God’s Mercy is How Big?

God’s Mercy is How Big?

I spent last week at the annual Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America conference, better known as Peace Camp. It was my first year attending, but my church has a longstanding relationship with the Peace Fellowship so I’ve been hearing all about this group for years and I couldn’t have been more excited to see it in person. The experience was everything I had hoped for and more; an awesome week in community with people who practice the same kind of progressive, peace-loving theology I do; beliefs that, until a few years ago, I felt relatively alone in holding. There’s something very comforting about spending time with people who come from the same perspective you do and can affirm the direction you’re going. Weeks later, you can still feel that community holding you up and encouraging you to keep going. Everyone there seemed to feel the same way, especially people who had been long time participants; like they were plants that had been living in the shade and were soaking up a rare moment of sun to sustain them through everything else.

Well, it turns out not everyone there was having quite that experience. When I got to lunch on Friday afternoon, the last few days of camp, I had barely settled into my chair before someone asked me, “Did you hear about the spy?” Turns out, we had a mole of sorts at Peace Camp; a reporter from the Institute on Religion and Democracy who wrote a series of blogs about our crazy pacifist teachings and misguided welcoming and affirming theology. I didn’t think much of it; in my mind, this was one blogger taking individual people’s statements out of context and creating a straw man so he could attack the entire group. But the thing about the internet is that nothing is ever that isolated. The president of the IRD took this man’s “reporting” and wrote an article about us, which got the attention of other bloggers, which led to articles on bigger and more important websites. Now, it’s not like the situation has made the national news or anything, but it became pretty hard to ignore when I googled the Peace Fellowship earlier this week and the third result was an article condemning the organization.

Two things about this whole scenario are very interesting to me. First, a conversation the young adults had while planning the closing service of the conference. One of the students commented that we ought to use some of the statements that had been made about us in these articles, using the blogger’s own words against him, as it were. We didn’t end up incorporating this into the service, but as the days have gone by and more articles have appeared, I’ve been very struck by how right my friend was. These authors are calling us out for things like Christian pacifism and acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians into our community, labels that we gladly apply to ourselves. Some of the statements I read in this article actually made me rather proud; I found myself think, “That’s exactly what we’re about, and I’m glad someone’s hearing us!” It’s a bit odd to hear someone using as an insult identifying words and phrases that I had always been glad to claim as my own. Are the camps of Christianity really so different that the language doesn’t even mean the same thing to all of us anymore?

This led me to a broader thought process, beyond my theological identity as a pacifist or a welcoming and affirming church member, looking instead at my identity as a Baptist. This identity is often what I point to when people ask me about my “odd” theological ideas. I’ve been raised on the Baptist theological ideas of priesthood of all believers and the importance of interfaith dialogue; basically, the idea that everyone’s theology is valid in so much as it is life-giving to them. The Baptist world, to my mind, is what gives me room to be the kind of Christian I am, and gives that reporter from the IRD the room to be the Christian he is. Roger Williams said, “We find not in the Gospel, that Christ hath anywhere provided for the uniformity of churches, but only for their unity.”

We talked a lot about the wideness of God’s mercy at Peace Camp. When I used that phrase during the communion service on Saturday, I was saying that the wideness of God’s mercy welcomed all the different people in the room to the table: rich or poor, young or old, gay or straight. What I’ve come to realize in the past few days is that this wideness is also what welcomes the liberal and the conservative, the Catholic and the Protestant, me and that IRD reporter. A good friend of mine told me once that she imagined that when Jerry Falwell got to heaven, God would say, “Come on in Jerry, sit next to this black woman.” Then my friend thought about it for a second and commented that when she got there, God would probably say, “Come on in, sit next to Jerry Falwell.” The community of God is bigger than all of us can imagine. Maybe what we need is for God to grant us some of that holy imagination, so that we can see just how vast the table we’re invited to really is. If we could see that, maybe we’d stop attacking one another for our earthly statements and start loving one another in our holy community.

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