Sunday, January 06, 2008

Guilt By Association (ADDENDUM)

Enough of politics. Even I get tired of it after a while. Especially as we are now spinning wheels until after Tuesday.

Today, preaching her sermon series, my wife preached from a text in Luke 5, in which Levi was called as a disciple, and held a banquet in his honor, people by "tax collectors and sinners".

I think a word in the Pharisees defense is warranted here. Part of the reason for their dogmatic insistence on ritual cleanliness was as a political protest against the centuries-long occupation of Judea and Galilee by first Greek then Roman conquerors, and the co-opting of local leaders by the latter. The Jews saw themselves as a people set apart, not from their own merits, but by their God. Part of their distinctiveness was in the demanding rigor of their social habits of ritual cleanliness. How better to refuse the co-option by a world power than to continue to practice local habits of distinction? We see the same thing today, as small, indigenous cultures play up their differences with hegemonic powers. Jesus' refusal to recognize these marks of distinction, including having suborned individuals who played the occupiers game for profit, could just as easily be seen as a threat to the struggle against Roman tyranny as an openness to difference.

Be that as it may, Lisa used an example from her youth to open the sermon, but both she and I recalled another example, from our own life. When we announced our engagement, it was as much a surprise because we managed to keep our relationship relatively secret, in a time and place when having any kind of privacy verged on the impossible, as it was because of certain friendships I had. As one acquaintance of ours said when told, "I thought he was gay!" The few people I felt truly comfortable being friends with were the gay students - they were far more open, far more accepting, than most others. Because I was seen with them, spent time with them, it was automatically assumed I was gay.

We still laugh at that, for a variety of reasons.

I would love it if it were possible not to do such things. I would love it if we didn't make assumptions about people based on their associations. We do it, however, all the time. That Jesus suffered from this very human tendency should not surprise us.

Yet, the church of our contemporary scene should strive, as hard as it may be, to move beyond this very shallow human tendency. Lisa told of her repeated desire to spend time (gasp!) in local bars, not so much proselytizing as just hanging out, being seen. There are churches that have open doors for drug dealers and prostitutes, and offer services without any demand or requirement.

As Lisa and I were talking about this, I told her of my own thoughts. I picture Jesus on his way from Nazareth to Jerusalem, stopping at various towns along the way, sitting in the common rooms of inns, surrounded by locals and traveling merchants, caravan drivers and their hangers-on, including "comfort women", Roman soldiers and Persian emigres. I often picture him sitting and listening, not speaking unless directly addressed, taking in the talk, laughing at the jokes. I have always felt that Jesus was a people-person, enjoying human beings in the fullness of their humanity, for all its weakness and tendency towards dissipation and vice. By his very presence, he turned these moments from the mundane and vicious to something else entirely - something holy, something blessed, something beloved by God in and for itself.

I realize this is hardly "orthodox". Yet, I believe it was the case, anyway. I think that we as Christians could do far worse than to be known as people who associated with tax collectors and sinners.

ADDENDUM: I had a similar, though from the opposite side, encounter in the summer before I met Lisa. My two best friends cornered me one afternoon after work, and confronted me with the stark reality that I must be gay because I was so comfortable with them. I laughed at them, but it took some time to convince them that, while happy as a straight man, I was also quite comfortable with them being gay, without any fear for my heterosexual identity. My sexual identity was never threatened by theirs, and I never had the slightest fear of what might happen should either one of them express "interest" in me, because as far as the latter issue was concerned, I just wasn't their type, and I knew it.

It's indeed strange the things that happen in life.

Virtual Tin Cup

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