My fellow Covenant author Esau McCaulley recently remarked: “If your church (or institution) cannot find a qualified black person who fits your culture, maybe the problem is your culture.”
I had to chuckle when, a few days later, I heard someone else say of an organization he was part of, “It’s hard to find women who would be a good fit.”
My reflections on the inconvenient fit continued soon afterward when I read (another Covenant author) Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship, which makes a bid for Christians to expand our repertoire of prized, intimate relationships beyond marital love by shoring up our vision of friendship. The primary audience is gay Christians who believe God is calling them to celibacy and are seeking to obey that call, but Hill clearly hopes other Christians are eavesdropping attentively. Celibate Christians are much more likely to thrive in church and find deep, committed Christian friendships if they are in a community that makes a point of celebrating such friendships.
Let us not overlook how generous the gift is that is given to traditional Christians in this book. What we are hearing is the voice of someone for whom adhering to traditional Christian teachings is uniquely burdensome, and who has nonetheless chosen to stay, rather than identify with a tribe that would present him with the path of least resistance. Make no mistake: the primary loyalty Spiritual Friendship expresses is to Jesus, not to us who accept traditional Christian teaching on sexuality.
And yet it is Christians who witness to these teachings, and who respond together to God’s call. Hill’s commitment to his fellow Christians is an important aspect of the gift his book gives. But look at the reciprocal dynamic that results: not only does he accept the difficulties of remaining part of the community, but he takes seriously his belonging by calling the Church to make good on its commitment to him. This isn’t convenient for me, he says in effect, and I’m part of you. Don’t count on it being entirely convenient for you, either.
How sad it is when, to the contrary, fellow Christians do not lighten but add to the burdens some bear. Indeed, we believe some burdens come as callings — even gifts — from God, but what a shame if we use this reasoning to exonerate ourselves from being troubled by another’s difficulties, or to avoid taking someone seriously who speaks up from the corner of the room to let us know that the “one size” we’ve been working with doesn’t actually “fit all,” not even all who are relentlessly seeking Christ.
Even worse if we extrapolate from a burden fellow Christians bear to justify foisting further burdens on them. “So-and-so isn’t marrying. That’s odd; that must mean he shouldn’t be treated as a real part of our family-oriented community.” Or “Women are the only child-bearers; that means they can also be made to do [x] and kept from doing [y or z].” It’s not far from saying, “He can’t run; it must mean he just isn’t meant to walk or sing either.”
When a certain burden must be borne by some more than others, do we suddenly adopt the pirate’s code that Those who fall behind are left behind? Or do we invent assistive devices for them? Perhaps carry them? Or even adjust the whole group’s pace of walking, to “wait for one another”?
Conservative Episcopalians know a thing or two about being loyal misfits. A lot is said about how important it is to stay, despite the strain. And a lot of appeals are made to the progressive national majority to “wait for us,” “listen to us,” and “save space for us.” This commitment is seen not only as the right thing to do, but as a gift to the majority. If a dissenting group is heard, the logic says, the Church is more likely to be truly catholic, to avoid capitulating to trends, and to be more than a niche community for those who happen to be suited to it by disposition.
The same holds within traditional Christian communities. If traditional Christianity continues to fall out of favor, the temptation will be great (especially in more conservative denominations) to envision only a few forms of the Christian life. After all, for the needs of those whose circumstances deviate in the slightest, there are bound to be a hundred other suppliers and less demanding lords. But Jesus doesn’t just call those who fit in easily with dominant Church culture. And if we truly believe this, then we must listen closely to the experiences of minorities of all kinds, so we can develop a more sensitive ear for the difference between holiness and streamlined efficiency.
How generous is the sore thumb that cries out, because it shows us where the body is suffering, and where it may even fail to recognize fully all its members. It gives us an opportunity to learn to bear each other’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ.