Harding University Queer Press Series: Typifying “Neighbor”

This post is the last in what has been a continuing series for the month of March that aimed to examine the American Church’s response to homosexuals in their midst, whether they be believers, agnostics, or atheists. This month’s series was spawned by the Harding University Queer Press publishing a zine on March 2 featuring the voices and stories of past and present LGBTQ students at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, my alma mater. The zine can be downloaded in its digital entirety at http://www.huqueerpress.com.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Proverbs 3:27-28, and it says, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’—when you now have it with you.”

That verse can often acquire a financial tone to the ears of an American reader, but if removed from such strictures there is a much broader net it can cast. The term “good” in the verse is such a nebulous word; it could very well be anything. The “good” thing to do in a situation actually may be withholding something from someone because that’s what is best for them in that specific moment. But this verse just gets trickier the deeper the reader goes because then he encounters the issue of determining how someone can be defined as “deserving good.” How do you measure that? But before getting too deep in the thick jungle of multiple meanings, the word “neighbor” grabs my attention.

While there’s no reason to think Jesus was purposely providing some sort of direct commentary to this proverb, Luke’s gospel contains a parable told by Jesus that centers specifically on the concept of defining what makes a neighbor. In chapter ten he’s asked by an expert in the law, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds indirectly by telling the story of the Good Samaritan—a man helping out a traveler who’s been robbed, beaten within an inch of his life, and just left on the road to die. We call the Samaritan “good” because he comes by and helps the bloodied traveler, gives him aid. Given Jesus’ blindness to culturally-placed differences and his knack for removing logs from eyes, it could be easy to think the traveler in the story is a Jew, but Jesus gives no indication this is the case. But what we do know is that Jesus’ audience is Jewish, and, as would have been customary, his mentioning of the word “Samaritan” would have caused the surrounding listeners to immediately start hissing, booing, and yelling. Sounds histrionic, but such were the times and honest emotions of that culture.

For Jesus to include in his story a Samaritan helping another man—whether the traveler is Jewish or not—is incredibly distasteful for the audience to even have to think about due to their abhorrence for Samaritans. In my mind our cultural equivalent would be a 1950s Mississippi audience listening to Jesus tell a story about how a black man helped a beaten, bruised, and robbed white traveler he passes in the street.

And Jesus never tells anyone what to think here; after telling the story he simply asks the expert in the law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” referring through that question to the first two guys who plainly saw the traveler lying in the street beaten, but just walked on. And the expert’s response is interesting because he doesn’t say something like, “Well, the guy who was nice to him,” or, “The one who helped,” but chooses to say, “The one who had mercy on him” (emphasis mine). Note that he doesn’t call him a Samaritan; perhaps he’s hesitant to actually name him into existence and, thus, admit a Samaritan could be doing something right, words that would burn like acid for a Jew. But the guy unknowingly strikes the most resonant chord when he says “mercy,” or maybe Jesus structured his story to where the only option for an apt word to describe the Samaritan’s actions was “mercy,” because then Christ has the opportunity to simply look at the expert in the law and say, “Go and do likewise,” and he does say just that. In other words, “Go, you lover of the law, rigidity, legalism, and the removal of grace—you go and be merciful just like this character in the story you can’t stand to think could possibly do something right.” And this is all in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Who is your neighbor? He can be the guy you don’t like. He can be the guy you’re prejudiced against. He can be the guy who’s different from you to the point you don’t think you could ever find common ground upon which to relate to one another. Your neighbor can be the very person you would probably like to avoid. Your neighbor could also be the very person who saves your life one day.

Jesus’ story is just a parable, but let’s assume for a moment it really happened. That traveler is most likely prejudiced against Samaritans because of the culture he occupies, but from now on he is going to think of them differently. It may not happen overnight. It could very well take a while, decades even. But when an engrained impulse of his arises to fume inwardly (or outwardly) at a Samaritan because he usually writes them all off as detestable, he’s going to have moments of, “Yes, but . . .” because there was that one Samaritan who changed his perspective. Someone proved him wrong and removed his grounds for following black-and-white thinking.

But this is not to say the Church is to wait for the gays and lesbians to prove us wrong. It is our job to be that Good Samaritan and show people 1) they are our neighbor, even if our past actions have dictated otherwise; 2) they deserve good because they are a human being—a child of God—and we carry with us the ability to be good to them; and 3) they will experience that love right now because we have it with us at this very moment.

The Samaritan saw the traveler and “took pity on him.” Does the Church do the same? Actually, forget the broad institution-inclusive questions. Bring it to the individualistic level because that is where grass-roots change begins: does the plight of the homosexual living in America cause your heart and my heart to break? Or do we consistently believe we are somehow justified in our treatment of them and don’t need to change a thing? Or do we believe we’re not actually to blame? Maybe we don’t actively express some form of hatred towards homosexuals, but when we don’t do our part to counteract the cruelty others do exact, we’re actually compounding the problem. And in reality, at that point we’re no different than the two people who passed by the traveler before the Samaritan came around, which is ultimately worse. Joseph Fletcher said it better than I can:

Indeed, in any careful analysis it must be made quite clear that actually the true opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Hate, bad as it is, at least treats the neighbor as a thou, whereas indifference turns the neighbor into an it, a thing. This is why we may say that there is actually one thing worse than evil itself, and that is indifference to evil.

Are we attacking anybody physically? Perhaps not. But there is turmoil present in gays’ lives when the Church gets involved, and it exists because love is withheld to the point people simply don’t care, leaving behind destruction only agape can repair. Every individual has been imbued with the ability, by God, to love the person next to him or her. Does that make it easy? Not at all. But we are fully capable of showing love to those who need it. Love is more basic a need than food, despite what Maslow may say. “Well, these gays have life pretty good. They’re taken care of.” Not when they’re being ostracized they’re not.

And facts and figures don’t move hearts; personal stories do. That’s why HUQP’s zine contains power. It’s why Jesus told parables. And this parable in Luke wasn’t even necessarily groundbreaking in its ideas; rather, the message within it had been around long before Jesus’ ministry. We can trace it back to long before Christ when the notion and reminder was presented with, “He has shown you, O Man, what is good.” And He has. But we forget.

We forget what’s important. Many of us act as if our walk with God is somehow dependent on this issue of homosexuality—a hindrance and a barrier to overcome before any sort of commencement in our pursuit of Christ can occur. But that simply is not true. The base fact of the matter is that for those of us who are not gay the debate over homosexuality does not play into whether or not we can believe in God. This is not a deal breaker to our faith. It is not something we must figure out first and then think about the rest of what God requires because again, “He has shown you, O Man, what is good. And what does the Lord want? For you to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (emphasis mine). And if we can’t do that, I wonder if the statement awaiting us is, “Depart from me for I never knew you.”

Some may believe that I just took those two verses out of context by putting them together, but I’m not so sure I did. They both contain a “big picture” mentality to them and a sort of totality as well. So really, this isn’t just about how you treat the gays and lesbians around you. It envelopes every aspect of our lives, which is something we need to be convinced of from time to time.

See, many of us are very adept at loving people who are likeable or similar to ourselves, but this does not impress God at all. If anything, Christ views such a thing with a bit of a blasé shrug. If you love your straight neighbor and enjoy their company, but turn up your nose at your gay co-worker, how is your love for your heterosexual neighbor to your credit? If anything, it just glaringly highlights your hypocrisy. If the homosexual community makes you bristle to the point that you hate them, the problem, my friend, is not with them; it’s with you, and nobody is going to change that facet of your character for you. You possess the ability to love and to be compassionate, but you have to actually do it. You can tell people you’re compassionate, but words are fragile and lukewarm. You have to actually believe God loves that gay individual just as much as he loves your sorry ass. And until you convince yourself of that fact—truly believing it by showing it through your actions—you only make the present problem of today’s Church worse and worse as the days continue.

We are better than that, or at least we have the potential to be better than that. It takes humility, it takes selflessness, it takes a willingness to admit wrongs to the faces of those who have been wronged, and it takes an honest desire to see the kingdom of God—as exhibited through Jesus’ lifestyle—actually brought about in this place. Unfortunately those are all qualities and goals the Church hardly possesses, embraces, and pursues anymore.

That’s probably because we like rules and structure and hard-and-fasts more than fluid concepts since the latter might actually require us to really reexamine our hearts. And that is something worth sympathizing with—we all know it’s not enjoyable to change long-held traditional facets of our character. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. When we sacrifice love for the sake of making sure our comfort zones are not shattered, we open ourselves to the possibility and high likelihood of being used as tools for destruction rather than resurrection. And if we truly value the incarnation and everything it entails, we’ll begin to see how our lives are supposed to mirror its qualities. And so if we’re immersed in living out incarnational lives, it means we desire to bring about resurrection. But, as Wendell Berry puts it, you can’t participate in resurrection until you die first, which is a truth in personal terms as well as in the relational realm because you can’t extend resurrection to someone else until your prejudices, hate, and legalism also die. Only then can you see people with the eyes of Christ, and only then can people see Christ in you.

A Christian can roll up to church in his swanky SUV, fancy-thread suit, and hold that big, thick, black study Bible on his thigh and soak in the religiosity, but nobody cares until he actually does something that resembles Christ. And if God is love, then what is holding us back? Because as much as we proclaim our love for God, it amounts to nothing if we put down the homosexual (or anyone for that matter) because at that point we are no longer loving people. And keep in mind, too, how this gay or lesbian being vilified was fashioned by the same hands and mind of the loving Creator, a benevolent Father who gives breath and the gift of life to all. This is why we say the maltreatment of humans is a simultaneous slap to the face of God, for it is a ridiculing of his creation. At this point, the counterargument of, “But God didn’t make that person gay!” need not be spoken; instead, here’s what’s troubling about that counterargument: it presupposes we have permission to mistreat people when they do something we don’t like. Or a frightening step further: it implies we have authorization to go after people when they do something God doesn’t approve of, which means we’ve just conscripted ourselves into being God’s soldiers for militant righteousness. And when we reach such a low point, we desperately need someone to come along and slaughter the high horse upon which we ride. But don’t worry; maybe someone will grab a hold of the log in our eye to catch us from hitting the ground too hard on our descent from that nefarious stallion we’ve been riding for decades.

Watching people say they live for the mission of Christ and then live anything but missional lives makes me livid. It infuriates me because it leaves the rest of the Church—those of us who are actually intent on living a Christ-centered life—with a horrendous mess to clean up and/or wade through in order to show love to people who will no longer give us a chance. It is the epitome of civil war and disunity within the bride of Christ. But those moments of frustration are when it’s important to stop, take a breath, and remind myself I am one person and can simply do what I can, and that’s good enough.

That often comes back to writing, and if you don’t like what I’ve written here, that’s fine. I’m not asking you to like it. But I am grateful so many of you have taken the time to read my rambling thoughts bereft of brevities during these last four weeks. Many of you have had very kind things to say and have offered many thoughtful, respectful insights of your own, which has enriched my own life. Only a few individuals have said something nasty. To the former I am beyond grateful; to the latter I can only offer a prayer that something softens your heart one day. For those of you who have shown me kindness, graciousness, and encouragement—thank you. I can not even begin to express in words how utterly humbling and revitalizing that has been.

From that conclusion-type writing (and from the italicized first paragraph) you may have gathered this is the last post I’m writing on this subject for probably a long time. I am weary emotionally and am mentally spent from trying to handle everything that’s been going on this past month. It’s time to move on to writing other things, which is fine and needed. I suppose this means the days of one hundred hits on this blog will pass, but what will be, will be. Your readership is always appreciated.

I am actually on Harding University’s campus right now as I post this. I’m here with my much more intelligent former roommates who are now in medical school and enjoying their spring break, and I am simply riding on the wings of their respite for a road trip.

It’s been good to be here—to reconnect, to revisit. Even with all my criticisms of Harding I’ve expressed over the years, I can confidently say I love this place. Does she have her problems? Sure, as do I. But the things I’ve garnered here changed my life, and I am the better for it. Almost always that comes back to the people; the number of professors and friends who have greatly altered my life are too numerous to count. Some of them are gay, some of them are straight, and the extent of their impact on my life has absolutely nothing to do with their sexual orientation. It has everything to do with the fact they’re remarkable men and women dedicated to stanchions of hope, pillars of love, tenants of compassion—things of good repute.

The subject of this post is a good ending point: love, mercy, sacrifice—these are the noble attributes of life. Social justice, equality, and civil rights are well and good, but too often errant passion distorts them. Mercy keeps them in check. Have mercy and love and sacrifice surrounded the campus of Harding University in the past month? I wonder. I fear it may not be so. But I ardently pray such things envelope this place nonetheless.

There is always room for love and mercy to enter in to any aspect of life because, after all, this is not utopia in which we find ourselves living. Do what you can, knowing that what you can do is sacrifice yourself for others, rather than sacrificing them for your own twisted pleasure. The latter reeks of hell, while the former smacks of what it means to be a neighbor who gives people a glimpse of heaven. For such is the kingdom of God and the passion of his Son.

Much love.

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