Playing It Too Safe
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
--Matthew 5:11-12 NRSV
Over the years I’ve received a steady stream of hate mail. Sometimes the hate mail comes from an anonymous church member slipping a critical note under my office door. Other times the hate mail arrives in my email inbox from a church member with an ax to grind about something I said (or usually that they think I said) in a sermon. My favorite hate mail is the kind that actually arrives in the mail, usually neatly typed from some “Christian” somewhere correcting my theology. Usually this latter type shows up when I have spoken publicly about justice issues, especially when I have spoken publicly as a faith leader about equal rights and inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.
I feel I must be doing something right if somebody gets mad, because I’m using my privilege to speak up for people being marginalized or oppressed, because that’s what Jesus did and look what happened to him.
I’m not talking about persecution in the way TV preachers and members of the Religious Right talk about it—as if a secular humanist world is out to destroy their faith. Instead I’m talking about the kind of hate mail that comes when somebody feels their status or beliefs are threatened when groups they condemn are treated like human beings. A lot of folks who call themselves Christian act as if God’s love is in limited supply; if God shows extravagant grace to somebody else that means less for them. Such folks have found their identities in condemning others rather than in receiving grace from God. If something I’ve said or done makes such people angry, then I feel like I’ve done my job as a minister.
Jesus demonstrated compassion (literally “suffering with”) humanity, and that kind of oneness threatens everyone who profits from keeping people divided from one another. This is why Jesus tells his followers to expect opposition and even persecution. People who believe their well-being depends upon other people’s oppression never respond kindly to having their zero-sum game called into question.
In his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Father Gregory Boyle tells the story of what happened when his church Dolores Mission in east Los Angeles declared itself a sanctuary church in the late 1980’s. They began providing shelter for undocumented people from Mexico and Central America, and as is the case any time a church truly helps oppressed people, the media showed up. So did opposition.
One day, Boyle showed up to find the words “Wetback Church” spray painted on the church building. He went to a previously scheduled meeting with women of the church, and he told them he would get it cleaned it up. One of the women named Petra who rarely spoke in meetings suddenly took charge.
“You will not clean that up. If there are people in our community who are disparaged and hated and left out because they are mejados (wetbacks), then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church.”
Boyle writes that Petra and the other women “didn’t just want to serve the less fortunate, they were anchored in some profound sense of oneness with them and became them.” He goes on to say that this type of compassion is what Jesus demonstrated. “The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.’
I think part of the reason churches are dying in America today and why we are less culturally relevant than ever is because we have played it safe for too long. Once upon a time, your status in your community depended in part upon what church you belonged to. Once church membership was as essential to fitting in to suburban life as belonging to a neighborhood association or a rotary club. Being a part of a church, meant fitting in and fitting in meant security. Yet, such security, safety and fitting in cannot be found when we read the Gospels. Younger generations searching for meaning and purpose no longer want what their parents wanted from a church, and maybe that is a good thing. Maybe our expectations of what a church should be were reflections of a white suburban mindset rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I think it is fair to ask if a church never faces any opposition or persecution on behalf of people who are marginalized and oppressed really a church? If a church really wishes to show compassion for other people the way Jesus did, then it will ultimately cost that church something. There is a difference between charity (where one person gives something they probably didn’t need anyway to someone of less power and means who needs that something desperately) and compassion which says we are one, we are in this together and what we each have we share with one another.
A church that operates with compassion like Jesus understands that in God’s eyes there is no difference between the person serving and the person being served. That kind of radical reframing of power, status and influence upsets people who depend upon such things to determine their own worth. They will not react with kindness but with outrage.
But here’s the beautiful truth that Jesus understood and what he gives to us if we will only receive it: the joy we receive from demonstrating compassion for others far surpasses any hate we receive for doing so. This is why Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you.”
A church that doesn’t receive hate mail is a church that has played it too safe. A church that has played it too safe has missed out on the joy Jesus has promised.
Grace and Peace,
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.