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Should churches be purple?
How important is political diversity in our churches and organizations? That’s a question that I recently pondered as we wondered about the political economy of our own church. Many pastors herald the idea of a “purple church.” One popular pastor praised the fact that his church had both members of ICE in it as well as undocumented immigrants (why he would tell the world, let alone ICE agents, about undocumented immigrants in his church is beyond me). Throughout the country, we see it as a virtue to set aside political differences in order to unite our bodies, our families, and our churches. It is a beautiful image, to set aside differences, for the sake of one another. I think we see this across race, ability, gender, class, and sexuality. But there is a much bigger difference between those embodied differences and political commitments and preferences.
I don’t have a choice when it comes to my brown skin, my friend Dani doesn’t have a choice when it comes to her disability, my friend Ra doesn’t have a choice when it comes to their gender. In fact, our bodies inform our politics and should inform the politics of our body. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. Our collective pain and our striving for redemption and wholeness are what inform our politics.
Inherently, especially in the political discourse right now, there is a contradiction in tolerating political differences and tolerating embodied differences. Why? Because our political differences sometimes remove dignity from our bodies. Sexual and racial minorities cry out for a politics that honors their dignity. But when we tolerate (as opposed to transforming) our political differences, we threaten the dignity of the most vulnerable in our congregations and organizations. To act like a person with brown skin and a person who hates a person with brown skin are merely on different sides of the political spectrum is racist. In fact, the folks that advocate for such a position haven't found a third way, they are siding with the person who hates brown folks.
That isn’t to say diversity of thought, even theological and political thought, can’t be a part of the dialogue. But it is essential that we have appropriate guardrails for that political discourse. Unfortunately, the issues that polarize us politically are not questions about tax rates, revenue streams, and ordinances. They are matters that are more existential than those things: they are about our bodies, our dignity, our humanity. When it comes to matters like antiracism, LGBTQIA dignity, there isn’t a third way, or a compromised position that does not burden the most vulnerable first. If we want unity in the body, we need to elevate those voices.
God’s will for us is not found in political difference or tension (especially modern political sensibility). Rather, we discern the Spirit, and especially listen to the marginalized, to learn how we might have a common mind, a common love, and yes, a common politics. We are moving together toward a common mission.
We don't have to come with all of our theology or politics sorted. Most of us have a lot of growing to do. So we accept everyone as they are, with the expectation that they will move with us in a common direction -- not that we will tolerate varying directions. Everyone is invited to the table, but the cost will be unique for all of us. We all have our own unique paths to grow on. As we follow Jesus, we all need to self-empty, we need to pursue peace, and believe in the redemption of everyone. But we are all on different paths in that journey. Our power and social positions affect our ability to follow Jesus. Jesus makes this plain.
In Mark 10, he tells the rich young ruler that he needs to sell all his possessions in order to follow him. He couldn’t do it, he wasn’t up for the task. And he walks away discouraged. Jesus says it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. The rich man is invited to follow, but he has a cost to pay. We all have those costs and we need to face them as we enter into discipleship with Jesus.
Jesus offers a parable that delivers a similar point. In Luke 14, Jesus tells the story of a certain man who hosts a party and invites a lot of guests. All the guests are too busy with their fields, their livestock, even their marriages! When they decline, the man hosting the banquet tells his servant to go and collect people from the streets and alleys, and bring in the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. He brings in people who are already self-emptied and available to receive what he is offering.
God meets us where we are at, but that place is different for all of us. As we journey together, it is paramount that we know that the cost of bringing someone along may bring additional suffering for someone else. But God calls us to protect the most vulnerable, and asks the strong to come alongside. The sacrifice then must be among those that the world sees as strong, capable, and powerful. That is the politics of the Gospel. It unites us in our collective humility and service to one another.
Jesus didn't come to bridge political divides or to love across the aisle. He chose the side of the oppressed and invited everyone to do the same. The Gospel is open to everyone--but you will be transformed by it to be an advocate for the oppressed. Jesus tells his disciples that what they do for the least of these siblings, in Matthew 25, they do for him. Jesus is found in the most fortunate, Jesus is among them. Jesus is oppressed and has come for them. If we don’t follow in his way, Jesus will say he never knew you.
The politics of Jesus, of the Gospel, are not varied and not discerned in political tension. We need to expect that true discipleship will transform our politics, just as it does our minds, our hearts, and our action. We are moving toward a new way of being and doing and that certainly has political implications. Political tolerance or indifference is the way of the world. We’re told to put politics aside, to not let it get in the way of family, friends, or worship. But Jesus expects us to disrupt those systems that keep us from him.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)
Discipleship will indeed cut us like a sword. It will challenge our loyalties. But as we demonstrate loyalty to the God of the Oppressed, we will be transformed into a people, into a church for the oppressed.