Neither Yes Nor No

photo credit: half satori

photo credit: half satori

In Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” [1], he uttered the often quoted phrase, “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Jesus was, of course, referring to swearing oaths (as in, “hand on the Bible, repeat after me…”). And in my late teens I enthusiastically enforced that phrase on my flakey Christian friends. If I asked a buddy to come watch the game and he said maybe? Dude, let your yes be yes and your no be no! If I wanted to get firm commitments for Praise Night ’91? Yes or no, guys, anything else is from the Devil!

In the end I came to understand that passage (and the ones around it) as referring to the impossibility of fully keeping God’s law. But, that didn’t keep me from dragging my yes-be-yes-ism with me into my 40s. I took pride in taking one side of a controversial issue and rejecting the other. I was pro-marriage equality and anti-traditinal marriage; pro-Jesus and anti-Paul; pro-science and anti-Bible; pro-univeralism and anti-fundamentalism. [2]

But then it occurred to me that maybe these arguments are not zero-sum games.

A zero-sum game is a situation where one side’s gain is exactly equal to the other side’s loss. For example, a tennis match can be understood as a zero-sum game in that one player will win and the other will lose. There aren’t really any situations where both players win…

Except that both players “win” pleasure from playing. Also, both players “win” exercise; and both players “win” camaraderie from engaging in sport together.

A similar point can be taken with some of our current debates. Taking one position does not require that another position is rejected out right.

For example, I believe that our country would be a vastly better place if civilians did not own guns. But I also understand the powerful tradition of independence symbolized by firearms. And, I get it: shooting stuff is fun. Taking this a step further, while I see that guns cause a lot of death in the US (31,672 in 2011), cars cause just as many (33,687). And really, in my heart, I believe we’re also better off in a world without cars. But I’m not giving up my Honda, no fucking way. [3]

photo credit: The Table at CPC

photo credit: The Table at CPC

So, back to Jesus, I heard a dude from the Marin Foundation on the radio the other day. [4] He was taking about all the yes-no questions that they get asked: Is homosexuality a sin? Are you pro-marriage equality? Can someone be gay and Christian? And their response is to “hold the tension” between the two communities that they love, the evangelical and the LGBT. In their words:

Rather than answering close-ended questions, The Marin Foundation seeks to elevate the conversation and continual fruitful dialogue, as tense as that may be. This is a model taken from Jesus throughout the Gospels. Of the 25 times Jesus was asked close-ended questions, only three times did he respond with a yes or no. These three times were only after he was arrested and admitting he was the Messiah. Prior to this, Jesus never answered close-ended questions with a yes or a no. Instead, he elevated the conversation.

I’m sure this position is frustrating to people who want to recruit Andrew Marin and his friends on to one side or another. I imagine the Marin Foundation would be an effective pawn in the power struggle between these two great American factions. And, I admit, I personally wish they would take the side that I prefer.

But I have grown to respect and admire their unwillingness to fight. And although I don’t see them as anywhere near this generation’s MLK Jr, there is something in the old pastor’s words that resonate here:

Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. [5]


[1] Matthew 5

[2] These are still, basically, my beliefs. I’m just happier to carry on a (more) open dialogue with alternative beliefs.

[3] This article in USA Today discusses the issues around guns, cars and death rates in the US


[5] From Martin Luther King Jr’s Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1964


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