I can clearly imagine the father of the prodigal son running with desperation in his eyes. His son was alive. What a sweet reunion that must have been (Luke 15:20).
A father has two sons, each one taking a very different path in life. The older son aimed for perfectionism. He toiled in the fields and managed his father’s wealth with wisdom and caution, obeying each of his father’s commands. The younger son, on the other hand, left the family to squander all of his inheritance (Luke 15:30).
Although the father is filled with joy with the younger son’s arrival, the older brother is livid after returning from his work in the fields. He learns that there is a celebration with a fattened calf cooking and music playing. Filled with resentment, he will not enter the party.
Comparing his self-sacrifice, obedience, and consistency to his little brother’s carelessness, the older brother feels cheated. After toiling in the fields, never missing a command, and serving his father (Luke 15: 29), the older son is left with anger for having done ‘right’ by his father. He gave his life’s work to his father and the family estate only to feel invisible. He creates a dogma—a stabilized viewpoint that becomes the bedrock for his role as son: hard work, self-sacrifice, and obedience are the means by which we earn value.
One striking dynamic in this story is the relational divide created by the older brother’s resentment. He cannot experience joy upon his brother’s return. The relational rift stemming from his self-perceived perfectionism is a barrier keeping them from joining in relational intimacy. A system of behavioral superiority keeps them divided—one feeling empowered while the other senses rejection.
A profound takeaway is the older brother who built a sense of worth based on what he accomplished. Jesus’ parable, however, points out the fact that nothing we do (e.g., the right vs. wrong, the clean vs. dirty, the perfected vs. the flawed) has the ability to alter one’s status as a beloved child of God. It seems the older son has not yet learned this lesson.
Sadly, many of us in the LGBTQIA community know what it feels like to be othered. As we think about the annual conference theme, “Love Undivided,” it is important to highlight that some within the Q Christian community also feel othered because of the ‘great debate’ between Side A and Side B positions. When relational divides are present, it is easy to judge one another’s choices and behavior. ‘Othering’ is often used to categorize those to whom we do not relate, inspiring separateness because our differences place us in opposing theological, institutional, or political camps. We may even use our differences to scapegoat one another.
“Relational dualism” is a term defining how barriers delineate the right from the wrong, the in from the out, and the clean from the dirty. Relational categories like these strip us from being able to identify the God-given value of others. Just as dangerous, these categories often keep us from recognizing the God-given value of ourselves. We have become accustomed to feeling worthy because we’ve created a list of standards we can achieve. When we do this, we identify more with our works than with our role, forgetting we bear the imago Dei. We become captives of what we can (or think we should) do, rather than who we are. We fabricate a false sense of safety.
The harm of relational dualism is systemic discord, prejudice, and behavioral elitism. It is easy to believe we have lived out the ‘correct’ answers because we toil in the field like good children. We think we have lived the right way, having never failed to obey “every command” (Luke 15:29).
When we have lost a sense of inherent worth we will become easily angered when others aren’t measuring up to the standards we so laboriously toil to meet. We will judge the performances of all those who do not measure up. We may easily feel self-righteous when we “other” another group. Doing so, unfortunately, will label us as judgmental and even unsafe.
In this way, relational dualism destroys the safety necessary to ask challenging questions, remain vulnerable, and take bold steps in our spiritual development. We stop growing without relational safety.
Relational dualism blocks us from understanding compassion and grace, and subsequently keeps us from offering compassion and grace to one another.
Jesus teaches us, in his parable of the prodigal son, that we cannot know our deep inherent value if we constantly try to earn it. It is through our selfishness, blunders, walks of shame, and embarrassments—and God’s persistence to welcome us back—that we learn. God does not expect perfection, but strives for reconciliation. Some would call it repentance.
Deconstructing relational barriers allows us to reverse the erroneous identities we have created. And when we do this demolition work, we are able to strip away the unhealthy pride, entitlement, and the “othering” that separates us from our beloved siblings. Watching the crumbling of relational dualism is scary. It forces us to lose any sense of self-made safety in our behavior, our choices, and our successes. We are left with nothing but believing in our true inherent worth, full-heartedly. Finally, we are able to see the equity of all humankind, connecting us to one another through love without divisions.
What relationally dualistic (e.g., in or out, righteous or sinful, bad and good, etc.) categories do you most use to create a perceived sense of safety?
Based on your experiences, has debate between Side A and Side B created relational barriers within the Q Christian community? How so?
How has homo/trans/biphobia been established and maintained by relational dualism in your community?
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