I’ve chimed in here and there on Facebook during the past few days, sparring with others over the Confederate flag in general and in specifics in the state of South Carolina, but, introvert that I am, I had to wait before writing a blog to let the dust and noise settle so I could contemplate what I am truly feeling. The first item of business I had to consider is the enormity of the deaths of nine Christian disciples at the hands of a misguided, and perhaps demented young man, and the response of the people of South Carolina and across the South itself. And then there were not one, but two rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, both of which honestly surprised me because of the cynicism I admit I’ve felt in recent years. And then today, I learned that the Episcopal Church, of which I am a member, elected a new presiding bishop who is African-American—from the Diocese of North Carolina, a one-time Confederate state and my newly adopted home. On the very first ballot, no less.
Years ago, when I was a psychotherapist, our “protocol” was to give a new client a battery of tests—a measure whether anxiety was a long-standing problem or just a function of a recent trauma, the MMPI, occasionally others based on what the client’s presenting complaint was. The results of those “inventories” provided a jumping off point for therapy, and it was easy to form an initial sense of the areas needing exploration. There was never a time when I wasn’t forced to completely reevaluate the ongoing treatment plan in my head on the basis of the disclosure of an experience by the client and his or her perception of the event I couldn’t have anticipated. I learned quickly that every person who walked through our doors was unique, that I could make no generalized statements about any of them on the basis of their employment or clothes or physical characteristics. Symptoms, yes, but not demographic data. For me to assist them in finding a path to healthier functioning in their own individual lives and relationships, in their own individual circumstances, with their own individual bodies and brains required that they trust me to hear their stories from their points of view without judgment. In a word, it required me to respect and honor the boundaries between us, the differences, while seeking the similarities that supercede them—our desires to love and achieve, be special and important to someone, to be loved and appreciated for who we are, irrespective of where we came from or the mistakes we have made.
As a child, what drew me to the stories about Jesus was the idea that God knew every hair on my head. Not the heads of all girls or the heads of straight-A students or the heads of all Americans or the heads of all Southerners or the heads of all Southern Baptists or the heads of children raised by single parents or the heads of financially-challenged families or whatever demographic group of which I was a part or was to become a part of in the future. God knew every hair on MY head. God knew every circumstance, every experience, every good behavior, every bad behavior, and wonder of all wonders, loved me in spite of them all. It didn’t matter what other members of the groups of which I was a part did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say, approved of or didn’t approve of. I was considered, comforted, confronted, blessed, all by my little, inconsequential self. What they did, what they thought…was irrelevant.
For me, the next logical step in that burgeoning awareness was knowing that if God knew every hair on my particular head, then he knew every hair on everybody’s else’s head, too, and that he loved them as fiercely and as unconditionally as me, no matter what I thought of them.
The only question, then, was what to do when the boundaries collided. And when that collision happened—and it is inevitable, a hundred times a day—how do we respond?
Jesus lived as the ultimate respecter of boundaries. It didn’t matter that Zaccheus was a tax collector, despite the fact that most of the people in the crowd probably wanted to strangle him and had already dismissed him as a traitor to his people. He called him down from the tree and sat down at his table with him. It didn’t matter that the woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery, was someone that he, according to local or cultural laws, was prohibited from speaking to. He stood right there, in front of God and everybody, and told her—in the act of speaking to her—that she too could drink the living water straight from the well, without bowing to any man or religious law. He even looked at the thief hung beside him on a cross and said, in effect, “Hey, I don’t know what you did, but I know who you are, and you’re coming with me.”
In terms of the U.S. Constitution, the boundary questions are the same. If we are to be equally protected and equally privileged under the law, at what point is there a collision that renders us unequal? Who gets to say where the line is? And what do we do to try and ensure, however imperfectly, that no equal citizen is disenfranchised from the expression of that equality? That, and that alone, is the job of the U.S. Supreme Court, of nine equally-endowed and equally imperfect people.
In the end, whether we’re talking about Jesus or the U.S. Constitution, it all comes down to respecting each other’s boundaries. Doing the oh, so difficult work of examining our own motives and acting in a way that accepts the pragmatic reality that there are limits to the expression of our freedom and the limit is the boundary of the “other,” whether we’re talking about the neighbor we are to love as we love ourselves or the First Amendment and all the rest of the amendments, which only attempt to clarify and define where those boundaries are, protecting and preserving the rights of all Americans—irrespective of what one individual or one demographic group or one religious congregation has arrogantly deemed to be the authoritative end all of what God says. I can’t help but believe, if I look at the words and actions of Jesus as a whole, that what he meant by loving each other was based squarely on the concept of respect of each other’s boundaries. As both he and St. Paul would say later—if we love God and each other, the rest of those commandments, all dealing with boundary violations, will take care of themselves.
Because of that perspective, being a Christian and being an American—in the ideal—are not difficult for me to reconcile, to live in parallel, but thankfully, there is still a boundary between the two. We must make no choices, give no favors to one religious opinion over another. I am eternally thankful to have been born an American because of that. I can rest in the assurance that Sharia law or Mormon law or Roman Catholic law or even Episcopal law will not govern me as long as the separation of church and state remains intact. But having that assurance comes with responsibility and personal limits, too. Every Muslim, every Mormon, every Roman Catholic, every other religious adherent—is safe from whatever cockamamie religious law Franklin Graham or Pat Robertson proclaims or the ones I dream up in my head, too.
Even the Affordable Care Act, and its haters, is a battle of boundaries. How do we promote the well-being of those who can’t, for mostly reasons of poverty and depressed income, irrespective of our wretchedly arrogant opinions of their deservedness, pay the premiums of health insurance in 2015 without putting those who are barely making it, but making it, at risk? How do we not favor the members of one group over another, based on the circumstances and the timing of their lives in the midst of a recession from which we have not, despite all the political rhetoric, completely recovered? It ain’t easy, but the personal boundary assaults from both sides of the issues are ugly, and they have no place in our public discourse.
The other happenings of this week raised boundary issues, too—individual ones. There are nine dead individuals, dead because of one of those physical characteristics and not the desires of their hearts, their individual experiences, or their own individual respect for the boundaries of others. Dead because a young man violated their boundaries in a vicious way that cannot be mended, only forgiven and punished. Dead because a young man, right or wrong, perceived that his boundaries and those of his association were in danger of violation, that “their” country was being “taken over.”
There are people who, for whatever reasons that no one but God can discern or judge (though I personally doubt the latter is even an issue—see above), are attracted to people of their own gender, who now have the freedom in America to publicly and legally proclaim their love and commitment to each other, no matter what I or anyone else may find uncomfortable about it. The boundaries of respect, at least under the law of the land, are upheld. We can’t stop another equal citizen from expressing their love as a matter of public record just because we don’t think it’s biblical or natural or fill in the blanks with your own adjective.
There’s a boundary battle between those who maintain that a flag is simply their “heritage,” flown by soldiers defending a “right” that is no right under God or the Constitution by any measure—that of owning other humans and defining their value as less than whole—and those in the group devalued and diminished by the symbolism of the flag, who cannot view it without the visceral and archetypal memory of split families, of murder, of whips, of rape, or being stolen from their lands and chained and sold as recently as 150 years ago. Both crying for the very same thing—respect, the birthright of every child of God.
There have been boundary issues since Cain and Abel. There will be boundary issues long after we’re gone. Jesus said as much. “Our father,” he taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses (violations of other’s boundaries) as we forgive those who trespass against us (violate our boundaries).” We are only offended, ranting and raving about our “rights,” when we perceive that a boundary of ours has been violated. It is our duty as Americans, but more importantly as Christians, to commit to examining our own desires and behavior, seeking never to intentionally offend, to be clear on where the boundaries between us really are (translate where our rights end and those of others begin) and to forgive the real—and the ones we only imagine in our heads—offenses against us. It isn’t in any way easy—but it is possible. Jesus showed it over and over, and the families of the Mother Emanuel nine did it in living color.
To solve these boundary disputes requires that, just like Jesus did every time, we meet each other one by one, seeking the similarities between us and respecting the differences as what they can be—the icing on the cake of a rich, diverse, multi-colored life for us all. One gun owner at a time, one gun-control advocate at a time. One person of black, white, Asian ancestry at a time. One “liberal” at a time, one “conservative” at a time. One heterosexual, one LGBT at a time. One Southerner at a time, one non-Southerner at a time. One 1 percenter, one 99 percenter at a time. One welfare recipient, one corporate CEO at a time. One Republican at a time, one Democrat at a time, one Independent at a time, one candidate at a time, one every-hair-on-the-head-loved-by-God-just-like-me person at a time. We will, no doubt, find those we choose not to engage with because of their inability to show respect, but that decision can’t be generalized without squandering potential we cannot recover. Lord knows how much we lost long before the nine people at Mother Emanuel.
God bless the United States of America, our President and members of the Executive Branch, our Congressional representatives and senators, our state governors and representatives and senators, and one other nine of significance this week—the U.S. Supreme Court.
But most of all, God bless us every one, and help us to do the same. One by one.