Let’s begin with a little parable, titled, “The Two Bobs.”
There once were two neighbors, both named Bob. One is an evangelical Christian, the other is gay and agnostic. They've lived next to one another in a duplex for several years, and have been good neighbors: getting one another's mail when the other travels, hauling each other's garbage cans to and from the curb, and have occasionally had a cookout together. They are friends, but they've never really had a discussion about their differences.
One day, during March Madness, a stiff gust of wind knocked a tree limb into their power lines, and they found themselves without electricity, five minutes before the U of L game. They wandered out onto their respective porches and decided to go to a nearby pizzeria to watch the game.
Somewhere before the end of the game, this conversation began:
Bob 1: Isn’t it surprising that we've become friends?
Bob2: What do you mean?
1: Well, one of us has a rainbow sticker on their bumper, and the other has a Jesus fish. According to most folks, we shouldn't get along.
2: Yeah, I'll admit it's crossed my mind once or twice. Does it bother you?
1: Does what bother me?
2: Well, that I am who I am?
1: Hmmm… I don't know how to answer that. Does it bother you that I am the way that I am?
Bob 2 scratches his chin, waits a moment.
2: I suppose there are two answers to that question. One is no, not at all. We've been good friends. You took my dog to the vet when it got into a fight with a possum. You share my hatred of the University of Kentucky. What's not to like? On the other hand, I think you've have committed your life to something that's toxic to our culture, and to yourself, and I wish for your sake, my sake, and the world's that you believed something different. So no. And also, I worry about you.
Bob 1 leans back a little, grinning.
2: Did I offend you?
1: No, not at all. In fact, I would probably give the same answer about you, though I'd phrase it a little differently.
2: How so?
1: Well first of all, I’d talk about your barbecue skills, and I’d admit that I like your smelly dog. Second, I’d say that I think who you are and who I am is more complex than beliefs and commitments… but I think that's true for myself too.
2: You don't think you chose to be that way?
1: Did you?
2: I guess I did and I didn't. Or maybe, I didn’t then I did. It was something I didn’t want, but eventually I had to admit it.
1: I guess I didn't and then I did.
2: That's a better way of putting it.
1: For both of us.
2: For both of us.
1: So all this simmers in the background while we see one another, day by day.
1: But we just keep on being neighbors and sharing the occasional pizza.
2: Yep. Breathing the same air, trying to figure out how to get along.
The game got heated for a few moments and they drifted away from the conversation. Soon, it started up again.
1: Let me ask you something.
1: You're saying that you didn't choose to be the way you are, but then you did.
2: Yeah. It was a journey. I didn't want to believe it, but eventually, it became undeniable, and I had to accept it inwardly, and then I had to accept it outwardly.
1: How did your family react?
2: Well, they're more sympathetic to you than me… It wasn't easy. It still isn't. I get snarky comments occasionally, especially during election seasons.
1: Oh yeah… the worst.
2: The worst. Let me ask you something now.
2: Has it caused trouble for you? Like, at work or anything?
1: Well, sometimes. Some folks just think it's awful, and you have to win them over by just being an ordinary person.
2: Because they think you're a monster?
1: Because they think you're a monster.
2: That's familiar.
The game ends, the two walk back home, and their friendship resumes. Conversations return to this topic, and both try to convince the other of their errors… But thus far, not much has changed. They remain good friends and good neighbors.
This parable is meant to do two things. First, it’s sort of a Rorschach test. Which of the Bobs is a Christian, and which one is gay? In a culture that remains hostile to the LGBT community at one end of the spectrum, and at the other end, hostile to Christians who hold traditional beliefs, we will find folks like both Bobs: their social experiences are almost interchangeable. I’ve known young converts to Christianity whose progressive-minded families have been mortified by their new faith, and most of us have heard horror stories about LGBT folks “coming out” to their family. Both find certain social environments hostile, and both are tempted to hide who they are in order to make life easier. There are active factions in the world who wish that Bob (either of them) wasn’t allowed to show his face in public.
Secondly, I think this conversation is very real and true to life. It’s a conversation that I’ve had in one form or another with many friends over the years. I’ve also had conversations that were much less friendly. But the context here is, I think, the key: being neighborly, being a friend, creates space for conversations that are hard. And while that probably won’t resolve the growing public tension over these issues, it might help us to live at peace with our neighbors, and that is, in some ways, far more important.
I think it’s important to point out that this happens often, and peaceably. The recent film God’s Not Dead paints a picture of embattled Christians who are hated by “others”, and while that certainly exists, I’m not sure if it’s the norm. I had many Philosophy professors who weren’t Christians, and never once was there open hostility to my faith. I actually entered college expecting it to be much worse.
The other day, I said that we need empathy and not understanding. I think this parable demonstrates that. The Bobs don’t suddenly understand one another now that they’ve talked. To understand would enable the other to comprehend and appreciate why the other is committed the way they are. But empathy, in the way I’m trying to use it, is to appreciate the mystery of the “why”, the humility that accepts that I don’t have to understand, but I can make space for the other person. It isn’t pity, and it isn’t belittling: it’s honor. We are more complex than our simple categories for “gay” or “Christian.” Empathy also doesn’t mean that we don’t openly disagree, but it requires that we do so with humility, gentleness, and respect.
Understanding, I believe, is a unifying force and unity is just what is unlikely to happen in a culture where people can live next to someone who fundamentally disagrees with them about life’s most important questions. Empathy says, “Okay, I don’t get understand you, but I don’t have to and I don’t have to win the argument. And don’t worry about the recycling bins while you’re out of town; I’ll take care of them.”
Some might critique Christian Bob for not evangelizing in their conversation, but that’s not necessary. First off, I’m to blame for writing his evangelism-free dialogue, not Bob, and second of all, we are only looking at one window into the Bobs’ friendship. For all you know, Bob may have evangelized many times before, including on the walk to the pizzeria or on the walk home. So don’t be so quick to judge. That wasn’t the point of the parable.
Christians make space for others all the time; neighbors who are adulterers or gluttons, alcoholics or tax cheats. We have family members who are liars and Christians – at their best – love these folks because they know that they are no different but for the grace of God. And so, Bob can make space for Bob even while he lovingly extends the offer of grace in Jesus Christ. That offer includes a call to repent of Bob’s sins, and that’s a tough pill to swallow. But the truth is that the other Bob wants to convert Christian Bob too – not to being gay, of course, but to his own worldview. The question for both Bobs – and for all of us – is whether we can make space for one another. Can we be a neighbor to those with whom we fundamentally disagree about truth, life, eternity, and everything else that matters?