Not all that long ago, a friend of mine was telling me about growing up in a rough family situation. His father had committed suicide and his mother’s new fiancé was so abusive that Child Protective Services had to step in and remove him (and his kid sister) from the home. A local Southern Baptist Church became their refuge, their youth pastor’s family taking them in and adopting them. He was literally raised by his church family. But then he went on to remark that because he’s gay, he has an admittedly complex relationship with the church; he is only out to those he can trust, mostly out of fear of being unfairly shunned by the very church that rescued him all those years ago.
“Funny that our churches would be the very places that could both save us and condemn us,” I remarked when he shared his story. I so admired his willingness to stick with a church that could hold such hurtful views about who he is as a person. He seemed to understand, probably from his experience, that the church was more than that one issue, though.
My own story, though different, could resonate with his in a way. It wasn’t too many months ago that I learned that before my adoption, I was the product of a church scandal – a pastor who’d abused his power and come to regret it, a woman who’d buried the truth in just enough manipulative secrecy in a failed attempt to forgo her shame. In learning this, it was a struggle to determine what to make of “church,” if not also what to make of myself. Despite how dramatic it sounds, there were days I thought of myself as a church ‘bastard,’ born in literal sin, doomed to inherit and carry out the bad choices of my progenitors. And the church itself was complicit in that brokenness. On better days, I could see the redemption in adoption, the intense grace of giving an innocent child a shot at a better life, seemingly free of the past, and the metaphor of being a “child of God” was all the more important.
For too long, though, it was either one or the other.
Everywhere I look these days, people seem to be caught up in this fight between good v. evil, liberal v. conservative, Christian v. atheist, science v. religion, the list of false dichotomies goes on and on. If I had to wager a guess, I’d blame Augustine’s Manichean roots for the Western world’s obsession with dualism, but it doesn’t really matter who is at fault. For whatever reason, we’ve colored every issue as though it’s black-or-white without any nuance when in fact the world is very grey. Of course, I suppose it would be nice if the world were as simple as we sometimes like to pretend it is. It would certainly make decision-making (and sticking to the decisions we’ve made) a whole lot easier if there were always a right or a wrong answer (more so if that answer stayed true as time passed).
That said, I’m not intending to harp on some kind of moral relativism when I suggest everything is a little murkier than we wish to admit. I definitely think, after all, there are times when its important to speak truth to power or to stand firm in what you believe. And yet, I only hope to advocate that those of us who think, for example, that the church is pure evil might see the good in a place that would rescue a child from harm and those of us who think all the answers are in the Bible might temper those opinions with the reality that the Bible (i.e. its past interpreters) doesn’t exactly have a kind history to every person of every race or creed. To put that another way, we’ve got to learn to let go of those things we’re certain of, not for the sake of relativism but for the sake of humility. Maybe there’s a fine line between those two, humility and relativism, but it’s better we learn to walk that line than destroy one another (or ourselves) with constant, arrogant certitude.
In the same way that the church, for my friend, was a place of both salvation and condemnation, or – for me – was a place of both scandal and redemption, I suspect rather than being caught up in stories of ‘either/or,’ all of us are really caught up in the ‘both/and,’ having to carry around the worst and best of the decisions that made us who we are – regardless of the institution or background or issue at hand. To accept that our religious (if not all) institutions are going to be both their own worst enemies at times and their own redeemers at others has been to remind me what the metaphors of crucifixion and resurrection are supposed to mean in a way I might not have understood before. That is, we’re constantly battling that cyclical struggle, the “tension of the opposites,” and the way forward lies in that acceptance and in the recognition that we must hold those in tandem, at least for some time, before rushing to reject them outright in the polarized mantra our society so wants us to chant without critical thought or self-awareness. That is what my friend has done so far in remaining a part of a church he recognizes should be ashamed for its response to homosexuality, and it’s what I am trying to do as I contemplate my biological and adoptive origins and their relationship to the Church.