Posted by: Dan | October 6, 2006

Coming to Grips with Separation (Part 1?)

About four months ago my parents separated. My parents had been “married” for nearly thirty-three years, when I received a call from my mother informing me that she had left my father. A great variety of emotions passed through me in those first weeks.

After speaking with my mom, I sort of broke down and had a good hard cry. It's not that the separation was entirely unexpected, it's just that the inevitable can still knock the wind out of us when it arrives. It's like watching a cancer patient get more and more ill: we still cry when that patient dies. We cry because of the thread of brokenness that runs through creation; we cry because death, even when we know it is coming, is still something worth mourning because God desires a world where death no longer has any power. And we cry because separation, even when it is inevitable, is still something worth mourning because God desires a world in which all of us are reconciled with one another. (Note that in all of this I am not saying that the separation was the event which broke my parents' relationship, I think that the relationship was broken year before, and that's why I use the analogy of a terminal illness that results in death [and that's also why I put the word “married” in quotes in my first paragraph]). And so my first response was to mourn our communal brokenness.

My second reaction, which is still ongoing, and which is the focus of this post, was to try and think through these things Christianly. To begin with, I quite firmly believe that separation can be a genuinely Christian event. I very much believe that separation can be exercised within marriage in a way that is analogous to the way in which excommunication should function within the Church.

Excommunication is not an action that kicks people out of the corporate body of Christ, rather it is a (last, desperate) action that reveals that the excommunicated person, through his or her own ongoing activity, has already separated him or herself from the covenant people of God. Excommunication thus makes that fact clear to all the parties involved (and to all those who observe people who call themselves “Christians”). Furthermore, excommunication is practiced with the goal of reconciliation. A person's self-chosen separation from the body of Christ is made manifest so that that person can become a true member of God's covenant people. Stated in an overly simplistic manner, excommunication reveals that a person who thought that he or she was “in” the people of God is actually “out” and thus it simultaneously shows that person what he or she must do to be truly “in” — indeed, it encourages that person to do precisely what it necessary to be truly “in” (note that my use of “in” and “out” language here does not refer to the status of a person's “eternal salvation.” Rather I am simply speaking of a person's membership within the confessing body of Christ as it exists in the here and now).

Similarly, I believe that separation can be a (last, desperate) action through which one person in a marriage reveals that the other person in the marriage has already separated him or herself from the marriage covenant due to his or her ongoing actions. Therefore, separation makes this clear and, like excommunication, is also simultaneously a (last, desperate) attempt at genuine reconciliation.

This is, of course, the ideal.

In reality, things are, alas, much more messy and, yes, broken. The Christian ideal is for the reconciliation of all creation and all people but that ideal will never be fulfilled until Christ returns and makes all things new. Alas, even the Church, God's new creation body, God's forgiven and forgiving people, will never perfectly manifest this ideal. Therefore, another part of thinking through this topic Christianly is recognizing that some threads of brokenness will always remain within us, some wounds leave scars and others never fully heal. This is true of us physically (or are all Christians in perfect physical health?), and it is just as true of us relationally and emotionally. Thus, although our ideal is for reconciliation in all things, we also embrace those who are unable to be reconciled with all people (who among is is truly reconciled with all people?). Sure, our ideal is to see all of creation reconciled, but that doesn't mean we are encouraging lions and calves to lie down together, and it also doesn't mean we're encouraging our children to play with vipers (cf. Isaiah's vision of the new creation in Is 11). Of course, I'm not saying that either person in my parent's relationship was “a viper” or “a lion,” I'm simply pointing to the fact that sometimes our ideal of reconciliation is impossible in the here and now.

This means that living Christianly sometimes means accepting that threads of brokenness and separation will always be present even within the people of God, and it means that sometimes we must accept that brokenness and recognize our desperation for (and distance from) the time when God will be all in all.

This conclusion is a difficult one for me to draw. Indeed, I don't think I would have been able to draw this conclusion were it not for my study of Miroslav Volf's writings (cf. Exclusion and Embrace and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace). It is a conclusion I draw with some regret and with some hesitation. With regret because, even though this is the reality, it is a sad reality. With hesitation because I think too often people use this sort of argument as a way to avoid engaging in necessary reconciliations. Arguments, like this one, which are premised upon “realism” and “practicality” are too often used by those who look for the “minimum requirements” of a self-serving discipleship. We should never be looking for the “minimum” but should rather be asking how we can go deeper into a God-and-other-focused discipleship. I worry that people could read this argument and think “see, I knew I didn't have to forgive or reconcile with so-and-so” when really that's not what I'm arguing for at all. Forgiveness and reconciliation should be the de facto position of all Christians. Yet there are situations of brokenness that challenge that position, and that must be taken seriously. Of course, the objection can be made that God can heal all brokenness, no matter how deep, and this is true. The response to this objection is simply that God does not, here and now, heal all brokenness, and we must create room within the people of God for those God does not fully heal. We must welcome such people with open arms until such a time as God chooses to heal them fully — even if that time does not come until after the resurrection.

Of course, in making these observations there is a line I am drawing between brokenness and obstinance. Some are incapable of reconciliation because their wounds never fully heal, and such people should be welcomed in the way that I suggest. Others are incapable of reconciliation because they are obstinate, and such people should be challenged. Hence the need for discernment, and hence the reason why it may seem like, in this post, I am giving with one hand what I take away with the other.

So, these thoughts on excommunication, separation, brokenness, and our distance from God being “all in all” lead me back to the situation of my parents and one final thought.

I have come to the conclusion that the Church must more fully embrace the notion of separation as a form of excommunication. Because the Church, especially the Conservative streams of the Church (of which my mother is a part) is so opposed to divorce, and also tends to see the woman as subservient to the man in marriage, separation is rarely practiced in the way that it should be practiced. Instead, women (and men) end up staying in relationships that are destructive and consequently, when separation occurs, they do not separate with the goal of reconciliation — they separate because they are so shattered that they cannot possibly stay within that relationship. When this occurs, full reconciliation often becomes a remote possibility, or a complete impossibility. Thus, if we are really to hope to see broken marriages reconciled, we must embrace the place of separation instead of continually counseling women (and men) to stay within destructive relationships.

Finally, because I began by speaking about my reactions to my parents' separation, I should note one other reaction — one that shames me, and reveals my deeply rooted selfishness. Early on I could not help feeling angry at my mom. I was not angry that my mom separated from my dad (for reasons that should now be obvious) — I was angry that she separated for the reasons that she did! As I have mentioned before, I was kicked out of my parents' house by my dad when I was 17. Thus, when I heard that my mom had left, and when I heard why she left I thought: “what? You leave because of that, but you never left because of what happened to me? You never left when I got thrown to the wolves, so why are you leaving now?” Of course, I knew that there were all sorts of things in my mom's life that enabled her/drove her to leave when she did but I still felt that knee-jerk selfish reaction for a little while. I am ashamed of that reaction and thank God that I never said anything about it to my mom. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

And have mercy on all of us as we struggle to follow you, even as we discover old scars that still ache. And please, Lord, hasten the day when you will be “all in all” and we will live in shalom with one another. Amen.

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