“Celebrating Intolerance”

Rev. Gregory Dell

MIND lunch, June 10, 2011

Greg DellI was a teenager when Dr. Martin Luther  King came to Chicago. He came to raise public awareness of the metropolitan area’s segregated housing -- the worst in the U.S. at that time and the worst today.  My best friend and I decided to participate in one of the early marches.  We were youth members of the Methodist church and we took to heart the message that was being preached each Sunday -- a message challenging the racism all around us. It wasn't a popular message to say the least.  But Scott and I were convinced and determined.  Disobeying the vehement prohibition of my parents, the two of us joined the demonstration scheduled for white suburban Berwyn.

It was not what we expected. Until that day I had experienced Berwyn as a pleasant, friendly and welcoming community.  But as we lined up for the march we experienced none of that.  Before we took our first steps we were greeted with shouted epithets – some from young children, hurled rocks and threatening action -- including being spit upon and rushed at by people lining the streets carrying axe handles.  The police took action only when the violence was most vehement.  As I said it was not what we expected -- though in retrospect I'm not sure what we expected!

At the march’s end Scott and I melted into the sea of white faces and returned to his car.  We drove mostly in silence to his home.  We were met by his mother who, of course, was worried about us and wanted to know all the details.  As we finished our report it was obvious that she was feeling angry. After a few moments of silence she said,” I don't understand those people.  How could they be so evil.  I can't stand intolerance.”  I can't stand intolerance.  That said it all: intolerance of intolerance.  Strange as it sounded there was a profound wisdom in what she said.  We are called to be intolerant of intolerance.  Or, to put it in the words of the title of these remarks, sometimes we are called to celebrate intolerance.

I would suggest that Jesus be our model for faithful intolerance. To understand that we have to begin with what Jesus said about having enemies.  It's interesting that people so often interpret his words as saying we shouldn't have enemies.  But that isn't what he said.  He didn't say we shouldn't have enemies he said we should love them.

What does it mean to love our enemies? First, we need to be clear on just what an enemy is.

An enemy is someone who intends or actually attempts to injure, or destroy us or those whom we care about. Let me repeat that: An enemy is someone who intends or actually attempts to injure, or destroy us or those whom we care about.

"Enemy" is a very personal category. My enemy may not be your enemy.  In fact, my enemy may be your ally or vice versa.  It depends on what or whom is at risk for injury or destruction. For instance, I consider anyone who attempts to promote racial bigotry is my enemy.  But that same person or agent would be seen as an ally by the Ku Klux Klan. Understandably, the Klan would consider me as their enemy. So you see how it works. Be clear about who or what constitutes an enemy for you before you go any further.

That being done how are we supposed to follow that commandment of Jesus to "love" our enemies?  Let me share four truths I believe about loving our enemy.

  1. Love does not rule out opposition by word and deed -- in fact one could argue that true love demands that we not tolerate the words or actions that destroy or injure. By word and deed we must oppose our enemies.
  2. Love means never losing sight that those who oppose us do so out of their own deeply held conviction of what is evil or destructive. And that often means us!  Keeping that in mind may be helpful in resisting the temptation to demonize our enemies. Our enemies are not demons.  Enemies may be possessed by a spirit of evil but beyond their diabolical possession they are children beloved by God. We may believe that they are possessed by demons but we violate the law of love when we see our enemies as essentially evil. That does not make their enmity less real or their evil more acceptable.  Their efforts must not be tolerated. Ironically we are called to love the sinner but hate the sin.   (Where have we heard that before?)
  3. But while our enemies should not be demonized, neither should their actions and words be accepted as just another point of view.  Those of us who espouse or practice  racism, sexism or heterosexism or any of the other destructive isms must be stopped from realizing the destructive agenda that goes with those isms.
  4. Finally it is also helpful to remember that there is just the slightest possibility that we might be wrong -- at least about some of the details.  That awareness is helpful in keeping us from too extreme measures to stop or oppose our enemies.

I can't close my remarks without a reminder to myself and to all of you assembled here.  Let me share a story which I think points to that reminder.

In the months preceding my church trial a great deal of media exposure was generated -- not by us or any of the parties involved in the trial but by the media’s judgment that the story potentially had broader interest than just another church story.  In addition to Chicago's attention to and reporting of the trial there was a fair amount of national coverage, including stories in the New York Times, the Associated Press  And on NPR (National Public Radio).

Soon after the story broke in Chicago I was contacted by NPR about the possibility of doing an interview.  I agreed to the proposal and subsequently spent the better part of an afternoon in recorded conversation with one of their national reporters .The reporter was fair and supportive in her commitment to share my remarks along with those who represented the prosecution in a national broadcast.

I didn't think much about the interview in the following days. I didn't even know if the interview had been broadcast.  But I paid more attention when I received an e-mail about a week after the interview.

The e-mail had been carefully prepared and sent in such a way that I couldn't determine its precise origin or know a way to return a response. Here, is the content almost word for word of that e-mail:

“Reverend Dell, it makes me nervous to send this e-mail. I am 14 years old. I live in Jackson, Mississippi. I think I am a homosexual.  I have tried to get rid of those feelings of being attracted to other boys.  I've read a lot of articles and listened to my parents and my pastor. Although my parents and my pastor do not know about my battle with this, it was clear to me that their judgment was that homosexuality was sin and a perversion of what God intended for His people. Every time the subject came up I heard their anger and judgment and believed it to be God’s feeling as well. One night I prayed so hard that I was sick the next day and couldn't go to school.  I finally decided that there was no hope.  Nothing had helped.

“It seemed certain to me that I was hated or would be hated by God, my parents, and my church and probably everybody else if I was found out.  I decided that the most faithful thing I could do would be to end my life.  I decided I would do that on Friday after school.  That way I thought my death would not mess up other people's lives as much as it would during the week.

“I came home from school and went to get the bottle of pills that I thought would end it.  I had the radio on and was listening to NPR. They had this story about a preacher who believed that God loved homosexuals as much as straight people.  He was being put on trial for misleading people about homosexuality.  He insisted that it wasn't he who is doing the misleading but it was those people who said homosexuality was evil who were doing the misleading.

“I thought ‘this guy must be crazy.’  But then I thought what if he's right?

“I decided that I would wait to see what the jury decided about you.”

The jury, as most of you know, came to the decision that I was in error.  I never again heard from the 14-year-old boy in Jackson, Mississippi. I don’t know what he did when heard the verdict.

An institution that supplies a 14-year-old with reasons to doubt his own worth -- to doubt that worth to the point of self-destruction, is guilty of complicity to commit murder. At that point and in that arena such an institution is my enemy.  I believe I am called, in fact I believe all of us here are called to intolerance for that which is so destructive.

The reminder?  The reminder is this.  At every point we must remember that in the debate about the big issues it is not a matter of clever discourse.. It is in fact often times a matter of life and death.

At Broadway Church where I pastored before I was put on incapacity leave due to my Parkinson's disease we had a very special welcoming statement said by the other pastor or myself at the beginning of worship.  Here's what we said Sunday after Sunday:

"Welcome to Broadway United Methodist Church.  Ours is a church that does not practice tolerance.  Tolerance is an attitude we reserve for that which is unpleasant but necessary.  We are not tolerated at Broadway Church.  We are celebrated. Our gender, our racial identities, our sexual orientations are celebrated here as gifts. Thank you for bringing the gift of your identity today. We hope your presence today will be a gift to you as you are to us.”

Celebrating intolerance.  When intolerance by word or deed is directed at  persons because of their identity (for instance their sexual orientation, race, or gender) -- that intolerance should not be tolerated; it must be opposed by word and deed. But when intolerance is directed at the actions or words that are dehumanizing or destructive of God’s gifts of diverse identities, it must be celebrated.

May all God’s people practice and celebrate such intolerance. That means this Annual Conference, those gathered here for this luncheon, and those in our home churches waiting to hear a word from this gathering. It means all of them and more. But for starters it means you and me. As we leave this luncheon let us do so committed to practicing and celebrating faithful intolerance.

Can I hear an “Amen”?