When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved — Mark 13:11-13
It's a short word that comes with a multitude of definitions, interpretations, and responses. It's riddled with dogma and doctrine, and more often than not, is spoken with a certain harshness. It's a word that, most of the time, I don't enjoy speaking. I avoid it. I feel as if the impact of its being spoken to me and at me has done more harm than good, caused more harm than redemption. Yet it's a word that sometimes needs to be used to explain the presence and existence of certain phenomena in our world.
Sitting down for lunch (read breakfast) with Andrew Marin, creator of The Marin Foundation, my field placement for this academic year, we talked about many things. We talked about his decision to offer no definitive answer when asked for his personal stance on the issue of homosexuality. We talked about relationships. We talked about my recent decision to leave my denomination to pursue ordination elsewhere. We talked about our marriages and circles of friends, what made for healthy friendships, and what made for broken ones. We talked about God. We talked about love.
One topic in particular came up, and after sharing my insights with him, Andrew asked if I'd be willing to write a post rehashing them, and so here I am, listening to some Shane & Shane, drinking coffee while my cats scamper around the apartment, thinking about and writing about this topic
As a gay man who has spent most of my life in a Baptist church of one branch or another, the words sin and accountability have been spoken at me many times, specifically pertaining to my sexual orientation. Former friends and church members have spoken of their "responsibility" and "obligation" to hold me accountable for my sin, spouting off any number of scriptures that give them the right to do so. A significant number of individuals who took on this role, well, they didn't know me, at least not very well. They'd taken little to no time getting to know my heart, my interests, or my passions outside of their Sunday morning interactions with me. These people believed that their identity as a "Christian" obliged them to point out, admonish against, and correct the sins they witnessed in other Christ-followers, regardless of their relationship status with those persons. Based on their interpretation, it's hard to argue with them.
There was and often is something missing though that I believe is a key component to effective and holy accountability: mutuality. There are struggles I face from time to time that I want to overcome. More often than not, I recognize ability to win those battles alone. And so what do I do? I turn to someone I know, someone I love, and someone I trust to hold me accountable. This is the key.
Accountability has to be welcomed by the one being held accountable.
Yes, there are times when someone we love might be faltering and not asking for our input, but in those cases, the relationship that already exists often grants a certain level of permission. When you've built a relationship with someone that centers around love, respect, and mutuality, then sure, hold those friends accountable, but only so far as they allow you to do so. When that permission is revoked, then you no longer have that right.
Holding someone accountable to anything without relationship runs the risk of damaging that person in a deeply intimate way. Furthermore, holding someone accountable to a standard with which they disagree stands a chance of doing more harm than good. We're all called out to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Even Peter is given a vision in which he's told not to call profane what God has called clean (Acts 10:15). When it comes down to the wire, sin does have grey areas. Some things are sinful for some and acceptable for others. And once a person has worked out and wrestled with certain parts of their life, we are only entitled to hold them accountable insofar as they allow us. Anything beyond that, and we're no longer truly acting out of love and grace. Anything beyond that, and we're no longer living out the true Gospel message.
Growing up, one of my all-time favorite books was The Giver by Lois Lowry
After reading it for the first time in first or second grade, and then later for an undergraduate philosophy course (with several readings between), I fell in love to the point that I make a habit of reading it at least once a year. Short enough to read in a single sitting, I always find myself deeply involved in the storyline, anxiously awaiting the last page, which even to this day is ambiguous enough of an ending that I'm still perplexed. Every year, I gain something new. Every year, I feel refreshed as I enter into the life of Jonas, the main character. While the last time I read it was earlier this year, it came to mind recently (as in just a few minutes ago) while my boss and I were discussing how to have a conversation with someone whose beliefs differ from your own without trying to change or convert them to your way of thinking. I couldn't help but recall a part of Jonas' story that always resonated with me...
One of the reasons Jonas was chosen as the "Receiver of Memories" is that he had "the sight." Jonas contained something within him that enabled him to "see beyond." The first sign of this ability was in Jonas' capacity for seeing color... a glimpse here in an apple... a flicker there with Fiona's hair. He could see something different. It only made sense that as he participated in his training with the Giver, this ability intensified. Colors didn't just show up in glimpses here and flickers there... they persisted.
The way Jonas viewed the world had changed. Jonas was now different... a word which for him carried a dangerous and painful connotation.
The world of the Giver is a world of sameness. There are no individual birthdays. There is no spectrum of skin tone or hair color. Everyone is born into the world in the same way, given a family in the same way, and dies the same way. So for Jonas, the experience of this difference, especially as his training goes along, is painful. We see this in an encounter with his best friend Ash later in the story. The scene goes like this: it's a day where the Giver has sent Jonas away early, and so Jonas finds Ash to spend some time with him. During their conversation, Jonas wonders if its possible for Ash to see color. He has Ash look at a bike, an apple, someone's hair, and while placing his hand on Ash's shoulder, waits for Ash's big epiphany.
It never comes...
The disappointment Jonas experiences is almost tangible... you can feel his stomach drop and his heart-break as he realizes that his difference from the one he loves cannot be removed. He cannot make Ash the same as him. He cannot force Ash to think or see in the same way that he does, and it's tragic... at least for him.
As I was recalling this particular scene, I tried numbering the times where I played Jonas with someone else—where I tried to get someone who I knew saw things differently to see things from my perspective. Even when it was a conversation to someone extremely close to me whom I loved deeply and unconditionally, there were still moments I tried changing them. And when the couldn't see the apple, the bike, or the hair the same way I did, I ended up walking away feeling hurt, disappointed, dejected, and inadequate.
...Being different can be hard...
Ask anyone who falls into the category of "minority" and they'll tell you just what it's like. Even more difficult is the process of becoming different, of venturing into unfamiliar territory, especially when it has the propensity for isolating one from those to whom they were previously similar. Yet this is a reality of life, so it seems. Life is about progress, growth, and transformation... at least for most of us.
Certain differences are irrefutable and unchangeable, such as gender, race, and even sexuality. These are often differences we cannot fully comprehend, no matter how hard we try. The experience of being white is different from being black, yellow, red, or brown. As much as I may want to understand the experience of being someone who is of a different race or gender, there are certain limits which cannot be breached. Most of the time, I accept this with a level of ease.
When it comes to differences of thought between me and someone else, accepting the absence of sameness can be more difficult. I almost always want to try to understand the perspective of the other, and even more importantly, I want them to understand (and, ideally, agree with) my own stance. I want them to share my beliefs.
I want them to be the "same" as me
And when I cannot make this happen, I usually experience some level of despair.
This can happen with matters of faith, politics, interpretation of Scripture, interpersonal relationships, and many other arenas of life. Someone sees the apple in a different way than I do, and I don't like it. In fact, I almost feel that certain differences prohibit a relationship with someone from existing altogether. While this might at times be true, and even healthy, I do not believe it should be our go-to perception. I think relationships can take place within the context of difference. Correction: I think relationships can thrive within the context of difference.
We often hear the phrase, "Wouldn't life be boring if everyone was the same?" Yet how often do we see this platitude practiced in everyday life? How often do we see relationships among those whose lives and beliefs are irrefutably dissimilar? My hope, for myself and the world, is that one day, we will see this world of difference in a new way. We will see new value and worth in dissimilarity. We will understand that not converting someone else to our way of living or thinking is alright, and it diminishes neither their inherent worth nor our own. We will no longer understand reconciliation as coercing someone else into "seeing things our way," but instead view it as a desire for and a decision to be in relationship with the other.
Relationship does not mean sameness
Relationship means love in the midst of difference