A few weeks ago my church hosted a table at a community festival for LGBTQ people in our city.
As is the case at many gatherings like these, the event was interrupted by protesters holding grotesque anti-gay signs and shouting epitaphs of judgment through a scratchy sound system. Like us, they purported to be Christians.
I couldn’t understand the hatred next to us. My anger was deep and righteous for myself, the queer kids in my church, the gay couples who had finally found a safer place to worship, away from all of this.
After the protestors at the LGBTQ festival settled on to a corner, I gathered with people from our church in a small circle next to their sound system. We sang the lines of the old spiritual “Welcome Table” as loud as we could – “you’ve got a place at the welcome table some of these days.”
But I knew that our voices, the place we carved out in that small circle was louder than the droning of despair and exclusion blaring from the sound system. It was enough to sing with others across the circle from me, those who have formed this common life in spite of incredible odds, those who have said, “you belong with me.”
At church the next day we grappled with what we experienced. Our wonderings that morning were similar to those I’ve heard in many predominately white churches oriented towards justice and peace: How do I love my enemy?
Usually this question follows with an expression of concern about the current polarization in our country. The politics of the day are angry. People are angry. Perhaps if we could understand the position of our neighbor, empathize with those who are different, get to know someone else’s point of view, we wouldn’t be so divided.
How do we lay down our rightness, our commitments to making the world as we believe it ought to be, while refusing to stand to the side as white supremacy glides into acceptability in our public discourse?
The Mennonite church in which my ministry takes place is a crucible for these kinds of questions. Our commitment to peace is more visibly stated than our kindred in Protestant and Catholic churches, even if we flounder on this commitment in equal measure.
It didn’t take me long to grow suspicious of my church’s anxiety over “polarization.”
I worried as I largely heard these conversations happen among white Christians for whom dialogue was a choice made out of whiteness. I was recently at a community organizing training when a fellow white Christian offered a lament over the anger for one’s enemies. A black organizer named Rose responded by saying, “I don’t have the luxury not to be angry.”
Not all of our divisions are misunderstandings. Not all our conflicts will be cured by knowing each other’s stories.
When I read the Bible I meet a Jesus who is invitational and invested in dialogue – with a certain group of people. Those who are outside the margins of dominate power, those whose bodies complicate holiness on account of sex, gender, socio-economic status, and ethnicity – these are the people with whom Jesus interacts, converses, and makes space. At one point Jesus himself is called to account for his own ethnic bias, converted, through one of these conversations (Mark 7:24-29).
But Jesus has no patience, and in fact erupts into anger when faced with oppressive and coercive forms of power. I don’t encounter in the Gospels times when Jesus takes time to understand the position of the teachers of the law. He has no interest in creating spaces of empathy for Roman officials. He stands silent before Pilate as Pilate attempts to find common ground with Jesus (Matt 27:11-26).
When it comes to violence, when it comes to those who reinforce domination through religious purity or wealth – Jesus is simply uninterested in hearing the other side of the story. Instead, Jesus offers an invitation to repentance. Repenting is how to belong to the kingdom of God—as we repent of violence, of our failure to love, of our burden on the poor. And in the Gospels over and over again those who traffic in these forms of power walk away from Jesus. It is simply asking too much.
When I encounter anti-LGBTQ protestors seething with hatred, offering judgment on the lives of God’s beloved in my church, my first impulse is not towards understanding in dialogue. Instead, I return to the “woes” Jesus offered the Pharisees. Woe to you hypocrites. Lay down your weapons. Turn and repent. And when you do, we are ready to welcome you home.
Perhaps it is enough to work out our own internal complexity, to define your differences, to overcome your animosities with those who share the work of life with you. It is enough of a work for me to attempt the discipline of empathy in the small gathering of those who visit one another in the hospital, share casseroles around a potluck table, and work together on church committees. Empathy begins with work — showing up for one another knowing full well that the space of our difference may never fully be overcome.
The communities Jesus gathered were not homogenous. There was in-fighting and misunderstanding. Jesus was frequently frustrated and angry with those we called disciples. But they fed each other fish and bread. They healed and they prayed and they wept together. And that was the space that made everything else possible. That was the shared life that birthed the church.