The [Trump Supporter / Dangerous Liberal / Conspiracy Theorist] in the Next Pew

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illustration by zonadearte / iStockphoto.com

by John Backman

The others lurk among us. Even worse, they worship with us.

You know who I mean. Their beliefs are not only un-Christian, but destructive to the human race. Often it seems they’re not reading the same scriptures as we are.  In a perfect world, we’d have nothing to do with them. But here they are, in the pew beside us.

To complicate matters, your definition of “the others” is likely different from mine.

This, of course, has been going on since Jesus walked the earth. But the issue has taken on fresh urgency with the current, bellicose presidential campaign, particularly the Trump phenomenon. Some evangelicals—how many is a matter of debate—admire Trump for various reasons: his outsider status, his rejection of what they see as “political correctness,” his willingness to say what he thinks, his stance on Islam.

As a moderate-progressive sort, I look at those folks and cannot imagine what we share in common. They are my other. I am their other.

Yet we all go by the name of Christian.

If we are all authentically Christian, then “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.” (Rom. 12:5) We are part of the dream of Jesus that “they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:21)

If I read this correctly, the undocumented Christian from Mexico and the American Christian who fears Mexicans are members of the same body. So are the folks at Westboro Baptist Church—and you and I. If you’re feeling slightly queasy right now, you’re not alone.

What do we do with all this? The scriptures appear to urge us to welcome all who call on the name of Christ (and even those who don’t). Many of our churches strive for this. It’s on our signs: All are invited. You are a child of God, so you are welcome here.

But it’s not nearly that simple.

The link between our selves and our convictions often runs so deep that they are practically inseparable.

For one thing, the link between our selves and our convictions often runs so deep that they are practically inseparable. So the people we try to welcome are bringing their convictions with them, and some of those convictions may strike us as, well, vile. We could, in theory, tweak the aforementioned message to say, “You are a child of God, so you are welcome here, but I’m afraid your deepest convictions are not.” In what sense, however, is that welcoming? The experience of LGBTQIA Christians in many well-intentioned conservative churches indicates that such a welcome is hardly a welcome at all.

And, we might ask, how vile is vile? Are there certain convictions that automatically exclude their believers from an openhearted welcome? There is evil in the world, after all. But church history indicates that we have too often used that justification to err on the side of exclusion.

How do we resolve this dilemma? In all honesty, I don’t know. But perhaps I don’t know is just the place to start.

As individual humans, we don’t know all that much. God seems to have designed Christian community—from our little local church to “all the saints” through the ages—as one way for us to learn more about God, reality, the universe, etc. To learn what I don’t know, then, I have to find out what you know. You might have some glimmer of wisdom I’ve never considered. Your life might set an example for me. By interacting with you, I might learn more about what it means to be a “fully alive” human being, which St. Irenaeus said was the very definition of God’s glory.

But I typically don’t take the time to know my “others,” so I miss out on what they might have to teach me, quite apart from the convictions I find so abhorrent in them. Perhaps I miss out on a piece of who God would have me become.

It’s not much to go on. Clearly this kind of engagement would be inappropriate in certain situations, where physical or emotional safety is at stake. But it is a starting point.

So. Whether your “other” is a proponent of Donald Trump, Fred Phelps, Ron Sider, or others who bear the name of Christ—what will you do when they walk through your doors?

As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes extensively on contemplative spirituality and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths), and his articles have appeared in numerous Christian publications, including RELEVANT and PRISM. John serves on the board of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation and has presented internationally at faith gatherings and academic conferences.

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2 Responses

  1. John Backman raises the thorny issue that many of us face, that of the wide divergent spectrum of world view and practice that occupy the pews around our own seat. One can conjecture about Jesus’s twelve disciples camping out during their travels, Matthew the tax collector keeping a watchful eye on Simon the Zealot. That is, Jesus had to deal with the problem at the start.

    In our American culture, individual freedom of conscience trumps. Thus, Paul’s stern discipline of a person engaging in sexual immorality (1 Corinthians) is an anachronism in western churches….both the old-fashioned “oppressions” of discipline and consensual sexual immorality. I’ll also point out the historical record that the early church refused baptism and membership for soldiers engaged in the violent enterprise of war. How far would that get in most congregations today?

  2. John Backman says:

    Allen, you’ve raised some fascinating issues. I suppose it’s a given that everyone’s version of the Christian faith is an amalgam of biblical ideas and one’s cultural milieu. I wish I knew what to do about that. My first instinct is to reach back to a “pure,” first-century faith, and while there’s some merit in it, even that expression of Christianity had its cultural influences. Moreover, I’m not convinced the cultural influences are always bad. Individual freedom of conscience is a beautiful thing, through granted, we Americans get carried away with it. Perhaps we accept the faith we’re given and keep testing our assumptions at the same time. How do you see it?

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