Dialogue, Rights and Why It Is Hard to Build a Safe Place (1999)

First printed in the Dialogue Quarterly, July 1999

We pride ourselves in being able to talk about our differences and being able to have healing conflicts at Circle of Hope. We believe the process of dialogue (like this quarterly implies) results in a conscious, safe place for each of us to be affirmed for who we presently are, while, at the same time, each of us is challenged to become more complete as a person in Christ.

Such dialogue is deep into the art of love. It is not a foregone conclusion that anyone entering into Christ can engage in it well, right away — most of us don’t have an instinct for it. For instance, when we come to know Jesus, it is hard to get used to the fact that God has loved us without having a negotiation with us about whether we deserve to be loved. We find out that He just unilaterally does it! — Jesus shows up at the door as “the One who loves you.” It takes a while to adjust to the fact that knowing God is introducing all sorts of new data into our lives that challenges old assumptions and reveals new possibilities.

Life with God is totally safe; we are saved. At the same time life with God is challenging; we are incomplete. When we speak the truth in love to one another about our individual journeys with Christ and our life together with him, these are the two cornerstones of the dialogue. We are safe to have a dialogue, but the dialogue is always challenging. Dialogue feels good and it feels scary at the same time.

We sit down at the table with Jesus having a set of assumptions – they are immediately questioned. Some of our assumptions can be sloughed off like last year’s bad fashions that never felt completely comfortable anyway. But a lot of things go very deep. In our country, one of the things that often goes very deep comes directly from the political/social philosophies that run the society. For instance, have you read the Declaration of Independence lately? Here are the big lines:

 We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

People believe in those lines. In the early days of the country the church balanced out thinking about “securing these rights” by calling for self-sacrifice and by insisting that everyone was responsible for the common good. That influence has obviously worn away. Today, people come to the government but come into the church with views that reflect 200 years of “rights” talk. I think they tend to assume three things:

  • the protection of their rights matters more than anything else,
  • the pursuit of happiness, as they define it, is critically important, and
  • “equality” (which means “I have just as much right to be who I am as you do to be who you are”) is not to be questioned.

When we have had dialogue about certain subjects, lately, these assumptions have been brought into the process and they have stirred up the waters of our safe place. I have realized that as a church, we can’t talk about some things without getting dragged into a political discussion. It’s like the Declaration of Independence gets to judge the validity of Jesus, rather than vice versa.

For instance, if we talk about the music we use for worship, some musicians might say that they cannot play “someone else’s” music because it does not resonate with the music  they have inside. In some small way that is saying, “You are violating my right to play what I want. I have a right to express myself however I choose.” The safe place replies: “Yes, we love for you to express who you are.  But this is more than just a safe place for you. There is the love of the others who aren’t like you, and, perhaps even more important, the challenge of hearing music from God.”

Likewise, when we talk about the Biblical parameters for having sex some people assume that their pursuit of “happiness,” when it comes to sex, is more important than a discussion of any channeling of that drive. We dread a public discussion when someone is forced to make revealing statements, but we have plenty of private discussions in which someone is basically saying, “How I express myself sexually is none of your business. I expect you to accept  whatever I do as whatever I need to do to be me and find my fulfillment as a person, sexually.“ I think the safe place keeps saying, “Of course, our sexual orientation and drive is a big issue for all of us. You are safe to struggle in whatever way you struggle. But you are more than your search for sexual fulfillment. God has even more fulfilling things for you than that.”

Thirdly, when we talk about race, as we often do, our discussion can often get cluttered with a bewildering array of political philosophies and options. So-called white people sometimes protest that they feel less equal when we advocate true power sharing. So-called people of color sometimes lament that the system will never allow them to be truly equal. It often seems like we are saying, “Equality under the law and in your eyes will satisfy me.” I think the safe place replies, “Our safety comes from being in Christ, not from a perfectly just government. At the same  time, both sides in the sin of racism, the dominating and the dominated, must accept the challenge to form a new humanity based on repentance and forgiveness, and on a vision of  life lived in the Spirit with a real hope of glory.”

How can we ever be a circle of hope if our dialogue is filled with the divisive politics of a struggle for individual rights, personal happiness and political equality? I have been in numerous discussions this year in which I had a terrible feeling that I was going to lose a friend because Christ could not fit into their politics or into a view they had of themselves that was based more on the Declaration of Independence than on Jesus. It is too bad that “my music” or “my sexuality” or “my race” can get in the way of our love and our pursuit of fullness in Christ. But when we don’t live in our safety or accept our challenges, our sell-interest is a convenient rock behind which to hide. We’ve been discovering that we need new assumptions and new skills in order to have the dialogue of love that we think is the glue of our church.

I think we may always feel like we are “getting to” the place where the threat of conflict won’t scare us into silence about the things we all hold dear.  At the same time I think being devoted to the art of love is probably the most deeply satisfying thing we can do. I hope we will all hold on to the vision of getting to the place where we can assume our safety in Christ and relish the challenge of always being stretched towards completion.

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