What Kind of Example Will We Choose to Be?


During this week’s Chapels, Mr. Snowden emphasized the importance of picking good examples, regardless of whether we’re talking about how we swing a golf club, write a novel, or lead our lives. I hope to build on that theme by looking at the other side of the coin – the significance of being a good example.

With recent news of a “religious freedom” law being passed in Mississippi, how we choose to hold each other in the midst of disagreement is again in the headlines. In response to last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in support of same-sex marriage, several states have tried to mitigate the court’s impact on conservative constituents. In the case of Mississippi, a “religious freedom” law was duly passed. No doubt it will find its way to the Supreme Court, but as of July 1, it will stand as the law of the land.

But is this law a good example of how best to live together with our differences?

On the one side, it allows people who disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling to not be coerced into being associated with an act that contravenes their religious principles. On the surface, this appears to be a rather reasonable live-and-let-live solution: “Go ahead and get married. Just don’t make me a part of it.” Perhaps this isn’t a bad example of how to manage conflicting values.

Before deciding, though, let’s look at what it means on the ground.

The law being adopted in Mississippi is quite far-reaching. Individual clerks and judges in public offices can refuse to offer their services based solely on their personal faith stances. People who own a private business can figuratively close their doors to same-sex couples. This means that the jeweler can refuse to sell wedding rings, the photographer can put away the cameras, the baker can decline to make the cake, and the hotel can turn down requests to rent the banquet room.

Those who support the new law find all this to be rather reasonable. After all, as far as they’re concerned, same-sex marriage shouldn’t be happening in the first place, so they’re already meeting its advocates at a half-way point. Besides, wouldn’t the couples prefer to interact with people who agree with their lifestyle, anyway?

What’s difficult for them to appreciate is that those who do not share their religious beliefs see the situation in a radically different way. For the opponents of this law, same-sex couples are interchangeable with most any other minority group. To their mind, there’s no difference between refusing to bake the cake for a same-sex couple and refusing to bake one for a couple who happened to be disabled, immigrant or black.

Seen from this viewpoint, the new law doesn’t make for a positive example. At its best, it avoids the direct, human-to-human interactions that tend to build understanding and empathy over time. At its worst, it safeguards and legitimizes prejudice.

This handling of differences reminds me of a conversation I had some 15 years ago while sitting on a living room sofa in the home of an elderly congregational member. She was struggling with our congregation’s decision to offer same-sex union blessings (marriage was not yet a legal option). In fact, hers was one of the leading votes of protest. Between the two of us, we represented much of the viewpoint chasm being voiced in Mississippi.

Here’s the difference: we didn’t avoid each other. We poured a cup of tea.

When asked about how she reached her conclusions, my elderly companion talked about how she had never met a same-sex couple when she was young, how both her church and her society were clear that such relationships were taboo, and how no-one ever spoke otherwise. She offered a window into her worldview and I let her know that I appreciated the glimpse. Here she was, thinking that she was faithfully following all the expectations that her church and her society had made abundantly clear, only to have both change their collective minds and treat her as being the one in the wrong. After so many years of dedicated service, how could she not feel some sense of betrayal?

We then began to explore what had actually changed. Setting aside the question of gender – the loss of the image of a man and a woman at the front of the sanctuary – what was shifting? The question was new for her and surprising. It turned out that much of what she valued about marriage remained: love between two individuals; the expression of a life-long commitment; the contribution of the couple to a wider community; perhaps, with children, the creation of a parenting team. As we examined the larger picture, she was able to see why I wasn’t struggling.

Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t agree in the end. What we did accomplish was a remarkable disagreement. This is not so much to my credit. After all, my side of the conversation held all the cards: our church was already offering blessings, public opinion was trending towards inclusion, and the tide was turning in the courts. It was my elderly companion who felt the pressure of change. Yet, she was willing to be vulnerable and share something of herself in a way that helped me to understand and care. She also looked beyond her profound sense of loss to see what still might be maintained in this new reality.

Even though I disagreed with her position, I found her to be a remarkable, tea-sipping example of what it means to live together with significant differences. I hope that I’ll be able to follow her model when I eventually find myself in her shoes on some other subject, which will likely happen, given the inevitable pace of change.

In our community at SMUS, we draw students and teachers from more than 25 countries and five continents. All of our cultures and faiths and philosophies aren’t going to find themselves in agreement at every turn. What we have is an opportunity to be an example of how the world can live together in the midst of our differences. Of course, being a good model, an outstanding example, takes intentional work. It entails reaching out beyond our usual circles and bringing others in. It involves leaving those circles from time to time so that we can join other groups. We all need to spend time on that living room sofa, doing a lot of listening, a lot of sharing and a lot of growing.

Yet think about the potential. If we want to be that kind of model, an outstanding example, if we believe even for a moment that what happens within our walls might truly influence what happens beyond them, how would we choose to be together? How would we change? How would we stay the same?

Here’s the reality. Some day, each and every one of us will leave this campus, scattering across the globe, and don’t fool yourself, this place will have left its mark on us. How we choose to live together now, argue together now, celebrate together now, will leave its mark and influence what we eventually contribute out there to our families, our professions and our nations.

You see, the question isn’t whether or not we’re creating an example. The only question is: what kind of example we will be? And we make that choice, every day.

What kind of example would you have us be?

Rev. Keven Fletcher writes about SMUS-related Chapel stories for the SMUS News site. He also writes about seizing a meaningful life on his personal blog at kevenfletcher.com.


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