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By Mara Joy Norden
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:19-20
I wonder if my church, the Reformed Church in America, will split. If we do, we’ll say that we split over same-sex marriage, but it’s more complicated than that, of course.
I hear two basic positions: 1) We should stay together because unity matters; and 2) We should split because purity matters.
I hear the unity folks’ desire to preserve the Reformed Church in America’s rich legacy of ministry in the world and appeal to the unique polity that allows us to co-exist with different viewpoints on same-sex marriage. I hear the purity people on the traditional side of the same-sex marriage divide holding up a particular vision of the sanctity of marriage and the importance of holiness. I hear purity people on the progressive side of the same-sex marriage divide calling for justice for LGBTQIA+ people.
The unity folks seem to be willing to sacrifice purity. The purity folks seem to be willing to sacrifice unity. However, we don’t get to choose unity over purity or purity over unity. Additionally, we’re missing something in the unity versus purity divide: when we take vows upon entering a congregation as a minister or a member, we vow to uphold unity, purity, and peace.
The last two Sundays here on The Twelve, I’ve tried to clarify the pursuits of unity and purity. I discussed both unity and purity in light of the Trinity, and tried to show that both involve deeper engagement in relationships with those who are different.
Today we need to talk about peace, because pursuing unity and purity without pursuing peace leads to all kinds of problems.
Paradoxically, pursuing peace often requires rocking the boat because peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is shalom – a robust and all-encompassing Hebrew concept that involves wholeness for every person, every relationship, and every created thing. Sometimes pursuing shalom means disrupting the flow of life: disrupting the flow of traffic so people will notice the message on the sign you’re carrying, disrupting an altercation where one person is hurting another person, disrupting commerce with boycotts and sanctions, disrupting denominational meetings to shine light on injustice and prejudice. Sometimes disruption looks like amputation: cutting off a relationship where there is no hope for healing. Sometimes disruption is as quiet as the mere presence of unwelcome person who doesn’t leave.
Not everyone should stay; the stakes are too high for many LGBTQIA+ people in the RCA. Sadly there is no shalom for them here. Even some people with a traditional view of marriage feel the stakes are too high for staying. But not everyone should leave.
Here’s what peacebuilding scholars in the socio-political field know: long-term, sustainable peace in divided communities requires many kinds of engagements across the every part of the community. We need the fiery people to shout their fury – they speak truth about broken shalom that the community needs to hear. We need the dispassionate people to listen and speak when they are ready. We need both the loud marchers and the quiet stayers if we want to attain sustainable shalom. (Please forgive these overly simplified characterizations).
I’m one of the dispassionate ones; a stayer. (Except for when I’m not. As I said, these are over-simplifications). Some of my LGBTQIA+ friends in the RCA are dispassionate stayers too. I thank God for them – this is the hard work of pursuing shalom. Some of my LGBTQIA+ friends in the RCA are fiery truth-tellers; some of them are leavers. I thank God for them, too – this is also the hard work of pursuing shalom. Some of my fiery friends have been hurt by my dispassion and my intention to stay connected. They accuse me of complacency and complicity with evil. They have been right at times. And I’ve been hurt by their accusations that my engagement with people who hurt them is misaligned with the gospel.
Here’s the rub of pursuing unity, purity, and peace at the same time: we need each other. I need to listen to my fiery friends and learn about shalom from their viewpoint. Otherwise, in my dispassionate nature, I might not pursue shalom at all, or pursue it in wrong ways. My fiery friends need me to speak the truth about shalom that I hear from them in dispassionate ways to people who will listen to me. Not everyone can listen to everyone. Some people need to sever relationships in order to live in shalom, but I might be able to stay in relationship with those people because I have not been hurt in the same way. I can be a bridge, but I cannot do that without deeply engaging the people on both sides. Some people cannot listen to fiery fierceness, but might listen to dispassionate speech. We need every style of pursuing shalom to work together if shalom is to truly take hold.
I continue to wonder if the Reformed Church in Amerca will split. For the record, I hope we stay together. But I do not hope for unity at the expense of purity, and I would not be satisfied with unity and purity at the expense of shalom. Until the Holy Spirit unfolds the way forward, I commit to stay engaged and pursue the things that make for unity, purity, and peace.
Up next week: On Risk
Mara Joy Norden pastors The Community in Ada, Michigan.