice is by looking to Jesus.

Many of the debates are very heated because there’s a lot of passion surrounding the topics people are concerned about. The topics of contraception, abortion, the treatment of the poor, the rights of women and human rights in general are pretty big deals.  Tension and chaos are getting us uptight.  The debate can be overwhelming, confusing and complicated.  Are there easy answers? Can there be?

About the viral video this week- all about children soldiers in Uganda- (Kony 2012) the CEO of Invisible Children made an important statement about the video’s popularity: “The core message is just to show that there are few times where problems are black and white. There’s lots of complicated stuff in the world, but Joseph Kony and what he’s doing is black and white,” – Ben Keesey

I think it’s true that the global, human family is hungry for some simple black and white morality.  We want some things to be cut and dry.  Ah, it’s a beautiful day! Wow, the sun is shining!  How wonderful, I can see clearly now!  When things seem clear, we feel refreshed.

The thing is, helping things be better means that we can’t stay cozy.  Our thinking doesn’t always stay clear when we let ourselves really get into it all.   Actually, to really effect change we need to turn toward the darkness. We need to face the ugly, awful truth that people are suffering and sin is destructive.  We need to learn the facts. We need to do social analysis and learn different perspectives.  We must be willing to get into the cracks of civilization where it’s complicated and uncomfortable.  We often play a part in the systems of violence without knowing it.  It’s haunting and humbling to know that we are part of a human family who is- in part- quite awful.  Facing the despair is Messy Jesus Business and it’s the stuff of the season of Lent.

Alas, we learn about the ugly and the awful but we don’t stall in it so long that we become infected with depression.  We become motivated to work hard because we want a better world.

alex

We desire to see the Kingdom of God and really know peace on earth.  We want change. We want things to be fair for everyone and we want to preserve rights and freedom.  We believe that all people matter. The power of the Kony 2012 video- and its cries for action- is that it is organized and direct.  We are made to believe that we can create change and are shown how.

We can join our diverse human family and build a kindom of equality, peace and justice – a real Easter message.  Thank God, we’re on our way.  We know that Jesus shall rise and Love and Life shall conquer death and evil. This great arrival of God’s glory is something we want to get really ready for.  We’re trying to get ready for this joy we’ll know when justice reigns.  We’re fasting, praying, giving alms, serving and living in solidarity with those who suffer.  Or, we’re trying our best to do the Lenten actions and accepting the fact that we keep falling a bit short.

So our Lenten work continues and we keep gaining awareness.  Our personal conversions create cultural conversions, and together we’re truly working for change.  As we reside in the challenging space of the Lenten desert where things are ugly and true, we all are getting ready to experience the fullness of God’s goodness. For that we shall be grateful and for that we shall keep trying.  As we do this work, we remain aware that God is with us, no matter how ugly the world may be.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lmiersbond/4709653204/

opening up to Truth of difference

I am great lover of diversity.

When I pray about the fullness of the kingdom of God, I visualize diverse people of every type gathering around huge open tables, communing by sacred bread, wine and laughter and uniting together in Love in their actions of justice.  The classic images of diversity come to mind for me quite quickly: different races, cultures, languages, and ages in particular.

I suspect, though, that for God the diversity that is needed is deeper than the visual differences.  We need everyone, no matter who they are, to feel free to sit at our tables with us.

Biodiversity can be pretty rad too.
"plain, open" by Julia Walsh, FSPA (Biodiversity can be pretty rad too.)

It’s beautiful when people who look different gather together and unite.  But, what about when people think and believe differently?

Certainly, there’s much tension and confusion when people just completely disagree about principles and values.  We don’t have to look too far into any political news to recognize how diversity can be damaging or even disastrous. Personally, the more I grow in understanding of who I am and what I believe, the more challenging it can become to relate to people whose lifestyles and values are completely different than mine.  When I admit this, I become embarrassed. Isn’t a point of Christianity to witness to what’s different?  When did I only want to hang out with people like me?  (Can you believe that in some circles I’m actually pretty normal? Ha!)

My life of Christian service and witness causes me to encounter people who are completely outside of my norm and bubbles, as it should.  It’s not a surprise to me that many- if not most- people live their lives without any experience of real Christian church and base their morality on what feels right and good. Sometimes when people behave in ways that I am strongly morally opposed to I feel like all can do is become awkward.  Likewise, friendship can feel nearly impossible when a person boldly tells me that he or she don’t want to believe in God nor does he or she like Christianity or religion at all.  Sometimes diversity can feel insulting. Sometimes I want to pull my hair out in the struggle.

Basically, I tend to prefer that my friends believe the same things as me. It’s easier and supporting. Or, is it?

I don’t want to be judgmental.  I try to love and listen when I am hanging out with people who spend their time and money on the things that I try to preach against.  Although I feel a sense of confidence in my faith and my opinions are quite strong, the real challenge is to remain open-minded and allow for my own conversion in the face of challenging diversity.  I try not to respond with criticism and instead only offer my opinions when asked.  I believe my loving presence is valuable, yet sometimes diversity can be so frustrating.  I bite my tongue so much it bleeds and pound my head against the wall so much that it bruises.

When God made us all different, I wonder how we were to live with it. Beating my head up against a wall and pulling out my hair is probably not what God had in mind.  I believe that we are called to lovingly accept all people but not all behavior.  I believe we’re to witness to the counter-cultural Gospel way through love and service.

I believe it’s all about openness. As I serve with an open heart, I must keep an open mind. As I live outside of my comfort zone and get stretched into weird shapes, I must remain grounded in Christ. Grounded in Christ and open to all, the strangest situations can bring me closer to Him.  I hope and pray that as I live in the openness of God’s love and diversity, I come to know the Truth that shall set me free from all that head-banging and social awkwardness.

As I fumble through this, I remain open.  As I open, I gain awareness. It’s a blessing that God can grace me with wisdom and guidance. After all, it’s a gift that there’s really no one else just like me.  And, it’s a comfort that my struggles and questions are sort of ancient stuff:

The LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream at night.
God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”
Solomon answered:
“O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king
to succeed my father David;
but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act.
I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen,
a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted.
Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart
to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.
For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?”

The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request.
So God said to him:
“Because you have asked for this—
not for a long life for yourself,
nor for riches,
nor for the life of your enemies,
but for understanding so that you may know what is right—
I do as you requested.
I give you a heart so wise and understanding
that there has never been anyone like you up to now,
and after you there will come no one to equal you.” 1 Kgs 3:5, 7-12s

passing things around in the USA

Brace yourself. This video may make you laugh or cringe.

This sampling got me thinking about the general values of our country.  I remembered that a couple years ago there was some fascinating debate about whether the USA is really a Christian nation.  In the current climate of political unrest, I believe it is a conversation worth repeating.  What are the main principles and values that guide this country?

My historical analysis notices webs of influence created by our Puritan roots.  Our founding fathers- and mothers- were guided by Christian ideals.  Certainly us Christians are very vocal and influential in the political arena.  And, it seems hard to be “successful” in our country if you’re not Christian.

Yet, writer Jon Meacham suggests that “As crucial as religion has been and is to the life of the nation, America’s unifying force has never been a specific faith, but a commitment to freedom—not least freedom of conscience.”

Are we okay with people freely following their conscience to dangerous addictions, just as long as they don’t harm others and are having fun?

Thanks! And, God bless the United States of America- and the whole world! Amen!