Faith in Little and Faith in Much: Boundaries and Respect

I don’t attend parties very often. Coming from a church culture where “parties” were often cited as dens of iniquity and sin, I’ve had trouble recalibrating my expectations of parties as things I actually want to attend. So when my upstairs neighbor invited me to his birthday party this past weekend, which was being held in his apartment, I decided I’d show up, check things out, and figure out whether or not I wanted to stay. I knew there’d be drinking, and I knew I wouldn’t be partaking – and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel being one of the only sober people in that group.

As it turns out, I had nothing to fear. Friends accommodated my teetotalling with aplomb, offering to make me virgin versions of mixed drinks, and even putting together a Shirley Temple for me. They understood that I had a boundary and needed to stick to it for my own personal health, and accommodated my preferences without acting like my non-drinking was a personal affront to their sense of a good time.

Despite being surrounded by almost total strangers, I felt safe and respected because this one, very basic but very small part of my life was respected as well. I had set a boundary and it was respected with grace – which allowed me to be more open and gracious with my hosts and have a better time than I’d initially anticipated. I got to know some awesome new people, made new friends, and deepened friendships I already had.

And it struck me that this all felt new because it was new. The church culture in which I’d grown up saw boundaries as an affront to personal connection, instead of facilitators of such. If you declined to participate in a discussion or an activity because of boundaries, you were acting in unChristlike ways.

I remember a particular activity we did one Sunday in my high school youth group. In demonstrating acts of service and our commitment to serving the body of Christ, we were required to experience the humility of washing another person’s feet. We had foot baths set up in the gym, and we were required, one by one, to both have our feet washed and to wash another’s feet. I remember one of the young men, who was clearly uncomfortable with the activity, turning it into a joke. Instead of washing his friend’s feet, he merely flicked water from one side of the dish to the other – refusing to actually touch skin to skin.

Our youth pastor looked at him and went, “Stop joking around and actually do it.”

Watching that, I knew my own discomfort wasn’t going to be respected as well, so I begrudgingly washed my partner’s feet. My partner in this exercise was a man, someone who was helping the youth group and who was much older than my 16 years. Refusing to do this somewhat degrading act would have been seen as refusing to serve in a Christlike manner. As “the good Christian,” I had no choice but to set aside my own discomfort at being made to touch another human being in a pretty intimate manner. I had to violate my own sense of propriety in order to “be like Christ.”

At least, that was the message of the day. Unfortunately, instead of drawing me closer to my youth group fellows, the activity put up walls between us. Those activities, based on teaching us about self-sacrifice and Christlikeness, actually taught me that church was not a place where my boundaries would be respected, that I could not expect my “no” to be understood. And this caused me to be wary about what “volunteering” meant in the context of youth group, caused me to take a step back from full participation and intimacy.

The thing is, the American church is upside down on boundaries. We think that boundaries are walls, impenetrable barriers and bulwarks against true intimacy and Christlikeness. We think we can only become who we are to be in Christ if we forgo our “human” boundaries.

Stanley Hauerwas, famous Christian ethicist, has argued this very thing. In an essay about abortion and the church in 1991, Hauerwas writes that “We Christians do not believe we have inalienable rights. … We do not believe we have a right to our bodies because when we are baptized, we become members of one another.”

I explicate this further in my book, but suffice it to say that Hauerwas seems to be saying that personal selves disappear when we become members of the church. Because we exist in a community, we cannot therefore see our very bodies as personal objects anymore – instead they belong to the collective. Violations of the collective ethic, then, through adultery, abortion, or premarital sex (or otherwise taking actions that proclaim a body apart from the collective) essentially excommunicate a person. The declaration of “my body, my choice” does not exist for Hauerwas because our bodies do not belong to our selves.

This kind of theology is deeply entrenched in the white American evangelical tradition, and it creates a problematic view of the world in which personal boundaries are barrier to Christ, rather than a healthy way to approach the world. We knock down and erase other people’s boundaries because it is “in their best interest” to be assimilated to the community, rather than allowing them to be understood as humans in their own right, created and beloved by God.

What’s fascinating, too, is that this collectivist ethic espoused by Hauerwas seems to exist merely as a reaction to 20th century feminist declarations, rather than as an extension of understanding of Jesus. I’m not claiming to be a better scholar than Hauerwas – and would never claim so – but instead pointing out that Hauerwas’ ethical “objectivity” is bound by his social position as a white, cisgender, heterosexual man who does not face the violation of his boundaries on a daily basis. For someone for whom boundaries are automatically understood and respected, it is easy to proclaim boundaries as a barrier to true intimacy.

But I think such teachings contradict what Paul has to tell us in Romans 14. In the discussion of the weak and the strong and whether or not one should eat meat around those for whom such meat is a problematic theological exercise, Paul falls firmly on the side of respecting a fellow believer’s boundaries. If someone is choosing to abstain, it is only right that such person does not feel pressured to break their abstinence against their will, even in the name of intimacy.

Perhaps, since meat sacrificed to idols is an obscure practice that does not translate well to modern day thinking, we could talk about alcoholic consumption, as so many do. Respecting and understanding a person’s choice not to consume, even if it is not the choice you would make, facilitates respect and a deeper understanding of intimacy among friends. “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

Respecting boundaries is a matter of faith. It is a matter of understanding the humanity and God-created-ness of your fellow human. And it translates to a deeper intimacy, a deeper understanding of love and grace and beauty. Instead of pressuring the non-drinker and subsequently forcing them out of the party, true respect and true love says, “Hey, I get it. Here, let me help you feel included regardless.”

True communion and true church don’t need to be inside the walls of a cathedral on a Sunday morning. Sometimes communion is skipping church to have breakfast with the neighbors.

[Photo by Kate Brokowski, Flickr]