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But What About Harm...?

I startled, as the denominational representative perceived a differentiation that I did not…

We were at a review-team dinner for a UMC denominational-Senate visit to our seminary. The team had slated interest in insuring the UMC ethos, discipline, and values from a UMC University Senate perspective; our seminary has similar interest, though from a seminary’s location. I participated in the review conversations as the faculty rep, though I am not Methodist. I’m Presbyterian by affiliation, Quaker by proclivity, none by Generation-X skepticism for any large-scale, organized-religion institutions.

I did speak with unexpected passion, surprising even me amidst the transactional-political context. I had spoken an invitation for each of us to do the inner work of grieving, feeling the sadnesses and woundedness within us, all around us. The familiar Spirit-energized flow of language poured out of me, naming how divergent the grievances are, hidden by our shorthand labels that ‘other-ize,’ that never allow nuance. I named how common the sacred work could be–learning how to tend to our own griefs without projecting them onto others.

“But what about harm, not grief?” she asked.

I now wish I had asked her to say more. In the flow, I said, “Harm? Of course…it’s all around each of us…which creates sadness, which is refused, which means grief, unresolved, which turns to anger, rage. I see harm as the start of the entire continuum.” She needed to differentiate harm from grief. Curious.

I’m no stranger to ecclesially-inflicted harm. I shared with her my book, which names some of it. And I see the ways in which human beings are persistently unseen and unheard when they don’t fit the traditional values or norms of the church. The disregard of the poor, the ‘other,’ widows, orphans. The refusal to listen and honor, find legitimate, the direct experiences of others that do not align with one’s own…harmful. In each of these we can find the individual-collective grievances, the real physical-social harm–even violence–that comes within homophobia, racism, age-ism, able-ism, etc. Persons of faith have an unavoidable responsibility to live the least harm into the world, yes.

But why differentiate them? What purpose might it serve?

Does it arise from a savior-complex–if we prioritize harm we can be about saving others from harm? Immediately I hear a Black woman, elder-friend in my life: “Save your own damn self. Trust me and Godde with my healing.”

Is harm the focus because forgiveness is so foreign, fearful, requiring surrender? We’d rather be proactive ‘out there’ instead of facing the challenges–and freedoms waiting–in forgiveness?

I think I reacted to the differentiation because it felt like an activist’s refusal of the harder work of self-healing and forgiveness. This increasingly touches my own sadness whenever I am around denominational voices (of all persuasions) that feel so angry, so close to hatred, even if the words are cloaked in niceness, love of tradition or social-justice virtues.

But of course I would see it that way, given my Work.

I wish I had asked her to say more.

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