Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Christopher Edmonston
“We grieve that we have segregated and broken our communities along worldly constructs of race, class, ideology, and belief.”
– The Sarasota Statement
America, and her churches, have historically been possessed by many idols. They are the usual suspects: racism, money, violence, and power. Different eras have made headway against them, but like all idols, they are hard to kill.
Today we face another idol, a closely related cousin to the usual suspects: the idol of discord.
We love to fight. We have all “teamed up” and while our various teams have theological and ethical merit, our teams encourage competition and conflict. Healthy conflict can breed renewal. Conflict unhinged leads to discord. Too often our disagreements have to deepening conflict. Our teams are becoming tribes (read: David Brooks’ The Retreat to Tribalism) and our tribes are increasingly dividing us into combatants.
It is Jesus who issues the definitive caution to discord run amok. In the Gospel of John, he prays of his church and people, “may they all be one.” In the beatitudes he preaches, “blessed are the peacemakers.” The first question to ask ourselves is about how we are investing our power and using our time. If we are not investing at least equal time and prayer in reaching out to those with whom we don’t usually agree as we have in defining our own tribal identities, then there is no chance for peace. No chance for peace means that any chance for oneness is lost.
I have enjoyed membership in at least five “repairers of the breach” groups within the PC(USA) with participants from multiple tribes who hold differing theological perspectives. I have also been part of leadership cohorts and addressed bipartisan groups of leaders with perspectives all over political spectrum. These groups are always challenging to hold together. There are always painful moments and hard conversations. But when we invested equal time to listening to other valid positions, even when they were hard to process, we discovered unexpected synergy and unlikely friendships.
If there is nothing else to be learned from Jesus in our age of discord, it is that Jesus remained engaged with those with whom he disagreed. He held his positions, but he continually went to dinner in their homes, listened to their shallow protests, and returned to relationship with his most strident opponents (for example John 3 and the Pharisee, Nicodemus).
Of course there is a very big caveat. Just like grace can be cheapened, peace can be cheapened. Injustice, suffering, and intolerance in all their forms must be opposed. The same Lord who calls us to peace also calls us to kingdom-building and directs our witness to justice. Peace where there are still peoples oppressed is no peace at all. Wherever the usual suspects of idolatry still live, they must be countered and confronted with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.
In the Sarasota Statement, the authors chose a perfect verb about our segregated and broken church communities: grieve. The authors show incredible wisdom in the selection of this verb as we, in the church, have allowed the worldly idols of race, class, ideology, and belief to divide us into obscurity. Does Jesus want cheap peace? I cannot believe so. But does he grieve when our efforts for discourse and collaboration break down? Does he grieve when we get the parties to the table only to see the parties leave after the meal to return to their owns tribes, freshly devoting their energies to the elimination of the other tribes with whom they disagree? I believe he does.
Difficult people and deep disagreements will always exist. There are righteous fights to win. But if the manner in which we disagree is not worthy of the Lord who has called us to justice, then our efforts to declare the reign of God and be peacemakers at the same time will bear no fruit.
It was Aisha Brooks-Lytle, the newly installed Executive Presbyter in Atlanta, who preached powerfully at the NEXT Church National Gathering in 2016 this call: “Jesus doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations, he starts them.”
Aisha is spot on. It is long, slow, difficult, honest conversation that our church needs. For when we are one in the Spirit, the usual-suspect idols begin to lose their power and dare not divide us or hurt us any more than they already have. There is power in oneness, a power that we have not often tapped these past 35 years. The end of the grief which the statement so elegantly defines begins when we invest more in discourse than we have in discord. Or at the least it can begin when we choose to invest equal amounts of energy in relationship building as we have in defining our tribes.
Christopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC, and a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team.