From time to time over the course of my 25 years of ordained ministry, I have occasionally had a parishioner who would say something like, “If you do this, I will leave the church” (or, conversely, “If you don’t do this, I will leave the church”). Fortunately, these moments have not come that often, but when they do come, they invariably leave me feeling sad.
Churches are, by their very nature, communities, and to be in community means that one does not always get one’s own way. The nature of community — whether a church or some other kind of community — means that there inevitably has to be some give and take. Sometimes, the community will do things that one can embrace joyfully. Sometimes, the community will disappoint. Sometimes one’s opinion or point of view will carry the day, and at other times, it will not. The art of being in community means being able to remain in that community even when things don’t go the way you think they should.
When people make remaining in the community contingent on the community doing or not doing what they want, they have come to a place where they have lost the art of being in community. They have made themselves the center, and having done so, they expect that the community will bend to their will. They have said that they are no longer interested in conversation — they are only interested in getting their way. They have made the issue in question more important than belonging. If large numbers of people within a community were to take such a stance, there soon would be no community left, at all.
In many ways, Americans — and perhaps others in the world, as well — seem to have lost these days the art of being in community. We tend to participate in our public life in zero-sum ways: either I get my way, or nothing. A community or society whose life is dominated by participants who adopt a zero-sum path is a community or society that will become increasingly unsustainable. People become unwilling to compromise, they become unwilling to be happy with getting some of what they want while others get some of what they want. People begin to see themselves and their like-minded friends as the enlightened center of their social universe, and all others whose opinions differ as somehow unenlightened outliers — who can quickly become people who, from the point of view of the self-defined center, no longer belong in that community or society at all.
The zero-sum, “my way or the highway” path is self-destructive, in the sense that pursuing it will almost inevitably lead someone to cut themselves off from a community, and it’s also destructive to the community itself, since that person’s departure diminishes the community. And when it comes to societies, which cannot be entirely left unless one changes countries, the frustration engendered by following that path can lead to violence.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (5:39b-42). At first glance, these verses may not seem to have anything to do with what I am talking about. If, however, we ask what principle lies behind this teaching of Jesus, it is the principle of generosity toward others. Jesus clearly says in these lines that when someone asks something of us, we should be willing to give them even more than they have asked. In the context of the temptation to take the zero-sum path, I think Jesus would point us toward this same principle, asking us to be exceedingly generous in terms of entertaining points of view that are different from our own. And, if the community decides to move in a direction that does not represent what we want, this same principle asks us to be equally generous in offering the community our continued support and participation.
In a time when we seem so tempted to walk away from each other, Jesus would have us walk toward and with each other. Jesus would ask us to be as generous with each other as we can. He certainly would not have us abandon a community if we don’t get our way.
There are, of course, moments when communities or societies do evil things that we certainly cannot support, and in these moments, if we cannot change that evil, then we must walk away. But for the most part, we are not confronted with evil. We are simply confronted with other points of view, different from our own. In these moments, Jesus calls us to continued relationship and on-going conversation. And living into that calling is not possible when we are determined to follow a zero-sum path.