A review of Permission Granted (And Other Thoughts on Living Graciously Among Sinners and Saints) by Margot Starbuck (Baker Books, 2013).
In case you haven’t noticed, an entire generation of young Christians has found its voice and has begun to question some things about the religion in which they were raised. Many young Christians in the United States, specifically those brought up in very conservative, fundamentalist, or home educated circles, are blogging, writing, speaking, and wondering about the value of having been so very separated from, so very quick to judge, and so very condemning of our nonreligious fellow human beings. Specifically those with "special sins" – those hot-button issues that we all know cause a little more disgust than your average lie or propensity to gossip.
In Permission Granted, Margot Starbuck (Unsqueezed) shares her own doubts and fears of cultivating relationships with nonbelievers without condoning sin. The book is an amalgam of true stories, Margot’s various tumbling emotions, and her desperate desire to face her fears and figure out how to love people as Jesus loves people. Inside the book is a quote from Brennan Manning which sums up the effort pretty accurately:
God loves you unconditionally,
as you are and not as you should be,
because nobody is as they should be.
Salt of the Earth
Starbuck begins by taking issue with the basic premise that Christians should keep a healthy distance from "the world." There are indeed many individual Bible verses suggesting Christians should be different and marked by God, not by other things (cf. Romans 12:2, 1 John 2:15-17). Many Christians take these exhortations to mean we should erect a barrier between ourselves and "the world" to protect ourselves from its influence; to mean that we should disassociate and keep our distance from the world by any means necessary, in order to preserve our purity as children of light.
However, Starbuck’s investigation of Scripture yields a conclusion quite the reverse. "The original injunction to purity was meant to keep God’s people from becoming so much like the world that we were no longer salt and light in it," she explains. "Our eventual sterile detachment would mock the divine intervention," she continues sadly; "Rather than propelling our salty, light-bearing movement into the world, we’ve used 'holiness' as a barrier to protect us from the world."
Ouch. That paragraph struck a nerve with me. We exclaim "in the world, not of it!" as a mantra, often desperately fearing to get too close to the world. But, as Margot reminds us, God hasn’t made us salt for us to hide in saltshakers. God hasn’t made us lamps in order for us to hide under bowls. No! We are to shine before men. Jesus came down among sinners and touched them, walked with them, bled with them. Permission Granted does a bold thing in acknowledging fear and the desire for safety as reasons we have been unable to truly salt the world, as Christ intended.
But Starbuck doesn’t simply conclude that Christians are called to be out among the worldly, shining Christ’s light, rather than hiding and trying to sanitize our lives. She goes on to make a memorable analogy about how the Church tries to do too many things at once when it comes to sinners. We do already know we’re supposed to love, welcome, cherish, befriend, and accept people. After all, Jesus did those things! Jesus not only called for people to come to him, but he came down into the world, went out among sinners, and drew people to himself proactively. However, the Church finds it difficult to do this without first making known our preliminary condemnation of sinful behavior. To Starbuck, it’s a bit like playing the game of Twister and trying to put our hands and feet on too many colors at once. It makes our balance shaky, it makes our message unclear, and it often causes people we’re trying to reach for the Kingdom to retreat in confusion and fear of judgment.
Here, Starbuck shows us real-life examples of people who’ve decided to stop playing Twister. She personally knows several women who regularly visit strip clubs to encourage, eat with, and love on the women who work there. They don’t picket the club, standing outside with sandwich boards, harassing the women as they go to and from work. Rather, they befriend the women, reminding them, "God isn’t saying you're a whore. He isn’t saying you’re a home wrecker. He’s not saying you’re forgotten. He’s not saying you’re dirt." These women are concerned about encouraging and ministering – not about making sure everyone can see their left feet planted solidly on the blue circles of "I do not accept your behavior." As Starbuck puts it, once we give up the need to always be so vocal about what we don’t accept, "we’re finally free to land squarely, with all our weight, on crucifix red: 'In Jesus Christ, God welcomes Sinners who have not yet cleaned up their acts, and we do too.'"
It’s a tough line to walk, wanting to reprimand sin but love the sinner. Permission Granted provokes us to dig a little deeper, biblically, and see if God requires us to do both.
Everyone Matters, Everyone is Loved
Starbuck also bravely reminds her readers to love the hateful, oppressive, lemon-faced people of this world too, not just the strippers and sinners. It can be easy to condemn and hate those who hate – but that’s not Jesus's way. Jesus didn’t just eat with prostitutes and poor people. He also ate with Pharisees and tax collectors.
Starbuck helps to bring the emotionally detached demographic "tax collectors" into a gritty reality. These people worked for the government, an oppressive Roman government which held the Jews under an iron fist. Tax collectors extorted more money than citizens actually owed in order to turn personal profit, no matter how weak or poor people were. As Starbuck puts it, "[the tax collector] was more like the modern day human-trafficker who used coercive power to profit from the labor of others." But Jesus welcomed these people too. Jesus ate with Zacchaeus. Jesus called Levi to be an apostle. If we’re going to mirror Jesus’s love, she writes, we truly must do it with an open hand – even to oppressors and the scum of the earth.
God is For Us
The note that rings throughout this book, and specifically in the final chapters, is that God is for us. Of course God is holy, perfect, and righteous. Of course we screw up and behave in ways God would rather not have us behave. Starbuck's words and stories make it painfully clear that we Christians have the tendency to live life as though God is for some people, but not for others. Or perhaps God is only for us if we are walking the straight and narrow – but he’s no longer for us if we deviate or go through seasons of sin, doubt, and weakness. But are we over-complicating the issue?
Yes, the author argues. Biblically, it’s crystal clear to see that God is love – he even sent his son to die for us while we were still sinners. God is on our side, loving us, desiring that we succeed and live in his will. Starbuck argues that Christians have been far too lacking (and, again, fearful) in grasping hold of this reality and displaying it to a lost and broken world.
After all, "go and sin no more" was the last thing Jesus said to the sinful woman the mob threw at his feet. His first step was to protect her, defend her, and display mercy. His question, "Who among you is without sin?" could have been answered “I am” by Jesus himself. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," Jesus offered; but though he was without sin, he refused to throw a stone. Then, after saving this woman’s life and earning her trust, he reminded her of what she already knew to be true: What you have done is sin. I do not condemn you. Go and be free of those shackles – live in the Truth instead.
Margot Starbuck asks a lot of questions in Permission Granted – and doesn’t always give answers. Though she is convicted that she often fails to best display God’s love, she often doesn’t exactly know what the "right answer" looks like. So don’t read this book to give you answers to all of life’s hard questions. Rather, read this book to remember to ask yourself, What Would Jesus Do?
Because she tackles that question a lot. She is constantly turning to the gospels to see what Jesus did do. She doesn’t cite a lot of Paul; she’s not particularly speaking to codes of personal conduct or how churches are supposed to function internally. Rather, she speaks to the individual. She reminds us that we, as individuals, must bring it back to Christ. First and foremost we must represent him in our daily choices and attitudes. There was no "otherness" or fear in how Christ related to the world. This author yearns for a time when Christians will embrace and extend Christ’s love without hesitation, reservation, conditions, or exceptions.
"We long to be received," Starbuck explains. "We long to be accepted as we are, whether or not we bear gifts and whether or not we sanction child labor. Jesus was onto this when he instructed us to love our neighbors the way we love ourselves."
Remember how Christ received you into his open arms, despite your messed-up life? Margot Starbuck wants us to extend that same warm embrace to those around us, no matter their problems, political persuasions, religions, or attitudes.
Debbie Holloway is Assistant Editor for Family Content at Crosswalk. Recently married, she lives in Henrico, Virginia and is an avid writer, reader, and participant in local community theatre.