I can remember being stunned by how authentic Bill was in our conversations. I’ve encountered many, many people who call themselves Christian and who place their agenda (converting others, for example) ahead of imitating the Jesus who said, “I am gentle and humble of heart.” One man shouted insults at me from a street corner while holding a large sign advertising for an ex-gay ministry. Another told me that Jesus was more interested in saving my soul from hell than in working for justice and peace in the world.
Bill, and the other Christians I choose to associate with, lack this disturbing attitude. They prefer to speak with actions rather than words when possible. And, despite every fiber of my being protesting, I could not help but ask for this man’s advice and prayers when I had trouble in my own family.
What had happened? How had I gone from brutal criticism and outrage to trusting and genuinely liking this guy? After enough emails to fill many books, I had come to see him as a human being with closely held beliefs, just as I was a human being with closely held beliefs. There was honest give-and-take, which required humility by both of us. We were an established family man and a diehard young activist, both learning how to respect boundaries and think in new ways; to put ourselves in another’s shoes. As a well-known Buddhist has said, “Understanding is necessary for compassion.”
Whether you see each person as the precious result of some 14 billion years of cosmic evolution, or as specially created in the image of God, and whether you think your interpretation of religious doctrine or tradition is the unchangeably “right” way or that today we have to change our thinking in light of secular knowledge, you can honor the unique beauty of each person by refusing, under any circumstances, to hate, to exclude, or to hurt. I have been on the other side of the line with too many teens sobbing as they contemplate suicide. I don’t really care what anyone thinks about how I live my life—but I do care very, very deeply about my brothers and sisters in spiritual crisis and emotional agony because of a lack of understanding and care in the churches. Bill’s heart and mine are perfectly aligned on this point. Salvation, I suspect, can begin to bloom only in the good soil of respectful dialogue without hypocrisy. This requires us to be “gentle and humble of heart,” committed to only speaking and acting with nonviolence and compassion.