For the past 17 years, I have been a theologian. It's more than just a calling. It's also my profession. Early in my career, a well meaning parishioner told me one Sunday, "Now, don't you go off and let that seminary change you." I understand what he was saying, and I respect the fact that he was afraid that seminary would make me unapproachable and less the people's pastor. Well, seminary did change me, but not in the way that he feared.
Before seminary, though, my background was in the sciences. I know, it's still kind of funny to me, too. I hold an Associate of Science and a Bachelor of Biology. Most of the time those two parts of me live rather independently of each other. My focus for my undergrad work was primarily fisheries biology. Instead of sticking around one more semester to take the one final class I needed for a fisheries degree, I opted for an elective and finished with a degree in biology. I was one class away from a degree in fisheries, but I needed to get on to seminary because I was already the old man in class.
In fisheries systems, the Riparian Zone is the margin where land meets water. It's basically where two worlds collide. It's also an ecosystem all to itself. There are animals who thrive in the Riparian Zone because they require elements from both worlds to survive. They may breed in the water, spend their early life as aquatic animals, but then move onto land as adults. There are species of plants that grow only in the Riparian Zone. There are insects that you may only encounter along the margin between land and water.
Why is this important? Well, to most folks it's probably not, and if you're still reading this you're either really bored or curious as to how it will all tie together.
As a theologian, with a science background, I understand the reality that not everyone lives in the same world, even though we inhabit the same planet, country, state, or community. In the space where more than one world collides, things can tend to get complicated...and sometimes, ugly. People living, sometimes, within a few miles of each other can experience the world around them in totally different ways simply because of the environment in which they exist.
I saw this yesterday.
A friend of mine called me out on something I said yesterday on Facebook. It happens a lot, actually. It doesn't mean that I have any hard feelings toward anyone who does it. It simply means that we don't necessarily agree on whatever the topic is. And...that's ok. How boring would this world be if everyone agreed on everything?
Basically, I was accused of race baiting, was told that as a community leader this was inappropriate, and that my comment and the hashtag #stopthehate both bred division at a time when I should be calling for unity. I respect that opinion. I don't agree with it, but I respect it. Here's why...
It was a call to unity.
In my 45 years I have never seen racial tensions as high as they are now. I missed the Civil Rights movement of the 50's and 60's by just a few years. Today, people are afraid, and some maybe rightly so. But racial tensions are not the only tensions that exist now. There is fear and religious tension between Christians and Muslims. There are tensions between straights and gays. My own denomination is struggling with that right now. Forget the fact that it's an election year with all of the political tension that's been added to the mix.
But I'm a theologian...a pastor...and a community leader. So, what am I to do?
If I follow the example of Christ, I'm to spend more time in the proverbial Riparian Zone than in my comfort zone. I feel that I'm to stand up for those living in the margins. I feel that I'm to be a voice for those who feel as if no one is listening. I feel that it's my responsibility as a follower, to be an agent of change, and to call out those systems that keep people marginalized. If race is the issue, I feel that it's my obligation as a leader in the church to use my position to bring equality. Whether we want to admit it or not, white privilege exists. What I can't do is ignore the voices from those on the outside.
Unfortunately, sometimes that's not a very popular stand.
See, a lot of folks have an image of Jesus as this passive guru who never raised his hand to anyone and only talked about grace. He talked about grace...a lot...but societal injustices evidently infuriated him. He died for people on the margins. Everything he did pointed to the fact that as long as there were injustices, and there were, God's kingdom had not yet come.
Well, the truth is...there still are.
So, though I've never considered myself an apologist for my faith, in that I've never really felt the need to defend my faith, today I am. I think very carefully about the words that I use because I know the weight they might carry simply because of who I am. But...at my ordination as an Elder in Full Connection in the UMC, a red stole was placed on my shoulders, representing the mantle of Christ. That's something I take very seriously.
Until something as divisive as a #stopthehate hashtage is no longer needed...
Until those who feel their voices don't matter are heard...
Until violence no longer begets violence...
Until people feel safe in their own neighborhoods...
Until there is no longer an "us" and "them"...
Until the day when the human race can finally come together as one...I will continue to use my calling and my position to stand up for those on the margins.
A quote from the late Father Dan Berrigan has haunted me from the moment I first heard it:
"If you're going to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood."