Back in 2008, the LEO, Louisville’s weekly “alternative” newspaper, did a story about Sojourn Church, where I serve as one of the pastors. It opened with the line, “They’re young, involved, and socially aware ––– and think being gay is a sin; How does Sojourn Church square its progressive image with some of its more regressive ideas.”
The article caused a relatively big stir in the community. At the time, we were running an art gallery and music venue called The 930 Arts Center, and angry readers of the LEO began actively petitioning artists and musicians that were booked at the venue, warning them that we were fundamentalist wolves in progressive sheeps’ clothing. Many artists continued with their bookings, but many turned away. The music venue, soon after, stopped hosting shows.
All of this came back to mind this week with the announcement of Brendan Eich’s forced resignation as CEO of Mozilla Corp., a silicon-valley tech company that’s known for the Firefox web browser. Eich was forced out after it was revealed that he donated $1,000 to a political campaign in support of Prop 8, California’s referendum to ban gay marriage.
Legal “Wins” Are Not Enough
Eich’s story reveals the trajectory of the progressive movement’s efforts. It’s not enough for the movement to win public support for same-sex marriage, and it’s not enough to win the legal battles and make same-sex marriage available throughout the US. The goal is now to alienate, ostracize, and shame those who oppose them.
There are exceptions to this, and perhaps most notable is columnist Andrew Sullivan, who sees this trajectory for what it is, a tit-for-tat reaction to the years of social isolation the LGBT community has experienced. Instead of embracing a society of true tolerance, where space exists in the public sphere for people who disagree with one another, the movement wants to enforce a new, liberal sexual orthodoxy, according to which, Eich is (as Sullivan himself called him) a heretic.
"Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us."
Embedded in Sullivan’s comments is an important point: Christians who want a tolerant society, with space for our (now out of fashion) traditional beliefs, are a mirror to the LGBT community not long ago. When they were asking for space and tolerance, the religious right was legislating against homosexual acts and behaviors.
And while this history has been hashed out many times and many places before, it’s worth revisiting in brief here. Homosexuality was a unique pariah for the church and for cultural conservatism at large. It was targeted in a way that sins like adultery, unbiblical divorce, or even more “mundane” sins like gluttony and greed were not. Homosexuals were a unique “other”, a scapegoat for all of our anxieties about the sexual revolution and cultural moral decay. And so, they became the objects of special attention and derision.
Now, the traditionalist is taking the place of the “other”; the danger to our society. Ultimately, it won’t be limited to traditional Christian views on sexuality. Muslims Orthodox Jews, and Mormons are all going to face the same social pressure to either conform to liberal orthodoxy or – and here the irony is spectacular – go “into the closet” with their beliefs.
And the irony flows both ways. Progressives will push out the traditionalists under a banner of tolerance, freedom, and equality for all. GLAAD, an LGBT activist organization responded to Eich’s ouster with this statement:
'Mozilla’s strong statement in favor of equality today reflects where corporate America is: inclusive, safe, and welcoming to all.'
Apparently, GLAAD has lost any touch with reality when it comes to the meaning of the words “equality”, “inclusive”, “safe”, “welcoming”, and “all.”
Mozilla itself, responding to a question on Twitter, said:
"We believe in unconditional freedom and openness. That's why we support rights for everyone."
Everyone, that is, but those who believe in a traditional view of marriage.
While these statements are laughable, the implicit message is very serious. Liberal sexual orthodoxy is rigorously enforced, and traditional religious orthodoxy is being pushed to the margins.
So what are Christians to do? What’s a way forward for the church and the culture at large?
Here are three possible steps:
1. Acknowledge the Past.
Christians need to have the integrity and honesty to admit that what’s happening now – ostracizing people of faith who hold traditional convictions about marriage and sexuality – is an echo of a political strategy that other Christians used in the past towards the LGBT community.
In addition, Christians have been guilty of targeting the LGBT community’s sins in a way that’s disproportionate to the way they’ve reacted to other sins, like greed, gluttony, and unbiblical divorce.
This doesn’t mean that Christians should back away from doctrinal convictions. It simply means that we need to acknowledge that our way of engaging these issues in the past has set a bad precedent and created an air of hostility.
The gospel is most powerfully expressed as an invitation, not an obligation, and in the New Testament, it was an invitation to a pluralistic and pagan world where sexuality was expressed in a variety of ways that Christian would call immoral. We must continue to offer a Biblical vision of sexuality, family, and gender, but do so in a way that invites rather than obligates. In other words, the culture wars need to end.
2. Relinquish Political Idealism
Christians need to let go of political visions that try to make the nation look like the Church. We live in a society that is pluralistic, and the tactics we advocate to force people to align with our vision of morality will be used against us to get us align with other visions. In other words, if we try to advocate for laws that enforce Christian ethics, what is to keep others from advocating for laws that enforce other religious ideals, or (as some have argued is the case with the Hobby Lobby) trying to force alignment with liberal and progressive ethics?
Instead of pursuing these ideals, Christians – and citizens at large – need to ask themselves “How do we learn to live with one another,” knowing full well that “one another” in this case means people with very different ideas about almost everything. We need to defend one another’s right to hold crazy and misbegotten ideas because making space for the “other’s” bad ideas is the only way to ensure that there’s space for my own.
Anything less than a truly pluralistic society – at least until Jesus returns – introduces the possibility of crowding Christian faith out of the public sphere.
3. Cultivate Empathy
There’s a common thread to both human sexuality and religious faith: both are mysterious. Attempts to provide simple explanations for the cause of either one are always reductionistic because both develop as part of a person’s whole-life experience.
So religious conservatives need to acknowledge that same-sex attraction is complex, and not merely a choice. When Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson made comments about homosexuality last winter, they betrayed a simplistic understanding, assuming that a gay man could simply choose to longer find men attractive.
Yet, in the same vein, progressives and members of the LGBT community should acknowledge that faith is just as complex – whether it’s traditional Christian orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism, or an Alien Cult. Demanding that Christians should “evolve already!” is just as ignorant as Phil Robertson telling a gay man that a vagina has much more to offer him. Both fail to take into consideration the complexity of the human experience.
Many folks in the LGBT community tell stories of struggle on their journey to accepting their identity. They wished at times – due to bullying, lack of social acceptance, and more – that they could feel another way, but they couldn’t change. And yet, many Bible-believing Christians could tell similar stories. They wished they could believe something else – due to bullying, lack of social acceptance, and more – but for one reason or another, they’re drawn back, again and again, to Jesus, His gospel, and his Word.
This doesn’t mean Christians don’t struggle with doctrine, though. It’s hard at times to agree with and support ideas that the world around you thinks are ludicrous. But that’s the way true Revelation would have to work, isn’t it? As Tim Keller often says, if your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping yourself. Or as philosopher Walter Kauffman – himself not a Christian – once put it, “If you are the one who does the choosing and picking as to which commandments are binding, what is the relevance of God to you?”
And it’s for this reason I argue we need empathy, not understanding. That may sound strange, but it’s an important distinction. I don’t think we can “understand” one another, despite the oft-repeated doctrine that understanding will heal the world. We can’t understand each other because we can’t embody the same experiences and come to common conclusions.
What we can do, instead, is empathize with the mystery that each of us is. We can let go of any pretense that we know why the other person is the way they are – the pretense that assumes that faith or sexual orientation is merely a decision, or that simple 1:1 explanations can be offered for either. We can empathize by acknowledging that we don’t understand the other person.
When we see one another as mysterious, it drives us back to the need for a better political conversation. Rather than hammering for the ideal, we need radical pragmatism. We need to learn to live with one another.
There are many Christians who are leading the way on these points. I’m thankful for Jonathan Merritt’s piece in CT, telling his story of same-sex attraction and how it led to an encounter with God’s grace. On the progressive side, Andrew Sullivan has led the way in arguing for a truly tolerant society that makes room for traditional religious belief.
And unaccounted in this post are the countless others, on both sides of the equation, who are living at peace with their neighbors. At the end of the day, I can’t believe that the dominant and hate-filled voices in the media are representative of the church at large – any more than commenters on blog posts are. And with that in mind, I’ll remind readers that I do moderate comments here, so be civil.