August 21, 2013

Christian Family Values


Text: Luke 12:52: “From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.”

You may have heard that the Republicans were in town this week. The summer meeting of the Republican National Committee just wrapped up in Boston. I’m not sure whether who was more astonished at the outcome of the convention planners that the Republicans would end up spending a summer week in Boston—the Republicans, or Boston. But they were here, and now they’ve left.

Of course there was a time when Boston was a very Republican town. It was, oh, a hundred and fifty years ago or so, as the flag in front of the Union Club downtown will remind you. But things change, and cities change, and today it seems sort of odd to imagine a Republican party in the city of Boston, especially after what happened to poor Mr. Romney.

I mention this because of course the Republican Party has eagerly claimed for itself the identity of being the party of family values. It’s predominantly among the ranks of the GOP, for example, that you find the supporters of “traditional marriage,” which I suppose means marriage that excludes some people from admission and ends in divorce half the time.

Last month an interesting article appeared in the on-line section of The Atlantic magazine on a sort of curious question: Why is it that folks on the left of the political spectrum have a hard time speaking the language of family values?

The author makes the interesting point that when the conversation is set in terms of the things that make for economic inequality or, on the other side, for improving the chances that folks in poverty will find a way to raise their standard of living, then the voices on the left are very articulate in speaking about factors like intact families, and the inculcation of values that place priority on education and self-discipline and social cohesion.

It’s just hard for folks on the left to connect those ideas back to the church, or to any religious tradition, as the source of these values and these outcomes. And the author goes on to suggest that perhaps one reason for this is that historically, in our own political history and indeed pretty much throughout the Western world, the role of the political left has been to question tradition. If that’s your central principle, then it will be hard to sign up for the idea of a values-mediating institution like the church, because part of what we’re about, of course, is handing down a tradition that we have received to those who will come after us.

By now you probably have figured out that whenever anyone in our debates over family values or social ethics or economic justice claims to have the authority to pronounce the “Christian position” on any of these issues, I break out in hives. I think something much closer to the essence of the Christian position on these or any issues was beautifully and succinctly stated by the new pope on his flight back to Rome from Brazil, when in answering a question about gay priests in the Catholic church, his answer was very simply: “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?”

An amazing statement. Amazing not least because Christians of whatever position or place on the spectrum of conscience seem to be united only in their swiftness to issue judgment on those with whom they disagree. That is not a practice, or a reflex, that is the exclusive property of conservatives. We, too, have been quicker to judge—and when parishes holding views in the minority have taken steps to leave the church, we have been quicker to call the lawyers.

The troubling teaching of Jesus in Luke’s gospel this morning is a hard saying about the inevitability of conflict on matters of conscience. Any word from Jesus here on just what his doctrine might be, any specific rules on the matters that divide us so bitterly, is profoundly absent. We have not been given specifics.

Instead we have been given guideposts: Love God, and your neighbor as yourself. Remember that no one, no tribe, no class, no clan—no church—has a monopoly on righteousness. We have a bad tendency to create in-groups and out-groups, and sometimes the people living most closely to God will be among the folks you think of as in the wrong group. Mercy trumps judgment. All of us fall short of the glory of God and need saving. And so on.

All we get are general nudges like these. They seem to be designed with us in mind. The fact is that we do draw in-group and out-group boundaries. In fact we’re pretty much programmed to do it; we look for differences between ourselves and others as a way of telling us who we are. And the fact is that we do come to quick judgments about others, so quick we’re not aware of it. We draw conclusions about other people’s character traits within seconds of meeting them—based on the structure of their face and the sound of their voice. Of course, we don’t know anything about them yet; but those impressions are lasting, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

It’s almost as though to navigate the path of this life we’ve been given stars but no sextant. And so the conflicts of conscience that Jesus is speaking of will happen exactly because the questions
at issue are so important, and press so hard on our weaknesses and frailties when it comes to being fair and compassionate and disciplined and honest.

I have lost friends over matters like these, friends who considered themselves just as Christian as I regard myself. Maybe you have, too. I have known that peculiar pain of finding yourself in disagreement so deep it is disorienting with people I really care about, and who I know cared about me.

For generations and generations it was the distinguishing hallmark of Anglican Christianity, of our kind of Christianity, that we could somehow manage to hold together in a single church people who disagreed fundamentally on fundamentals—on things like sacraments and the authority of the Bible and the importance of tradition. For generations the Anglican church was a place where people who believed in transubstantiation and people who thought that was all a bunch of magical nonsense could kneel next to each other and drink the same coffee at coffee hour.

We are less that way today. We have unhappily followed the general drift of the rest of the culture around us toward deeper ideological divides. We are learning more and more the truth of what Jesus warned us about; family members being divided.

It might just be that the best witness we can give to the Christian gospel is one in the opposite direction of that drift. It might just be that what we offer to the world is an example of what happens when a community of people begin from the position of recognizing their own frailties, their own limits, their own fallibility.

When you start from there, the possibility is never far from your mind that your deepest convictions, no matter how dear they are to you, might just be wrong. And then, you have to see the world, and the other people in it, a little differently. Rather than first wondering how they are wrong, you begin by wondering what it is you might have to learn from them.

That is the sort of community, the sort of family, we try to build here. We know that we can be divided on matters of conscience. Jesus warned us it would happen. But that happens not because some of us are wrong and others of us are right, but because all of us can only glimpse a part of the truth of God. That is the family we are a part of here, and the better we live out those family values here the more we will be able to offer them to a society so torn and divided by conflicts of personality posing as matters of principle. Amen.