When I wrote the vision of Embrace Richmond in 2005, I never dreamed it would be so difficult to live out. Our vision is “a city united to embrace all who are in need; a place where people of every race, class and religious background join together to care for one another.” This is no small vision. The issues of race, class and religious beliefs have deeply divided, not only our city but our world. These are the things that have brought about wars and terrible destruction. It would be much easier to pretend these differences did not exist or to simply hang out only with people who are just like us. There are very few places in our society where this level of diversity exists in harmony. While I believe in the vision, I acknowledge that Embrace Richmond has a long, long way to go in achieving this vision.
While the issues of race and class are often the most visible dividing lines, I believe the issue of religion can be the most divisive if we do not approach it with sensitivity and intentionality. However, I also believe that if we learn to respect the beliefs of others, and focus on our common values, then our shared faith in God can be a unifying bond that can help us bridge the divides of class and race.
I think all of us would agree that respecting the religious beliefs of others is essential to creating unity across religious divides. However this is no easy task and I have fallen short on many occasions. It is not that I sought to offend, I simply forgot to take off my Christian lenses. At times, I act as though everyone around me believes the same things I believe and by making that assumption, I have unknowingly offended others.
I know my evangelical Christian sisters and brothers are getting very uncomfortable, they are thinking “But I am a Christian and I am not ashamed of the name of Jesus!” I am in no way suggesting a kind of Universalism. What I am wondering is if there is a way for us to each be true to our own beliefs while still respecting the beliefs of others?
I am a Christian, every one knows that. I make no attempt to hide that fact. Embrace Richmond was founded on Christian principals and values and is sustained by the prayers of my Christian brothers and sisters. I do not want to underestimate the role our shared faith in Christ has played at Embrace.
However, even among Christians we often fail to recognize that we all have different theologies (ways of understanding our faith). Some believe that the primary reason Christ came to this earth was to save us from the wrath of God and eternal damnation; while others believe Christ came to this earth as the tangible presence of the living God so that we could come to know God more fully through him. Some emphasize Christ’s life, some his death, and some his resurrection. For some its all about a “personal relationship”, others the “saving of souls” and for others it’s about “redeeming the world” or “ushering in the Kingdom of God.” Some focus on the “sin of man” and some focus on the “grace of God”, some on the “word of God” and some on the “life of Christ.” All of us know that even among Christians, we don’t agree…thus the vast number of denominations. We will never achieve unity by trying to reconcile all these differences or by coming up with some unifying “statement of faith” that we all agree on.
However, with all the many things that divide us,I have seen individuals from vastly different understandings about faith grow to love and respect one another and each others beliefs. I think often we offend out of ignorance of about what others believe. This ignorance exists because we don’t make space for honest conversations about faith. If we always assume everyone agrees with us,they will not feel safe enough to share that they think differently. This is especially true if we present our beliefs as “the only way of understanding God.” This simply perpetuates the ignorance about what others believe and prevents honest conversations. To create this safe space we must acknowledge that none of us are God…none of us know everything there is to know about God…there is room in all our theologies for a margin of error. Honestly, I would not want to worship a God that could be fully understood and defined by man. Would you?
Brian McLaren’s new book “A New Kind of Christianity” is an interesting read. I especially liked his analysis of the “lenses” we use when we look at Jesus. Some view Christ through the old testament, some theologies view Jesus heavily through the Apostle Paul’s lens. McLaren argues that Paul viewed Jesus through the lens of his day, the Greco-Roman world view which was influenced by Plato and Aristotle. Most western Christian’s view Jesus through the theology of Augustine. All protestant Christians are heavily influenced by Martin Luther’s “solo scriptura”. The list of “lenses” is endless.
Having grown up unchurched, I see the church through the eyes of an “outsider”. I have spent time in seven different denominations and thus have been influenced by the lenses of these denominations, I have dear friends from every specter of the Christian tradition. I read extensively and thus have adopted the lenses of those I have read. It is impossible to read the bible, or reflect upon our faith without bias. If you have only been in one tradition or have only experienced one version of the Christian tradition, I believe it is even more difficult to see these blind spots.
This past week six very devout Christian women read a chapter of scripture and spent time praying about what the passage meant to us personally. Everyone of us interpreted the same words out of the same Bible passage completely differently. So who was “right”? I don’t think “rightness” is the point of reading scripture. The passage spoke to all of us through our own lenses and met each of us where we were. The key is allowing space at the table for everyone to agree to disagree and fostering a spirit that allows the scriptures to speak to everyone where they are.
McLaren argues that the place to start is to view Jesus through the gospels. That is the reading of Jesus that is the clearest, least contaminated by human lenses. I love reading the gospels in my parallel bible which lines up the passages that are similar side by side. By reading the same story in different gospels, you also come to see that even the gospel writers had their own lenses, their own target audience, and their own agenda. Ask any devout Christian and each of us will name our favorite gospel. My favorite is the Gospel of Luke because of Luke’s strong liberation emphasis. What is sad is that we even argue about which gospel is the “best”.
My prayer is that we stop trying to prove ourselves or our positions as “right” and begin to simply see them as “different” or “right for us.” I don’t want to stifle religious conversations, I think our world is hungry for safe places to explore spiritual questions. I simply want us to engage in these conversations with the utmost respect for everyone at the table and I think context is important. If everyone at the table happens to be Christian, we need to respect the diversity of the Christian tradition but can find common ground in the person of Jesus. If we do not know the beliefs of everyone at the table, then we need to respect the diversity of religion in general and find common ground in the loving God who created us all. This does not mean we have to be shy about our own beliefs, but that we simply need to acknowledge that our way of understanding God is not the only way of understanding God.
Brian McLaren’s blog is very interesting. In a post titled, “On Emergent”, McLaren reflects on the diversity of voices present in the emerging church conversation which is trying to define what the church of the future might look like. McLaren writes “The process is awkward and messy at times…. the key issue is to stay at the table when you’re hurt and offended and misunderstood and made uncomfortable.”
This is my prayer for those of us in leadership roles at Embrace; that we would stay at the table, seek to understand one another, be willing to be made uncomfortable, forgive when we are hurt and above all seek not to offend but instead seek unity while respecting our diversity. It will not be easy, but I believe this is the unique call of Embrace Richmond.