Eugene Peterson and the Age of Shibboleths

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I don’t know when it happened, but I’ve become a walking, talking shibboleth.

A shibboleth is a word or custom that signifies who is in the ingroup and who is in the outgroup.  Think of it as an old fashioned version of virtue signaling.

Now, I didn’t personally become a shibboleth, but the fact that I am gay and in a same sex marriage does make me shibboleth in our neverending culture wars.  How one views same sex marriage either makes your virtuous or a sinner.

This past week, the pastor and author Eugene Peterson was interviewed this past week by journalist Jonathan Merritt.  Peterson is a well-known author and is most known for his version of the Bible, the Message.  During the interview, Merritt asked Peterson about his views on gays and lesbians in the church and if he would perform a same sex marriage.  Here’s what he said (the words of Merritt are in bold):

I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.

RNS: A follow-up: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?

EP: Yes.

This set off alarm bells among evangelicals who are some of his fans and it caused people to speculate about his motivations. Writing in First Things, Samuel James thought his change of heart was about trying to be accepted by a changing society:

Says Peterson, “I wouldn’t have said this twenty years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.” Why is the “debate” over? Because the LGBT people Peterson knows are good, spiritual people. How can that knowledge—not the knowledge of doctrine, but the knowledge of human beings—comport with an antiquated definition of chastity and marriage? What use are theological disputations when it comes to looking real gays and lesbians in the face, living with and loving them, and affirming their humanity and worth?

The question for our generation is increasingly not, “Is this doctrine true or false?” Rather, the question is, “Can I live with it out there?”

He continues rather pointedly:

What I wish people like Eugene Peterson would see is that there is no safe corner of the Christian story that is completely intuitive or unfailingly neighborly. Every element of the Gospel can and will grate against our modern sense of “real life.” If the doctrine of marriage is untenable in “real life,” what doctrines are tenable? “Real life” doesn’t teach us to desire the good of our enemies. It teaches us to shame them, on either Puritan scaffolds or progressive college campuses. “Real life” doesn’t support the notion that justice will ultimately prevail. It reinforces our sense that we must kill or be killed. There’s no intersection of Christ and culture that finally finds both running parallel all the way to glory.

Russell Moore wrote a more softer article expressing disapointment, but also seeing that good that Peterson has brought to his life.

His statement was could have cost him literally. Lifeway, the national Christian bookstore chain, was ready to stop selling Peterson’s books in their stores.

The rancor made him retract his words a short time later. He wrote:

“I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything. . . . When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.”

He might have been recieved back into the good graces of evangelicals, but now he pissed off progressive Christians who saw him as greedy, feeble-minded or uncaring. Rachel Held Evans apologized to the LGBTQ community for Peterson’s reversal.

Another writer said Peterson was selfish and greedy:

A man who wrote one of the most popular interpretations of the Bible said my son and his peers are equal. So equal that he would perform wedding ceremonies for them. A bookstore chain run by a Christian denomination says it will cost him money. When he realizes it will cost him money, my son’s life does not matter.
Equality does not matter to him. Civil rights does not matter. Bullycide does not matter. Suicidal ideations, increased violence and sexual assault to LGBTQIA youth does not matter. What matters is the bottom line of the bank account.
Now, let’s take a look at who runs this bookstore chain? The SBC was founded in the 1840’s to protect their precious Bible from the threat of abolitionists. That’s right, to them slavery was biblical. More recently the SBC made the news because they had controversy over an issue. That issue? Should they condemn the actions and philosophies of the alt right.

The SBC is the nation’s largest protestant denomination. Historically founded to fight for slavery as a biblical principle. This same group had to discuss the merits of condemning white supremacists. They are also anti LGBTQIA. And they own a chain of bookstores.

This is who Eugene Peterson relies on to sell his Bibles. He needs their money more than he needs the strength of conviction to say my son is equal.

As a gay Christian man in a same sex marriage, I have to call bullshit on both sides.

For conservatives, it seems like people are willing to love and adore a pastor’s teachings- as long as he adheres to their viewpoint. If he doesn’t he is to be treated as if he said Jesus was equal to Bozo the Clown.

But Progressives don’t fare better. They loved this guy the moment he said his initial statement, but when he retracted, people were swearing to never use the Message Bible and deem him a greedy SOB who doesn’t care LGBTQ persons are dying.

This is why I say I am now a shibboleth. How you look at me and my marriage determines whether a group will love you or condemn you.

Would I have like him to stick to his guns on same sex marriage?  Yes.  Am I dissapointed that he retracted? Yes.  But that’s one flaw in a person that has a lot of good to share.

As gay rights move forward in our society, we aren’t learning to live and let live.  All of the knives are out and we are looking for someone to say anything that is against their views and getting ready to punish that person.

To conservative Christians: what does it say that you seem to be willing to just dump someone because of one paragraph in an interview?  Is it more important that he follow toe the line on this issue than it is to judge his whole character?

And now progressive Christians:  What happened to grace?  What happened to praying for someone like Peterson, for courage and strength?  Are you going to stop reading his books for one stupid loss of nerve?

It feels like people on both sides are playing for keeps and there is very, very little room for love. Peterson stopped being a flesh and blood and imperfect human being and became the latest pawn in the culture wars. As a tweetstorm said this week, “We see people as collections of beliefs and ideas, which makes it easy to avoid seeing the whole person.”

In the real world, I know people who I know think I’m engaged in sin.  And I think they are very wrong.  But I still keep relationship with them because it is important to see them as more than their view on this one issue.  There is a lot that we can agree on beyond sexuality.

No matter if we are evangelicals or mainline Christians, we are called to love one another.  And that means loving people even when we disagree.

Love doesn’t excuse sin, but it should make us look at each other differently. Let’s put down the shibboleths and learn to love one another.

Shirts & Skins

Politics is not as fun to follow these days.

When I was younger, people got into arguments about politics left and right.  But then you would move on to other things.

That’s the thing; there were other things in life to do.  Our lives were not drenched in politics. But these days you can’t watch sports without it referring to politics.

Facebook and other social media have placed us in self-selecting bubbles and our views become more intense.  It’s been interesting to see fellow pastors say things about those with other opinions that at times makes me wonder if people of different political beliefs would ever be welcomed at their churches.

In the days following the passage of the American Health Care Act, I’ve seen a lot of anger coming from the Twitter and Facebook streams.  I’ve had problems with this health care bill and I’m not afraid to share them, but some of the things I’ve seen are welcome beyond simple criticism.  There is a fury directed at the other side that is venomous.  Each side thinks the other is impure and they must be utterly defeated.

In the midst of all this, I came accross a Facebook post by Disciples Pastor Doug Skinner.  In his post he brings up to important names: Hurbert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen.  Humphrey was of course the Senator and later Vice President to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Dirksen was the long time minority (Republican) leader in the senate. I want to share a few of those words here:

Christians can and do argue about which policies best serve their values. Hubert Humphrey said that he and Everett Dirksen, his conservative Republican colleague in the Senate, hardly ever agreed on how to actually solve a problem like poverty, but that neither of them ever questioned that the other one was just as concerned about the problem as he was, or just as committed to finding a solution.

That quote got me thinking. I looked for a photo of the Democratic Senator and later Vice President with the Republican Senate minority leader. I found one:

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Dirksen is seated on the left side, while Humphrey is seated next. They are celebrating together, the end of the filler buster for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

That isn’t the only picture of the two together.  The quote makes you think the two had a relationship.  They disagreed on policy, but their friendship  was strong.

Washington of the 1960s dealt with some major questions that this nation had to answer, Civil . There were disagreements.  Yet, there was still friendship at the end.

When I look at social media feeds in light of the healthcare vote, there wasn’t a sense of being  able to argue an issue and still remain friends.  There was a lot of anger and venom expressed towards anyone who might have a different opinion on the issue.  One blogger even hoped for hell for those who voted in favor of the American Health Care act.

Like I said, there are legitimate reasons for not supporting the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  But I choose to believe that people who think otherwise are not callous monsters.  I can see them as mistaken in their beliefs, but they aren’t necessarily horrible people.

How are Christians to act when it comes to public policy?  How do we handle differences, deep differences? How do we remain in community?  How do we show grace to each other?  How do we witness to the wider world a different way of being?

Maybe the problem is pride.  I sometimes think that the belief in “justice” is so strong that it makes us self-righteous. We start to think that we are on the “right side of history” and to hell with those who don’t agree.

I think what is happening in the church is that we are worshipping a golden calf, but we think we are worshipping the real god.

I stumbled across this entry from the Daily Keller website, based off evangelical pastor Tim Keller.  In this entry he explains who American Christians have made politics into an idol and that has profound changes on the body politic.  Have you every noticed what goes on the day after a major election, how the losing side speaks in almost apocalyptic terms:

When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admit how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.

If we the losing side experience something akin to a death, it also means the other side is veiwed in very dark terms:

Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken but to be evil. After the last presidential election, my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, ‘It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.’ After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion.

I think that’s what is going on right now with American Christians. When I was growing up in the late 70s and 80s, I could see how evangelical Christianity succumbed to gods of politics. I grew disgusted by this and thought that I could find solace in the mainline/progressive church. Just as evangelical Christianity got in bed with the Republican Party,mainline Christians have jumped in bed with the Democrats. When we started to make alliances with each political party, God became a tool to advance the interests of whatever party. God became pro-life and supported health savings accounts. God supported single-payer health care and $15/hr minimum wage. And when we make God the cheerleader of our politics, that mean anyone with a different view is not simply mistaken; they are evil. When politics becomes god it means pastors can call out people from the other side, telling people that all are welcome, except Republicans or Democrats.

Maybe the to put it to a fine point, I think we are living in an extremely graceless age.  We talk about justice, but without a sense of grace, justice becomes a cold instrument of punishment.

Presbyterian pastor David Williams wrote in the Christian Century last year an article with a provocative title: “Why Social Justice Isn’t Christian.” He writes about the dark side of justice:

…justice is the fruit of grace, not the other way around. Social justice is about rights, both individual and collective, within a broader entity. It is about the balance of competing interests in a society. It’s a matter of legality, of the application of coercive power towards the maintenance of social order. Justice, meaning social, secular justice, rests on the sword. Social justice is about power dynamics.

That doesn’t mean, not for a moment, that both noting and resisting oppressive structures is wrong.

Because systemic injustice is fundamentally devoid of grace, the abnegation of grace, a repudiation of grace. Grace recoils at hatred and oppression. Grace shudders at our gleeful embrace of violence. Grace finds wealth in the face of another’s poverty an embarrassment. Grace does not stand idly by. Grace is the enemy of both individual and collective self-seeking.

As such, it is the both the ground of justice and the method by which justice is created.

And it goes deeper than that. In the absence of a grounding orientation towards grace, the pursuit of justice will either shatter or calcify a soul. It will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated. Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue. #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue. Transphobia is The Issue. Environmental degradation is The Issue. The impact of globalization is The Issue.

I think this is what is taking place right now. Justice is being offered with no grace. The result is that our souls are becoming calcified, becoming brittle. Too many pastors have become numb to those around us. We don’t see those accross the isle as children of God, but children of darkness. We get involved in the struggle for justice, but without grace, our actions become twisted, where we see others as nothing more than a threat.

I wasn’t around when Dirksen and Humphrey roamed the walls of the Capitol, but as I look at that picture and read Doug Skinner’s quote about these two Senators, I have to think there was more grace back then, more of a willingness to listen and not seek to shut the other side down.

In a recent interview with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, he talks a bit about how our current culture is sorted out like shirts and skins.  I tend to agree.  Shirts and skins means that there isn’t anything we have in common with the other side.  Senators Humphrey and Dirksen trusted each other and shared things in common.  In the church, we need to find a way to go back to being grounded in Christ.

For that to happen, those of us in the church have to be reminded that we are grounded in Christ.  When we see someone who might not be in the church, we are grounded in the fact that everyone is a child of God.

It’s time for the church to start to model a society where all truly can come to the table.  We have to learn to keep someone at the table, even if they are different. We need to stop aping the world and become centered at the communion table.

May we learn to work for justice with grace.

Progressive Christian and Trump Voters

donald-trump-votersThe first day or two after the election I decided to contact friends and acquaintences of mine  who had voted for Donald Trump.  I wanted to apologize if I said anything off-putting to them.  To a person, all of them were gracious and even told me why they considered voting for Trump.  I took their responses to heart.  I didn’t always agree with their reasons, but I was glad to hear them and to give Trump voters are more humane face.

What’s been sad is that most progressive Christians haven’t been willing to sit and talk to Trump voters.  Like their secular counterparts, there is more interest in talking about Trump voters instead of talking with them.

Most of the criticism against Trump voters have come in the form of saying that they know that Person A who voted for Trump is a racist, but that they knew who they were voting for.  An example of this is a post by John Pavlovitz in mid-November.  He starts by saying that he understands the reason people decided to vote for the Donald, but they were aware of the dark sides as well:

I know you had legitimate reasons for voting for him; things that either real or imagined, genuinely moved you to your decision and that you wrestled with these reasons greatly. But I don’t care about those reasons; not because I don’t care about you or value you or want to understand you or because I don’t respect your road, but because those reasons can’t help those who are hurting right now—only your response can.

You see, regardless of why you voted for him, you did vote for him. Your affirmation of him and your elevation of him to this position, came with what you knew about him:

It came after hearing the horrible, degrading, vile things he said about women.
It came after hearing him encourage his supporters to be violent with protestors.
It came after he advocated for Muslims to be expelled and profiled.
It came after he made fun of a man with physical disability.
It came after he framed the BlackLivesMatter movement as criminal and subversive.
It came after he personally criticized the appearance and weight and sexual activity of women opponents.
It came after he chose a Vice President who believes gay people can pray away their gayness.
It came after the KKK and the neo-Nazis endorsed him.

These were all things you had to weigh to cast your vote, and by whatever method you used, you declared theses things within your morally acceptable parameters. You deemed these part of the “lesser of two evils”. In voting your conscience—these things made the cut.

This is kinda a passive-agressive way of saying these folks are wrong and maybe morally suspect. People make decisions when they vote and sometimes things are ignored because of higher concerns. It’s not something I like or would do, but people don’t vote for saints. There is the same kind of backhanded contempt in this video by Sojourner’s:

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The problem with these responses is that they treat the people who voted for Trump as either racist or indifferent to persons of color. It’s less about reconcilation than it is about shaming.

The thing is for those of who are Christians and didn’t vote for Trump, we need to be able to listen to Trump voters. Why did they vote the way they did? How can the church respond? How can we show voters there is an alternative?

Sometimes the people who voted for Trump did so for economic reasons. That’s been considered false by opponents, but I think there is a lot of truth to the claim. Writer Morgan Pheme says we should try to understand those voters and listen with some empathy:

Over the last week I have heard far too many of my fellow progressives dismiss Trump’s voters as racists, misogynists and fascists. While there are certainly a depressing number of them that deserve these characterizations, to brush aside the more than 61 million Americans who cast their ballots for Trump as mere hateful idiots is to perpetuate the liberal elitism that helped fuel Trump’s success and to disregard the economic and social problems plaguing our country.
There was a reason that Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s cries for economic populism intermingled to a discomfiting degree during the campaign season: America is in thrall to corporate interests at the expense of blue-collar and low-wage workers; both parties were complicit in giving Wall Street a pass in the wake of the 2008 fiscal crisis; Democratic and Republican administrations have both driven disastrous deregulation in service of the donor class.

But we must also acknowledge that when hard-working people cannot support their families, when they suffer the loss of their dignity, when they can’t see a path for their children to have a better life than their own—the very crux of the American dream—these are conditions that can both unleash the ugliest elements of human nature—and propel people to throw caution and reason to the wind for the simple promise of hope and change.

There are Trump voters in our congregation. Instead of shaming them, maybe we need to seek them out and listen. We don’t have to agree with them, but we need to take the time to listen. If Christianity is about reconcililation, then this is a good opportunity live that out.

The Politics of Fear, Reconsidered

I looked into the mirror, (Yeah)
Proud as I could be, (Yeah)
And I saw my pointing finger (Yeah)
Pointing back at me,
Saying, “Who named you accuser? (Yeah)
Who gave you the scales?” (Yeah)
I hung my head in sorrow; (Yeah)
I could almost feel the nails
I said, “This is how it is
To be crucified and judged
Without love”

-Amy Grant, What About the Love

ISIS_zpsebcsoq8xAs the news about the list of Governors either pausing or barring Syrian refugees from coming to their states continued this week, I started to be bothered by what I was seeing on social media.  At first it was a sense of righteous outrage, but it soon morphed into a self-righteousness.  It felt like the Good Samaritan all of the sudden became a big jackass talking about how open minded and compassionate he was as opposed to those other two losers.

I still think we need to welcome refugees no matter where they come from.  But like most of life, this issue is not as black and white as we want it to be. We can talk about Baby Jesus being a refugee (which is true), but it doesn’t mean that this issue is that simple.

Political blogger Kevin Drum noted in a blog post yesterday, that people should tone down on the mocking tone because the concerns about safety are legitimate:

The liberal response to this should be far more measured. We should support tight screening. Never mind that screening is already pretty tight. We should highlight the fact that we’re accepting a pretty modest number of refugees. In general, we should act like this is a legitimate thing to be concerned about and then work from there.

Which brings up an interesting point: did you know that the Obama Administration paused the immigration process of Iraqi refugees in 2011 because of terror concerns? This is from an ABC News article:

Several dozen suspected terrorist bombmakers, including some believed to have targeted American troops, may have mistakenly been allowed to move to the United States as war refugees, according to FBI agents investigating the remnants of roadside bombs recovered from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The discovery in 2009 of two al Qaeda-Iraq terrorists living as refugees in Bowling Green, Kentucky — who later admitted in court that they’d attacked U.S. soldiers in Iraq — prompted the bureau to assign hundreds of specialists to an around-the-clock effort aimed at checking its archive of 100,000 improvised explosive devices collected in the war zones, known as IEDs, for other suspected terrorists’ fingerprints…

As a result of the Kentucky case, the State Department stopped processing Iraq refugees for six months in 2011, federal officials told ABC News – even for many who had heroically helped U.S. forces as interpreters and intelligence assets. One Iraqi who had aided American troops was assassinated before his refugee application could be processed, because of the immigration delays, two U.S. officials said. In 2011, fewer than 10,000 Iraqis were resettled as refugees in the U.S., half the number from the year before, State Department statistics show.

Now, what happened in 2011 is not the same thing happening now. We don’t have proof that there are terrorists among the refugees. But this does make me think that in light of last week’s attack in Paris, it isn’t so far-fetched to request a pause.

Which leads me to the article that prompted me to write this blog post. Evangelical blogger John Mark Reynolds wrote that being prudent doesn’t mean being anti-refugee and that accepting a token amount of refugees makes you virtuous. Reynolds believes that Christians must care for the refugee, but he also thinks a lot of what is being done by the United States is not enough and not helpful:

We can pretend to be making room for Baby Jesus at our inn while doing almost nothing for Syrians relative to the need of the Syrian refugees. If we wanted to help by repopulating, then we should be moving tens of thousands more, but nobody thinks this is a good idea.

Why?

Our goal is for people to flourish in their homelands, not depopulate Syria of Christians and other religious minorities. We do not want to move Syrians to the US and Europe in such great numbers that we effectively end Syrian culture.

In the meantime, we do need safe havens near home for the refugee populations. I wish the Obama administration were doing more . . . but taking in ten thousand is doing next to nothing that is meaningful.

Leaving the Islamic State and terrorist groups in charge of much of Syria while helping the good people of Syria depopulate the area of those who have lived there for centuries is questionable policy. What happens next? Where will the next million Syrians go? Will we take another ten thousand and pretend that is enough?

Reynolds also notes that we haven’t done a good job of preventing Syrians from having to leave their homes in the first place:

I have no doubt that almost none of the ten thousand are here to commit terror or will commit terror. I also have no doubt that if one does that it will be devastating to the political will to do anything again. We do little and risk much through this gesture.

Yet if I say this, then I am shown a picture of a dead child and told I support this policy, generally by people who oppose putting boots on the ground to end the regime that is causing the refugee crisis. I want to preserve Syria, beautiful, multi-cultural Syria, not appropriate her people into permanent exile or cultural isolation.

Fortunately, I am blessed to have sensible, loving friends who know how painful this decision is on both sides. I am not sure I am right and this is hard. Loving Syria and the people of Syria makes me wish to throw all caution to the wind and do all that can be done . . . but we are already not doing all we could. When on Facebook I was told my “prudence” would kill a Syrian child, I wanted to say: “What of the Obama administration that through prudence has let Syria burn?”(emphasis mine). What of your prudence in only taking ten thousand? Why not one hundred thousand?”

That is the question we aren’t talking about: why did we let this happen in the first place? In 2013, the President had a chance to go into Syria to deal with the crisis, but backed out of it. I along with others, thought we should stay out of Syria. Wasn’t our concern, we said. Why is it now our concern? Did Syrians have to leave their homes for us to give a damn?

In some way, a lot of this is just another part of the ongoing political polarization of America.  People lumped together every Republican governor that said “no” into a xenophobic cowardly bigot.  Some of the governors are cynical bigots, but not all of them.  Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was one that asked for a pause.  I was dissapointed in his decision because earlier in the year he said rather publicly that he would accept Syrians.  Michigan (which is my native state) already has a substantial Arab population, including a number of Syrian immigrants in Metro Detroit and Flint. The governor has gone to great lengths to explain that he is not wanting to shut the door permanently; he simply want to be sure.  Maybe that’s not the right course.  Maybe he should have just accepted the refugees without question.  I don’t know.  What it seems to me is that he is trying to be both welcoming and responsible.  But all of that nuance gets lost in the debate.

I still think we should accept refugees.  But I’m less willing to automatically chastise anyone who doesn’t agree with me.  I will denounce the naked racism that I find on Facebook when we talk about these issues, but I will also think about when and why we should get involved in conflicts around the world. I will learn that sometimes the issues we think are so black and white, aren’t.

The reason I started off with the lyrics from an Amy Grant song is that even when we are doing good things, our pride can taint them.  It’s wrong to be hate another person for their religion.  But God also looks down on pride, the sense that you are better than others because you are so righteous.  I think there has been a lot of pride over the last few days and we have to ask if this is leading to something better or not.  We can be right and yet be so wrong.

Fear Factor

indianaLike a lot of folk I’ve been interested in the goings on in Indiana.  As you know, the state legislature passed and the Governor signed a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Depending on who you talk to, the law is no different from the federal version of the law passed in 1993 or will allow religious owners of businesses to refuse service to gays.  I’m frankly a bit confused as to what the bill will actually do. Proponents see it as a bulwark against a radically changing culture.  Opponents see it as the second coming of Jim Crow.

As I was discussing this with a Methodist minister, he used a word that seemed to describe the whole situation: fear.  It’s not a surprise that I tend to think the proponents of the law are fearful of a changing culture, one where homosexuality is becoming accepted and where their views, which once ruled the culture are no longer in vogue.  But I also think my side of the debate is also operating on fear and distrust.  Like a lot of oppressed groups, it is hard to have any concern for your former oppressors.  As I’ve read responses, the attitude seems to be “let the bigots hang.”

What is interesting about all of this is how much this seems to have become a zero-sum game.  Religious conservatives seem intent on gumming up the works of progress on same-sex marriage.  Gays and liberals seem to not want to give religious conservatives any inch on religious practice.  Both sides seem to think that to win, one side must lose.

David Brooks wrote a couple of weeks ago that we live in a more uncertain age and that has changed the tone of politics.  Gone are win-win situations where compromise was possible, and coming in its place is the quest for power.  Here’s what Brooks says:

National elections take place within a specific global moment. In the 1990s, there was a presumption that we were living in an age of rapid progress. Democracy was spreading. Tyranny was receding. Asia was booming. The European Union was building. Conflict in the Middle East was lessening. The world was cumulatively heading toward greater pluralism, individualism, prosperity and freedom.

Today it’s harder to have faith in rapid progress. Democracy is receding. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin of Russia are marching. The European project is decaying. Economies are struggling. Reactionary forces like the Islamic State and Iran are winning. The Middle East is deteriorating.

In this climate, the tone and focus of politics change. Politics is less about win-win situations and more about zero-sum situations. It is less about reforms that will improve all lives and more about unadorned struggles for power. Who will control the ground in places like Ukraine and Syria? Will Iran get the bomb? Will the White House or Congress grab power over treaties and immigration policy?

It’s hard not to see the fight that is taking place in Indiana and many other places as tribal battles.  Religious conservatives feel under fire as liberals go after bakers and wedding photographers.

This clash of rights, between the right to marry and the right to religious freedom has always been difficult for me.  I have fought for the right to be able to marry my husband Daniel and to have that recognized by the state, which is what happened when we had our legal marriage in 2013.  But as a Christian, I also think people should be able to follow the dictates of their faith without interference from the state.  So on some level, I’ve never been as bothered by bakers not wanting to bake my wedding cake.  I just thought I’d go to another baker.  The baker had the right to refuse service, and I had the right to not go to that baker and tell others not to go either.

I know that it bothers some of my compatriots that I might sympathize with folks who don’t think I should get married to my partner.  But two things have guided me on this issue: my belief in Jesus dictum to love our enemies and my libertarian belief in liberty; that I can do what I want and you can do what you want so long as my rights aren’t curtailed.

Loving my enemy means that I have to look at that person as human being.  I have to at least try to understand their viewpoint and give them the space to do what they see as right, so long as I am not profoundly impacted.

Of course, my enemy should be able to look at me as a human being, a child of God and give me the space to do what I think is right.  (Translation: If religious conservatives want to be treated with respect, treat those you disagree with the same respect.)

As the various RFRA laws come up in various states, both religious conservatives and LGBT communities have to find a way to make room for each other.  Not because they like each other.  Not because they agree.  But because for a democratic society to flourish, we have to find ways to accomodate the Other. Because we must heed the call to love and respect our enemies.

Before all of the focus was on Indiana, some media attention was given to what was happening in Utah.  Dubbed the “Utah Compromise,” gay rights groups and the Mormon Church came together to support legislation the protected LGBT persons and also offered exemptions on religious grounds.  It is far from a perfect law (but what compromise is perfect).  But this seemed to be a place where the culture wars made a truce. A Wall Street Journal column explains how the Mormon Church, who not that long ago was bankrolling the effort to ban same-sex marriage in California, reached out the LGBT community:

The Mormon leadership reached out to the LGBT community, which was willing to reciprocate despite initial doubts. Although there were roadblocks early on, trust gradually developed. Neither side allowed the best to become the enemy of the good. Both came to see that protections for LGBT individuals and for religious conscience needed to be enacted simultaneously, as a package.

There is a lesson here for both sides.  For religious conservatives, it is to at least acknowledge LGBT persons.  You don’t have to approve of what we do.  But you do have to at least see us as persons created by God and deserving of respect.

For the LGBT community and our allies, it means respecting the faith of religious conservatives.  Within reason, no one should have to compromise their faith to live in the wider society.  We need to honor their consciences even if we think that their beliefs are wrong.

In late 2010, libertarian writer Jonathan Rauch wrote about how the tide was turning in the favor of those of us who support gay rights.  Because we were no longer on the defensive, our tactics must change.  He wrote:

…we—gay Americans and our straight allies—have won the central argument for gay rights. As a result, we must change. Much of what the gay rights movement has taken for granted until now, and much that has worked for us in the past, is now wrong and will hurt us. The turn we now need to execute will be the hardest maneuver the movement has ever had to make, because it will require us to deliberately leave room for homophobia in American society. We need to allow some discrimination and relinquish the “zero tolerance” mind-set. Paradoxical but true: We need to give our opponents the time and space they need to let us win.

Not giving them that room to deal with the changed landscape has its consequences:

…gay rights opponents have been quick, in fact quicker than our side, to understand that the dynamic is changing. They can see the moral foundations of their aversion to homosexuality crumbling beneath them. Their only hope is to turn the tables by claiming they, not gays, are the real victims of oppression. Seeing that we have moved the “moral deviant” shoe onto their foot, they are going to move the “civil rights violator” shoe onto ours.

So they have developed a narrative that goes like this:

Gay rights advocates don’t just want legal equality. They want to brand anyone who disagrees with them, on marriage or anything else, as the equivalent of a modern-day segregationist. If you think homosexuality is immoral or changeable, they want to send you to be reeducated, take away your license to practice counseling, or kick your evangelical student group off campus. If you object to facilitating same-sex weddings or placing adoptees with same-sex couples, they’ll slap you with a fine for discrimination, take away your nonprofit status, or force you to choose between your job and your conscience. If you so much as disagree with them, they call you a bigot and a hater.

They won’t stop until they stigmatize your core religious teachings as bigoted, ban your religious practices as discriminatory, and drive millions of religious Americans right out of the public square. But their target is broader than just religion. Their policy is one of zero tolerance for those who disagree with them, and they will use the law to enforce it.

At bottom, they are not interested in sharing the country. They want to wipe us out.

Of course, this is exactly what religious conservatives are doing now.  So maybe the best way to defeat this kind of thinking is by not trying to shut them up, but by acting differently.  Maybe if we show that we will give them the respect they never gave us, maybe things could change for the better.

I don’t know what will happen in Indiana.  I do know I can do something to hopefully lessen the fear and increase the peace.

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

Social Media Isn’t Everything

image0011I miss college.

To be more specific, I miss that part of college where I would have long talks about politics with people.  We would sit in someone’s dorm room and talk about different issues.  There were arguments about different things, but they weren’t mean.  At the end of the day, we still got a long with each other.

Social Media has done a lot of good, but I think one of the bad things is that it has killed those long dialogues.  Facebook at times seems like a place where people strut around sharing opinions and memes that are mean-spirited.  People cheer calling the other side foolish or even evil.  With Facebook, there is no nuance. There is no civility.  What there is present is mostly people with chips on their shoulders.  People with different views look at each other with contempt.

Don’t get me wrong, Facebook and other social media are wonderful tools.  I’ve reconnected with old friends in High School in college.  But I think they make it too easy for people to stay in their little silos where they never have to encounter someone with a different way of thinking. A lot of the issues of the day, from health care to same-sex marriage, are reduced to simple posts where people show they are on the “right side of history,” or what have you.  Facebook especially has at times made us dumber.  We no longer have to think about all the greys in the issues we dealing with.  We no longer have to see the other side as nothing more than people who hate your side.

I would love to have discussions on politics again.  I would love to disagree with someone and yet see them as a real human being, who loves and cries.

I miss those college days.  My fear is that I may never see anything like them again.

Update: I forgot to mention that fellow pastoral colleague Trevor Lee has a similar point to be made on certain Facebook memes.

Marching for Sandwiches, Marcus Borg and Civility

Social media lit up yesterday after the Director of Civil and Human Rights in the  United Methodist Church decided to hold up a sign on Thursday during the March of Life.  Bill Mefford held up a sign that said “I March for Sandwiches” with the marchers for the March for Life in the background.  A number of pro life folk were upset and wondered why Mefford wasn’t marching for real.  I’m not here to talk about abortion.  (I tend to be in the “mushy middle” on abortion, I tend to see it not as a “good,” but something that might have to be used in either tragic or desparate circumstances.)  I want to talk about the lack respect that is found at time from progressive Christians when they encounter people that they don’t agree with.

Mefford apologized for his stunt.  Via Rod Dreher, Mefford wrote:

It seems my picture of me holding a sign that said “I March for Sandwiches” has been taken entirely out of context and has caused quite a stir among some in the Twitter and social media world. I tend to hate general apologies – when people say they are sorry for “whatever they may have done that offended people.” I don’t think those are very sincere.

I also want to say that when I was at the event holding my sign I received nothing but laughter and cheers. Making folks laugh was my sole intent – it really was! It was afterward when this started making the rounds on social media that the hurt and anger began to rise. I understand why people are angry.

So, I am deeply sorry for the hurt and anger that this has caused people since the event. I honestly love to make people laugh and think, and the hurt and anger that people are feeling is not something I enjoy. At all.

A reader on Mefford’s blog responded:

Bill, thanks for your apology. I’m all for humor, but next time you should remember the golden rule. Ask yourself this: how would you have responded if the marchers in Ferguson or New York this past fall had been met with mockery? I suspect you would not have appreciated it. Even if one disagreed with them, the seriousness of the situation demanded respect. Same with the March for Life.

It’s good that Mefford apologized, but his antics are not that unusual in progressive circles.  More and more I keep seeing some of my friends and colleagues show more conservative evangelicals nothing but mockery and disdain.  I never understood this lack of respect.  I grew up in evangelicalism.  There are things about it that I don’t feel comfortable doing anymore and viewpoints that I no longer agree with.  Some contemporary Christian music is not so good to listen to 25 years later.  I will disagree with many evangelicals over the role of openly gay people in the life of the church.  But I don’t want to disrespect them.  After all, I would not be the Christian that I am today if it were not for my evangelical upbrining.

Mefford might have been trying to make a joke, but that joke didn’t come accross to many folk who are pro-life as a joke they could laugh with.  In their eyes, a joke was being made at their expense.

I’ve been around enough to know the snickers that come up when talking about someone who might have a more conservative faith than ourselves.  In some ways it shows how progressive Christians aren’t as inclusive as they claim.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include that some of the people complaining about Mefford’s stunt weren’t anymore tolerant of other’s beliefs.  Reading Matthew Schmitz’s response to Mefford you can tell he has very little if any respect for Christians and other who might be pro-choice.  Respect is a two-way street, Matthew.

How do we encounter and deal with people who have different beliefs?  We all give lip service to being able to listen and welcoming opposing views, but in reality, we don’t have much patience in our modern society for those that don’t conform to whatever is the status quo in our world.

Which is why Mefford’s stunt is bothersome.  Maybe it was an attempt at humor, but really was that the place to do it?  If someone held up a similar card in Ferguson, MO or in any number of cities where folks gathered to protest police brutality, I don’t think a lot of people would be laughing and for good reason.

What the joke showed was that Mefford didn’t think what was going on before him was worth any thought.  He may have not meant it this way, but his actions said that the pro-life marchers weren’t worthy of respect.

In our social media age,  we can segregate ourselves into walled silos where we don’t have to engage people with different opinions as…well, people. We can treat them as abstractions, caritchures, gross exaggerations of who they are really.

This past week, many in the Christian community were stunned by the sudden death of theologian Marcus Borg.  What was so interesting to see in the hours following the news was the accolades coming not simply from those who agreed with him, but from those who disagreed with him.  This is what Methodist blogger David Watson had to say, revealing a little about Borg’s true character:

With Borg’s passing, we lose another of a great generation of liberals. I don’t mean liberal in the sense of his theology or ethics, though he fit quite well within the world of existentialist and process theology. (Just read his book, The God We Never Knew.) I mean that you could dialogue with him. He was liberal in an older sense of that term as applied to academics. You could have respectful disagreement with him. To my knowledge, he did not belittle his opponents or caricature their positions. His work with N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, is a model of respectful disagreement and discourse. Borg was truly a gentleman and a scholar.

I read his book with N.T. Wright a few years ago for a Sunday School class I was co-leading.  I tend to favor N.T. Wright’s more orthodox views over Borg’s but I was struck about how the book was really a conversation between friends, not enemies.  Maybe it was that friendly spirit that allowed me to see that Borg did have a few good points to make in the book.

As Watson notes, Borg was someone you could diaglogue with.  Christian conservatives have never been the best dialogue partners, but liberals were supposed to be the ones that craved it.  Sadly that’s becoming less the case these days.

In the wake of Borg’s passing, maybe we should be willing to share his large spirit.  Maybe we should be willing to sit down and converse with someone, not to prove them wrong, but to understand them. Pro-choice and pro-life Christians should be able to disagree and yet get to know and respect each other.  Pro-gay and traditionalist Christians should have a meal together.  Evangelicals and Progressives should do a mission project together.

I don’t know what would happen if we did that.  Maybe we would start to see the other as a person, a person that might frustrate us, but a person that God made nevertheless.

May the spirit of Marcus Borg live on in us as we encounter the other.