Quick note before the post: my colleagues and I all agree that the highlight of the State of the Union speech was the president's promise to work to ban "creating human-animal hybrids". We hadn't heard that this was a major issue, but since he said it, we're glad to know he's against it. So are we. Anyone got an idea what he meant? The head of Dolly the sheep on a human torso? (We even looked up the speech online, and there it was.)
This is a specifically Christian post, folks.
Quite some time ago, my regular reader "Chip" asked me why it is that progressive Christians place so little emphasis on the essential virtue of "obedience." Obedience is, I think most of us would agree, an important aspect of the Christian walk. Obedience to God, to His teachings, and to one's own promises are all aspects of the concept.
One doesn't get many sermons on obedience at All Saints Pasadena or other liberal churches. We're very good at talking about "justice" and "inclusion" and "love", all important Christian principles. When it comes to making better economic and environmental choices, we're even fairly good about talking the hard language of "sacrifice." And though we might interpret the meaning of the words in ways that alarm or annoy conservatives, we do regularly talk about "the Cross", "salvation", "the kingdom" and, yes, "morality."
But it's true we don't talk much about obedience. Part of the reason why is a purely semantic one -- the term has a fundamentally negative ring to it, particularly to those of us in progressive congregations who may come out of backgrounds where we were told to "mindlessly obey" our elders and other authority figures. We are aware -- keenly aware -- of the perils and pitfalls of blind obedience, even on the part of our fellow Christians. It's easy to see how we can be "too obedient" to be good Christians, not easy to see how we can be too loving or too welcoming.
Chip, in the end I think most progressives are obedient. I'm just not sure that we define "obedience" in the same way. But even as I say that, I will grant that for many liberal folks, there is a genuine discomfort with the word itself. From a feminist perspective, the word "obey" has been too often associated with unilateral submission to male authority. Those of us who believe that we are called by Christ to submit to each other are keenly aware of how earlier generations of Christians have misused the term obedience. The language of Christian obedience has been used to justify slavery, it has been used to justify denying women suffrage, it has been used to justify domestic violence. The fact that modern Christian conservatives don't support those evils doesn't vitiate the real fact that their theological ancestors did use the command to "obey" to support a whole host of what we now know to be cruelly heretical doctrines.
But what we also acknowledge is that there's a very positive aspect of obedience as well. At its best, obedience is about what the Kabbalists call "restriction"; it's the conscious decision to remain faithful to promises and beliefs despite the overwhelming temptation to indulge one's own desires. Obedience to the commitments we've made and to the God in whose name we made them is a vital part of living together in Christian community. When we break our promises to one another, we are disobeying the greatest commandments: to love God and to love each other. It is obedience to God and to our commitments that prevents heartache and tragedy; it is obedience that compels us to be generous. If I weren't obedient, I wouldn't tithe 10% of gross income, that's for sure!
When progressives endorse same-sex marriage in the church, our conservative opponents accuse us of "disobedience" to Scripture, tradition, and so forth. Over and over again, we are told that we have capitulated to modern secular culture and abandoned the teachings of God and His Son. According to traditionalists, by endorsing same-sex marriage, we progressive Christians are encouraging people to follow their own selfish desires rather than obey God. And the most frustrating thing is, most of the time we progressives don't fight back against this argument. We concede too easily, often because we're so reluctant to talk about obedience.
But when we welcome gays and lesbians and marry them, we ARE being obedient. Indeed, when we risk schism and international opprobrium, we do so because of a fundamental belief that we are obeying the Gospel. Straight folks make up the majority of liberal Protestants in this country; permitting gay marriage doesn't give us any new or special privileges. Why then are so many of us in the Episcopal Church willing to argue, debate, and possibly get thrown out of the Anglican Communion all so that our GLBTQ brothers and sisters might feel completely included? Secular liberal conviction isn't enough to bring most progressives to the precipice of schism -- what brings us there is a quiet conviction that to love radically, fearlessly, and inclusively is to obey the will of Christ. We know, just as our conservative brothers and sisters know, that obedience has a cost. And we know as believers we have to be willing to pay it.