The following is a post from June of 2012.
I recently read an interview with Rev. Mel White. Most of you know him as someone who grew up as an evangelical, was a ghostwriter for many big evangelical stars and then came out as gay. I remember hearing about him in the mid-to-late 90s and back then he was kind of the SpongeBob Squarepants of the gay community. I mean that SpongeBob thing as a compliment, because he just seemed so darned positive, when it seems like most gay men were known for snark and bitterness. He was kind of a breath of fresh air to me and I was amazed and applauded his attempts to meet and even persuade his some of the people he used to work for. Yes, it might have been hopeless, but there was something wonderful about how he really tried to do that whole “love your enemies” thing that Jesus talked about.
This leads me back to the article I read. The positive Mel White of old is long gone. What’s left is a man that’s pretty pissed off at the church and when I say church, I mean the whole church. White is angry not just at evangelicals, but also more mainline denominations that either still haven’t voted in favor of equality (like the United Methodists) and those that have recently allowed for non-celibate gays to become ordained (like the Lutherans and the Presbyterians):
For example, in the United Methodist Book of Discipline homosexual behavior is labeled, “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Methodists—with their misleading logo, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors”—have voted against us for approximately 40 years and yet they are the largest and most progressive of the mainline churches. Changing the basic statement of the mainline churches from anti to pro has been the activist’s primary goal for decades with very little to show for it…
… After debating the issue for almost half a century in recent years the Lutherans and the Presbyterians have finally voted to ordain lesbians and gays, but the United Methodists still refuse to ordain us. In fact, they still have on their books that local clergy can even deny membership to gay and lesbian Christians…
…Again, after at least a decade of futile debate, the ELCA (Lutherans) voted to ordain and marry us, while the Presbyterians and United Methodists continue to deny us the rites of marriage. Even the liberal Episcopal Church is losing local congregations because this most progressive of the mainline denominations appointed an openly gay bishop.
On one level, I can understand his frustration. Many Methodists are upset that even a measure stating they agree to disagree failed, and rightfully so. Living in Minnesota, I know a lot of Lutherans and I know a lot of them either had to live in the closet or face ecclesiastical courts before the ban on gay clergy was lifted.
But the fact is, whether we like it or not, change like this moves slowly. Always does. It moves slowly in society and it moves slowly in the church. It takes a while for people to change their mind or see another way of looking at things. That’s frustrating, but I’ve come to learn that justice comes in its time and till then all you can do is press on making the case for change.
Another thing we have to do is love our enemies. Some times we can love them close and maybe even be friends. Sometimes you gotta love them from afar. White used to at least try, but it seems like these days, he’s just sticking to those who agree with him:
Christian fundamentalists, like fundamentalist Jews or Muslims, read their “holy books” literally. For fundamentalist Christians the Bible is clear: homosexuality is a sin. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Trying to build bridges with fundamentalists is a game I’ve played—a war I’ve fought—for 20 years and I’ve lost almost every battle.
Fundamentalists don’t listen to facts let alone to personal experience. What the Bible says to a fundamentalist Christian parent is more significant, has more weight, than what they see in the lives of their own children. I have stopped even trying to build bridges with fundamentalists. When one of them asks me, “Have you read Leviticus 20?” (a verse when taken literally demands that men who sleep with men should be killed) I reply, “You’ve confused me with someone who cares about what you think of Leviticus 20.”
Evangelicals see salvation as an act of faith, a very personal encounter between the believer and his/her God. The more historic churches see salvation as a sacramental act, through receiving the Eucharist. Most fundamentalists are evangelical but all evangelicals are not fundamentalists. There are many examples of progressive, even open and affirming evangelicals and we should go on trying to build bridges with every progressive evangelical we encounter.
And, needless to say, we should go on trying to build bridges with the liberal or progressive churches but if the label can be trusted, if a church or denomination is correctly described as “liberal” or “progressive” they are already working with us. Unfortunately, we continue to call the historic mainline churches “liberal” and “progressive” when on our issue they are neither.
Okay, but we aren’t really building bridges if we build them with people who already agree with us. It’s not bridge building; it’s building an echo chamber.
I don’t think trying to reach fundamentalists/social conservatives is a waste of time. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I have tried to reach out to social conservatives. Some folks aren’t ever going to listen to me and I tend to “love them from afar.” But others, I do try to sit and listen to them and have them listen to me. I don’t expect to change their minds; I leave that up to God. And I truly believe that God is powerful enough to change minds. But that’s not my end goal- my goal is to love them as God loves them even if I disagree with it. That’s not a waste of time to me- it’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about.
I can understand some of the bitterness found in White and in many of my fellow gay folk. When you live in fear that people don’t like you or worse, it’s easy to have a chip on your shoulder and ready to do battle.
Maybe I’m a coward, but I also think that as a Christian, I have to learn how to also learn to love others- even others that might hate and revile me. The Old Mel White had that Christ-like love that allowed him to meet with Jerry Falwell in the long-shot hope that Falwell might repent. It was a foolish and extravagant love that I was amazed to see.
The New Mel White is not so foolish. Some would say he has the righteous anger that Jesus had turning over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. I would agree we need that passion at times. But we also need that crazy, stupid love that White showed towards his enemies as well, and I think the world is poorer for losing that Mel White.
First off, welcome to all the new visitors who saw my post on Freshly Pressed. Below is a post from last year.
It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.
The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills. At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.
I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up. She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor. You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other. “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on. But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.
What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today. Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore. Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other. Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.
When it comes to the issue of gay rights the two camps talk past each other, having very different objectives that the other side just doesn’t get.
For liberals, this is about equality. Framed by the story of the civil rights movement, they see any attempt to block same-sex marriage or gay clergy as akin to denying African Americans the right to vote.
For evangelicals, this is about conscience. They feel they must be faithful to what they believe the Bible is telling them when it comes to sexual morality. They see any approval of gay sex as going against God’s commands.
These differences were there 20 years ago, but I think there might have also been more opportunity to come together and meet the other. Our self-selected society allows us to basically pick our friends instead of trying to build bridges with those who might be different.
Why am I telling this story? I don’t really know, except that maybe I would like us to find ways were we can learn to disagree without being so disagreeable.
Civility is all the talk in our political culture, mostly because it seems like we have less and less of it. We have made it a civic value, but I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value. We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree. Evangelical church planter Tim Keller said it best a year ago:
AMANPOUR: You talk about polarization between left and right. It does seem to be extreme, at the moment, in the United States politically, socially. Is there any hope that that can change, do you think?
KELLER: It will start if we stop demonizing each other. I — my — my — my elderly mother once said that up until about 15 years ago, if you voted for a different person for president and the person you voted against became president, you still considered him your president. He said — she said 15 years ago, that changed, that if you voted against that guy and he became president, you actually act as if he’s illegitimate. And I’m not sure that is a big social and cultural difference. We — and it really means the other side isn’t really just wrong, they’re kind of evil. And that’s pretty bad.
MANPOUR: I have to say that many would say the church plays into this highly acrimonious debate — public debate, not all church, but certainly some parts of the church. What should the church be doing different?
KELLER: At the very least, we should be creating individuals who know how to talk civilly. The gospel should create people who say, I’m loved by God but I’m — I’m a sinner. So there — there should be a certain humility and graciousness about the way in which you talk to everybody. As an institution, most of the churches have lost a lot of credibility. So I think my job is to create individuals who can participate in civil discourse.
AMANPOUR: You’re saying institutionally, the church has lost credibility?
KELLER: The mainline church identified with liberal politics, the Evangelicals have identified, at least they’re identified in people’s minds, with conservative politics. The Catholic Church has had the sex scandals. And so institutionally, each church has lost credibility. So I think it’s our job as individual congregations to care for the poor, to produce civil — people who speak civilly, to just serve our neighborhoods and serve people and be careful about speaking ex-cathedra, you know, about these great political positions on issues.
I would disagree with Keller in that I do think the church has a right to speak out on issues and there are some issues where we have to be clear where we stand. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to look at our sister and brothers as if they are evil. We can find ways to be civil in maybe in some way speak to people about what church is all about.
What a witness that would be.
This past weekend, my partner and I went up to Grand Forks, North Dakota for Thanksgiving with his side of the family. Daniel wanted to stop at the local Christian Bookstore to get a birthday card for his brother and a nephew. These days, I rarely go into the kind of Christian bookstore that I went into when I was young. But when I do, I like to look around and maybe reconnect with my more evangelical past. In the late 80s, I used to work at one of the Family Bookstores located in Flint. It was kind of cool back then since I got discounts on all the Christian music I used to listen to.
But back to Grand Forks. I wandered around the books and read some of the latest titles. Some stuff I wouldn’t agree with these days, but some were by people I knew. As I wandered through the isles, there was a part of me that wanted to snicker, to look at these books and the theology of those who walked the isles as somehow inferior to my present faith journey.
Look back at that, I tend to feel ashamed of myself for thinking that way. Because allowing that sense of smugness about current evangelical culture in America wasn’t very Christian of me.
The fact of the matter is, I’m not the only one who tends to have a sense of superiority when it comes to evangelicals. It’s something that is found throughout progressive Christian circles. The sad thing is that unlike me, most folks don’t feel bad about ripping apart that culture.
A friend shared with me a blog post written by a soon-to-be pastor here in Minneapolis about his recent visit to a Christian bookstore after a ten year abscence. The funny thing is that before I even read one word of his post, I pretty much knew what his impressions were going to be. Paragraph by paragraph he looks at the books and t-shirts and knocks down evangelical culture as being xenophobic and unthinking. A little taste:
It’s designed to keep people afraid. Because when people are afraid they don’t ask questions. One portion of one of the books was all about how converting people to become Christians wasn’t about saving them from Hell, it was about saving them FROM GOD. Because God was vengeful and wrathful and could destroy them. And God wants to destroy anyone who isn’t a Christian. (I’m not even exaggerating.)
I remember well that fear. In fact my entire life was fear. Fear that I wasn’t really saved, that I wasn’t a good enough Christian, fear that God would send me to Hell. That I wasn’t chosen, that God didn’t love me, that my queerness would keep me out of heaven. That I wasn’t doing enough to convert my friends, that if they died their blood would be on my hands, and it went on and on and on. And that fear is powerful. It keeps you from asking questions or stepping out of line. It keeps you dependent on the people who are acting as gatekeepers because if you step out of line those gatekeepers will tell you that you’re not really saved. The thing about fear is that it keeps you obedient, but it doesn’t lead to an abundant life. I wasn’t filled with the spirit, I was filled with fear.
I’m bothered by this post. I think it’s a good thing to critique some aspects of evangelical culture, but I don’t feel that he really engaged the culture as a whole. In fact, I don’t think he learned anything as his title suggests because it seems that he went in with a view and found things to affirm his viewpoint. Learning suggests that you are going to have a deeper knowledge of things, not to sum up what you already believe.
The thing is, most mainline/progressive Christians tend to have this view of our evangelical sisters and brothers. We already have our minds made up about these folk and so we look for that which already confirms our biases. What we fail to do is to take in a wider view, because if we did that, if we read more evangelical thinkers and so on, we might have a more complex view than the strawman we so like to set up and knock down.
Recently, I took to listening to some of the Contemporary Christian Music from the 1980s. This was part of the soundtrack of my adolescence and early adulthood. As I heard the songs again, I realized how great some of the songs were. They weren’t all just “Jesus is my boyfriend” but really talking about faith and the struggles we face everyday. I might not always agree with the theology, but I did appreciate the honesty and sincerity that I sometimes find lacking in my new home.
There is a lot that’s wrong with evangelical culture. But the culture that raised me as a young Christian also had a lot of good in it, good things that made me who I am now. I can be critical, yes and I should be. But even the most imperfect thing can be used for good, can be used for God’s glory.
Surely my past, as problematic as it was should get more than just a passing sneer.