“I am offended….” the letter to the newspaper in my small East Texas town began. The writer was offended because she believes her rights as a Christian are being taken away. This is a common reaction to America’s increasing pluralism: too many Christians are taking offense and becoming defensive when they are asked to move over and make room. Like fish swimming in the stream of the dominant religious culture, they are oblivious to all the ways Christianity continues to be privileged in this nation.
Many of us have been pondering our white privilege in these troubled days. One of Nicolas Kristoff’s reflections cites grim statistics that should challenge any white person to think twice about the realities of race in America. All of us who benefit from being part of the dominant religious culture would do well to think more deeply about that privilege and our appropriate responsibilities within this multicultural American community.
I am a Christian minister and I have spent years nudging Christians into all sorts of bigger circles. I am an American and I am fully committed to nudging this land that I love into the larger circle of respect for all people, whether they are religious or not. My Christian faith demands this of me.
This “parable” may help: a devout, good-hearted Christian family gathers around the dinner table. Mom and Dad and the children are a pretty homogenous group where common values are assumed and conversation is grounded in shared experience. Then the children grow up and they start bringing their spouses and partners to the family table. Now conversations are more challenging because the values and experiences are more diverse. Then those children start having children; toddlers and teens dramatically change the dynamic of how a family functions. Then grandpa moves in and everyone adjusts once more. A healthy family will celebrate this widening circle. They will keep adding leaves to the table. They will keep pulling up more chairs. They will make room for each other. But yes it’s hard, on so many levels.
For me, as a Christian, authentic faith circulates around this one center: love God and love my neighbor. For me, part of what it means to love God is to let God be God and part of what it means to love my neighbor is to remember that God is God and I am not. So I don’t get to judge my neighbor or fix them or change them. I am simply called to love them. “Love your neighbor. Period.”
There are many (many!) of us Christians who seek to live out our faith with this kind of love and welcome. There are many Christians who are not the least offended or threatened when the eclectic mix of our American neighbors are included in our larger “family” circle. (Maybe we are the ones who ought to be writing letters to our local newspapers, articulating an alternative vision of an inclusive, grace-full faith.
But right now, our American family is struggling to make room for each other. Too many people are taking offense; too many people are on the defense; there is plenty of raw passion. What we need is more compassion – especially as we become more and more aware that too many people in our family do not have an equal seat at this table and an equal voice in this conversation. Those of us who have been endowed by our culture with any sort of special privilege have special responsibility to do what we can to keep nudging the circle wider. Whatever our advantage/our privilege/our power of influence, let us re-commit to stand and speak with integrity, authenticity and humility for all our neighbors.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She frequently shares her thoughts with Coffee Party USA as a regular volunteer.