A friend of mine, Matt, helped me to realize this today when he wrote in his blog about why he does not, shall we say, see religion in the same way I do. Check him out at www.themindofmatt.com. We agreed, however, that we can respectfully agree to disagree, and remain friends, indeed are even more respectful as a result.
We live in a time, of which we are reminded every 9/11, indeed every day, of extremely dysfunctional political, philosophical, and theological relationships. The red states (counties, cities) are getting redder, and the blue states are getting bluer, and I think that makes all of us both red and blue in our own way. The culture wars ratchet up, and only seem to be getting more intractable day by day and year by year. Congress deadlocks, court decisions are discounted as "activist," families are torn apart, and friendships seem impossible to form with those who don't believe exactly as we do.
It hasn't always been this way, and it doesn't have to be this way.
Here is the epiphany: 1. Ideas (religious, political, or otherwise) become dangerous when we have to force them on others to validate them for ourselves; 2. If my beliefs do not depend on your believing them in order to gain their validity, and vice-versa, we can respect each others' independence of thought.
Let's play with this a bit. Suppose you are a Bible-believing Christian who does not allow for homosexuality as a variation of human sexuality because the Bible disapproves of it in at least seven passages (more, according to our friends at the Westboro Baptist Church). The Bible clearly states that a man who lies with a man as with a woman commits to'evah, an abomination, and the blood of the both shall be upon them; they shall both be put to death.
Short of actually working to carry out that rather horrific scene, what is wrong with believing this? As it turns out, plenty, if this belief is, as it often is, forced on others. Because this belief has had countless political consequences as a result of being "forced on" those who do not believe in this way. Parents have disowned their children, or rejected them, students have beaten and sexually abused other students, school districts, the military, churches, and other institutions have imposed a strangling code silence, and states have prevented marriage, all in the name of upholding the beliefs of some.
What would it look like to be truly "neutral" with regard to these beliefs?
It would look neutral if, and only if, I say to you that I believe this, but I am not going to impose this belief on you through curtailing your civil rights, insulting your personhood, tearing apart your families, firing you from your jobs, and preventing you from voicing your views. Why? Because you let me do the same as I let you: speak the truth as you see it.
Many things in the Bible are to'evah, not least of which is what comes almost immediately before Leviticus 20:13, the verse quoted above about men lying with men as being an act punishable by death. The act of which I am thinking is quoted more often throughout the Bible than "a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman."
Here it is in Exodus (21:7): "Anyone who curses his father or mother shall be put to death." Again, in Leviticus (20:9), "If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head (NIV)." Again in Proverbs (20:20): "If a man curses his father or mother, his lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness."
Even Jesus finds this verse important enough to repeat verbatim in Matthew (15:4) and Mark (7:10): "For God [or Moses, in Mark] said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.'" Jesus says this!! Nice, good Jesus.
How many children have cursed their fathers or mothers for any number of reasons? And how many of those children have we put to death, or driven to death by saying that we must hate their sin of cursing their father or mother, while loving them as sinners?
How many preachers are advocating that children, or adult children, be put to death for this cursing? How many "ministries" exist to "cure" children of cursing their fathers or mothers?
How many children are thrown out in the street for cursing their fathers or their mothers? And how many schools impose strict policies on their students and staff never to curse their fathers or their mothers?
I imagine the number is pretty low.
I wouldn't hate you for believing that your children should be put to death for cursing you. I'd think it an awfully strange thing to think, and I would oppose your imposing that thought on your children in a way that would damage them. I'd probably even say it's a good thing my Mom or Dad didn't toss me off a bridge at numerous points during my growing up. And I'm sure your Mom and/or Dad, or Mom & Mom, or Dad & Dad, would say the same thing about you.
Why, I ask, must we force our views on others? Must we insist that if you do not believe as I do, that we should have nothing to discuss further? Must we insist that everyone throughout the world should live as we do, and should believe the same beliefs in the same way? Because there are indeed a large variety of beliefs, which, as long as they do not end up building walls of shame, walls of isolation, and literal walls around others, as long as they do not lead us to fly into towers or start wars, as long as they do not lead us to codify laws and policies to restrict others from expressing their own beliefs, as long as they do not lead us to think ourselves better people or more worthy of living than others, as long as they can be spoken in a way that do not start riots throughout the world, why not speak them?
I respect you, and you respect me, when we can agree to disagree on some things.
Building conversations on this basis, rather than on the basis of forcing each other to believe as we do, can build relationships, tear down walls, and save lives.
I cannot believe that my ideas are so weak that they must depend on your assent to them for validity, or vice-versa. I believe what I believe, from my experience, from what faith has been given me, from what my own human mind has been able to reason out, and there you have it: a thoughtful conclusion.
I can see many ways in which people would disagree with me, or see this stance as being naive or untenable.
For one, people do, out of both fear and a will to dominate, impose their beliefs on others in countless ways. Whether it be through weakness of character or joy in domination, people seem invariably to fight to be right. I myself like being right and being agreed with when it comes to something that I find important. But, for example, because my friend Matt does not believe that this bread and this wine is the body and blood of Christ, that does not prevent me from believing that the elements are the real presence of Jesus Christ, the son of God, the savior.
For another, particularly from a religious point of view, those who do not believe as we do transgress, indeed break the law, that we ourselves must live by in order to have the kind of life that we feel we must live. But, for example, are heterosexual marriages so inherently weak that they cannot tolerate people living in same-sex marriages? Are same-sex relationships so inherently desirable that they will entice those who would otherwise be out making babies to stay home and make whoopee instead? Are your children so weak of mind and character that they will glom on to every view expressed to them, and try out every possibility floated in their direction?
It seems to me asinine, not to mention disproven by experience, that people will try everything and become anything to which they are exposed. If this were the case, we'd have a nation of rapists, drug addicts, and especially murderers, given the amount of this activity that is shown on television, let alone video games. I worry about how certain song lyrics and video games that extol violence against women give young people the impression that it is OK to rape. But I also fear the stance that mentioning a fun weekend at Valley Fair with your gay boyfriend will have any impact on a whole class of children's sexual development.
This is not merely a plea for tolerance, but for allowing others to live the lives that are given them, and trusting that, given plenty of lessons in respecting others, they will carry out that respect themselves.