Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Limits of Good Disagreement

Today's gospel reading (Mark 3:20-35) shows Jesus reaching the end of his patience, and snapping out a very hard limit to the edges of good disagreement.

He's under pressure both from those who are following him - whose demands are wearing him out - and from those who are opposing him. He's hungry - we're told he hasn't even been able to eat due to the crowds pressing round. In fact, the implication is that he is 'hangry'. And he snaps, into one of those occasional really fierce statements:

"people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin".

Its one of those statements that we often glide over - surely Jesus can forgive everyone, he is basically nice? But it suddenly seems relevant in a new way. It seems to me that, as we struggle in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion to find ways of doing disagreement well, 'good disagreement', this morning's gospel offers a firm boundary for that.

Jesus is provoked into saying this because people are accusing him of doing his miracles, healings, etc by demonic power. Looking at the Holy Spirit and calling it demonic is, he declares, the unforgiveable sin.

That doesn't mean people have to immediately recognise the Holy Spirit at work, or even acknowledge it. And Jesus carefully prefaces this bombshell by saying that everything else - even blasphemies - can and will be forgiven.

So as we try to model 'good disagreement', have 'shared conversations', and so on - just don't, ever, label something that might, just might, be of the Holy Spirit as demonic. You don't have to think it is of the Holy Spirit - you're free to think (and say) that you believe your interlocutor to be deluded.

So in the 'woman debate' - I can happily coexist with colleagues who don't think I should be ordained, though I will of course argue vigorously with them. But it goes too far if someone claims that a woman who thinks she has heard the call of the Holy Spirit to be ordained must be suffering from a demonic spirit. It goes too far if someone tries to cast out a 'spirit of rebellion' from a woman who speaks out in ways they disagree with. It goes too far if someone equates feminism with satanism or demonic temptation.

And in the 'gay debate' - in the shared conversations that are currently underway - by all means robustly argue your point of view. I'm an academic - I love a good argument. But it goes too far to be within the limits of a Christian discourse if you accuse the love that two people share, which they believe to be holy, of being satanic. It goes too far if you accuse people of being the anti-Christ for interpreting the Scriptures differently to you. It goes too far if you try to deliver them from evil spirits, or refuse to be in the same room as them because you fear satanic contamination.

You may, of course, sincerely believe that these things are in fact true. You may believe that it is those who hold views that seem to you perverse are the ones who are blaspheming. Presumably those outside the house where Jesus was teaching thought the same thing. But if you hold that view then I assume you take the Scriptures very seriously indeed - and note that here Jesus says people will be forgiven their sins, and whatever blasphemies they utter - but don't blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.  
I'll say that again - Jesus says here that Whatever we do or say that may be wrong, or sinful, is forgiveable - except accusing the Holy Spirit of being demonic. Even when you don't realise that it is the Holy Spirit, and genuinely think this is a disruptive, satanic influence.

So: good disagreement. Disagree, by all means. Disagree vigorously. But don't drag the devil into it, to be on the safe side.

And make sure you eat well.