I just got back from the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, and I find myself swimming in reflections about the shape of the church in that gathering. Here is one of those:
I often find myself among feminist and liberationist colleagues in Boston, and in those theologies there is an emphasis on egalitarian community in which all have a voice. In the Church of the Brethren, we maintain Paul’s understanding that anyone who is present within the church as it discusses is to be given a voice. Early Anabaptists called this “Sitzrecht,” translating to something like “the right of the seated.” In principle this sounds like an amazing thing — no domination, no oppressive hierarchy, no silencing of anyone, no matter their education level, their socioeconomic status, their race, or any other demographic or personality feature. We then endeavor to discern the Spirit (not our own agendas!) in the spaces between the words.
And it is an amazing thing.
But make no mistake, it takes a whole lot of faith to listen not only to those who disagree with you, but also to those who have wounded or discounted you, even to those whom you believe are just plain wrong. It takes a whole lot of faith in the God who works in mysterious ways and the Spirit who stirs creativity out of chaos when her people gather… because sometimes, in practice, it just looks like an unholy free-for-all.
This year a resolution on climate change came before the delegate body. Several of the speakers who came to the mics were people who advocated against it, who saw salvation of souls as more important than the saving of the earth, who spoke from a denial of human complicity in the wounding of the earth. This debate, more than any other this year, saddened me. And it has stayed with me.
But the more I think about it, the more I think there is hope in this. This is what true, honest, human disagreement looks like. This is the outcome of egalitarianism in practice, the result of striving to seek out and listen for that of God in every brother and sister. And this is holy because God is working in the midst of it. God never coerces us to love, because God knows that that kind of “love” wouldn’t, in fact, be love. We always have the choice to accept or reject Jesus and Jesus’ in-breaking realm. Likewise, we must allow that in other people.
This is not to say that we don’t continue to try to find the Truth and proclaim it as fully as we know how. This is also not to say that we give up the ability to lovingly hold one another accountable to Jesus-following. But it is to say that a measure of patience is required in our dealings with one another to make sure that we are not coercing one another, dragging one another along by sheer willpower or political stratagems, no matter how subtle. Hearts and minds converted by love, actions that are the result of true repentance, can never have their birth in coercion or fear.
So, as much as I would sometimes like to grab my brothers and sisters by the lapels and shake them when they don’t believe something I believe deep in my soul — to shake them until they submit — in my better moments, I know that to do so would be to do violence to the body, to deny the unsearchable wisdom of God, and to set myself up as God.
Instead, by the Spirit’s help and Jesus’ example, I will search for the voice of God in the midst of this messy egalitarianism, I will proclaim and witness to the truth I think I have glimpsed, and I will seek to open my heart, even in the midst of discussions that make me cringe. Because perhaps my sister or brother who does not agree with me will be the vehicle of my own conversion toward love. Perhaps, ultimately, we will save each other, and in doing so, carefully, faithfully, and obediently in Christ, God might use us together to heal the world.