Thursday, July 5, 2018

Anti-White vs Anti-White-Supremacy

Here's something I find quite interesting. The last blog post I wrote, "White Innocence: A Confession," was one I worked on especially hard because of how important I took the topic to be. In that post, I took care to explain myself as clearly as I could manage. At no point in writing it did I feel bad about being white, nor did I at any point say I felt bad about being white (or say I should feel bad about being white). After all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having the skin that you have. In fact, the evil that I was focusing on in that blog post was nothing other than the system of White Supremacy, which treats skin color as a measure of worth. My post was a repudiation of that kind of thinking.

And yet the only comment on that blog post comes from someone who describes the post as among "the most cringy anti-white screeds" they've ever read.

What's interesting here is thinking about why a post that says nothing bad about having light-colored skin could inspire someone to label it as "anti-white."

Just to be clear, my wife and children and parents and other beloved relatives are all pink-skinned. All of my extended family is descended from (or still lives in) the very pale country of Norway--and I love them all and think there is absolutely nothing wrong with them having the skin color (and hair and eyes) that they have. Nor do I have anything against a Nordic heritage or Scandinavian culture, which I love. As I wrote my "White Innocence" piece, the very notion that I might be seen as in some way denigrating these things was so far removed from my consciousness that it never even occurred to me to mention this.

In that post, I never say there is anything wrong with pale skin. I never say there is anything wrong with the art and music and literature and philosophy that is the rich cultural legacy of Europe. I never say that having Scandinavian or Germanic or British or French heritage (etc.) is bad in any way. Nothing in the post attacks any of these things, either directly or indirectly.   

What the blog post does attack, and rather unrelentingly, is White Supremacy, which I see as something of an infection in Western societies, interfering with our ability to live up to the highest ideals of our cultural heritage--you know, those ideals of liberty and equality and justice. My confession in that earlier post is that I could do far more than I do to fight against racism--especially that "structural" and "implicit" kind that is essentially invisible to those who are advantaged by it and is most clearly seen and felt by those who are disadvantaged (meaning that those of us who are advantaged will really be able to see that it's there only by listening with compassion and empathy to those who are disadvantaged, namely people of color).

That it is so easy for some people to experience an unrelenting attack on White Supremacy (paired with a confession from a white person about their unintended complicity) as anti-white tells us something. Our culture's racial categories have nothing to do with biology or anything "real" apart from culture--which is the reason why we ought not to judge anyone by the color of their skin, since that tells us nothing. These categories were, rather, created to justify systems of oppression and domination: such things as the slave trade and the institution of slavery.

They were invented hundreds of years ago to create categories of people who were dubbed "other" and hence could be exploited without the exploiters having to feel bad about it. "Whiteness," as originally conceived, was not a name for pink skin but a name for those taken to be superior, those to whom equal respect and full moral consideration is owed. In other words, "whiteness" as a category was just a name for the judgment, embedded in White Supremacy, that the physical trait of light skin is a mark of human superiority. To attack White Supremacist ideology does involve attacking "whiteness" in this sense. It does involve attacking the idea that there is a class of persons marked by their pale skin who are superior to other persons because of that pale skin.

So what does it mean when someone calls a blog post anti-white when that blog post says not a single thing bad about having pale skin--or about having European heritage, or about the art and music and literature and philosophy that emerged out of Europe, or anything like that--but the post strongly attacks White Supremacy? I think it tells us how easy it is for some people to confuse "anti-White-Supremacy" with "anti-white."

But how does such a confusion happen? And does it only happen to people who are proudly and overtly racist? In other words, is it always a deliberate conflation of the two?

I don't think its always deliberate. I'm sure that overt White Supremacists will quite consciously identify whiteness with the White Supremacist understanding of it, and so label an attack on White Supremacy as anti-white. But others might do so too, precisely because White Supremacy is an infection that can come in more subtle forms. Implicit racial bias--bias that people don't mean to have, bias hat goes against their own overt beliefs--is one of the harms caused by the disease of White Supremacy. But another may be linked to our unconscious sense of self.

While white people don't generally define themselves explicitly as white--since being white is treated as the norm, the standard that does not even need to be named and so isn't even noticed. But that doesn't mean that being white hasn't created some implicit sense of self, an unstated sense of belonging that exists because White Supremacy has staked out whiteness as the mark of chosen-ness. According to White Supremacy, those who aren't white are "other": they don't quite belong; they aren't owed all the privileges of society. But those who fit White Supremacy's category of whiteness do belong. And that sense of belonging can become real even if a person disavows White Supremacy.

I think it is clear that many have a sense of identity that has been shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by experiencing oneself as a member of the chosen group. The sense of belonging that comes from such an identity, even if not explicitly and consciously tied to White Supremacist ideas, will feel threatened in the face of a clear and sustained challenge to White Supremacy.

The solution, I think, is to nurture resources for belonging and identity that aren't premised on hierarchy and marginalization. We need to drive home the idea that belonging does not require the existence of a class of people who are deliberately excluded. We can embrace a heritage without denigrating other heritages. We can affirm and uplift who we are without needing to beat down those who are different.

The idea that affirming who we are depends on diminishing others is an illusion. But if you are in the grip of that illusion, you won't be able to affirm who you are apart from some ideology that diminishes others. And so an attack on that ideology will seem to you to be the same as saying you have no right to affirm yourself.

This is a tragic cost of oppressive ideologies infecting people's thought-processes. But it doesn't need to be that way. We can  and we must nurture conceptions of identity and community that defy the in-group/out-group structure. We can and we must remind each other that we can say yes to ourselves and to our distinct heritage without saying yes to an ideology which privileges "our" group over others.

It is possible to say no, emphatically and remorseless, to such ideology while still affirming ourselves.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

White Innocence: A Confession

Here is an unsurprising fact about me: I am imperfect.

I won't give you a comprehensive list of my imperfections, but I do want to talk about one that I have in common with other people like me: white men who have stable careers and comfortable incomes.

I like to enjoy the privileged life I have without being pressured to reflect on all those people in the world who don't enjoy the same advantages, without being called to think about all the ways I could (but don't) use my privilege to make things better for them.

To put the point in less precise but more common terms: I just want to enjoy my life without feeling guilty about it. 

I want to be "blessed." You know what I mean: I want to look at my beautiful home and my beautiful family and my fulfilling job and say, "I'm blessed." And then just be thankful for that.

I don't want to consider the possibility that systemic injustices routinely bestow people like me with blessings while others labor and suffer and strive and still can't hope for the comforts I enjoy. I certainly don't want to make substantial sacrifices to my comfort and advantages for the sake of those who suffer, or challenge the status quo in ways that might make my life less comfortable.

I want to sit back and enjoy my blessings while still being innocent--or at least without being called out for my lack of innocence.

Take a specific example. I am in a position to indulge my kids' passions. I can pay for expensive extracurricular activities--gymnastics and dance and music lessons--that cultivate their talents, develop life skills, and enrich their lives. And why am I in a position to do that? Some of it's luck. Some of it's hard work. But a lot of it is because my parents were able to do that for me.

My parents could afford to pay for the expensive extracurricular activities that enriched my life--in my case violin lessons with the best and most expensive private violin teachers in town. So much of what I know about how to focus and succeed at things can be traced back to what I learned as I was guided through the difficult task of mastering the technical challenges of one new piece of music after another.

Of course I took advantage of these opportunities. And then I went on to use the personal resources I cultivated to earn a PhD, get a tenure track job, secure tenure and eventually promotion to full professor. But first I had to have the opportunities. And there are others who likely would have done even more with them than I did, who would have had even more drive and determination and commitment than me, if only they'd had the chance.

Let me be clear about something: I am not to blame for growing up in a world where those opportunities are unequally distributed. I didn't make that world. And it's hardly blameworthy that I used those opportunities to cultivate my talents and develop my character (it would've been worse had I squandered them). But here I am now, the beneficiary of privileges that most people don't have. It's the choices I make now, about how to use my advantages, that I can be properly praised and blamed for.

And the hard truth is this: I could be doing more, a lot more, to make those kinds of opportunities available to more people in the world. And so, as much as I wish I could be innocent, I'm not.

Some of the advantages I've had in life are tied to my race. They are tied to being white in a society that was created by white European settlers on the backs of black slaves, human beings kidnapped and born of those who were kidnapped and sold like cattle at auction; a society created at the expense of indigenous peoples who were systematically pushed into smaller and narrower reservations, driven along a deadly Trail of Tears into the Indian Territory that is now no longer Indian Territory but the State of Oklahoma, where I live.

All of that is history. But history casts a long shadow. History shapes the present moment. It forms the contours of our society, both for good and ill. The racial categories of whiteness and blackness were invented in the centuries-long era of forced enslavement. Our very concepts of black and white, understood as distinct "races," were invented to justify treating some people as animals to be owned and bought and sold and used.

Let me say that again in a slightly different way: the racial category, "black," was invented in order to justify treating some people (those with brown skin) as things to be used by other people (those with pink skin). The racial categories we have were created as an integral part of an ideological system called white supremacy.

I would be naive to think that the oppressive ideas that helped to shape our racial categories, oppressive ideas that survived the end of slavery and were refashioned into the more subtle oppression of Jim Crow, somehow died for good when I was a kid.

I see people as black and white. As much as I might wish I'd been raised in a world where nobody saw each other in this way, these categories exist. And I am very good at instinctively putting people into these categories. I'd be naive to think that, when I do place them in one racial category or another, my perceptions of them are in no way shaped by what these categories were invented to do, the oppressive meanings they were originally created to have.

History doesn't work that way. Culture doesn't work that way. And my black friends and neighbors, when they tell me of their experiences today, confirm that it doesn't work that way.

This becomes apparent to anyone who listens deeply to people of color, who hears or reads their stories with empathy and compassion. Doing that means looking beyond the comfortable space I inhabit--a space that has always been and continues to be overwhelming white.

When I do, I see that, simply by virtue of my skin, I enjoy advantages over my black peers.

No woman has ever clutched her purse more tightly when I walked onto the elevator. I have never been immediately followed by a security guard when I enter a store. In fact, I can't remember even noticing a security guard in any store I've ever entered, because I can afford to ignore them.

I certainly haven't found myself carrying the cumulative psychological weight of these sorts of suspicious and fearful gestures happening over and over again over the course of a single day (and then experiencing it again the next day, and the next). I've never experienced health problems caused by the long-term stress of carrying that weight.

I routinely go to meet people at coffee shops and wait for them at a table before ordering--and I have never thought twice about it, let alone had the police called on me because of it (or because I asked for plastic silverware at the Waffle House and then asked to contact the manager when I was told I'd be charged).

I have never felt the surge of bone-deep fear that every black friend I know feels when being pulled over by the police.

I have never picked up a book called "How to Draw Faces" only to find that every single face in the book is of a dominant race not my own.

When I was a kid and decided to dress for Halloween as a superhero or legendary wizard or other character out of my Geek Pantheon, they were virtually all white and so I had loads and loads of choices--and when I donned the costume no ever said, "Oh, look! I white Superman. How cute."

Sure, my hair was blond as a kid, not black like Superman's, but no one seemed to notice that. If you're the default race, not only is your race unremarkable but so, too, are those other little details.

I have never been one of only two white men in a room only to learn later that the choices and actions of the other white man, who looked nothing like me, have been attributed to me (or my choices to them).

I've never been slapped with the N-word.

I've never doubted that I would be treated as an individual, assessed on my own merits, and judged by my own failings and accomplishments. In certain rare situations growing up, I found myself called to my best behavior because I represented my school or my church youth group. I was never called to represent my race. I was never assumed to be a representative of my who race, with all the weight that carries.

Every day I make choices with the complete assurance that people will see me as a harmless, decent, well-meaning person who'll be treated with deference, politeness, and respect. This assurance is so routinely confirmed by experience that on those rare occasions when someone seems afraid of me or hostile to me, I am utterly shocked.

I don't have the experience of being an outsider in my society. Almost everywhere I go, I belong. And that feeling is rarely if ever challenged by the ways that people respond to me. And so I am relaxed and at home in my world.

And most of the time, I simply enjoy these facts about my life--without thinking about or wrestling with or doing anything about the fact that for so many people of color, none of these things are true.

This is why I am so grateful for an open letter that George Yancy, a fellow philosophy professor, wrote a few years ago. "Dear White America," the letter begins. And then, with sensitivity and a real effort to avoid being misunderstood, Yancy invites white Americans to really see and experience their privilege--to really see and experience the ways in which even the most well-meaning white people unintentionally participate in a system that disadvantages black Americans.

To capture the spirit of what he wants to express, he begins with a confession. He confesses that he is sexist. And he explains what he means by that. He makes it clear that he is not labeling himself as a male chauvinist who deliberately uses and abuses women. No, when he calls himself sexist he means something different: that he is part of a system that advantages men in a systematic way, and that he hasn't done enough to escape its influence or oppose its harmful effects. Yancy puts it as follows:
This doesn’t mean that I intentionally hate women or that I desire to oppress them. It means that despite my best intentions, I perpetuate sexism every day of my life. Please don’t take this as a confession for which I’m seeking forgiveness. Confessions can be easy, especially when we know that forgiveness is immediately forthcoming. 
As a sexist, I have failed women. I have failed to speak out when I should have. I have failed to engage critically and extensively their pain and suffering in my writing. I have failed to transcend the rigidity of gender roles in my own life...I have been complicit with, and have allowed myself to be seduced by, a country that makes billions of dollars from sexually objectifying women, from pornography, commercials, video games, to Hollywood movies. I am not innocent.
When he calls himself sexist, he means that even though he thinks sexism is wrong, even though he wishes he were not influenced by sexist tropes and patterns in our culture, he remains a participant in social patterns of thinking and behaving that make women's lives worse than they could or should be. He is not innocent.

This is unsurprising. It is virtually impossible for someone in a sexist society to avoid altogether the effects of socialization, to avoid some level of complicity or seduction. But the purpose of recognizing this fact is not to inspire guilt but rather to motivate honesty and vulnerability. To see ourselves truthfully so that we can pursue that unattainable goal that Jesus talked about: Be perfect, as God is perfect.

When Jesus said that, it wasn't to make us comfortable. It was to make us uncomfortable. It was to remind us that the labor of becoming the best we can be is never-ending, and that although there is forgiveness for our failures such forgiveness is not a reason to stop striving, to stop repenting, to stop reflecting on our inadequacies and recommitting ourselves each day to being better than we were before. Success may be beyond us, and our salvation (thank God) doesn't depend on success, but the practice of confession and repentance and re-commitment to the good remains a lifelong calling.

This is what he asks of his white readers. When he calls himself sexist, he mean that he lives and breathes in a society that is shaped by social patterns and structures that invite men to objectify women in ways large and small--and despite his efforts to live against that tide, he falls short. This is what he means when he calls himself sexist.

But then he turns to the issue of racism. And he says these words:
This letter is not asking you to feel bad about yourself, to wallow in guilt. That is too easy. I’m asking for you to tarry, to linger, with the ways in which you perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which you are racist. 
When I first read those words, it was clear what he was saying. He was speaking to me. He was inviting me to confront not just the fact that blacks are systematically disadvantaged in our society but the fact that I am not innocent. He was inviting me to tarry, to linger, with this unsettling question: where do I fall short in my efforts to repudiate these ongoing injustices? When am I silent about racist jokes for the sake of getting along or not making waves? When am I more concerned about my own comfort or the comfort of my white colleague than I am about racial injustice? Where must I make confession, repentance, and a re-commitment to the good?

And to make that invitation, he used that word: racist.

Being a white man in America, I could've warned him about what that would do. But then again, being a black man in America, I'm sure he knew.

No matter how carefully he led up to the use of that word--RACIST--by invoking the analogy of sexism and offering his own confession about being sexist...

No matter how precise he was in specifying what he meant by that word--that he was referring to ways in which white Americans are "perpetuating a racist society," often unconsciously and absent any ugly intentions...

No matter how clear it is that nobody can live in a society and be entirely free from its socializing influence, and hence that the issue isn't about feeling guilty but about becoming self-aware and finding ways to do better...

No matter how obvious it was that he wasn't telling white Americans that all of them consciously hate black people or use the N-word or tell racist jokes or delight in social-media images of Obama being lynched...

No matter how cautiously he approached the use of that word, I could've warned him what it would mean to invite his white readers "to tarry, to linger, with...the ways in which you are racist."

I'm a white man in 21st Century America. One thing I know something about is how this class of people feels, in general, about being invited to wear the label "racist."

I'll quickly confess to being a bit sexist, a bit lazy, a bit too selfish. But racist?

White men like me have got all kinds of defense mechanisms to protect our innocence. Some are more subtle than others.

There's one strategy I knew would be quickly invoked to silence Yancy: the strategy of self-righteous deflection. It looks like this:

"Are you calling me racist? You don't KNOW me! You're calling all your white readers racist just because they're white! THAT'S what's racist! Slapping a negative label onto people based solely on their race is racism! Yancy's a racist! Racist Yancy!"

Yancy becomes the racist, and so we don't need to tarry with the question of how we contribute to the problem of anti-black racist systems in America. Because the one who's asking us to do it made the unforgivable sin of asking that question by using the term "racist."

This defensive strategy piggybacks on a more widespread one: a refusal to accept or even understand the sense of "racism" that Yancy tries so carefully to explain. Clearly, Yancy means by "racist" the propensity to consciously or unconsciously contribute to a system that disadvantages blacks and other races while advantaging whites. But if white Americans use the term in that way, it forces us to do the very thing that Yancy wants white Americans to do: to reflect on how, consciously or unconsciously, we are part of a systemic problem that continues to cause suffering.

We prefer to adopt a different meaning, one more narrow than Yancy's, more narrow than the generally accepted sociological understanding, more narrow than the one the black community generally has in mind. We prefer to reserve the term "racist" exclusively for individuals who harbor explicitly racist beliefs, who endorse white supremacist doctrines, who invoke the N-word, who wear white sheets on weekend cross-burning outings, who actively and intentionally discriminate against people of color.

If we do that, then--at least for those of us who aren't active with our local chapter of the KKK--racism is someone else's problem. It's not our problem. We preserve our innocence.

Of course, Yancy is very careful to specify, clearly and unambiguously, that when he invites his white neighbors to reflect on the ways that they are racist, he doesn't mean this sense of the word, the sense of "racist" that only applies to klansmen and neo-Nazis and their secret admirers. Yancy couldn't have been more clear that what he's inviting his white neighbors to do is reflect on how their lifestyles and choices play into the social structures and cultural patterns that continue to disadvantage blacks over whites in this country.

But such care and precision does no good if it threatens our innocence--a fact that is made blazingly apparent by the kinds of vitriolic responses to his letter that Yancy received. In fact, the urge to protect white innocence is so insanely strong that threats to it can, it seems, inspire in some people frothing displays of the opposite: N-word-spewing death threats in the name of rejecting Yancy's invitation to reflect on how we might be racist.

It would almost be laughable if it weren't so true and so devastating in its human toll. Yancy discusses that truth and that toll in a new essay, "The Ugly Truth of Being a Black Professor in America." It is adapted from Yancy's new book, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America.

What he describes is horrific beyond anything I could conceive.

The reason it is beyond what I could conceive is precisely because I routinely underestimate the force and power of racism in that overt, rabid, hate-spewing sense--not the broad sense Yancy was so careful to specify, but in that ugly sense that most of us can safely distance ourselves from. The kind most white people aren't guilty of--but also the kind that most of us can therefore pretend does not exist.

This is another piece of my confession: I live in a bubble-world where most of the time the racism that exists looks at worst like what Yancy was talking about: the unintended complicity of well-meaning people in a system that was forged long ago and continues to cast an ugly shadow.

But my black neighbors do not live in that world. They do not live in a world where that is the only kind of racism they face. They live in a world where overt, rabid, hate-spewing racism can rear up at any moment, especially as a backlash response to the kind of thing that Yancy did in his open letter: earnest efforts to invite the kind of soul-searching that is required to dismantle racist structures and systems.

Apparently, if you're black, the surest way to inspire overt racists to come out of the woodwork, displaying their racism in unfettered verbal abuse, is to accuse them of being racist. Their raging denials are like the abusive husband who, in response to his wife calling him abusive, beats her to unconsciousness while shouting, "How dare you call me abusive!"

My black neighbors and colleagues and friends do not live in my world. My world is one where racism--whether in its raging, spewing form or in terms of hidden structures and implicit biases--affect other people. That is not the world of my black neighbors. They do not live in a world where it is optional for them whether they face these things or not.

They have no choice but to face them, to live with them. What they have a choice about is whether to speak out or endure in silence. And when they choose to speak, even if they do so in the most carefully worded way they can, they make themselves the targets of a hate that transcends what I can tarry with, what I can linger with.

To imagine myself the target of what Yancy describes in his recent essay and book--at least to do so for more than a moment--is too much for me. And so I retreat. I pretend that sort of thing is safely in the past and that what we need to tackle now is something less horrifying: implicit bias.

And then, when I step back to that level of structural and implicit racism, I exempt myself in a different way.

This is the final part of my confession. When I first read Yancy's letter, I knew that these words were meant for me:
If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable. Being neither a “good” white person nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook. I consider myself to be a decent human being. Yet, I’m sexist. Take another deep breath. I ask that you try to be “un-sutured.”
You see, I'm always taking myself off the hook. My defense mechanisms are more subtle than the ones I've discussed above, such as defining racism narrowly enough to exclude myself, but they are just as real.

A few years ago I took Harvard University's online implicit bias test, which aims to determine the extent to which you unconsciously harbor racial prejudices (as well as other implicit associations and biases). The test, in my case, showed that I harbored no discernible implicit bias against blacks.

But here's the thing, my confession: I exulted in this result. 

I used this result to tell myself that I was not complicit. That I was not part of the problem. That I could rest on my laurels and enjoy my blessings and never need to confess, to repent, to re-commit to the good. Not only is overt racism a problem that only other people have, but so is implicit bias. Hah!

And so I put on my cloak of white innocence. And I've never taken the test again. Because I'm afraid that the comforting result was just a one-time fluke.

It is so easy to pretend that Yancy's letter does not apply to me. It is so easy to say that it applies mainly to those who responded to it with outrage, those who were so defensive in their reactions that they proved their racism in the frothing way that they rejected the racist label.

It's so easy to pretend that Yancy's letter doesn't ask anything of me, since I have already taken it to heart (even though Yancy's invitation is not a one-off thing but an ongoing part of a lifelong effort to be perfect in the ways we know we are not).

But Yancy's letter does apply to me. I know it does when I linger on his closing words:  "If you have young children, before you fall off to sleep tonight, I want you to hold your child. Touch your child’s face. Smell your child’s hair. Count the fingers on your child’s hand. See the miracle that is your child. And then, with as much vision as you can muster, I want you to imagine that your child is black."

Yancy's letter applies to me because every time I hear about another black child gunned down or read another page of Angie Thomas's extraordinary novel, The Hate U Give, I find myself confronting a terrible species of gratitude.

I find myself grateful that my children are white.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Scriptural Debates and the Work of Love: Giles, Gagnon, and Same-Sex Intimacy

As I have a tendency to do, I got a bit worked up last night reading an exchange between my Facebook friend, author and former pastor Keith Giles, and conservative biblical scholar Robert Gagnon. I had to set the whole exchange aside and read a bit from a fantasy novel (Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer) so that I could fall asleep.

The exchange was about what Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, says and does not say about same-sex relationships. Giles offers a progressive reading according to which Paul's purpose is to focus on idolatry and its fruits. His central claim is that "What Paul is condemning here is the use of sexual intercourse as part of the worship of created things, or idols." The implication of his essay is that we can't use his remarks here as a basis for condemning loving, monogamous same-sex relationships in which idolatry plays no part (and which may in fact occur between deeply devoted Christians whose relationships are informed by devotion to the God of love).

Gagnon retorts that Paul clearly intended to condemn same-sex sex as such, regardless of its relation to idolatry--and he gestures towards several arguments for this view by way of a series of rhetorical questions that begin with "Did it ever occur to Giles that...". The aggressive and demeaning tone, more than anything, is what got me worked up. Although I have not met Gagnon's target of condescension personally, my interactions with Giles on social media have given me a sense of someone with a compassionate spirit. And so I reacted as you do when someone you like is being maligned. In any event, the key implication of Gagnon's remarks is that Paul's condemnation extends to every form of same-sex intimacy, even in the context of a monogamous, loving, faithful life partnership that, in all respects but gender-makeup, looks like a model of Christian marriage.

So, aside from the defensiveness triggered by the the way that Gagnon went after Giles, what do I think of this exchange?

I devote a chapter of The Triumph of Love to scriptural issues, but I do not pretend (there or anywhere else) to offer a definitive interpretation of what Paul or any other scriptural author thinks about same-sex relationships.

There are three reasons for this. First, my expertise is in philosophy, not biblical interpretation. Second, based on my extensive reading of countless rival interpretations offered by those who are experts in biblical interpretation, I don't think such a definitive interpretation is available. Finally, even if we can find a definitive interpretation of what Paul or any other biblical author thought on this question, that wouldn't settle matters for Christians or anyone else.

If there is one single conclusion from my recent book, it's that the ultimate question for Christians, when it comes to matters that materially impact the lives of our neighbors, has to be about what love requires--the kind of love that the Good Samaritan showed to the robbery victim on that Jericho road, the kind of love that extends to each neighbor including the enemy-neighbor, the kind of love modeled by Jesus in his life, ministry, and crucifixion. What does that kind of love for our LGBT+ neighbors call us to do? The first thing it demands is that we actually pay compassionate, empathetic attention to their lives. And this means we need to get our noses out of our books--including my book, including Gagnon's and Giles' books, and including the Bible.

That doesn't mean books lack value. It certainly doesn't mean the Bible lacks value. What it means is that love for neighbors calls us to focus on our neighbors and be responsive to them and their needs. It means that if God is love, and love is personal and relational, we will experience God most fully in the business of loving one another in the relevant sense.

The Bible loses all its value if quoting Scripture at our neighbors, or beating them upside the head with Scripture, or arrogantly denouncing those who disagree with our interpretation, replaces the work of love.

Ultimately, then, that's what the exchange between Giles and Gagnon made me think about. As to who is right and who is wrong in their interpretation of Paul, I could point out some unsound logical moves in the reasoning of one or the other. My defensive anger made it easy for me to notice each such logical failing in Gagnon's response to Giles (I certainly have expert training in that, even if biblical interpretation is not my field). At first I thought that's what I'd be writing when I sat down to reflect on this exchange. But then I'd just be allowing myself to be sucked into the antagonistic spirit of Gagnon's attack on Giles.

So instead, I want to close with this: I suspect that both Giles and Gagnon have insights into the question of what Paul was saying, insights that are worth reflecting on even if nobody can claim definitive knowledge of exactly what a long-dead writer meant and didn't mean. And it is so much easier to actually pay attention to the substance of these insights if we approach our disagreements in a spirit of love--which means, among other things, focusing on the issues rather than on each other.

But most of all, it is so important that when we talk about matters that materially impact the lives of our neighbors--whether it be our LGBT+ neighbors or anyone else--we pay attention to them and their lives and experiences. What Paul said is one question. What we should do if we are inspired by the spirit of love is another, and a far more important one.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Shaken: On the Anniversary of the OKC Bombing


When it happened at 9:02 AM on April 19, 1995, I was living far away, in Tacoma, Washington. I had never been to Oklahoma. Nevertheless it shook me.

I had no idea that one day I would live just a few dozen miles north of the site of the attack, that when people asked me where my home was, I'd answer "Oklahoma." Nevertheless it shook me.

I didn't know that I would marry a woman who heard the explosion and felt the Earth shake under her feet, who would remember the hours and days that followed as a haze of stunned horror and moments of involuntary weeping. Nevertheless it shook me.

I did not imagine standing on the memorial site, looking at the the rows of graceful chairs representing the dead and then noticing all the little ones, the ones that stood for the children gone. Nevertheless it shook me.

I did not know that one day I would recognize the distinctive shape of the Survivor Tree, and that it would become for me a symbol of hope in the midst of devastation. But like the world I sat transfixed by the aftermath, unable to wrap my mind around what has happened.

It shook me because it struck in the heart of America--not some big city on the coast that you might imagine the target of terrorist violence, but a city in the heartland that stood for every American town. It was a place that said, "This can happen anywhere."

It shook me because the perpetrator was an American, a disaffected young man so filled with ideological rage and righteousness, so lost and clawing for purpose that he could embrace the delusion that meaning would spring from a war against his own country, his own people, that the deaths of innocents and the shattering of innocence would be some kind of vindication of his life. He was a terrorist who said, "I could come from anywhere."

For years I'd been a student of violence, an advocate of nonviolent methods of resolving conflicts. I'd spoken out against the way that Federal law enforcement agencies were handling the Branch Davidian standoff even before it reached its tragic culmination. But I never saw it coming. I never saw how that bungled siege might help turn an American veteran into a terrorist against his own people even as he imagined himself still a soldier in some righteous war. I never truly understood the power of ideology, wedded to the right psychology, to turn a human being into an agent of horror.

It shook me. And when I see the images and hear the stories, when I stand at the memorial site looking at what difference a single moment can make in the world, I am shaken still.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Oklahoma Teacher's Walkout: A Perspective

Today my wife and thousands of other Oklahoma public school teachers descend on the state capitol in an effort to remind the Oklahoma legislators who they work for: the people of Oklahoma.

Executives of the fossil fuel industry do not work for the people of Oklahoma. They work for their stockholders. Their job is to maximize profits for those stockholders, and one way to do that is to convince state legislators to pass laws that help the stockholders get rich. And for many years now, corporate lobbyists have succeeded in doing just that. It's not their fault. They're just going their job to make as much money for the stockholders as they can.

Of course, the state legislators don't work for those stockholders but for all the people of Oklahoma. And they are called to think long-term, to care about Oklahoma's future and not just the stockholders of this or that company. Nothing is more central to the welfare of Oklahoma going into the future than a vibrant public education system, sufficiently funded to help each student achieve their highest potential.

But Oklahoma legislators, it seems to me, have lost sight of this truth, starving public education for years in order to give corporate tax breaks, primarily to fossil fuel companies. Those tax breaks don't serve the people of Oklahoma. The fossil fuel companies aren't going to leave the state for a lower tax rate elsewhere, because the fossil fuels are HERE. They want access to them--to the natural resources that belong collectively to the people of this state.

Paying their fair share to support the collective future of the state, ensuring that an educated workforce is available for them and every other business, should be part of the price of admission. Of course, it's the job of big business executives to get as much for free as they can, including not paying the price of admission, not doing their fair share to support Oklahoma's long-term survival.

It's the job of Oklahoma legislators to tell them no. But state legislators have instead been acting like employees of these big businesses, starving education in the process.

And so our teachers are saying no. Our teachers are saying enough. Education is the future of this state, and the future is being starved by a legislature that has forgotten who they work for. And so the teachers, who have not forgotten, are rising up and demanding that our legislature remember.

Our legislators have so far responded by saying, "How about we feed you a little better than we have been while continuing to let your students starve? Isn't that wonderful? Hooray for us! You should thank us for such a wonderful proposal and if you don't, you're just being greedy!"

Or teachers have answered, "Our children are still being starved."

Today, I hope, the legislators of Oklahoma will open their eyes, remember who they are and who they are supposed to represent--all the people of Oklahoma, including our children--and do the right thing.

Corporate executives have their lobbyists. The children of Oklahoma have our teachers. Pray that out teachers have the eloquence and resolve to make a difference. Pray that our elected Representatives will be moved to implement real change shaped by the real needs of the people they represent, rather than being constrained by some artificial concept of political expediency shaped by corporate interests.

Let all of us stand with our teachers and say, "Feed our children."

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Plea for Meaningful Conversations: Gun Violence Edition

I want to have productive conversations about gun violence in this country, in part because I want my children to be safe and healthy and alive--and if we just shout at each other every time there's another mass shooting, we won't be able to take the steps that it makes sense to take.

When I first started seriously wrestling with this issue in the wake of Sandy Hook, I discovered that many of my own thoughts on guns were deeply naive and based on misunderstandings. This is not surprising. I grew up in a family that would never even consider owning a gun. I have not only never fired a gun but I have never physically handled a functional gun. I have absolutely no interest in ever doing so. But living for close to two decades in Oklahoma, I am immersed in a gun culture where gun ownership is routine and living without guns is as unthinkable to many as possessing one is to me.

I learned that as someone who has never physically touched a gun, I am understandably ignorant about them. I've made some effort to overcome this ignorance on a theoretical level (I now know, for example, that a semi-automatic AR-15 is not functionally very different from a standard hunting rifle), but I can imagine very few conditions under which I would be willing to actually touch a real gun. To me, they are symbolically bound up with human death in a way that makes the very thought of touching one fill me with nausea. And each new mass shooting--especially when the victims are children--only increases my aversion.

But guns are tools. They have legitimate uses. Some people use them to hunt, and the traditions of hunting give meaning across generations. Some find legitimate pleasure in target shooting, testing and improving their marksmanship in competitive sports. While I think the protective power of guns in private hands is overrated compared to other ways of staying safe--good locks on your doors, cultivating strategies of nonviolent conflict resolution, affirming the dignity and humanity of everyone you meet--there are occasions when a gun in the right hands could save lives.

And there are occasions when a gun in the wrong hands could turn vibrant young adults with their futures ahead of them into corpses. And while a culture that treats guns with respect, as tools that should be used with due care, has value, there exist subcultures that seem to fetishize guns in a way that is almost pornographic--subcultures that take twisted pleasure in the very things that make me nauseous.

We need to have honest conversations that distinguish between law-abiding users and those who would do violence, between a culture in which guns are a dangerous tool to be treated with caution and respect and a culture in which guns become a focus for feeding unhealthy and dangerous psychological urges. We need to make distinctions so that we can make changes--changes that keep us and those we love safer but respect our diverse heritages and traditions and experiences.

How can we have these conversations? What steps can we take to open ourselves up and have meaningful, productive dialogue with people whose views on guns are very different from our own?

I would discourage any answers that are only about how "they" have to change, how "they" are too unreasonable to talk to. What can "we" do to open up conversations in ways that inspire reasonableness and honesty and, hopefully, progress?

Correcting Unhelpful Gun Slogans

In light of recent tragic events in this country, I thought it might help to re-post some thoughts on how we talk about guns. Some common gun slogans gloss over important truths, making it harder for us to have thoughtful conversations. If we want to move forward as a country, part of what we need to do is set aside such unhelpful slogans in favor of thoughts that are more accurate and complete.

I don't pretend to know how to solve the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Even if, in theory, our country would be safer if far fewer people had guns and guns were much harder to acquire, the reality is that the guns are already out there in huge numbers. And the gun culture in the US pretty much ensures that any attempt to forcibly reduce the number of guns that are out there would be met with entrenched resistance--not just political resistance but other forms, in some cases armed resistance that could magnify bloodshed in this country rather than reduce it.

It seems to me that some policies make sense, even if they don't make a huge dent in the problem: closing the gun-show loophole, instituting mandatory training and licencing for gun owners, registering guns and keeping track of ownership in something like the way we do with cars.

But while I don't have a clear sense of how to solve the problem, I do know that certain slogans don't help us to think clearly and carefully as we collectively pursue a solution. So I've decided to correct a few of these problematic slogans. Here goes:

Slogan 1: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people."

Correction: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people--but they frequently do it with guns, at least in the US, since guns are one of the most efficient tools for killing people and they are readily available. Since guns are tools specifically designed to kill things, they make it so much easier to quickly and efficiently (or accidentally, in the case of careless owners and toddlers) turn a living human being into a corpse."

Comment: The slogan above trivializes the killing power of guns. But the first step in responsible gun ownership is to respect the deadly potency of these weapons. Just as with cars, a gun in the wrong hands is a tragedy waiting to happen. It is recognition of this fact which inspires us, as a society, to train would-be drivers and test and license them before we let them operate a car unsupervised. Promulgating slogans that obscure how dangerous guns are is a bad idea if we want to come up with sound public policies and encourage private responsibility.

Slogan 2: "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."

Correction: "If guns are regulated such that everyone who purchases a gun (even at a gun show) is required to undergo background checks designed to block those we all agree shouldn't be entrusted with a gun, everyone will still have access to guns, but those who can't get them legitimately will have to rely on the black market and so will be guilty of a crime for which they can be arrested--meaning law enforcement will have a legal basis for taking action in cases where, had the guns been available for legal purchase, police hands would be tied until the guns were actually put to use in tragic ways."

Comment: Outlawing guns is not seriously proposed, nor is it politically feasible in the US. Arguably, it's also unconstitutional. More careful regulation of gun sales to keep guns out the hands of "outlaws" will, in a perfect world, mean that outlaws won't have access to guns but law-abiding citizens will. In our less-than-perfect world, "outlaws" might still get them from the black market. But if they do, they've committed a crime. And that magnifies the options that law enforcement has for preventive action.

Slogan 3: "The surest guard against tyranny is a well-armed citizenry."

Correction A: "The surest guard against tyranny is a military with a conscience."

Correction B: "The surest guard against tyranny is an informed and engaged citizenry with a conscience."

Comment: If the US government decides to impose tyrannical rule, armed citizens won't have much of a chance against the US military. Really. They'll get slaughtered. If the government decides to turn its formidable coercive power against its own citizens, our best hope is that our military, made up of our own young men and women, will say no.

But of course, tyrannical regimes tend to know that soldiers won't happily start shooting their own. They know that their power depends on the obedience of the soldiers who kill for them, and that these soldiers come from the very communities the tyrants want to control.

That's why tyrants are much more sneaky and incremental. They use ideological indoctrination and propaganda that plays on our fears and insecurities, selling their repressive system bit by bit as an essential means of promoting safety. They'll be especially interested in winning the allegiance of those who are most angry and most well-armed. They do this by pandering to these groups and carefully directing their fear and anger towards scapegoats who are blamed for everything that's wrong with the country. Pretty soon, the well-armed citizenry has been absorbed into the tyrant's forces and is kept busy herding Muslims into concentration camps (or something along those lines).

But if we live in a society that refuses to be sucked in by these us/them ideologies, a society whose citizens stand for human rights without discrimination and who keep themselves informed about current events and engaged in political life, then these indoctrination tactics are far less likely to work. Tyranny will be stripped of one of its most tried-and-true strategies for taking control.

In short, reasoned discussion about guns requires each of the following:
(a) Appreciation of and healthy respect for the lethal power of guns.
(b) Recognition that the choice is not between unrestricted access and a ban; the aim, instead, is to find a regulatory scheme that reflects the kind of balance between public safety and individual rights that is in play with automobiles.
(c) Setting aside naive fantasies that large-scale gun ownership is an effective safeguard against tyranny, and replacing it with the more realistic view that our best guard against tyranny is a citizenry committed to fairness and human rights and politically aware and engaged in our democratic processes.

(Originally posted Dec. 8, 2015 under the title "I Fixed It! Gun Slogan Edition")

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Evangelical Credibility and Strategic Alliances with the Morally Compromised

My evangelical friends who voted for Donald Trump last year tended to offer the same explanation: both Trump and Clinton were morally odious characters, but Trump had promised to make pro-life Supreme Court appointments while Clinton was sure not to.

And so, a strategic alliance was forged.

Of course, some evangelicals whitewashed Trump's character in defiance of what strikes me as overwhelming evidence that the man is fundamentally out of touch with anything in the vicinity of Christian values. I suspect that on some level they knew the truth but had a hard time feeling good about voting for him for purely strategic reasons. But most of the evangelicals I know who voted for Trump saw him as the lesser of two evils--meaning they saw him as an evil, but as one they could work with.

They had a deal with him. The entitled trust fund billionaire from New York City who has never been a principled advocate for life (or for choice, since he has no core principles at all) gets to wear the title of president in exchange for enacting legislation and judicial appointments that promote evangelical concerns.

Their vote was about political realism. Sometimes you have to make deals with the devil. Of course, deals with the devil tend to have costs--but if you're making a deal with the devil to serve God's agenda, won't God shield you from those costs?

Apparently not. At least not all of them. And thinking about the costs of making such deals is important.

Fast-forward a year. Roy Moore, who has long posed as a conservative evangelical fighter for bringing God into the public square, is coasting towards becoming the new Senator from Alabama. And then the news breaks: a credible report, well-vetted, by a woman who says that when she was fourteen and Moore was in his thirties, he engaged in sexual acts with her (short of intercourse). More corroborating stories pour in, some more credible than others. It's reported that when Moore was in his thirties he was so active in pursuing teen girls in the Gadsden Mall that he developed a reputation, and security at the mall was on guard when he was there.

There is a brand of belligerent finger-pointing Christianity--a culture-warrior kind of Christianity that attacks those who are Other, that wears Christianity like a visible cloak of righteousness rather than a humble vocation--that is particularly attractive to those who have deep moral flaws but who lack the moral courage to confront and confess with sincere humility. Instead, they try to find righteousness in an ideology of division: there is the in-group, and there's the out-group, and being part of the in-group is what makes you good despite the evils you know are lurking in your soul.

Sometimes, the most vigorous agents of this us-them brand of Christianity are really fighting to justify themselves through the easy righteousness of belonging to the right group (instead of engaging in the deeply frightening task of confronting their sins honestly, feeling sincere remorse and penitence, and making a humble effort to open themselves up to grace).

If you want my analysis of Moore, that's it. But whether this is right or not, it's clear that Moore's Christian warrior persona was masking something dark--and in the weeks before the election, that darkness was exposed.

But Moore was a pro-life Republican, and his opponent in the Senate race, Doug Jones, was a pro-choice Democrat. Whatever Moore's moral flaws, there was again the deal to think about: If Moore loses, then the Republican majority in the Senate shrinks and it becomes harder for Republicans to push through legislation that favors evangelical concerns. Worse, the Senate becomes two Senators shy of a Democratic majority with the power to block judicial nominations.

And so, evangelicals in Alabama were confronted with another deal-with-the-devil scenario. Again, some tried to whitewash: "Adult men dating teens isn't so bad" (!!!) or "It's just a plot of the liberal media to discredit a good Christian man" (etc.). But many evangelicals knew that the allegations against Moore were credible. Not all of the ones that came out in the wake of the original charges perhaps, but enough to form a reinforcing set of reports that were heavily vetted by stringent journalistic standards.

Some of my evangelical friends who voted for Trump based on the strategic-alliance-with-the-lesser-evil argument were hesitant to do the same in the case of Moore, because they were worried about the costs. Others were less worried.

So, here's the question: should evangelicals be worried about the costs of making deals and strategic alliances with morally compromised politicians?

One of the main costs is to credibility. At stake is whether evangelicals will be seen as a credible voice of Christian values in the public sphere.

Today I read a George Will essay, "Trump's Moore Endorsement Sunk the Presidency to Unplumbed Depths," and one paragraph in particular stood out for me. It was a paragraph about Will's take on American evangelicals.

Keep in mind that Will has long been a standard-bearer of conservatism in American public life. While his essays often mask logical leaps with brilliant rhetorical flourishes (and while he loves the art of the creative insult), he has been an eloquent defender of conservative political values for decades. He is not a fan of the Democratic Party, of the Clintons, of the progressive political agenda that evangelicals oppose. So it matters what Will thinks of evangelicals in way that it doesn't matter what, say, Bill Maher thinks of them. It speaks to whether evangelical credibility in public discourse is eroding.

Here's what George Will says:
Moore has been useful as a scythe slicing through some tall stalks of pretentiousness: The self-described “values voters” and “evangelicals” of pious vanity who have embraced Trump and his Alabama echo have some repenting to do before trying to reclaim their role as arbiters of Republican, and American, righteousness. We have, alas, not heard the last from them, but henceforth the first reaction to their “witness” should be resounding guffaws.    
Resounding guffaws. I am a Christian. I do not label myself as an evangelical (although I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), because even though I embrace the term in its original meaning it has come to be associated with a kind of Christianity that isn't mine. Nevertheless, it pains me a little to hear George Will, a conservative staple, speak of evangelicals as a proper target of derision. I know that for many, evangelicals are the public face of American Christianity. They stand in for Christianity as a whole, such that derision directed towards them spills over onto Christianity more broadly.

The Christian faith is too beautiful, too important, to become the object of mockery. And to the extent that it becomes such an object, it loses far more than it can gain through short-term political alliances.

At its best, Christianity transcends partisan politics, nurturing a kind of human community that is not about the ugliness of political campaigns and us-vs-them conflict but aspires towards a beloved community that seeks fellowship across all such divisions. The the extent that evangelicals have become mired in partisan politics, tying their fate to one political party, they have lost touch with something essential. The same is true, of course, for progressive Christianity, which often weds itself too closely to the political successes and failures of the democrats.

But the problems become even deeper when Christians of any stripe are unwilling to be honest about the deep flaws of "their" candidate. When credible accusations against "their" political candidate are dismissed or whitewashed or trivialized in favor of political expediency, Christianity becomes a political movement infected by the partisanship and ugliness of politics, rather than a different kind of movement.

A movement defined by values at odds with the divisiveness of politics.

A movement that replaces the tribalism of human life with the understanding of all humanity and all creation as beloved children of the same God of love.

A movement that follows Christ, who refused to play partisan politics, who rejected in-groups and out-groups, who sought a different path than the path of political power--choosing instead to die for the sake of those who rejected and despised him.

Only when we reclaim Christianity as a non-political movement can we reclaim the moral authority to transform humanity's partisan impulses rather than be transformed by them. And this is hard to do. I am preaching as much to myself here as I am to anyone else.

As Christian voters we may be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils--and we will often disagree about which is which. Sometimes both evils presented seem sufficiently grave we may be obligated to "throw away our vote" on a third party candidate or a write-in; sometimes one evil is so grave compared to the other that we should choose the lesser evil. Again, we will disagree about when we face which kind of dilemma. 

But we should avoid, I think, political alliances and deals with what we take to be the lesser evil. Instead, we must retain the independence and groundedness in moral principle to speak against whatever evils remain in our political life. As soon as we choose the lesser evil, we must stand against the evil that resides in what we have chosen--and this is not something we can do if we make deals with the evil we have chosen, and so have been co-opted by the system of partisan politics.

(It goes without saying here that the "evil" should not be identified with a person, who is a creation of God, beloved and precious, but the wicked character that corrupts, the sinful agendas that can do so much harm, etc.)

We live in the world, and so we must engage with politics. But we need to find a way to engage while rising enough above it so that we can critique and transform it. And we must always think about the credibility and moral authority that is essential for that task.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Should Roy Moore Withdraw?

Should Roy Moore withdraw from the Senate race in favor of another Republican candidate?

There are different ways to approach this question. You could approach it as a moral question. Or you could approach it as purely a question of political expediency.

I think the question of political expediency is easily answered but far less important. If you're a Republican, then even if you care only about retaining the Republican majority in the Senate and nothing about the moral character of office-holders (hopefully that isn't true of my Republican friends), the answer would seem to be this: you should hope that Moore withdraws and try to convince him to do so. Democrats who care nothing about moral integrity (hopefully not the case for my Democratic friends) would likewise hope that he stays in the race.

The reason for this is pretty clear. In Alabama, the Republican nominee for a Senate seat would ordinarily be a lock to win. But now we have this growing body of allegations from both women and people in Moore's home town, all painting Moore as someone with a history (while he was an adult professional in his 30s) of sexual pursuit of teenager girls as young as 14. One allegation, if true, would be a clear case of sexual assault. This situation means that if Moore does not withdraw, a seat that is usually reliably Republican has become vulnerable. And so Republicans who care only about party victory should call for Moore to withdraw, and Democrats who care only about party victory should sit back and hope he stays in the race while the scandal grows.

But what should people who care about basic decency, regardless of politics, recommend? Here, there are two questions that seem relevant. First, how bad is it for a man in his 30s to chase after girls as young as 14, and what does it say about that person more broadly? I'm not going to explore this question because I find the answer obvious: it's very bad and says nothing good. This is why I've stopped watching Kevin Spacey, whatever his acting skills. 14 year olds are children.

The second question has to do with when we should believe a charge of this magnitude when it is leveled against someone. More precisely, when can I legitimately act on such a belief? Here, it matters what kind of action we're talking about. There's a big difference between locking someone away based on a belief, and withdrawing political support or urging someone to withdraw from a political race.

The question of whether to support a political candidate is a different question than that of whether to convict someone of a crime. We don't want to lock away innocent people, and so in a courtroom we should presume innocence until guilt is proved. But we don't want to risk having seriously morally compromised people wielding enormous political power, which is why "innocent until proven guilty" is surely too high a standard of evidence for decisions about who to support for political office.

Accusations are of course easy to make, and so uncorroborated accusations may be insufficient reason to withdraw support from a candidate. But when there are enough allegations whose verifiable details have been confirmed, all mutually reinforcing each other, to make a claim of this sort *credible*, that strikes me as enough to warrant withdrawing political support.

Of course, so much hinges on our trust in the journalistic integrity of those who report these allegations and the investigation into them. Here, it makes a difference to me that the story was broken by a venerable newspaper that, whatever its political biases, is known for having the highest standards in terms of gathering evidence and assessing the credibility of sources before going to print. The Washington Post (like every news outlet) may be influenced by political bias when it comes to choosing which stories to focus on, but when they report on a story their reputation for following journalistic standards is high.

Are there skeletons in other political closets that haven't been exposed and are just as bad? Probably. But we cannot ignore a skeleton that has fallen out of a closet because of hypothetical skeletons that might be hiding in other closets.

So: I think Moore is now a vulnerable candidate whose continued candidacy might actually give a Democrat an unprecedented chance of a win in Alabama. But I think Democrats should ignore this and join calls for Moore to step aside in favor of another Republican candidate even though this means closing a political "opportunity." And I think Republicans should call for him to step aside for a reason far more important than politics: because it's the right thing to do.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

New Interview about THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE--and some thoughts on the audience for my book

A few weeks back, Candace Chellew-Hodge interviewed me about my new book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. That interview, "Reconsidering 'Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin': An Interview with Ethicist Eric Reitan," is now posted over at Religion Dispatches.

On reading what I said in the interview, there's one thing especially that stands out to me: When asked about who I hoped would read the book, there's a category of people I didn't mention--a category that, as I've been reflecting on this question since that interview, has emerged as the one I most want to reach with the arguments in the book.

The problem is I don't know how. The problem is that I think on some deep level I was talking to a particular group of people as I was writing much of this book, but that the conversation was not merely hypothetical as I was writing, but will be largely hypothetical in reality.

The category I have in mind is this one: closeted LGBT people who are still part of very conservative Christian communities, who have internalized the idea that they are in some fundamental way broken, and who have not had any kind of meaningful or sustained exposure to the idea--expressed in my book and elsewhere--that Christian ethics doesn't have to be understood in the way that is causing them such anguish.

I'm talking about those who have come to see self-repression and mandatory lifelong celibacy as their only path forward consistent with being a faithful Christ-follower, and who have appropriated the language of "costly discipleship" to understand their own struggle and life story--so much so that the liberatory message of those LGBT Christians who have already found joy and meaning in a different vision just strikes them as "too easy."

I think that audience may actually have been the one I had in the back of my mind when I wrote my book--a book which engages seriously with the conservative ideas and arguments that this audience has been immersed in, ideas and arguments that feel not only like a cage, but like an inescapable one.

The thing is this: I have friends who used to live in such cages. And they were told that the bars of the cage were solid steel, that it had no doors, no way out, no escape that didn't lead to their own ruin. Some of them discovered that the cage wasn't inescapable after all, and they ran as far and fast as they could--rejecting the Christianity that had caged them along with everything that went with it. Others languished for too long before they discovered that the cage door was made of tissue, and that beyond it was a road that didn't lead to damnation but to something else: a vital integration of their Christian faith with who they are, a deeper and more joyful connection with God, the possibility of discipleship in communion with a beloved life partner--rather than a requirement of costly discipleship whose demands of self-repression serve as a constant and sometimes debilitating distraction from discipleship itself.

Sometimes I fantasize about what I might say to these friends if I could go back in time, back when they still felt trapped. What could I say, a straight Christian LGBT ally who hasn't been in a cage myself, that might be helpful--that might help them find that escape and that promising road sooner rather than later?

Dismissing the cage--refusing to take seriously the ideas and arguments that seem to bind them--wouldn't be enough. Many LGBT Christians who have escaped their own cages have little patience with the conservative arguments: taking them seriously enough to engage with them, even critically, is like stepping back into the cage in their imaginations. By taking the cage seriously they're giving it some power, some shadow of the kind of power that was once, for them, all-consuming. The refusal to give it that kind of power is not only understandable but essential.

But for those who are still in the cage, any approach that doesn't take it seriously feels like a denial of their lived reality. As a straight ally, I can take it seriously enough to show where the bars are tissue-thin, where there are wide-open spaces and no bars at all, where to look to see that the entire cage is really just a debilitating illusion. And I can do that without finding myself caught once more, even a little, in an illusion that once trapped me. I can do that because, as an ally, I was never a prisoner.

And as a straight cis Christian man, my message can't be dismissed as self-serving, as just an attempt to escape the costly discipleship to which I've been called. And so at least one of the conservative messages that helps to keep the illusion of the cage in place doesn't affect my voice.

Of course, there are so many things that LGBT persons have to say--about their experience, about the traditional Christian condemnations, about their journeys along the more promising road--that are so much more important than anything a straight ally can say or do. But that doesn't mean I'm not called to ask, "What am I uniquely positioned to say and do?", and then do it.

The Triumph of Love is part of my answer to that question. And when I think about the deepest motive for writing it, I picture myself speaking to a friend who's in a cage of teachings and arguments that seem so solid from within. I picture myself in that hypothetical place, saying what I wish I could say.

My hope is that it's not just hypothetical.