I sometimes ask the divinity school students I work with to consider their “non-negotiables”: the beliefs, convictions, and practices which are so central and crucial to their understanding of what it means to be a human being and to be a follower of Jesus that they will not surrender them or compromise them, no matter what the cost.
I think it’s a crucial exercise, because if we don’t know what’s most essential, we can unwittingly give our primary loyalty and prime energy to secondary concerns. Lacking the necessary clarity about what matters most, we can damage our integrity, lose our self-respect, and show carelessness toward the people and things which actually deserve the most care. I don’t think it’s possible to live joyfully or lead effectively until we have a sense of what’s non-negotiable for us.
Here are two of my “non-negotiables”:
First (and I am paraphrasing Carlyle Marney here), I will follow light, as soon as I know it to be light, wherever it leads. There is no incompatibility between Light and God, between Truth and Jesus. If something is true it participates in, flows from, or leads to the kind of God made known to us in the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus.
So, my non-negotiable is: I won’t allow tradition or majority opinion to shackle my quest for truth.
There is a corollary: Genuine truth doesn’t create arrogance in the one who embraces it, and the light of reality melts human pride. Determination to live by truth includes a resolve to cultivate humility in the face of mystery and to live with an open, teachable, and childlike spirit.
Second, God created all human beings in the divine image; God cherishes and loves all human beings. There are no exceptions. None. No matter how broken or sinful or shameful someone may feel; without regard for success or failure, and beyond categories of race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, or sexuality, there is no one who does not, in some ways, reflect the shining imprint of God’s image. All people have an undying dignity and an imperishable worth.
No one is beyond the reach of God’s embrace. There are many ways to understand the message of Jesus; one of those ways is that he lived and died among us to make God’s free, passionate, and unconditional love for the whole world and for everyone unmistakable. God calls me to respect the divine image in everyone and, in the spirit of Jesus, to love everyone.
The non-negotiable which flows from this understanding of God’s treasuring of all people is: To the degree that I am aware of the impact of my words and actions, I will not speak, act, or lead in a way that diminishes anyone’s dignity or demeans anyone’s worth or causes anyone to doubt God’s love for him or her. Nor will I lend my loyalty or support to any group which does. When I become aware of hurtful and harmful effects of my words or actions—effects about which I was ignorant or insensitive—I will make every effort to change.
There are other “non-negotiables” which guide my life, but these are the two that govern and shape the others. They are like a tent I pitch along the path of my continuing search for what matters most and the quest for courage to live by what I discover. I rest in them, but the journey is ceaseless.