Politics of grace

Like many people who celebrate Christmas (or get a holiday for it regardless), I have just headed out of my usual climate to go see family for the time I get off of school.  Like many people, I knew that this trip would be a shift of more than just geography: going from the Boston area to south Georgia is a switch of weather, a switch of modes of transportation, a switch of accents, a switch of cuisine, and, of course, a switch of prevalent theology and social views.

Because of the nature of this shift that I perform with some frequency, I often resonate with the ideas of Rachel Held Evans, a Christian blogger and writer who straddles a conservative evangelical background and theologies of gender, sexuality, and biblical interpretation that might be called progressive.  She published a piece back in January that haunts me still, entitled “Grace for the privileged too?”, in which she explored the “learning curve” of the privileged who are good-hearted but fear the backlash for wading into contentious social issues armed only with their imperfect understanding and good intentions.  It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen plenty of times among family members and friends in the largely-privileged community from which I come.  My gut instinct is to follow Held Evans in this: show them grace, see the good intention, and firmly but lovingly explain.

To some extent, that is my inclination because I can all too easily remember being in that position.  Why am I now part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which “mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love”?  Because I had a friend from church who trusted me enough to be honest with me about their coming out process.  Was I immediately well-informed, fluent in the current (and, yes, often complex) jargon of LGBTQ(IIQA…) advocacy, and 100% explicitly supportive?  No.  I was confused and completely ignorant that anything like the Reconciling Ministries Network even existed, and it took me the better part of a year to work around to muttering, “I think maybe God doesn’t mind people being gay,” let alone protesting with a rainbow stole around my neck.

I learned the vocabulary of mental health advocacy the hard way: through standing and sitting and crying and fighting with friends and loved ones who experienced some form of mental health challenge, and then by having them guide me to seeing my own mental health needs.  I learned to speak in a well-informed manner on Islam and on the Middle East by beginning in the same way as the people who now make me cringe: I thought Arabic letters were pretty and had an ambition to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  My having better-formed ideas and words for such conversations now is the outcome of kind friends who hosted me in mosques (despite my knee-length skirt), held slow, long conversations with me in Arabic (despite my overly-formal, gender-and-plural incorrect grammar), and let me keep coming back after every stupid comment I made.  In short, I am as well-versed in various social topics as I am today through a long series of graces bestowed on me by friends, acquaintances, and loved ones that I had the luck or the honor or the blessing to meet.  What kind of recipient would I be not to extend the same courtesy, the same spiritual hospitality, to others?

Yet the one point that gave me pause in reading Held Evan’s post was the plethora of other posts that pop up in my Facebook newsfeed from my circle(s) of activist friends.  One representative of this trend is this post from Dianna E. Anderson, another theological blogger and writer acquainted with evangelical culture.  Anderson points out the limits of activist speech by so-called allies: those people outside the oppressed group who advocate for those inside it.  The white allies to racial minorities, the straight allies to sexual minorities, the cisgender allies to trans* folks, the Christian allies to religious minorities…and so on.  Anderson wrote, “If your goal is truly justice, stop inserting yourself into the leadership position”: listen, don’t always talk.  Speak with, if you have to speak, but not for.  Sit with the discomfort of discord rather than trying to beat it out with a spare blanket.

The juxtaposition of these two ideas leads me to a conundrum compounded/informed by discussions of the nature of forgiveness in a course I took this past year.  While my gut (and that seems to be my theology-making organ) still says GRACE!, my detached, liberal arts-trained mind wonders whether I am someone allowed to dispense it, or whether that too is acting in someone else’s stead.  In a (faintly fawning) book written on the aftermath of 2006 shooting in Amish country, community members immediately extended grace and forgiveness to the (deceased) perpetrator and his family on behalf of the victims, raising questions about vicarious forgiveness, its giving and receiving (Amish Grace 2010).

Perhaps forgiveness and grace differ– almost certainly they do– but the question remains for me.  I have never been seriously hurt, verbally or physically, because of perceptions of my sexual or gender identity.  Do I have the right, then, to extend grace to those who bumble into talking about the topic in ways that may be harmful?  On the question of Syria, the question hurts even more.  I remember ardent supporters of the Ba’ath regime (former and current), I remember middle-class families who benefited enormously from the unequal set-up of power, I know people even now who support Bashar al-Assad and I remember their kindnesses and their hospitality to me.  Though I still refuse to condemn them in my soul or aloud, do I have the right to extend them that grace, or am I stealing it from the millions affected, hurt, or killed in this ongoing conflict?

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