A few months ago I was listening to the Hombrewed Christianity podcast. Specifically I was listening to the Faith + Gender + Sexuality + Film = Level Ground Film Festival episode. I think the title explains the focus of the episode pretty well. The podcast is an interview with the organizers of the Level Ground Film Festival which came out of the work of OneTable, the official LGBTQ student group at Fuller Theological Seminary. Now, this post is not going to address issues with LGBTQ and the Church. That would take a lot of posts and I’m honestly not ready to tackle that yet. What this post is going to address is a general idea that was floated during the interview. When asked what their agenda was or what their influence or outcomes were (political, social, justice, religious, evangelical, etc?) they mentioned that they did not really have any agenda per-se. Instead of trying to be pigeonholed into often divisive agendas, it was instead mentioned that they were “insisting on dignity”. This idea really grabbed a hold of me and I could not let it go. I think it is a great concept that has been lost in much of the Church’s interactions within itself and Christian’s with the world.
What if the Church worked from an agenda to insist on and restore dignity? Rather than insisting on assenting to specific beliefs or creeds, what if we insisted on dignity, restoring dignity and instilling dignity in our relationships and conversations. What if, regardless of agreement of disagreement, we chose to live and work with an agenda of dignity across our relationships?
What if we ejected our political, theological, economic and personal agendas and instead worked from an agenda of dignity?
I think this is a great idea. But, just because I think it does not mean it should be. Instead, for some illustration, let’s head to a few of Jesus interactions with people. First, Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery that can be found in the Gospel of John. You may be familiar with this story. A woman is brought before Jesus by some Scribes and Pharisees who had caught her in the act of adultery. They ask Jesus if he agreed they should stone her because that’s what the Law of Moses says. Jesus gives his famous line, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone” that causes the woman’s accusers to walk away one by one. Eventually, only the woman and Jesus are left. When everyone is gone, this little interaction transpires:
Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”She said, “No one, sir.”Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.”
John 8:10-11 (CEB)
Does Jesus judge the woman? Not in the way the Scribes and Pharisees were expecting. They were working from an agenda that caused them to see the woman’s sin before her humanity. Jesus instead does not identify her sin, he does not call her an adulteress, but he instead calls her “Woman.” Jesus gives her back her dignity that the rabble of Scribes and Pharisees attempted to strip from her. Instead of “punishing” the sin out of her, as the Scribes and Pharisees seem to want, Jesus restores her dignity as a woman and then sends her back to “sin no more”. Her restored dignity and identity as a woman is now her impetus for not sinning rather than the fear of punishment and “cleansing.”
In another Gospel story from the book of Matthew, Jesus is again confronted with the Scribes and Pharisees when he pronounces that a man’s sins have been forgiven (essentially what he did for the woman in the previous story). The story from Matthew goes like this:
Jesus crossed to the other side of the lake and went to his own city. People brought to him a man who was paralyzed, lying on a cot. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man who was paralyzed, “Be encouraged, my child, your sins are forgiven.”Some legal experts said among themselves, “This man is insulting God.”
But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said, “Why do you fill your minds with evil things? Which is easier—to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—”Get up, take your cot, and go home.” The man got up and went home.
Matthew 9:1-7 (CEB)
In Jesus’ day, there was often the assumption that some sin would cause a sickness or disease like this man had (see John 9:2). First, Jesus pronounces the man’s sins forgiven which, many might assume, would also heal the man. When the Scribes and Pharisees (here called Legal Experts) take umbrage with Jesus forgiving sins, he takes the next step and heals the man outright which Jesus states also demonstrates his authority to forgive sins. Jesus challenges them with this question, “Which is easier—to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” The Scribes and Pharisees in this story were working from an agenda that worried more about insulting God than restoration. By healing the man and forgiving his sins Jesus restores dignity to the man that the Scribes and Pharisees thought was impossible. Because, in their minds, only God can forgive sins, there was no reason to try. The man was cursed by God so it was not their responsibility to help him. Jesus instead demonstrates that it IS our responsibility to heal others (physically or emotionally) and in doing so we work to release the power of sin and guilt over the lives of people.
When we work to restore people’s dignity we can loosen the grip of sin on their life. The more we can show that they are loved by God (not rejected or cursed) the less the lies and empty promises of sin and evil will take root. When we choose to work as God’s agents in the world and pronounce, as Jesus did, “Your sins are forgiven,” we will restore a dignity in others that will allow them to live as the people God created them to be. Not as cursed, sinful, depraved people but as restored, redeemed and dignified humans shining bright the image of God often dulled and tarnished by the weight of sin, guilt and shame.
So, let’s refuse the political, economic and even religious agendas that so often divide us. Let’s not drag the sin of others out for all to see, they know it well enough already. Let us instead work from an agenda of dignity to restore our focus on people and away from set of ideas and dogmas. Show people that they are loved by God, loved by us and are respected and valued members of the community.