The Sacred Experience of Knowing the Other
September 14, 2013
Erika P. Munson
I have been cheered lately every time I pass the Lutheran church in my neighborhood. On their marquee they have transposed the words from a familiar Christian children’s song to “Jesus Knows Me, This I Love”.
Why does a simple transposition of the words “love” and “know” make such a difference to me? The good news of the original version, “Jesus loves me, this I know”, is tried and true. It is one of the fundamental aspects of my faith. But as comforting as this phrase can be, it doesn’t tell me how Jesus loves me. My goal-seeking problem-solving brain (not always a helpful thing) wants to understand the mechanics of this experience. When I walked past that church marquee for the first time on a beautiful summer morning, just before the sun cleared the Wasatch Mountains, I was deeply affected by the message. Yes! Jesus really knows me, that is how His love works! And it feels so good to be known. Just for a moment let’s experience this feeling together. Take a deep breath in, then a deep breath out, thinking to yourself, I AM KNOWN.
Ready? In (breath) Out (breath).
In a world where distortion is the norm, how joyful it is to know that the Lord sees our authentic selves.
It is no coincidence then, that in his first letter to the Corinthians, after Paul lays out the case for love being the supreme divine quality, he then describes the process of spiritual evolution that leads to perfect knowing. The child becomes the man, he writes, and “ Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known.” This knowing then—and the greek word Paul uses is “gnosis” which means to be deeply acquainted with on a soul-to-soul level as opposed to an intellectual understanding–, is intertwined with the love that never faileth; maybe it’s the same thing.
For those of us who are working within a religious tradition–be it Mormonism or something else–it’s really pretty easy to superficially espouse the idea that we should love everyone. Hearts and flowers, I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing, it feels good. We can even be uplifted by the words “love your enemies”. But of all people, LGBT individuals and their allies should know how inadequate a love that is not tied to the real work of being human is. Have we not felt the sting of a lip-service love that fails to dig deep? “We love you, but we really don’t want to have anything to do with you”, is sadly something we’ve heard too often from the LDS church and other communities of faith . But is our reaction to this treatment just as bad? In a completely understandable effort to remain safe and healthy do we overcompensate and cut ourselves off from the conversation? Do we turn our adversaries into caricatures who aren’t worth investing in?
What if we use our working definition of loving as knowing? Know our enemies? Sit down and listen to them? Yikes. We have our work cut out for us. But I would like us to consider today, that knowing those that have hurt us, those that we think are wrong, those we perceive as The Other, is a sacred opportunity.
First off, lets assume that contrary to the bumper sticker, everyone is born a bigot. If you’ll indulge me in some amateur scientific speculation, it seems to me that we evolved with a natural fear of the individual who doesn’t fit into the tribe. This quality arguably served us well as a species; when we were hunter-gatherers, we needed to make snap judgements about whether someone was friend or foe; if they looked or acted different it probably wasn’t worth the risk to drop your guard. But just as the craving for salt, sugar, and fat that kept us alive on the savanah no longer serves us in an environment of plenty, this fear of The Other, particularly in a world where weapons of mass destruction exist, is less useful. It is part of the natural man that is an enemy to God. So let’s stop wringing our hands at our inability to get along. It’s part of our genetic makeup to not get along, but the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we can move beyond it.
Who is The Other for you? Is it a particular person? Someone who has passed judgement and found what you are or what he thinks you are wanting? Is it a group of people who you feel will never understand you? Is it a community you find ignorant, laughable even, who you have been known to mock? For me, The Other grows less human the farther I am from it. The individuals who I only experience as a soundbite or an online rant are easy to turn into simplistic monsters, and don’t think it’s healthy for me to spend my time railing against them. I don’t feel the spirit there. But sitting in my back yard and listening to my visiting teacher talk about how some of her best friends are gay but she wishes they would just keep it to themselves, and she never wants gay to be considered normal—well there’s a real person I want to understand better. Even though I wouldn’t call it a comfortable conversation, I think God can be there. If I can squelch my desire to get on my soapbox, and listen, really listen, this woman becomes less The Other and more a fellow traveler.
This is such a difficult yet noble effort! The LDS missionary model works against us here. For those of us raised in the culture, the idea dies hard that if our adversaries only knew the truth the light would switch on and they’d come over to our side. Let me give you some models that give great meaning to me as I plant seeds that may take a long long time to germinate.
One is educator and activist Parker Palmer’s idea of the “tragic gap”. It is a place to stand between the hard realities on the one hand and what we know is possible on the other. In the case of economic justice for instance, he acknowledges that the reality is that we see greed all around us, but on the other side, we have all seen examples of human generosity. The trick is not to jump to one side or the other of this gap—to cynically give up and seek money and power only for oneself or to live in the world of what Palmer calls irrelevant idealism. This gap in the middle where the real conversation is going on.
To quote Palmer:
“I call it the ‘tragic gap’ because it’s a gap that will never close, an inevitable flaw in the human condition. No one who has stood for high values–love, truth, justice, has died declaring victory once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find a way to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.”
It is also helpful to consider that our time in the tragic gap may occur while we aren’t even articulating what divides us. Philosopher Anthony Appiah calls this “sidling up to difference”. He explained this in the context of Christians reaching out to the Muslim community:
“Sometimes people think that…. the only way to deal with these big differences between religions or around moral questions is to kind of face up to the difference directly. But I think…sidling up to it is better, and sidling up to it can be done by not facing Islam but facing….Achmed and Mohammed with whom you don’t talk about religion most of the time. You talk about soccer or you talk about rock music or whatever it is you have in common as an interest.”
A Mormon ward is in fact a great place for these common interests to be discovered. Even the most motivated LDS /LGBT crusader isn’t going to be all advocacy all the time. Sharing a calling, a service project, or just a hymnal with a brother or sister that in any other context you would stay away from, is I think a step forward.
In the broader context of American society we are in a unique position. In case you haven’t noticed we are a divided and polarized country. The battle lines in the culture wars have been clearly drawn: we pick our side and demonize the rest. Too often we choose our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our friends, by their politics. We stay in our corners preaching only to the converted. But it is so exciting that there are now LGBT Mormons and their allies who are moving across these boundries into, to use this weekend’s theme, a New Frontier.
I don’t want us to leave this gathering today with merely grim determination to reach out to the Others in our lives; keenly aware of the glacial pace of change. I’ve laid out why it is so challenging, what the pitfalls are, but there can be joy in this gnosis, in this journey of understanding. Let me tell you a story my husband and I share.
In a May 1980 there appeared in Time Magazine a little item about Meryl Streep’s comings and goings. She was already on her way to being an acting powerhouse and she had received an award from a student theatre group at Harvard University. Every year the Hasty Pudding theatricals name a Woman of the Year to publicize their production and if the recipient shows up, they have a parade for her. In the Time article there was a photograph of Ms. Streep waving at the parade crowd in Cambridge, sitting in a convertible next to a guy in drag.
A little background: Hasty Pudding shows are satirical song and dance productions that have been written and produced by Harvard students for over one hundred years. The cast is always all male: and though there are always plenty of gay guys in the show, there is also a long tradition of aggressively heterosexual types playing the female parts; donning falsies and heels for a laugh.
The guy in drag photographed next to Meryl Street was my fiancee. This was just one example of the many ways my husband broke the mold. Our engagement had been announced only a few weeks earlier, and while some LDS parents might have been bewildered by this image,, my saintly parents back in Salt Lake proudly showed off the picture of their future son-in-law in a wig and lipstick to friends and family. The conversations that ensued tell us something about the human tendency to categorize people in a binary way: if you are this you cannot be that.
“So Erika’s marrying a Harvard boy, guess he’s a non-member”
“Actually no, he joined the church a few months ago”
“But doesn’t he still belong to one of those college drinking clubs?”
“Yes, but his club mates had a party for him the night before he was baptized and they presented him with a crate of fruit juice, they want him to stick around.”
“But, um he’s dressing like a woman here, doesn’t that mean…. uh….?” “Actually no, gay folks aren’t the only ones who have fun in drag!”
I live for conversations like this! They speak to the complexity of the human experience. They make people think. The beauty and diversity of God’s creation is not only found in the many, but it is found inside each one of us. If we resent being stereotyped, we should resist the tendency to do it to others. To look for the richness and variety in our fellow beings is to begin to know them. In this way we give our brothers and sisters a taste of God’s love–the way we are truly known by Him. I challenge each one of us to reach out to the Other in a concrete way: invite that super-active LDS couple and their kids from down the street over for ice cream, take the coworker who looks uncomfortable every time you mention your partner out to lunch. Be proactive and share with your bishop your activities as an LGBT ally, and ask him what his priorities are for the ward.
In the late 80’s and 90’s my family lived in Germany. We had only been there a month when the Berlin Wall came down. Living two hours away, we packed up the kids on weekends and made several visits to Berlin: witnessing the miracle of a wall everyone thought would be there forever, breached and broken–and a once-divided country coming togetheragain. Duringourvisitswe’dfrequentthefleamarkets,buyingoldeastGerman army hats and medals, and yes, pieces of the concrete wall. About a year ago we brought some boxes out of storage and reclaimed this chunk. It now means even more to me because look! there’s a rainbow on it.
In the last two years we have seen hopeful holes appear in the wall that has separated our LGBT brothers and sisters from a loving and inclusive church. We can now see and hear people on the other side, and they can see and hear us! As we work together to bring this wall down, brick by painful brick, we can take comfort in Paul’s words that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
Thank you for your courage and your example. I am blessed to be in your presence.