by: Kara Crawford
In the past few weeks, I’ve heard far too much about how hateful Christianity supposedly is. In fact, I’m glad that the Chick-Fil-A controversy is over, because I can’t handle much more accusations about the alleged hatred and exclusivity of the religion I identify with. However, when supposedly prominent figures in Christendom who often show up on the public radar are such individuals as Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, and now Dan Cathy, it inevitably spells trouble for our public image as a whole.
It’s not just about hating queer folks. Christians are accused of hating all sorts of people, from those who belong to other religions or atheists and agnostics to women to young people to Democrats to any other of a whole variety of identity markers. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and most likely the vast majority of Christians do not hold extremist positions that preach such hate.
Jesus himself taught that the greatest commandments were to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, and even if you don’t agree with the first half of it, you must admit that he was certainly on to something in insisting that we should love everyone. Not just those who look, act, sound, dress, live, believe, or think like us, but everybody. No exceptions.
I often find myself faced with the questions of what it means to love my neighbor within my own denomination – The United Methodist Church – as we are faced by the ongoing conflict over queer inclusion, with many people saying hurtful and harmful things about the queer community, supporting a continued status quo of exclusion.
In late April and early May, I had the distinct pleasure (if I dare call it that) of being at the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church. I was volunteering as a young adult legislative coordinator with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, which was working for a number of social justice concerns, including ensuring that marginalized voices were welcomed to the table in The UMC, both at and outside of General Conference.
The coalition had priorities around making The UMC a more inclusive and safer and more supportive place for those marginalized voices, including the queer community, immigrants, young people, labor unions, and women, and sought to encourage interreligious dialogue.
It was a really eye-opening experience for me on a number of levels. First and foremost, being part of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, I was brought to reflect a fair share on how we, as Christians, are called to love our neighbors. Of course, sometimes this is harder than it sounds. Our neighbors sometimes don’t agree with us. Our neighbors sometimes do things we don’t like. Our neighbors sometimes do us harm. So in these contexts, what does it mean to love our neighbors?
Three moments from my work with the coalition stand out as lessons in how I can better love my neighbors. The first came during the first week of General Conference while the legislative committees were meeting. After the committee I was monitoring let out, I was sitting in on the subcommittee discussing human sexuality. That meeting had the potential to be intense, but the subcommittee had spent time getting to know each other, telling their stories. Because of that, they had truly grown to love one another, and the conversation was more loving and less hateful. Loving your neighbor means listening.
My favorite “witness” which was done this year by a coalition partner was a flash mob to “You Can’t Stop the Beat”. I was able to be part of the flash mob, and it was a beautiful, celebratory, and welcoming experience. Though we were dancing to make a statement about UMC policies, we did it in a way that other people outside of our group could feel welcomed in and would want to be part of it. Loving your neighbor is inviting everyone, even those you don’t always like.
Finally, after the vote on the human sexuality kept language in the Book of Discipline which hurts and excludes many people, the Coalition went out to the floor of the General Conference and shared in communion. The invitation was open for anyone to join us who wanted to. In that act of communion, we found ourselves reconciled – to each other, to ourselves, and to God. Loving your neighbor means seeking reconciliation.
In the midst of the Chick-Fil-A controversy, I began thinking again about the commandment to love your neighbor. I read a particularly telling and heartbreaking article on the Huffington Post about queer individuals who work for Chick-Fil-A and their reflections from Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day and the treatment they received, most often unknowingly with regard to their sexual orientation, from both customers (largely “Christians”) and protesters alike. Both seemed to forget the possibility that they could be talking to a queer person, and said some incredibly disrespectful things and made blanket generalizations. They forgot to respect and show dignity. Loving your neighbor means respecting the dignity of all people.
As a Christian, I feel safe in saying that, sadly enough, there are times when secular society lives out the mandate to love your neighbor far more than Christians do, and this saddens me deeply. In spite of the potential of Christianity to be an incredibly inclusive and welcoming religion, a tool for great good, as well as listening, invitation, reconciliation, and respect for the dignity of all, we allow voices like Dan Cathy’s to shape public opinion of what is supposedly our belief system without truly criticizing it in a way which calls to question the sets of assumptions and biases we hold as true.
Making religion more inclusive means living up to its potential, but it starts with all of us. Whether religious or not, we must never fail to be the example, loving our neighbors, and never sitting back complacently and silently as someone like Dan Cathy shapes the public discourse around Christianity and questions of human sexuality and the like. We can certainly boycott, but we must also never fail to think critically and remember the vast potential of religion to carry out the commandment to love, rather than simply remembering one man’s decision to hate.
Kara Johansen Crawford is a graduate of DePaul University, with a BA in International Studies and Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. Kara has been actively involved in activism and community service for much of her life and is particularly passionate about labor justice, queer issues and engaging faith communities on social issues. Kara is currently serving as a Mission Intern with the United Methodist Church at the Centro Popular para América Latina de Comunicación, based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow Kara on Twitter @revolUMCionaria and on her blog.