“You know, I still believe marriage is between one man and one woman,” the 80+ year old man I had been visiting fired at me as we walked toward the door. It was a challenge: how would I respond?
“Yes, I know,” I told him. “And I honor and respect that that’s your view. I’d be surprised if you felt any other way.”
And I would. He had earlier that evening commented that he wasn’t going to vote for Obama, despite being perfectly comfortable with the idea of an African-American president. I had laughed and said that if he voted for Obama, I would start looking over my shoulder for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, because we were surely in the End Times. Charlie would have no trouble voting for a black man -- but it’d be a cold day in hell before he voted for a Democrat. He had laughed along with me, and then told me another story of his service in World War II.
The parting shot was a test. He likes me, even though having known me for a year, he’s figured out that we don’t agree on much theologically, and even less politically. He appreciates that as his pastor, I’ve been a regular visitor as he’s struggled with several major upheavals in his life. He knows I pray for him, and he likes that I laugh at his jokes, even when they’re slightly off color. But he needed to know, could he trust me? Would I turn hostile and angry, and demand he conform to my view on what is, to him, a moral question? He didn’t want to debate it or discuss it -- if he had, he wouldn’t have waited until he was showing me to the door. He just wanted to know: would I still love him even if he opposed same sex marriage?
I was thinking of this exchange this morning as I read my Facebook feed and my friends lined up on both sides of the Great Chick-Fil-A Debate. A couple declared that those who had lined up on the other side could no longer be their Facebook friends -- or their friends at all.
And I thought of Charlie. I thought of what I didn’t say to him. I didn’t tell him he was a bigot who was attacking the wonderful and faithful marriages of my friends. I didn’t tell him he was an unfaithful Christian because he would vote to deny the rights of people I care about. I didn’t even tell him I thought he was wrong.
Maybe I should have. Maybe I lost an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel that God loves and accepts all people, regardless of their gender or orientation. Maybe I surrendered my chance to take a prophetic stand and speak truth to power, or at least, to Charlie.
But my church has been down that road before, and I can’t think of any good that came of it. No one changed their minds. Some people left, some people came, and a whole lot of angry and vitriolic words were thrown. More people left, many deeply wounded by the bitterness and downright nastiness that had infected the congregation as people took sides. No one new came, because who wants to be part of a congregation that’s fighting like that?
And the truth is, I do honor and respect Charlie’s viewpoint. I don’t agree with him, and perhaps it’s worth noting that I went from my visit with Charlie to a vestry meeting where, in a discussion about General Convention’s actions, I had declared unambiguously that if I were asked, I would gladly officiate at a same-sex wedding. If Charlie had asked for my opinion on the matter, I would have been equally unambiguous in declaring my own support for marriage equality.
But that isn’t what Charlie asked for that evening: he asked to be accepted despite what he knows is my very different understanding of the subject. He asked me to respect that it was thoughtful consideration that had led him to his own view, even if I didn’t agree with it. He asked me to make space for disagreement about this important topic in our relationship.
And I made space, because I don’t suppose I’m any more right about everything than Charlie is. And maybe if we journey together, we’ll both be able to discover the things we are wrong about, and see more clearly the Gospel that God reveals in us. Maybe the Holy Spirit will work through both of us to help lead the church into all truth.
I didn’t eat at Chick-Fil-A yesterday, although that’s a fairly meaningless boycott because I wouldn’t have eaten there anyway, since I don’t like fast-food fried chicken and there isn’t a Chick-Fil-A within 50 miles of my house. But if you did, well, that’s OK. We can still be friends. Maybe we can even talk about why the boycott is so disturbing to you, and why Chick-Fil-A’s support of anti-gay groups is so disturbing to me. Maybe from there we can talk about how we both deeply value First Amendment freedoms and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. Maybe I’ll concede that I admire Chick-Fil-A’s commitment to honoring the sabbath by closing on Sunday and its tuition-reimbursement programs for its employees. Perhaps you’ll admit that the vitriol and hatred spewed towards gays by some of the groups Chick-Fil-A supports is absolutely contrary to the Gospel of a God who loved us enough to die for us while we were yet sinners. Maybe we can even talk for awhile about what the Gospel means to us, and what we think it means to the whole world.
Odds are, I won’t change your mind, and you won’t change mine. But let’s journey together, and see what the Holy Spirit leads us into. I know there are sharp rocks in that road, and I know what I hear will pain me, as what you hear will pain you. I know speaking my truth, and hearing your truth, may not resolve our differences, and we will have to learn to live with the rocks. But let’s journey together anyway. Because I do believe God loves us both, and that the Holy Spirit really is trying to lead us into all truth, however hard and long the road. And I think it actually has very little to do with whether I buy a chicken sandwich, or not.