Discrimination can face us in many ways, in many places. But the first step to tackling it, Mark Argent finds, is to look inside
What does it mean to be welcomed? And what does it mean not to be? While parliament and the media have been discussing gay marriage, and in recent years the United Reformed Church has pursued the idea of radical welcome, I have been reflecting on my own experiences of the corrosive effect of being on the receiving end of discrimination – both on grounds of religion and of sexual orientation – and of being the one who holds a place of difference in a group of people.
A place where I have learned a lot in the last couple of years, and been greatly enriched, has been the Free Community Church in Singapore. They are a theologically-liberal and majority-gay church, in a country where homosexuality has an ambiguous place – in a sad relic of colonial days, it is still illegal, though the law is rarely enforced and is being challenged in the courts at the moment. The Free Community Church grew out of a body called SafeHaven, a support group for gay people, often marginalised in mainstream churches. The prominent phrase on their website is “welcome home” – it’s not one of those inclusive-seeming lists suggesting a welcome “regardless of sexual orientation, age, gender or race” which inadvertently marginalises those it doesn’t name. Home is a place to belong. It’s not a cotton-wool-wrapped place of fake niceness, but a place to be oneself and engage honestly with what is thrown up by others doing the same.
I’ve heard some thought-provoking teaching on inclusion from their pastor, the Revd Miak Siew. His comments on discrimination particularly stand out. No-one who has been on the receiving end of real discrimination can doubt how destructive and soul-sapping it is. We’ve grown used to people denouncing it, and sometimes jumping heavily on those thought to be discriminatory, which invites a language of “political correctness”. Miak was rather more subtle. He pointed out that most of us can act in a discriminatory way at times, and suggested that a fruitful way forward is to explore why this is happening. Rather than treat our own snatches of discrimination as shameful and pretend they don’t happen, we should recognise them and ask: “What am I being invited to learn here?” or maybe: “What is God trying to show me?” That’s not a soft option, but turns the temptation to discriminate into an opportunity to learn.
There is also something very enriching in moving from the language of “not discriminating” to “recognising and valuing difference”. I’ve been in situations where naming the fact that I am gay, or that I am a member of the URC, or recognising that someone is from an ethnic minority, has unstuck a group which had run aground with a sense of “something” getting in the way. At one point in my time as secretary of the East of England Faiths Council, I found myself speaking at a conference organised by the regional government. On autopilot, the civil servants in charge set about hiding differences, which meant pushing the churches aside on grounds of what they saw as inclusivity. The people from the religious minorities heard this as faith being pushed aside by secularists, and they were uncomfortable. There was a very sharp intake of breath from the civil servants, and relief from everyone else, when I said that Jews, Christians and Muslims have fundamental differences over our understandings of Jesus, but the answer is to trust our friends of other faiths and name our differences, rather than hide them.
On another tack, I wonder how often people fight discrimination because they feel excluded for another reason that they don’t feel free to name? As a personal example, I was visible during the URC’s debate on human sexuality. I hid the fact that I was single and had been for a long time, partly because I didn’t want to be held up as an example by those who felt that gay people should be celibate. In arguing for the full inclusion of gay people who are not celibate I had to deal both with the pain caused by people assuming I had a partner, and the longing both for a relationship and for it to be valued. That could easily have muddied my comments.
At the start of this article I quoted the Free Community Church’s phrase “welcome home”. A good home is a place where people can recognise their differences. Instead of denying the feelings that limit welcome, it allows them to open up questions like: “What is the wound that must heal?” or “What is it that is being silenced or denied and needs to be heard?”
In theological terms, it is a mistake to confine Jesus to Palestine two millennia ago. If the incarnation is about God meeting us in human form, in our human weakness and frailty, then it might be drawing near in a congenial guise, but it could also be God drawing near in the form where we need to meet God. If my wounds lead me to be racist, God might draw near in someone of another race to help me address the wound behind my racism, rather than with the skin colour that makes me feel comfortable.
As a gay man, I am grateful for the gay-friendly atmosphere of the URC. My straight friends don’t seem to feel the need to articulate gratitude for the straight-friendliness of the URC because this is taken for granted. It seems really important to keep a space for those with whom I disagree, partly because that opens up a pathway into the transformative world of forgiveness, and partly because that provides a space for the part of me that is not sure it is welcome.
Mark Argent is a non-serving elder at St Columba’s URC, Cambridge, and retreat-giver at St Beuno’s Ignatian Spirituality Centre in North Wales
This article was published in the May 2013 edition of Reform.