One of the hardest things about being in a place for only a year is that you don’t always get opportunities to share the interesting parts of your life that got you to a place like St. Paul. I’ve been reminded of one of those times recently as the 2016 presidential race is getting under way with all the candidates being asked about the Iraq War and the Supreme Court getting to rule on multiple important decisions. The divisive political speech that has sickened the imagination of American churches has amped up once more.
In 2006, in my senior year of high school, I spent a year working as a congressional intern for a moderate Minnesota Republican, Rep. Jim Ramstad, who represented my district in the House of Representatives. For years, politics had been the center of my life, and was how I thought I was going to make an impact in the world. I spent that year, almost like a pastor, answering calls and writing letters to constituents, ranging from problems at the V.A., to a woman who called each Friday convinced that she had been abducted by aliens. It was a year that I thoroughly enjoyed, in some part because Rep. Ramstad was so welcoming and because, at the time, he was one of the last remaining moderates who worked regularly across the aisle, particularly on the two things he was passionate about: mental health and addiction.
It wasn’t long after that, during my time in college, that I found just how difficult it was to reconcile being both a Christian convinced in the importance of unity, and the divisiveness of so much of political speech in this country.
On Sunday, I found myself wondering throughout the Acts reading, and throughout our worship, about the picture we had in front of us: of a gathering of Jews, convinced of a variety of different life perspectives, including politics, being united in some way in the hearing about this Jesus. Their unity was not in their homogenous beliefs about how best religious views might affect political ones, or vice a versa, but by the work of the Holy Spirit and the good news about Jesus. And if the witness of the church in Acts is any example, they struggled through this reality for years to come: How do we live together as the body of Christ in unity and difference?
I’m not sure there is a simple answer to that question, other than to say it’s a gift of God, and a worthy struggle to endure together. Paul, Peter, and James certainly struggled through that in the early years, disputing such close-to-the-heart issues as circumcision and the relationship of Jews and Gentiles, and often disagreeing strongly. Yet, we continue to see, in the midst of disagreement, a constant working of the Holy Spirit to bring them back together in Acts.
Unfortunately, the wider church has participated in such deeply homogenizing practices: slavery, racism, gentrification, and segregation by race, education, income, and geography. Yet, as I have come through the doors here, I have been genuinely delighted by the diversity and hospitality that I have found at St. Paul: socioeconomic diversity from numerous different towns in the area, hospitality towards those with developmental and physical disabilities, reconciliation with those who identify as LGBT, the warmth towards our children in worship, and our continuing care for inter-faith families. Yet, as political creatures trying to pursue a common good and human flourishing, we struggle like most other churches do: with how to live with significant differences in politics, in theology, and about how to best make sense of living out our faith in the world.
It is easy, and we are culturally (and maybe even biologically) disposed, to assume the worst about those who disagree with us, it is much more difficult to assume them as a sister or brother in the faith, The challenge ahead for all of us, myself included as someone who always assumes my correctness, is to make space for a new sort of intimacy and diversity in community.
As one of my mentors once said to me, one of the challenges of being a Christian in this era is to build communities with people that have learned how to live in the grey space of being wrong. To profess the things we believe to be true, and also to live in the possibility that we might be wrong.
And that space of difference, that in-between, that pause if you will, of the possibility of being wrong, is a gift of the Holy Spirit that creates something new between us: communion and community.