by Rebecca Brothers | 18 May 2023 |
I want to tell you about a difference I continually have with friends.
As a former English major and history minor, I am tickled pink when authoritative sources tell me that an etymology or a regional custom or a commonly shared historical anecdote is more complex than I’d assumed. I love learning that my understanding is incomplete. I love getting to the bottom of things.
This means I get impatient when something doesn’t have a bottom to get to.
This doesn’t mean I like conspiracy theories; I just want the books I read, and the movies and shows I watch, to grapple with Big Issues that people face every day, like grief and guilt and intergenerational trauma. I want my media to have been created with intentionality and a broader awareness of cultural context and implications.
I have had many a conversation with friends who tell me, “Sometimes books and movies don’t have to have deeper meanings. Sometimes they can just be fun.”
I tell them, “But deeper meanings are fun!”
We haven’t resolved that particular quandary yet. I don’t think we ever will … and that’s okay.
This is the kind of difference I love. This is the kind of argument I love having with my friends. I love it when my friends bring up examples of implications I didn’t know my beliefs had. I’m so glad my friends aren’t exactly like me. If my friends weren’t any different from me, I would probably never have tried Vietnamese food or visited Melbourne or gone on the Flight Deck roller coaster at Great America four times in a row.
But let’s not pretend that differences in opinion over the best type of phở are the same as differences in opinion over who deserves civil rights. Let’s not pretend that we can “agree to disagree” over matters that impact others’ lives deeply. “Agreeing to disagree” isn’t always a morally superior approach to having difficult conversations. Arguing that “both sides” have both good and flawed points is not always the best approach. Sometimes one side is unequivocally harming the other, and that harm needs to be addressed.
One of my favorite people on Twitter is named Emily Joy. She’s a poet, a yoga teacher, and a speaker on the intersection of faith and sexuality. Awhile back, she wrote:
[I’ve been] thinking about the other day when I was being interviewed by someone who was coming from a more conservative theological viewpoint and they asked me what it would take for me to be in community with people I disagreed with theologically. And I said to them, Listen, I am constantly in community with people I disagree with theologically. In both directions. I’m close friends with atheists and I’m close friends with people who take the whole [redacted] Nicene creed extremely seriously.
Where I run into problems with people is when it gets to matters of human dignity and civil rights. My life is not a theological issue. My personhood is not a theological issue that exists to be agreed or disagreed with. I reject the premise of questions that start there. If your ‘theology’ says that I’m dirty and broken because of my sexuality and that my partner and I shouldn’t enjoy the same civil rights as you do and that ultimately who I am and love dooms [me to] burn alive forever in a literal fiery hell, well. I guess y’all can call that theology if you want. But to me that’s just bigotry, oppression, hatred, and sin, masquerading as theology to give it a veneer of legitimacy. And I don’t commune with that [redacted].
Anyway, me and every other queer Christian I know has gotten asked a million and one times why we can’t just get along with people that disagree with us by people who will never be affected by our disagreement and I’m uh *checks watch* tired.
This bears repeating:
If we’re in the habit of asking Group A why they can’t just get along with Group B—why Group A can’t just put their differences aside and be friends with Group B—maybe the problem is not with Group A. Maybe there are not “very fine people on both sides.” Maybe, as James Baldwin put it, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Maybe we should check and see what harm Group B is inflicting on Group A.
I don’t mean stuff like, “Group B built a house of worship in the same town as Group A” or “Group B wants the same civil rights that Group A has.”
I mean stuff like, “Group B systematically commits and encourages physical violence against Group A.”
Or, “Group A had astronomically high rates of suicide attempts, and Group B is super overt in not caring.”
Or, “Group B spreads untrue rumors about Group A that lead to marginalization, stereotyping, and discrimination.”
Or, “Group B refuses to acknowledge that Group A exists.”
It’s hard to be friends with someone who actively and unrepentantly commits harm against you and your community.
I’m not saying it can’t happen. I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen.
Radical love and justice
But when we do see it happen, let’s not turn that story into an excuse to badger others to forgive—much less befriend—those who have harmed them. That’s not a decision we get to make for other people. When we have benefited from systems and practices that victimize others, the burden should not be on those victims to forgive us our trespasses so we can have a clearer conscience as we maintain the status quo. The burden is on us privileged folks to build a better world where everyone is treated equitably.
Here’s my challenge to you: Embrace radical love and justice and equity. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Friends, let us be creative extremists. Let us be extremists for the extension of justice, the proliferation of empathy, and the unflagging fight to transform ourselves with a love that seeks to affirm and uphold, rather than condemn and change. Amen.
Rebecca Brothers is a Tennessee-based librarian who writes at the intersections of faith, gender, sexuality, politics, and weight. She has published pieces in Our Bible App, Earth & Altar, Cirque, How to Pack for Church Camp, Spectrum, and The Gadfly, and she is a regular contributor at the Sundial Writers’ Corner. In her spare time, she does carpentry work around her tiny farm and tries to keep her poultry out of trouble.