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Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box:
Opening Up to a Limitless Faith
by Anne Robertson


Who is on the Lord's Side?

Many of the world's atrocities have been committed with the perpetrators’ full conviction that God is on their side. While not every issue I mention is in league with atrocity, that’s a predictable end when certain personalities are combined with closed God-boxes.

Maybe we’re always a little more comfortable with certainty than with doubt, but it would have been helpful if Hitler had some doubts about racial supremacy, if the Inquisitors hadn’t been quite so sure what constituted heresy, if the Crusaders had left room for even a bit of fidelity in the "infidel." How might history have been different if we were a little less willing to believe that we had God completely figured out and God's will completely mastered? Yet we continue, on both the conservative and liberal ends of the spectrum, to equate our cause with God's and to proclaim the other side unfit for the Kingdom. In the end, we’re all diminished.

In this chapter I want to look at what I believe to be some dangerous roads that we currently travel, in the hopes that we can keep those roads from becoming a trail of tears. Again let me emphasize that I write these things as my public confession and repentance for living in such ways myself. In my teens and early twenties I was a staunch conservative and about as intolerant as they come, at least in religious matters. When the lessons of Scripture, mixed with the lessons of life, blew that box apart, I swung to the opposite extreme and could tolerate anything but intolerance, merely swapping the residents of Heaven and Hell like the changing sands in an hourglass. Neither position brought peace.

So I bring you here the view from both sides, not to create a new intolerance for anything but the middle ground, but rather to promote a new openness for the parts of truth that each side holds. God is, in some sense, on all sides. To paraphrase Psalm 139, "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I move to the right you are there; if I pitch my tent with the liberals, you are there. If I preach the evils of evolution on Darwin's grave or travel to the Red Sea to claim it never parted, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast."
We can’t trap God in a single ideology, social agenda, or political platform. Maybe if we could remember that, we wouldn't be so tempted to demonize the other side. Pro-choice people don't want to kill babies, and pro-lifers don't hate women. Democrats don't want to shirk responsibility and let the government do it for them, and Republicans do in fact have compassion for the poor. It's bad enough that we squabble and call people names like children, but do we have to drag God into the fray? Mixing God into our already volatile language only brings us the death of abortion doctors, the deeds of Timothy McVeigh, and war.

Church and State
Let's look at religion and politics for a minute. It’s not a given that Christians will vote with one mind on election day. It’s also not true that those Christians who voted differently than you did are necessarily misguided or have less faith. Good, solid Christian folks can be found behind every candidate and on both sides of every issue, and many of them have specifically made that choice in a spirit of prayer and a desire to do God's will.

Suppose we look at the Conservative/Liberal polarity in the Christian faith as simply the two pieces of the Great Commandment. The beauty of fundamentalism, at least for me, is its devotion. The Christian Right hasn’t forgotten the first part of the Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind." Faith, if it’s the sort of faith the Bible teaches, affects every single part of your life during every minute that you draw breath and beyond. All people of faith will not vote the same way, and some people's faith may dictate that they do not vote at all, but no one fully living out the first part of the Great Commandment can say that faith has no effect on their political stand. You might as well say that I will have faith all the time except Tuesdays and Thursdays after dinner.
The commandment says "all...all...all...all" and fundamentalism has that part exactly right. Jesus looked to his faith when paying taxes (Matt. 17:27), when confronted with a decision on capital punishment (John 8:1-11), and when deciding to engage in civil disobedience (Matt. 12:1-8). As with everything else, the problem isn’t so much bringing God into the issue at hand, as binding God to and even equating God with the particular side we’ve chosen to support. The problem is not having the box, but closing it.

For the view from the left, the beauty of liberalism is compassion. Their standard bears the picture of Jesus feeding the hungry, healing the sick, eating with sinners, rampaging through the temple in righteous indignation over the trampling of the poor. Liberalism is the advocate for the second part of the Great Commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself." The liberal camp reminds us that while issues of personal morality may grab our attention, there’s a social dimension to morality that can’t be ignored if we take our faith seriously. Just consider Jesus’ admonitions in Matthew 25:31-46 to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

Liberals remind us that budget decisions and trade agreements and health-care provisions are as much moral choices as abortion and marital fidelity, and that sin is often so much a part of the systems in which we live that individual moral choices are sometimes not even possible. Liberals remind us that the heart of Jesus' message often got through to society's outcasts before it reached the religious establishment.

I believe that we need both sets of voices for balance, and I believe that so strongly that it is how I vote. By ideology, I am a Democrat. But I want the White House and Congress to represent different parties. Each voice needs to be heard and each voice needs political clout. While I can't swallow the doctrine of original sin whole, enough of it rings true that I’m afraid to have no brakes on the train in the political arena. I just can’t let go and trust that sin won’t find its way into our political system. If one party controls both Congress and the White House, its own shortcomings will multiply, unchecked. Each side, I believe, needs the wisdom of the other. My solution to the 2000 election debacle in the US was to elect both Bush and Gore. Put two desks in the Oval Office, give them both veto power, and let Congress come up with bills that only both of them could sign. So we might only get one bill signed in four -- at least it would be a good one. We’ve got to come to grips with the fact that the people in the pews around us have voted in all sorts of ways, many of which we find offensive. But we can be sure of this: their voting habits haven’t expelled them from the Kingdom of God.

Humble Pie
Don’t think I’m saying it doesn't really matter how we vote or where we stand on issues. Once again, it’s the difference between having a box and closing the lid on it. We rightly make decisions about what does and doesn’t belong in our God-box. According to God's leading, we decide between right and wrong. What I call leaving the box open is simply asking for some humility as we make our decisions. That means that I recognize in my humanity that I may have right and wrong mixed up to some degree. So may others. We are all in this human project together, trying to find our way through with integrity.

When I was appointed to my first church in rural Florida, the issue of a woman in the pulpit was a big one and needed to be addressed. I set aside my first Sunday night there as a time when I would share my faith journey with the congregation and allow them to ask whatever questions they wanted of me. The sanctuary was packed. I suppose there must have been friendly faces, but what I saw were arms crossed over chests and very dour, determined looks.

So I began to tell my story. I shared my call to ministry at the age of fourteen and my own scriptural struggles with whether I, as a woman, belonged in a pastoral position. I told of all the other ways that I tried to fit into church life, doing everything from acting as Sunday School superintendent to serving as choir director to painting the walls.

"But in the end," I said, "God kept putting me back at the helm, blessing me when I did what pastors do. I may be completely wrong in assuming I should be here, but at least grant me that I am very sincerely wrong. I have prayed and struggled and wrestled with the will of God for my life, and in going into the pastoral ministry am simply doing what I believe God has called me to do. If you have determined that is wrong, please pray for me, but for now I am doing all I know to do."

I finished my piece and opened up for questions, holding my breath in the initial silence. A woman at the back stood up and said, "I think we should all sing 'Trust and Obey' because that's what Anne has done." I love that woman. I doubt that we have ever voted for the same candidate or have ever been on the same side of a social issue, but that didn’t keep the Spirit of God from living and working within both of us that night. The dam was broken with her words, people openly told me of changed minds, and I was able to minister in that congregation from that night forward.

We all came into that room knowing we were on different sides. We had made different decisions about what was right and what was wrong. But because we were each able to leave room for integrity of faith on the other side, we were able to worship and minister together under one roof. And that’s the point. Leave room for your own errors in judgment, and leave room for sincerity of faith in those who have decided differently; or as the saying goes, "Make your words sweet; you might have to eat them."

This is why diversity in a congregation is so important to our spiritual health. We can’t keep a diverse congregation under the same roof without humility, and it’s the challenges brought by that diversity that can give us the humility we need. We might start with diversity, but without humility, our differences will soon lead to fractions and splits. Those who don’t share the mind of the majority will leave to find a more comfortable place. Those who are left might think that it’s all worked out for the best--that the infidel has left and the faithful remain. But what’s happened, in fact, is that all sides have moved further from the Kingdom of God.

This Train is Bound for Glory
I haven’t heard that Heaven's neighborhoods are going to be segregated according to political and social ideology. So I figure that if I'm going to find Heaven at all heavenly, I’d better learn to like the diversity here. That doesn't mean I can't decide to reject certain positions. It simply means that I can't decide to reject the faith of the people who disagree.

For instance, at this stage in my faith, I take a very open stand on all the religious issues surrounding homosexuality. That hasn’t always been the case, and what I once defended (even in print) as "right," I now believe to be "wrong." In looking at the way my own faith has moved (and homosexuality is not the only issue on which I’ve done an about-face), I find the truth of Jesus' words that in judging others we only judge ourselves. I can say at this point that I think closing the lid to exclude the gifts of those of homosexual orientation is harmful. But I can’t say that those who do decide to close the lid aren’t Christian or have no faith, without saying that at the point in my life when I did the same I had no faith either. To judge their faith is to judge my own. And I know better. I know I had faith then just as I do now.

Faith is about our relationship with God, and like any relationship we can make good and bad decisions from within it. If a teenager goes out, gets drunk, and wrecks the car, I can look at that and say she made some bad choices. But it would be silly for me to determine from that action that she had no relationship with her parents or that her parents were unfit. For good or for ill, we’re free agents, and being in a good relationship doesn’t preclude our making bad choices. In the same way, we can’t say that people aren’t in relationship with God because they’ve made a choice we believe to be wrong. In my own case, knowing how my notions of "right" and "wrong" have shifted over time, I’d be condemning either my past or my future faith.

I’ve seen in my life that the citizens of both Heaven and Hell have never been able to unpack, because I keep moving them from one place to the other. Finally, I’ve seen how silly that is. If we can recognize that people of faith can hold positions we consider to be "wrong," I think we’re well poised to renew the church. When we make social, political, and moral agendas into marks that can unswervingly identify a Christian, I think we’ve lost our true center.

Copyright ©2004 Anne Robertson. Excerpt used with permission from Morehouse Publishing.

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