It has been increasingly exhausting to keep up with the “You can’t all yourself Christian if…” conversations that circulate in our faith communities and social media. The most prevalent ones have to do with issues of sexuality, primarily abortion, LGBTQIA+ identities, and gender. These conversations are a type of gatekeeping: a controlling or limiting of access to a community for the preservation of a shared, overall belief. Many Christians are so preoccupied with determining who is in and out of the Christian community in order to protect moral life and a claim to “Truth” that they have forgotten that the basis for their faith is in the One that has accepted and forgiven them in all of their own admonishing and sin.
In my experience with these types of conversations, three important shifts need to take place for us to become unified Christian communities again:
1.We need to value mercy over legalism.
Rather than adhering to hard and fast doctrinal rules, we should instead look at our relationships and see where the rules might guide our direction, but where love, mercy, and compassion are missing and needed to fill in the blanks. In John 8:1-11, Jesus intervenes on behalf of a woman about to be stoned for adultery. The stoning was a consequence prescribed by Mosaic Law for both a woman and a man that committed adultery (although, take notice that the man is nowhere to be found). There are two times in the passage where Jesus writes something in the sand, although the text does not say what. We also know that the Pharisees bring about this woman only do so to test Jesus in order to bring a charge against him; they don’t actually seem to be concerned with the woman or her story. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and he and the woman are eventually left alone. When Jesus asks the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” she replies, “No one, sir.” Jesus reassures her that neither he condemns her and to go and sin no more.
Out of this whole passage, I tend to hear zealous Christians say, “See? He says to sin no more! We need mercy, but we also need rules!” Jesus says himself that he comes not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Our laws, our certainty about what’s right or wrong, and our zeal to punish someone out of our own false sense of righteousness and out of the guise of being holy, is what gets us into trouble. It severs relationships and wrongfully puts us in an idolatrous position in which we play God. Meanwhile, Jesus does not hold a hearing. He does not ask her a full account of her story, ask her to explain herself, or ask her for penitence. He simply sits with her until her legalistic accusers are gone, and encourages her to live differently.
I personally believe those in American Christian communities are totally capable of holding complete opposite views and still allowing people to be who they are, with all their stories, their triumphs, and their defeats. It is our relationships and mercy towards others and with God that support and transform the world, not judgment and punishment.
2. We need to realize there is no such thing as “private theology.”[i]
The Guttmacher Institute reported in 2014 that out of the women that received abortions, 24% were Catholic, 17% were mainline Protestant, 13% were evangelical Protestant and 8% identified with some other religion (for a total of 62%), while only 38% percent of patients had no religious affiliation.[ii] This is not said to point out hypocrisy, but rather to exemplify that no matter how one identifies, we all face choices regarding our sexual health throughout our lifetime. If Christian and religious women are walking to planned parenthood covering their faces and hiding from the same faith communities that are repeatedly telling us that God and the church love us, then something has gone terribly wrong with not only our relationships to each other, but our theology in practice.
During Clinical Pastoral Education, I once sat between a man handcuffed to a bed, a policeman by his side and another policeman outside the door. The man was accused of a brutal crime against a woman, and as his chaplain, I listened closely to his interpretation of the events that had led to his arrival at the hospital and arrest. I did what any chaplain would do and prayed with him about his worries for the future. After that, I read an article from one of the local papers that gave the details of the account of what happened. I admit, I felt sick and couldn’t believe that I had been in the same room with this person. As I gave my verbatim to my group about this encounter, I asked my supervisor, “How do I know what the truth is?” Underneath my novice question was the need to know what actually happened so that I could determine his worthiness. My supervisor replied, “The only truth that matters in the moment of confession, is what is true to the patient.”
Most recently at a workshop, we talked about what the goal of chaplaincy is. What we determined was that it was about finding resiliency. My job was not to determine what the “real truth” was about this person. It wasn’t to determine whether he deserved forgiveness. It was only to help prepare his heart, mind, and soul for whatever might lay ahead. When we stop acting like gatekeepers to truth and goodness, we instead help people find their own sacred worth, and make them capable of seeing the sacred worth in others. One of the most important things I learned in CPE is that we bring our own identities and baggage with us every time we talk to someone. In this case, we also bring our own theology. Thomas Merton said it best: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy…what we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.
3. We need to decide to become agents of change and leave gatekeeping behind.
Danny Meyer is not a theologian, but he is an expert in the hospitality field. In his book, Setting the Table, he claims that “in every business, there are employees who are the first point of contact with the customers…those people can come across either as agents or as gatekeepers. An agent makes things happen for others. A gatekeeper sets up barriers to keep people out.”[iii] While we might argue that the church is not a business, it is still an institution that operates with a notion of “radical hospitality” and a slogan that says, “All are welcome,” which we unhesitatingly put on all our church signs and bulletins. Churches truly believe this about themselves, but then teach the faith with conditions to their love and inclusion, which is exactly how “nones” and “dones” experience today’s church.
When I meet people at the reference desk of the library, it is not part of my job to start asking them questions to determine what they should have access to or determine if their question is worth answering- that’s the job of a gatekeeper. Instead, my job is to help them search for whatever they are asking, allow them to form opinions, make decisions, and engage with information that challenges or supports their worldviews. I connect them with community resources so they might have a supportive network and become proactive instead of reactive in their life circumstances, and show them how one thing they are researching might be interconnected with others. My job, as Danny Meyer defines it, is to be an agent, so I can “make things happen for others.” In other words, as an agent, my job is to give agency. Christian communities should be able to explore agency within the faith, as well.
One of the most famous scriptures utilized in Christian gatekeeping is John 14:6 in which Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life, nobody comes to the Father except through me.” This is typically read as an exclusionary passage- take the Jesus way or there’s no way! However, Christ believers in the Johannine community often called themselves “the Way” (see Acts 9.2). In this historical context, knowledge of the truth was considered more “like a personal relationship, instead of an intellectual experience.”[iv] If we abide by this Johannine understanding, this becomes a calling to come into relationship with Jesus and each other, instead of an intellectual experience which results in parroting the law and poorly executing it. Jesus is not a bouncer outside of an exclusive club for the holy and righteous, but rather our savior and example we follow in love, trust, and companionship.
The question is worth asking: are you an agent or a gatekeeper?
[i] Viera, J. (2018, October 2). “No Such Thing As Private Theology”: Dean Viera Launches Social Justice Leadership Project. Retrieved from Drew: https://www.drew.edu/theological-school/2018/10/23/deans-address-at-tipple-vosburgh-launching-the-social-justice-leadership-project/
[ii] Guttmacher Institute. (2019, 05 31). Retrieved from https://www.guttmacher.org/report/characteristics-us-abortion-patients-2014
[iii] Meyer, D. (2006). Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. New York: HarperCollins.
[iv] Reinhartz, A. (2011). John. In M. Z. Brettler, & A.-J. Levine, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 186). New York: Oxford University Press.
Janine Carambot Santoro is an Associate Chaplain at St. Luke’s University Hospital and a Library Technician at Bethlehem Area Public Library, in Bethlehem, PA. Janine received her B.A. in English and Psychology from Rutgers University (NJ) and her M.Div from Drew Theological School (NJ). Her recent research interests include public theology, Christian ethics, and pedagogies of healing. She currently enjoys reading, writing, traveling, and creating curriculum and workshops for sacred, (w)holistic work to be done in secular places.