The seemingly relentless litany in recent church history of high-profile and no-profile Christian religious leaders being caught in the act of spectacularly transgressing some aspect of their own Judeo-Christian moral code has got me thinking that the Christian obsession (explicit and implicit) with protecting one’s reputation in the eyes of the Christian and secular establishment could be misguided.
A few weeks ago I was away from my home city staying in a suburb in which 30% of the inhabitants are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, transvestite and intersex, hanging out with them to deepen my relationships with LGBTI people there who are exploring what it means to follow Jesus in a faith community. Just by being with this community, I was aware that I ran the risk of attracting a certain amount of criticism from some of my friends, family and Christian groups. Then, a talk in a church on Sunday morning while I was there, based on Luke 15, raised the question, “Am I willing to allow my reputation to be damaged for the sake of my relationships?”
I had been brought up in an environment in which my family, friends, church leaders and society highlighted repeatedly the importance of protecting my reputation. My family feared that I would bring shame on them if I was caught with the “wrong” people or doing something not approved by them, the church or society. My friends wanted to be sure that I didn’t hang out with people that they would feel uncomfortable being seen with (unless we were on a mission trip). The church didn’t want me to associate with people who might undermine my faith and who don’t fit the standards for those who are welcome in the fellowship. And society expected me to support the status quo by doing what the majority finds acceptable.
But, sitting in that church a few weeks ago, I was impressed that Jesus has a different view on reputation. Luke 15 opens with the mutterings of religious leaders complaining about the company Jesus kept. Jesus proceeds to tell three stories about three people who place more importance on looking out for something or someone that is lost than on sticking with what is already safe. It is this Jesus who is concerned for those who are lost who calls me to put relationship over reputation. I suggest that, when we think about relationship and reputation, a close reading of the gospels leads to the conclusion that Jesus didn’t worry about his reputation amongst his family, friends, religious institutions and society.
I got to thinking about my own situation as a white, heterosexual male mentoring and life coaching immigrant (mostly female) young people and LGBTI people. I didn’t chase down this life of mission. It found me through relationships with people in these communities over the past 40 years. But it has resulted in numerous incidents in which my reputation has been called into question by family, friends and church leaders as I have been caught in the act of maintaining relationships outside of the safe norms accepted by the establishment. Caught in the act of:
- being seen in public with my friend who is a prominent leader of the gay community and getting hugged and kissed on the cheek and called “Sweetie”;
- marching in the Sydney Mardi Gras to say sorry for the way the church has treated LGBTI people and being hugged and kissed by semi-naked LGBTI people – just being in the parade was enough to damage my reputation in the eyes of some people. (Even more damaging to my reputation was my inability to dance in the parade with anything like the moves of those around me.);
- being assumed to be the partner of a younger man whom I attended a church service with at an LGBTI church in my home city;
- in daily life, often being seen in public alone with a variety of young Asian women in cafés, restaurants and other places and being presumed, by those looking on or acquaintances I happen to run into, to be with them for a variety of wrong reasons.
All of these have drawn comment about the impression my behaviour gives and my motives. But, Jesus seemed to attract similar comments when we read the gospel accounts. And, furthermore, it would appear that, for Jesus, reputation in the eyes of family, friends and religious leaders was not the issue. Relationship with those outside of those circles was the issue. He seemed more concerned that his relationships reflected and replicated the relationship that his father wanted to have with him and those around him.
So much of our time and effort can be taken up with concerns about our reputation in the eyes of people who already think they are in the kingdom of God when, instead, Jesus is calling us to a life of relationships with people who consider themselves outside the kingdom of God. From observing the life of Jesus and from my experience, I would suggest that, when reputation with those already “in” is not the issue, authentic relationship with those who are “out” grows and it reveals Jesus to others and ourselves.
Another observation from reading the gospels and my own experience is that the attribution of a bad reputation to me is usually made by those who are uninvolved with society outside of their ecclesiogical ghettos and who fear that, by sacrificing my reputation in the religious structure for relationships outside of organized religion, I might “fall” or cause others to “fall”. But, I believe this fear is founded on a faulty view of involvement in structured Christianity (which I have explored briefly in a previous article, “Church is Fantasy”) and morality for which, in the last two articles I have written for RLC, I have explored the practice of a redeeming morality rather than a judging or condemning morality as well as arguing for a quantum morality that puts the will of God to be with people in their need, ahead of the desire to prove what is right or wrong.
If we can see beyond the fabrications of organized Christianity and embrace a morality that values redemption and the will of God, I believe we will be free to reflect how Jesus dealt with people both inside and outside of the religious constructs of the time and emphasise relationship with those who are “out” rather than reputation with those who are “in”.
In the early days of Jesus’ ministry, where he is tempted in the wilderness, his responses to Satan’s temptations appear to damage his reputation by his refusal to be relevant (bread was something that everyone would have welcomed and made Jesus a hero as a religious leader), powerful (control of the kingdoms of the world would have given him absolute authority and power to mandate adherence to his religion globally), and spectacular (by performing a feat that would have established his fame forever and convinced people to follow his religion). And yet, after appearing to miss all these opportunities to enhance his reputation in the eyes of the religious, the rich and the powerful, we read that he returned to his neighbourhood and, without any apparent broadcasting of what he had just been through, his reputation spread throughout the countryside – a good reputation in the eyes of the people who were longing for redemption and a bad reputation in the eyes of people who thought they had all the answers.
Interestingly, for many Christian leaders caught in a morally disreputable act, there is a variety of responses that seem to illustrate the connection between reputation and relationship. People in the church looking on either choose relationship with the fallen one and facilitate genuine redemption, or choose reputation to either exclude their fallen brother or sister or to explain away and whitewash his/her transgressions and restore the fallen leader back on his/her now doubtfully reputable pedestal. People outside the church may initially hurl justifiable accusations of hypocrisy at both the perpetrator and the institution but often revert to a sigh of relief that, yet again, a reputable Christian leader has been exposed as no better or worse than them. For the transgressor, s/he may choose reputation and fight to excuse his/her actions and attempt to reclaim their reputation, or s/he may, as a few of my friends in this situation have done, recognize the folly of chasing reputation and choose relationship and discover a new way of following Jesus and proclaiming the gospel through humbly connecting with imperfect and often disreputable fellow travellers on the road to redemption.
I have been encouraged over the past few months to see evangelical and political leaders in New Zealand, the UK and the US espousing a change of opinion on the marriage equality issue. As I read their statements, they all seem to have one feature in common. A close friend or family member coming out has changed their perspective on the controversy and given a human face to the issues. I’ve been excited to see these leaders risking their reputation with the political and religious establishment for the sake of their relationships with people who matter to them and who are in jeopardy of being pushed out by their family, friends, church and social groups because they have come out. This seems to me to reflect more authentically the behaviour and teaching of Jesus.
It seems that when we take a moral approach that values redemption and the will of God over judgement, condemnation and right and wrong, our reputation may suffer in the eyes of religious leaders but it will be enhanced in the eyes of people who want to connect with Jesus in a meaningful and authentic way.
And this is what I believe we are called to do as followers of Jesus – to fulfil the will of God to bring redemption to those around us by being caught in the act of making our relationships with them more important than our reputation in the eyes of those who already think they are righteous.
Mal Green is a member of Incedo, a mission order in New Zealand exploring what it means to follow Jesus with young people 24/7 outside of the structures of Christianity so that we can invite them to join us in our faith adventure. He has been hanging out with young people since 1969 while studying, lecturing, mentoring, pastoring.