Thursday, September 23, 2010


Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man. (Proverbs 3.3-4)


Tolerance is a big topic here, simply because this blog is founded on the principle of proactively offering others what we seek from them. For newer readers who may not know the story of Straight-Friendly’s origins, its title and emphasis were born from realizing as a gay Christian, I’m called to love and accept others regardless of their appreciation or approval. This calling is hardly unique to GLBT believers, though. It’s for all who desire to walk in obedience to Christ. Because tolerance plays such a fundamental (and urgent) role in expression of faith, our discussions typically revolve around why we love and accept everyone God places in our lives—from those we know intimately or interact with frequently to strangers met in passing and individuals known only by reputation. Tolerance for us, however, is something we’ve yet to explore in depth, as the conversation easily escalates into demands to be loved and accepted. That puts us on the wrong side of obedience, shifting the emphasis from what we give to what we get. But getting isn't doing, and doing is obedience’s sole concern.

This raises questions. How do we protect our dignity as true Christians and reflections of our Maker? Do intolerance and rejection ever become intolerable and unacceptable? Does loving those who mistreat us include permitting them to deride Christ’s name? Is there a moment when we stand up to intolerance? Or must we always back down and roll over? These quandaries toyed with me after turning up a Sunday bulletin from eight years ago on which I’d jotted, “Don’t go where you’re tolerated. Go where you’re celebrated.” Nothing in the printed order of service jogs my recall of whence it came. And though I like the ring of it, I keep wondering, “Is this right? Should we really avoid people and places that merely tolerate us for those that validate us and boost our self-confidence?” It sounds closer to the Book of Oprah than the Gospel of Christ.

Anticipate Intolerance, Provoke Tolerance

We're repeatedly told to anticipate intolerance. In Matthew 5.11, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” And 1 Peter 4.12 verges on dark comedy: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” (Translated: “You’re shocked people abuse you for your faith? Are you kidding?”) Yet in trying to reconcile this with my doodle, it occurs to me we’re never encouraged to be voluntary victims of intolerance, persecution, and evil accusation. When topics like hatred, rejection, and false judgment surface, it’s always assumed they come to us; we don’t go to them. It’s also presumed intolerance we experience results entirely from being who we are and what we do because we’re who we are. In other words, obedience to God’s will—faithfully serving His purpose in making us as we are—causes us to be maligned in some circles, forced from others, and tolerated where it’s easier to ignore why we’re made differently than embrace it. In this context, maybe it makes sense to go where we’re celebrated, because God’s mercy and kindness to us deserve celebration.

Still, my scribble falls apart, I think, by suggesting we resist situations where we’re not wholeheartedly embraced and respected. Why? That’s not how Jesus operated. While He never goes looking for trouble, neither does He avoid encountering it. We find Him wherever He finds potential to exemplify tolerance, forgiveness, healing, and justice. Only when hostility drowns His message—as happens when Nazareth turns on Him (Luke 4.14-30)—does He walk away. Note: He walks away; he doesn’t stay away. He passes His policy to the disciples when He sends them out to minister (Matthew 10). Paraphrasing for brevity, He says: “If you find someone who welcomes you, stay where you are. If not, leave.”

There are two implicit points here that answer our questions about responding to intolerance. First, expecting it isn’t an excuse for not exposing ourselves to its possibility. We never know for sure we’re not welcome until we get there. If no one wants us, we’re free to go; we’re not obligated to abide rejection and hatred. On the other hand, if someone welcomes us, we’re obliged to stick around for his/her benefit, which leads to the second point. We’ll never promote tolerance by confronting rejection in blatantly hostile places. But in less than ideal situations we can provoke tolerance that ultimately ends in celebration, not just of us, but also of those whose hearts and minds change because of us.

Known, Honored, and Welcomed

Proverbs 3.3-4 explains how this happens: “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man.” Acceptance and favor we seek won’t come without effort from us. They’re products of behavior that backs up profession of belief. Love and faithfulness must never leave us. We wear them like breastplates. We carry them in our hearts. They enable us to seize every opportunity to love without condition, to be true to our calling without exception. That’s the irony of obedience. In some cases, it brings intolerance and rejection. Yet it also surprises us with favor and acceptance where we don't expect them. Without opening ourselves to potential criticism, we won’t enjoy the wealth of kindness available to us.

When Solomon predicts, “you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man,” he’s promising celebrity, not in the pop sense of fame and fortune, but in the richer sense of being celebrated—honored and welcomed for our love and faithfulness. Knowing the minister who preached the Sunday I took down the motto, I’m sure that’s what it’s saying. But I’ve decided to slightly revise it so I can keep it without confusing its message. Love where you’re tolerated and you will be celebrated.

Exposing ourselves to potential intolerance is the only way we discover people and places that will tolerate us. They open opportunities to demonstrate love and faithfulness that will be celebrated.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Needy by Choice

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4.20)


I’m uncomfortable saying this. But I’m spooked. A recent article in Christianity Today confirms a trend I’ve noticed lately. Conservative Christians have taken a sudden interest in Ayn Rand, the post-WWII novelist who advocated an ethic she called “Objectivism.” For those who didn’t spend an undergrad summer slogging through her two-pound opus, Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s philosophy is a noxious cocktail of Nietzsche’s superman theory and free-market capitalism—with jiggers of elitist narcissism, homophobia, and libertarian ideology to spice things up. Her vacuous universe is ruled by an Almighty Dollar that blesses anyone who embraces the “moral responsibility” to serve his/her interests above, often at the expense of, others. Basically, Objectivisim is “God-helps-those-who-help-themselves” gone berserk—although Rand would loathe this reduction due to her avid atheism. That, combined with her theory’s blatant rejection of such biblically sound Judeo-Christian principles as compassion for the dispossessed and social equality, makes Rand a peculiar addition to the Christian Right’s reading list. Yet in the past few months several fiercely Fundamentalist acquaintances (some I’ve not heard from in years) sought me out to ask, “Have you read Atlas Shrugged?”

It was so long ago that I scantly remember the plot. I do recall my intrigue with Rand’s post-industrial skew on mythology—allusions to Greek deities abound—curdling into disgust when her values grew more pronounced in her story. I also read it in happier times, before homelessness was rampant, before healthcare became an “industry,” before conservative religion and politics bedded down to propagate a culture of fear. That’s why this recent interest in Rand by rightwing believers spooks me. For three decades, they’ve been lashed to a faux “righteous” agenda that will not repent from favoring the wealthy over the poor, powerful over the weak, and heterosexual white males over everyone else. A generation of ruinously unchristian policies acted out in Christ’s name has harvested a world of woes. Rand appeals to erroneously politicized believers because she validates their party’s behavior as morally superior.

Rand says those who are high-minded must denounce cries for justice and compassion as weak-minded and unhealthy. In her perverted scheme, the well and strong are society’s victims, not the sick and struggling. That lunatic notion holds powerful resonance for Christians who’ve endured a 30-year barrage of political and religious fear mongering. Despite her atheism and endorsement of (straight) promiscuity as an entitlement of moral superiority, Rand echoes the rhetoric of alarmists who insist the “Christian way of life” verges on extinction. They cite the very crises fostered by their recklessness—war, poverty, divisiveness, etc.—as proof of an assault on faith-based values. They’re self-fulfilling prophets of the first order. But I would advise any Christian to spend time with a true prophet before opening Atlas Shrugged. In one verse, Hosea explains what’s happening today with more clarity than Rand musters in 1200 pages: “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. The stalk has no head; it will produce no flour. Were it to yield grain, foreigners would swallow it up.” (Hosea 8.7)

Doing Love

Since subtlety isn’t a hallmark of Rand’s prose or most rightwing pulpiteers, let’s not mince words. The Christian who finds merit in her philosophy knows nothing whatsoever about Jesus, His teaching, and what He expects of His followers. Or—worse yet—he/she consciously ignores Christ’s mandates to pursue a completely contradictory path. To credence the idea it’s morally just to place self-interest above concern for others constitutes apostasy. On this, the Apostle John couldn’t be more direct: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4.20) Declaring love without doing love is like claiming to live in the White House without sacrificing the time and means to get elected. It’s ridiculous. It dishonors Christ’s principles, as well as genuine believers who adhere to them. “And he has given us this command,” John adds in verse 21. “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

Showing concern for others isn’t an option; it’s a command. Professing Christians who care only about their wellbeing should own up to their real beliefs and adopt a new title—“Objectivist,” perhaps, or “Capitalist” or “Superman.” But this much is certain: loving God and doing love are inextricably linked, and without both, calling oneself a Christian has no foundation in truth. The time and money invested in church attendance, prayer and Bible study, envelopes dropped in the collection plate, etc., are like seeds sown to the wind. It only reaps whirlwinds, because if you don’t love your neighbor, you don’t love God. And if you don’t love God, you’re not following Jesus. How simple—and sad—is that?

He Did Not Shrug

True Christians achieve self-actualization of the sort Rand would admire. But we do it by opposing her “me-first” credo. We realize being a true Christian means learning to be needy by choice—giving more than we can comfortably offer, loving our neighbors with the same amplitude we’d hope to receive were we in their shoes. We take Jesus very literally when He says our obligation to care for others isn’t predicated by their merits or usefulness to us: “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5.39-42)

We may not like what’s asked of us. We may abhor the character and negligence of many who look to us for help. Our carnal natures may encourage us to dismiss them, to judge them, and even to fear them as threats to our way of life. But none of that justifies withholding love demonstrated by active concern and sacrifice on our part. Atlas Shrugged imagines what happens when those who bear the world’s weight disavow their responsibilities. In Rand’s world, they survive after the weak perish and all is well. But when Jesus carried the weight of the world to the Cross, He did not shrug. He turned the world upside down. As Christians, we live in His world, where love for God is proven by love for others—the world of the other cheek, the cloak as well, and the second mile.

He did not shrug. Neither can we.

Postscript: Ayn Rand on Faith

This compilation of TV interviews, given before her death in 1982, reveals how vehemently opposed to faith Ayn Rand was. It went beyond personal conviction to discredit faith's value to society. Without any basis in belief, how can believers possibly find merit in her philosophy?