Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Fights We Can No Longer Afford
I have a good friend who is an Orthodox Rabbi. Over the years I have learned a great deal from him and I think he has learned a thing or two from me. The Jewish community is every bit as divided theologically as the Christian. There are far right, Ultra-Orthodox Jews and there are far left Reform Jews. Their disagreements are every bit as significant as those between the most fundamentalist and most liberal of Christians. But something important happened within the Jewish community in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust. Jewish leaders recognized that however great their differences they could not afford to repudiate any Jew. Their losses had been too great and their future was too uncertain to reject any Jew, regardless of their religious failings (whether their failings were “fundamentalist” or “liberal”). This does not mean that Jews have stopped disagreeing with one another. In my experience, far from it! But in has meant that Jews with very different views of Jewish faith and practice generally respect and support one another. They really cannot afford to do otherwise.
For 1500 years or so Christians in the west have enjoyed the privileges of majority. Among other things, this has enabled us to engage in theological feuds without any real risk to our survival. Deviance was sniffed out, denounced and, where possible, eliminated. Ecclesiastical elites maintained their power by marginalizing critical voices. Sometimes these critical voices ended up burned at the stake. Sometimes they were co-opted and called saints. In the wake of the Reformation theological conflict became a Protestant team sport. Calvinists, Lutherans and Anabaptists all sought the prize of theological domination of their opponents. The Pietists in the 17th century tried to find a way to make peace, but they were mostly ignored or scorned. Old habits die hard and the Christian church cannot shake its practices of mutual condemnation. A conservative regime in Rome seems to have no interest in a significant rapprochement with its “separated brethren.” The Mainline Church in the United States is shredding itself over issues of human sexuality. Evangelicals have lemming like rushed to affiliate with conservative politics and are headed over the cliffs of irrelevance. Each denounces the other for moral, ethical, and biblical compromise and attempts to wrest control of Jesus from the other.
I believe this has to stop. Future controversies over a variety of social and political issues and most notably over human sexuality bear the seeds of further alienation, division, and destruction. I think it is time for Christians to reject their home team mentality and receive all who seek to follow Jesus, whatever their loyalties. I am not calling for relativistic indifference. My friend is still Orthodox and still has large differences with his more liberal colleagues. But he does not reject their Jewishness and accepts them as brothers and sisters. We will all continue to have differences with Christians to the right and left of us. But as our influence and power in the society dwindles we can no longer afford to throw any Christian under the bus. As part of a movement born out of the perhaps feeble Pietist attempt to make peace between warring factions, I refuse to participate in such theological branding. I don’t expect the arguments to go away. I am sure I will participate in them. But this day I assert that the most hardboiled fundamentalist is my brother and my sister and the most wild-eyed liberal is my companion in Christ and I will not participate in the rejection of either of them.
John E. (Jay) Phelan