(We all know how difficult it can be to discuss controversial topics, such as politics or theology, with friends who have different beliefs than you. The following is a brief reflection on my process of choosing friendship over being right.)
Recently, I attended an evangelical event with some 300 other Asian Americans. The event had a reception to honor a particular pastor who is a long-time friend of mine. Due to my pre-conceived notions about his conservative theological convictions and church community, I prepared myself for an uncomfortable and (potentially) argumentative day.
In many ways, the reception lived up to the conservative rhetoric I expected to hear. It felt like a full on worship service, replete with all the evangelical rituals one would expect on a Sunday morning. The reception began with worship music led by an acoustic guitarist singing of the wonders of Christ’s substitutionary atonement and the release of humanity’s debt of sin to God. Next came the sermon, full of gender delineated roles of innate male leadership (and by tacit suggestion female submission and/or invalidation of strong female leadership). The toasts, made by the guest of honor’s close church friends, thanked their immigrant parents which seemed to reinforce their church’s acceptance of the “hard work equals success” American individualism found in many strains of (Asian) American evangelicalism, encouraging the apolitical and antistructuralist stance of their communities.
Despite the blatant display of these right-wing evangelical symbols, I was surprised at my own emotional response towards this type of reception. I entered the event as defensive and suspicious, expecting to feel frustrated or alienated by interrogations or disconnections with other attendants. Instead I left the event feeling joyful and challenged by my own realizations.
As I sat through the flow of events, I realized how shut off and bitter I felt towards the guest of honor’s church, and by extension, the guest of honor himself. (He was not a distant stranger, but a long-time friend I grew up with.) I began to unearth the sinister turn my friend and I’s theological divergences took in my own mind: my progressive convictions caused me to assail his loyalty to his conservative evangelical tradition, and reduced him into a one-dimensional conservative and apolitical dummy. To me, he and his church were misguided, thoughtless, irrational, and thus altogether inferior due to their beliefs. In my imagination, he became a person to disagree with rather than a friend.
Weirdly, it was in this realization that I found joy. The high prioritization I placed on our theological differences blinded me to the wonderful things that made this friend a friend: his humor, his kindness, his understanding, even his faults and mistakes. Our friendship was once full of sleep-overs, board game tournaments, and late-night talking that deeply shaped the type of friend I am today. We were the friends who would not see each other for years, but still know deep down that we are and will be friends for the rest of our lives. These were the things that brought us together, but in my quest for being right, I lost sight of them.
I may never be able to talk to the guest of honor openly about these things, and we may never see eye-to-eye on how to live out our faith in this world. Yet I am glad I was challenged (or God challenged me?) to change my ways of thinking so at the very least our relationship could remain intact for the possibility of those conversations one day soon.
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- Why I am No Longer on Church Staff or in Seminary
- My Homeless Experience: Street Love and Small Acts of Kindness
- My Theological “Evolution”: Tensions, Questions, and Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide