A Plea for Better Questions, Part 3: To the Liberals

God loves Black people, and so should the Church.

God loves heroin addicts, and so should the Church.

God loves Capitalists, and so should the Church.

God loves those who bully the weak, and so should the Church.

God loves LGBTQIAW* people, and so should the Church.

God loves women, and so should the Church.

God loves people with cancer, and so should the Church.

God loves consumers of child pornography, and so should the Church.

I imagine that some, upon reading that list, would probably be screaming that I’m making false analogies, and that’s precisely the point. Any of those statements stands true in isolation, but because human beings are analogy-making critters, any two of those placed next to each other could inspire one person to point to the pair and say, “Exactly!” and another to scream that I’ve demonized, trivialized, relativized, dogmatized, or in many other ways abused that particular Greek suffix.

The fact of the matter is that analogy is necessary when one attempts to live faithfully within a historical tradition.  The Bible’s central questions, as best as I can get to them by means of historical reading, have changed shape in the centuries between my lifetime and the composition of the Bible: modern biology has reduced the grand theological separation between Jews and Gentiles to a matter of simple “racism,” and the fall of centered empires like Rome and Babylon and the rise of grand mercantile and Capitalist systems in the last couple centuries means that whatever it means to be a barbarian or a Scythian is likely going to boil down to a Schwarzenegger movie. So we make analogies, and not only when we talk about local congregations.  (My own Stone-Campbell background won’t let my poor fingers pluralize the word “church.”)  Martin Luther King, Jr. famously linked “black and white” to “Jew and Gentile,” and the analogy between Galatian congregations and American cities lay before the American people. Because most people thought it a valid analogy, King’s imagination has largely become the American imagination. Ward Churchill called for people to realize that, for many people in the world, the people working in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2011 were “little Eichmanns,” and the general public did not take the analogy as valid. Analogously (you get that?), when one moves back and forth between the Bible and early Christianity on one hand and the twenty-first century’s evangelical congregations on the other, the questions that face both liberals and conservatives tend to be questions of analogies.

Unfortunately, analogies examined in the heat of battle become occasions for offense.  When there are only two “sides,” and when the conversation has become a “struggle” (two more analogies, but I’ll try to restrain myself here), to propose an analogy that adjusts the relationships between the realities involved is going to offend people.  And offended people, far too often, call for a cessation of examination in favor of swift, decisive action.  No analogy has popped up more frequently in the last couple months, at least among my circle of contacts, than the analogy of college admissions.  If that analogy seems unfamiliar, perhaps that’s because the analogical character of the move has become obscured.  In this analogy, as I’ve seen it used, a college or a congregation or an ordination agency can only do two things, both derived from the world of college admissions: they can either “accept” or “reject” LGBTQIAW* people.

(I realize that the actual work of college admissions is probably more complex than this, and I apologize to any college admissions workers whom I’ve insulted here.)

Without even looking at a Bible, I can think of times when Jesus insisted on fellowship with, insulted, embraced, instructed, corrected, rebuked, and healed people.  That’s without looking.  The problem with the accept/reject paradigm for thinking about the question is not that it’s an invalid analogy in itself; it’s that accept/reject does not do justice to the broad spectrum of human possibilities (not to mention those that come into play when one is dealing with Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah) open when we encounter another person.  Any of these, if we take Jesus to be an exemplar of love, can be the means by which Jesus loves a mortal, and to assume that there are only two choices, to equate “love” with “accept” and to put every other possible human response in the category of “reject,” is to refuse to answer the complex and difficult questions of what constitutes love, what constitutes total exclusion, and what constitutes apathetic disregard when a neighbor who needs healing.  None of these is a settled question at the outset, and ethical deliberation on the shape of love does not mean that love is absent; it means that the ones deliberating want to make sure that love, which takes different shapes for different folks, is actually what’s being proposed.

To make this clearer, imagine a situation in which engagement with conservative evangelicals, in the fullness of their identity, boiled down only to “accept” and “reject.”  One could either “accept” evangelicals, granting that every one of their (our) political-party loyalties, anxieties, bigotries, and moments of self-righteousness is inherently good; or one could “reject” them (us), saying that nothing that they (we) do can ever be any good simply because we are evangelicals.  Now most folks, I hope, recognize that such an approach oversimplifies, that there are overlapping commitments and natures involved in the life of every evangelical, that one can appeal to a person’s sense of justice as a member of a biological family; to one’s sense that to be an American citizen means something; or to troubling moments in the synoptic gospels in the pursuit of changing someone’s mind without insisting that the person stop being an evangelical.  To come back to the question at hand, many current approaches to things put the conservative evangelicals on one side of a line and LGBTQIAW* people on the other, point to the folks on one side, and say, “You must give up entirely on the core of who you are so that the people on the other side of the line have to give up nothing of who they are.”  If these are the terms of engagement, it’s no great feat to imagine why the “struggle” seems intractable.

Perhaps only my circle of contacts uses this rhetorical device, but I’ve seen more than once the rejection of deliberation because it’s too slow, because every day spent deliberating on better analogies than the college-admission analogy means another gay teen is going to commit suicide.  But as I did in my message to conservatives, here as well I must take a stand in favor of genuine ethical deliberation: to neglect such deliberation in favor of unilateral legislative action or of rejecting those who disagree as un-Jesus-like does little but to establish the liberal credentials of the “hardliners” (you know who you are) and to throw the fates of those same teen suicides to the majority rather than trying to change the minds of people in particular places, something that may turn out better in terms of public policy points but will not do much at all to bring reconciliation between these people and the communities from which they feel alienated in the first place.  If anything such moves will only add resentment of heavy-handed political maneuvers into an already-difficult sphere of relationships.

I’ve often said that having someone who stands against one’s personal ideology in the White House is good for one’s soul, and if someone asks me to defend that statement, I need only to point to conservatives’ strong interest in truth and the accountability of elected officials while the Monica Lewinsky scandal was in the center of the news and the subsequent strong interest in truth on the part of liberals during the lead-up to and aftermath of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  I’ll leave our good readers to note what happened to this strong concern for the truth in both camps when their own dude was at 1600 Pennsylvania.  I bring this strange set of relationships to truth and government accountability to the table because a similar thing happens when one must read the Bible alongside people whose ideology differs.  I’ve been in more than one conversation in which a conservative has told me that the folks in the Bible would not have said what they did about the wealthy if they knew what sorts of good Capitalism would do for the global population, and I’ve had more than one liberal tell me that the Biblical writers could not have had any idea what a devoted romantic relationship between two consenting adult homosexual partners meant given the strange sexual norms of their day.

Again, why do people wonder why ideologues tend to talk past one another?

My point here is not that I’m some sort of Biblical purist (I do, after all, have money in a retirement account managed by my college’s sponsoring denomination, so my own savings are implicated in the global market system), much less that nobody “really” takes the Bible seriously.  What I am saying is that, if the struggle for a better life for LGBTQIAW* persons means, on some level, reconciling them with the communities from which they’re alienated rather than simply mandating, by means of government or economic force, their incorporation in Christian communities in official capacities, then part of the work of reconciliation has to involve living humbly with the Holy Scriptures which do claim the allegiance of all involved.  And that is going to mean the hard rhetorical work of convincing folks that your own readings of the Bible are valid readings.

What makes me think that some liberals are not all that serious about actual reconciliation with the conservative evangelical communities from which LGBTQIAW* people are alienated is that, when the text of the Bible comes up, too many times I see them brush off the exegetical questions with non-engagements like “I’m not a literalist” or “the Bible has nothing to say to this” or “it’s allegorical.”  I’ll put this as plainly as I currently see it: to pretend that the Bible has nothing to do with people’s sex lives indicates an utter lack of respect for people trying to live the whole of their lives by the same Bible.  To say “it’s an allegory” is the beginning of the discussion, no the end of it.  And being “not a literalist” is not the same as being “not a Cubs fan”–it requires of the one self-labeling some sort of account for this or that reading.  Those sort of maneuvers no doubt have the effect of ingratiating the movers with certain cultured despisers of religion, but they also indicate no desire to bring the communities who currently seek to do something other than simple “acceptance” into the deliberation.

Ultimately, then, the analogies that govern speech and writing about LGBTQIAW* people and the ways that participants engage with the Bible are going to tell everyone involved which people are serious about reconciliation and which would just as soon throw the “other” in front of a truck and have done with it.  In the meantime, as I did with the conservatives, I will ask, as gently as I can, that certain talking points undergo some revision:

  • Yes, pederasty was far more common in Roman-era cities than was consensual sexual relationships between grown men. But please stop writing that early Christians would have had no concept of such things. Everyone who’s read Homer knows of Achilles and Partroklos, and most people who teach Virgil know of Nisus and Euryalus. Early Christians had paradigms at their disposal, and they rejected them. To reject that rejection is to take a stand against informed precedent, not against uneducated primitives.
  • I know I said I wouldn’t address the Sojo controversy directly, but please try to approach this with some historical perspective.  A non-profit advocacy group’s asking that questions of sexuality undergo deliberation in the editorial section rather than being part of the advertising on the website is no doubt less than full and enthusiastic support of the LGBTQIAW* cause, but think carefully before comparing it to Martin Luther’s call for the peasant rebellion to be put down murderously, the refusal of white ministers to support Martin Luther King’s efforts in Alabama, or other well-known historical phenomena.  Bad historical analogies are just as damaging to a cause as any other sorts of bad analogies.
  • Teen suicide, for whatever reason, is an awful thing.  But to say that teen suicide is a reason to stop deliberating about questions of moral import is to put the fates of those teens in the hands of the majority, and that doesn’t strike me at least as particularly morally responsible.  Give the families of teens the dignity to treat their suicides as complex human acts rather than mechanistic byproducts of policies that you don’t like.
  • Not everyone who does not vocally lobby for “acceptance” is “homophobic.”  To deny good-faith intellectual differences and to attribute any difference to psychological disorders in your opponent no doubt feels good in the moment, but it does little to convince the other people that there’s something worth considering in your actual ideas.  If your ideas are good ones, contend for them on the level of ideas and leave the confession to the priests.

I think that this series will end here for now.  Certainly I might write follow-up posts in the weeks to come, but for now, to everyone discussing these things, I humbly ask, as someone who’s been called both a Communist and a Fundamentalist in Facebook interactions (sometimes only days apart from each other), for a bit of linguistic awareness in these disputes.  The central questions that I never see answered, namely the adequacy of analogies deployed in these conversations and the most adequate articulation of love in the conduct of the Church, strike me as places where people could at least articulate the strong differences that motivate the policies of the communities in question and perhaps, if there be grace, open up some space for people to change their minds as the truth becomes clearer.

Until then, I do thank our regular readers and anyone else who’s come along for reading, and once again I invite feedback, criticisms, and questions better than the ones I’ve proposed in the comments sections of all three posts.

* Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Interested, Allies, and Whatever letters they’ve added since I started typing this list.


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