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Breda

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The Surrender of Breda is a gigantic, life-size painting by Diego Velasquez (1599-1660). Mentioning it here on The Twelve, with its inordinate amount of readers with Dutch heritage, might be imprudent. The painting has been called a “huge piece of Spanish propaganda” for it depicts one of the few bright-spots for the Spaniards in the war with Dutch—the Spanish conquest of city of Breda in 1625.

The painting has become much appreciated for its depiction of the two military leaders, one Dutch, the other Spanish, exchanging the key to the city. Both men appear decent and generous. Though “war art,” The Surrender of Breda has been described as warm, humane, and kind; a “picture of reconciliation.”

It came to my attention last month while listening to one of my favorite theologians, James Alison, speak at the “Wild Goose Festival” in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Wild Goose was three rain-soaked days of speakers, musicians, and other artists in the Appalachians. Headliners included Krista Tippet of NPR’s “On Being”, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Phil Yancey, and the Indigo Girls. But more than any of them, I went to hear Alison.

He said that in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions, along with more and more states approving same-sex marriage, as well as numerous countries around the globe doing likewise, the outcome on LGBT equality is now sure. Within the church as well, the tide has turned and with “demographics as destiny,” it is only a matter of time before full acceptance of LGBT persons in the church will be the normative, majority position. He’s not saying this will happen instantly, that there won’t be setbacks and controversy along the way, or that all Christians will ultimately agree. In the big picture, however, the future is certain. But this is not Alison’s main claim.

Instead, he asked how Christians who support the inclusion of LGBT persons will also then invite and welcome their fellow Christians who do not yet share their viewpoint? How do we help them to see that the full inclusion of LGBT persons is not a victory for secularism or an erosion of biblical authority? Rather, it is a work of the Holy Spirit, a faithful reading of scripture, and a fruit of the Gospel of Jesus.

Alison, a Roman Catholic priest, raised as an English evangelical who self identifies as gay, understands that there are many, many sincere Christians for whom full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church is a stumbling block. Those who support full inclusion, whose victory is inevitable, now need to begin talking and thinking about in what manner they will “win.”

This is where The Surrender of Breda comes in. According to Alison, “the shape of victory for Christians is always reconciliation.” Just sit with that for a while. For Christians, victory is only achieved in reconciliation. The Surrender of Breda comes close to expressing just that. The cross, resurrection, and parousia express it more fully than we comprehend.

It is easy for the victor to seem benevolent, to patronizingly toss some scraps to the loser. But the true test of reconciliation is when both the victor and vanquished are able to be magnanimous. As the outcome of the LGBT debate becomes clearer in the years ahead, there will be the temptation for the “victors” to punish, ostracize, and condescend to those whose hearts and minds have not yet been changed. Instead, Alison says, LGBT Christians and their supporters must begin to consider ways to invite them, make space for them, and be gracious to them. No doubt some will never change, but far, far more Christians are open, listening for the Spirit, looking for an invitation to join and be warmly welcomed.

How to do that? Much of it, of course, is done by tone, posture, and rapport. Staying in conversation. Looking to make connections. This is where Alison excels. He speaks with clarity, humility, and gentleness. He conjectures that his own Roman Catholic world may be an easier place for this reconciliation to blossom. Their ethical system is so closely tied to “natural law” that as science makes it increasingly evident that homosexuality is a “naturally-occurring, non-pathological, minority variant,” natural law will bend.

In our Protestant world, where Scripture is more dominant, Alison wonders if part of the way forward might be to invite people to look at the purpose, the intention, of the crucial and contentious passages. Just as we know that the purpose of prohibitions of rape or orgies is not to forbid all heterosexual relations, so the intention of passages that speak against exploitative homosexual acts is not to forbid all homosexual relations.

You may or you may not agree with Alison’s reading of scripture. Some of you won’t like his assertion that the outcome of this debate is now inevitable, and even more, this outcome is a work of the Spirit, a gracious step toward the Kingdom. But all of us, I hope, are gladdened by the message of The Surrender of Breda, and inspired by Alison’s assertion that for Christians the final form of victory is reconciliation.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

2 Comments

  • Daniel James Meeter says:

    Well said, Alison and you, Steve. And I think that Jim Brownson has begun to do that, with great humility as well as seriousness, in his new book. Highly recommended.

  • Thomas C. Goodhart says:

    I appreciate this, Steve. Mostly, because I believe it to be the Gospel, as 2 Corinthians says: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Seems right on. As well, it appears to be the trajectory, even better with recent statements made by the Pope.

    Still, we are not there yet. And I wonder and worry about the harm that is still being done. Kids who are taking there own lives, spiritual bullying, and the complicity that the church has in this state of affairs. I had happened to read another blog just before your post, http://justiceunbound.org/carousel/progressive-christianity-whats-the-point-2/

    I don't readily rely upon war language and illusions, but perhaps the Breda imagery is particularly significant here. Thanks again for your post.

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