Tonight I attended the “Special Meeting: Human Rights Ordinance”, a public hearing for community commentary and input regarding a proposed “Ordinance of the Common Council of the City of Valparaiso, IN Prohibiting Certain Discriminatory Conduct Within the City“. I attended in support of the ordinance; but since my thought processes always take time to crystallize — darn that being an introvert — I only found the right words later, once I’d been home.
As someone who has devoted his life to serving Jesus professionally in the Church, I get nervous about the word “tolerance.” Not that it’s a bad word, or in any way that I think people using it don’t mean well — it’s just that I don’t think it’s a word that Jesus would use.
“Tolerance” to me always sounds like such a low bar — “I tolerate you breathing the air around me.” I tolerate your living — you get to exist next to me. I tolerate your presence — you’re permitted to be in the room with me, just don’t bother me. Tolerance sounds to me isolating, paternalistic, dismissive, pedantic.
And the real problem is, I can’t think of a time Jesus “tolerated” anyone. The Pharisees? Not so much — he engaged, he argued, he told them stories to turn their world inside out. Zacchaeus? Not so much — “I’m coming to your house for dinner.” That’s not tolerance, that’s entering the home of a real jerk of a man, entering the private sanctum of a known public crook. The woman about to be stoned? Not so much — he put himself in front of her: “Let the one without sin [spoiler alert: that’s him!] throw the first stone.” After doodling in the dirt for a bit he looked up and in apparent wonder asked, “So where’d they all go?”
Personally I’ve never seen Jesus “tolerate” anyone. Instead he had this distressing habit of sitting down to dinner. Touching lepers. Welcoming sinners. Calling tax collectors. Raising dead guys. Jesus engaged with people, who and where they are, especially if they were “off-limits” by the human-derived lines that we draw to divide people. He served them, and he served with them. And in that engagement he transformed lives, transformed the world, with his Good News.
That, for me, is the religious freedom I have received as a Christian, as an American, as a community leader. The freedom to engage, to build relationships, to come to know others’ lives and experiences and discover with them another facet of the fascinating, flummoxing, God I serve and love. In Christ I have been given the freedom to cross boundaries and love people the way Jesus did — which, after all, was his marching orders to me and to us.
For me, the ordinance we talked about tonight provides the opportunity to live out my faith — by joining my neighbors, serving my community, and partnering with God to transform the world. That’s why, as a Christian, as a faith leader, and a community leader, I stand in support of the ordinance — because my understanding of “religious freedom” is enhanced, not restricted, by allowing my sisters and brothers who are black and brown, women and children, gay and straight, to live as securely in my town as I do as a straight, white, tall, 40-something-year-old man.
Personally, I don’t think I have the right to speak for others’ experiences, not even for members of my own congregation that I serve. I don’t think I have the right to tell the gay, lesbian, and trans members of my congregation what they feel or have experienced. When they tell me they feel uneasy or unsafe in Valparaiso, I feel compelled to believe them. If they tell me this ordinance is needed for them to not feel afraid, I believe them. When they tell me this is one step toward showing them they’re just as important, just as beloved of God as I am, I believe them. This is engaging — hearing, entering, listening to others’ experience.
I dream of a day when we won’t need something like this ordinance. I dream of a day when all of us will follow Jesus alongside others who are not like us. I dream of a day where my children and the folks I serve with don’t have to be afraid of others, because they’ve come to know and appreciate those with different experiences. I dream of the day when not one of us is “tolerated,” but we are all engaged in real relationship, true fellowship, in the incredible beauty of the Body of Christ together. That’s the day I dream of.
But the truth is, we’re not there. Things like this ordinance are needed, and necessary, because we’re not there. This is needed now to create the kind of community we dream of, the kind of community our hearts are telling us they are longing to see.
But more than that, I need this. As a Christian, as a religious leader, as a community leader, as an American, I need this. I need to be reminded that I am not the end-all be-all of God’s creation, and that God is not somehow limited to loving only people who think like me or act like me or are made like me — scrawny, 6’3″, sloped shoulders, gray hair. I need for my own sense of who God is to be surrounded and reminded that he is a God of endless creativity who makes people endlessly different and loves them, endlessly and differently just as they are, who revels in the diversity we see in his Creation — why else would he have made things so varied? I need to be reminded and surrounded by who God loves, and in order to create the community who matches what I experience of God’s heart, I need things like this ordinance that will help us create what I think God dreams of and what I see God having done.
That’s why I stand in support of this kind of ordinance — because I, and we, need it as people of faith.