Thursday, August 2, 2012

That Chick-fil-A Business

I stayed clear of Chick-fil-A yesterday.

And so far, at least on this blog, I've stayed clear of the topic--not because I don't have things to say about Chick-fil-A's staunch opposition to gay rights and marriage equality, but because most of what I've had to say someone else has already said as well as I can--points about the right to free speech not being a right to be free from criticism for what one says; points about Chick-fil-A doing more than just expressing opinions, but directing their profits to promoting legal discrimination against gays and lesbians, etc., etc.

But as I was taking my daughter to her gymnastics class a little awhile ago, I couldn't help but look at all the happy, smiling Christians who were dropping off and picking up their kids...and wonder how many of them stood in a long line yesterday to eat bad fast food.

The owner of the gymnastics studio puts on Christian pop music during open gym. She exudes niceness. I saw the playful smile and wave she gave my daughter as we walked in. And I wondered if she'd gone out of her way yesterday to support a business that's fighting hard to make sure my best friend John and my cousin Jake are denied full equality in our society.

Here's one thing that's clear to me: Chick-fil-A's president stood up and said "guilty as charged" because he believes in what his company stands for. Many, if not most, of the people who stood in line on "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" were sincere. They thought they were doing something good. They thought they were standing up for what is right.

Many of the people who deliberately directed money towards Chick-fil-A--knowing it to be an organization that is committed to using some of that money to help marginalize my gay and lesbian neighbors--many of those people mean well.

The difference between us lies not in our disposition to care about and pursue what we take to be good. The difference lies in what we take to be good.

And so, when I call what they're doing a sin--and I do--they're likely to shake their heads and call me crazy. They won't repent of this sin, because they don't think it is a sin. They don't think they're courting divine displeasure. They don't believe they are violating the teachings of Jesus. I think they are, but they don't. Just as they think my gay and lesbian loved ones are violating God's will, even though I am confident this is false.

Let me say a few words about my perspective. I think that biblical inerrancy leads people to plug up their ears with Bible verses so that they don't hear the anguished cries of their gay and lesbian neighbors. I think that the result is a failure of love--a failure to adequately live out the love command of Jesus.

Not that they don't mean to love gays and lesbians. They do. But what would we say about a misguided father who, out of the sincere belief that play is ruinous to children, systematically denies his child the right to play? Such a father is doing deep and lasting harm to that child. It's not the sort of thing a loving father would do if he knew what he was doing. And so there's a sense in which the father is failing to do the loving thing, even if his motives are loving. There's a disconnect between his motives and his actions caused by a false belief.

Likewise, there's a deep disconnect between the motives of many conservative Christians and the character of their actions--a disconnect created, more often than not, by an allegiance to an untenable theory about the Bible, a theory about how the Bible's words are connected to divine self-disclosure, a theory that, as I see it, cannot stand up to any serious engagement with the Bible's actual content and history.

But these people aren't biblical scholars. They often don't realize they are endorsing a controversial theory about the Bible when they equate every passage with the Word of God. They've never seriously considered any alternative view. Their failure to recognize that they could be wrong in their theory about the Bible isn't the result of a pride so great they don't think they are capable of making mistakes on matters as profound as the nature of divine revelation. It's more a result of simply failing to see that there is a controversy here.

It's like when you look through a pair of sunglasses at the world, and after awhile you forget that the glasses are there coloring what you see. It's not overweaning pride at work. It's simply the fact that no one has pointed the glasses out to them and invited them to look at the glasses themselves.

And so, unaware of the controversial character of their theory, they cannot take seriously the idea that the Bible might contain the prejudices of its human authors. Ancient Jewish culture was homophobic. And--big surprise--homophobic ideas come out in a few scattered passages. Is this God's eternal Word, or is it the filter of human fallibility and small-mindedness manifesting in the Bible's pages? Can we view this collection of texts as sacred, can we lend it deep authority, let it provide the organizing narrative of our lives, without treating it as so infallible that we have to follow it even when the neighbors we are called upon to love cry out in despair, crushed by the oppressive application of a few isolated lines of text? Can we judge prophesy by its fruits, as the Bible recommends, even in relation to the Bible itself?

I've argued that we can (here, for example). And if we do, what follows? To know the fruits of the categorical condemnation of homosexuality--to know the fruits of what Chick-fil-A so proudly endorses--we need to look at how this teaching affects our gay and lesbian neighbors. And I don't mean that we should look at whether they get what they want or not, but that we should look at how their lives go.

Those of us who have really paid attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors, who have listened to their collective witness, have consistently come away with an inescapable conclusion: The traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality have deeply poisonous fruit. They help drive people to suicide and despair. These are teachings that are anti-evangelical in their effect, twisting and distorting the relationship that gays and lesbians have with God. The signs of spiritual awakening--the fruits of the spirit--tend to flood in only after gays and lesbians have shaken off and rejected these teachings.

I cannot make the case for all of these claims in a blog post. My point in sharing these things is to provide a context for understanding what I have to say. My point is that these lessons, these insights about the poisonous effects of traditional Christian teachings, come from paying sustained, compassionate, open-minded attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors. But for so many Christians, the very thought of such attention feels like a betrayal of God. To open oneself up to what our gay and lesbian neighbors have to teach us, given their outrage and hurt, amounts to opening ourselves up to being proved wrong. And courting the possibility of error--when what would be declared erroneous is something Paul expresses in his epistle to the Romans--seems blasphemous, at least once you've bought the premise that anything appearing in the Bible must therefore be the very revelation of God.

And so, many of my fellow Christian brothers and sisters go through life never really hearing the stories of how our gay and lesbian neighbors have consuming poisoned fruit from the pulpit--or if they do hear these stories, they never really taking them to heart enough to understand their significance. These stories of suffering, of brokenness caused by conservative Christian teachings, are but a whisper--while the message that homosexuality is a sin is thundered from the pulpit as an unquestionable given.

And so, while I can only condemn their support of social marginalization, of discrimination, of hurtful policies and soul-crushing practices, I cannot expect that they will feel remorse for it. You feel remorse when you do something you believe was wrong. The leadership of Chick-fil-A sincerely don't believe they have done anything wrong. Those who stood in line to buy chicken sandwiches sincerely thought they were standing up for something good.

The enemy here isn't these people. It's the system of belief that has trapped them behind walls, walls that block the ability to really hear and appreciate the lived experience of our gay and lesbian neighbors. The biblical invitation to love, to open ourselves up to what lies beyond ourselves, is thwarted by a theory about the Bible that puts so much of what is other beyond the walls.

What they see within the walls leads them to unwittingly support injustice, to magnify human suffering and alienation without ever seeing that this is the consequence of what they do. From behind the walls, given what they see, it looks like goodness.

My job, then--and the job of those who see what I see--is not to call the owners of Chick-fil-A and those who support them evil or hateful or bad. Our job is to help them see the walls, and then to help hoist them up to look beyond.

And if I'm wrong abou this--if somehow I'm trapped behind walls that I don't realize are there--then what I ask is for those who think this is true to return the favor.


  1. I have searched the Internet for someone else who thought exactly what you have expressed here. I knew I wasn't alone in my thoughts, but no one was really rising to the occasion or perhaps to the big picture. I don't agree with the CEO Mr. Cathy nor do I wish to be deemed insensitive to my Gay friends for eating at the restaurant when I go there again; I'll add I wasn't about to show up on appreation day either. It is hard to see beyond your own system, so yeah hence "appreation day" looks moral, and those werent bad people out there in line. Read this recent blog by Richard Rohr that puts things in context . Thanks

  2. Eloquent and spot on. And charitable to boot. Maybe to a fault? Granted you do call support for discrimination and bigotry a sin. Just wondering how fair it is to say "They often don't realize" or "They've never seriously considered" or "Their failure...isn't the result of a pride"and "It's more a result of simply failing to see."

    Aren't many (most?) Joes and Janes in conservative pews familiar with at least cliched arguments for inerrancy, and against the possibility of other theories? In other words, how much responsibility does your average Chik-Fil-A celebrant bear for their interpretive assumptions?

    Beyond that, how would you suggest helping them see beyond the walls?

    Eric T.

    1. Yes--I may have erred on the side of being too charitable. But I think if one is to err, that is the better side to err on.

      Let me stress, however, that I don't want to say that those who are sucked in by a doctrine of biblical inerrancy and see the world through its lenses are complete moral innocents, that they have NO culpability in relation to the injustices that inerrancy underwrites.

      In the past, however, I think I've tended to overstate the sense in which rigid allegiance to inerrancy reflects hubris. And I think this was a mistake. Extreme hubris--"a pride so great they don't think they are capable of making mistakes on matters as profound as the nature of divine revelation"--doesn't seem to be what is going in with most people in the pews.

      Does that mean there is NO kind of pride involved? Hardly. But I suspect it's the usual sort of pride--the mundane pride that infect everyone-- intermingled with other kinds of motives (desire for security and certainty, etc.).

    2. On the question of helping people see beyond their ideological walls, see my reply to Scott F. On an individual level, it seems to me that walled-up friends and neighbors begin to escape from their walls as soon as they really hear stories--are sucked in by stories--of lives outside the walls. Sometimes a documentary such as "For the Bible Tells Me So" can start the process of getting people to peek at what's beyond the walls. Sometimes it helps to share the message that Christian love requires compassionate attention, and compassionate attention requires listening without judgment to what another has to say.

      What do you think?

    3. Agreed. Erring on the side of charity is the wiser, more productive thing to do. And I take your point that seeing a typical inerrantist as no more or less prideful as anyone else helps avoid demonizing people we disagree with, without forgetting their culpability.

      Yes, stories, face to face encounters with those outside the walls might be the best or only way to help people see things differently. I suspect some of the unthinking repetitions of clobber texts and the theory of inerrancy are a kind of defense mechanism in response to just such stories. A way to disavow what they've heard and learned. 'Hey, I sympathize, but I can't let that change the way I read the biblical texts or then I don't know what anything means anymore.' If that's accurate, I'd say the compassionate work of listening to stories has to be supplemented with the intellectual work of making a case for faithful alternative to inerrancy. Many who hold to that theory are tempted to think, like Tertullian, that faith equals believing in absurd things, so the more absurd the more faithful. Anything else, like a more robust view of the Bible, seems to like a cop out, wrongly of course. Thanks for the replies.

      Eric T.

  3. Beautiful post, thank you. Well said.

  4. This is really good, Eric and, whatever the readership of your blog, deserves a wider audience. Have you thought about submitting it to the Huffington Post or Sojourners?

  5. I am not so sure that inerrantists are so innocent. Many have chosen churches that openly reject honest scholarship in favor of the illusion of certainty that inerrancy provides. They, or those they have chosen to follow, are fully aware that modern scholarship challenges their pre-suppositions and they have chosen to actively oppose it.

    From my observations, cultural Christians are not subject to logical persuasion. They are not in it because they believe it represents Truth. Rather it provides a framework that validates their experience and comforts them in their daily lives. Hence, historical African American religion provided a context for black suffering and a promise of future relief while modern middle class religion provides comfort for its practitioners that their lifestyles are moral and divinely sanctioned.

    Perhaps if they had a cousin Jake - or a neighbor Dave, or a family friend Jack or great guys like Frank, Michael, Chris, and so many others - then they would see that love is an option. Ironically, they do have cousins, aunts, friends, neighbors and fellow singers in the baritone section that they already love and just don't know it.

    1. Scott-See my reply to Eric T above. I don't think any of us are moral innocents in relation to our errors. But there are degrees of moral culpability, and I'm not convinced that what is going on in the hearts of people in the pews of conservative churches is substantially worse that what is going on in most human hearts. But there is a way of thinking, and ideology, that has taken advantage of ordinary human fallibilities.

      I agree fully with your last remark. And this raises the question of how we help hoist people beyond their ideological walls to see more of the world. On a collective level, it may require making it harder for them to avoid encountering the life stories of those who are harmed by conservative teachings. The closet is a different metaphor than an enclosing wall--but in a sense, as gays and lesbians pour out of the closet it's like they're scalling the walls from the outside and shouting above the rim, "Hey, we're out here and we won't let you ingore us anymore."

  6. Thanks for the challenge. I really think that the problem is a theology that isn't grounded in God's mercy. It's the walls that need to be taken down in a way that probably seems too patient and gentle to be a just response to the suffering that they cause. When you understand that Torah is a gift and the goal of holiness is to remove all the obstacles to communion with God and each other, then you have a basis for saying that 1st century Jewish views of what counts as "against nature" is not prescriptively binding on us today.


  8. If I may offer another perspective, this liberal split-the-difference a-la-carte approach to religion reminds me of a Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

    If the whole intellectual edifice (of religion, Christianity) is rotten, does it help to toss out some of the more blatant lies and out-of-step doctrines, while trying desperately/valiantly to save others, despite their equal vacuity?

    If the point is to be charitable and empathic and open, why ask someone who is dead (i.e. Jesus) about it? Don't we have our own resources, and wasn't Jesus extremely intolerant in some respects (i.e. believe in me or rot in hell? .. assuming we even know what he thought or said at all)?

    Indeed, if one takes such a critical approach to the bible, then why not take up Islam, or Buddhism? What keeps you in your tradition, other than some other blind and unjustified commitment?

    If one still believes in god, what forms the difference between thinking she can re-arrange history to suit whatever a fundamentalist doctrine posits, and thinking that she is somehow a prisoner of the historically / critically unearthed process of scriptural assembly, of apparent geology, etc.? If this god is all-powerful, it hardly makes any difference at all, other than to the liberal's wish to split the difference with all that so-called secular "knowledge", which is so fundamentally dismissive of the real action and presence of god in the historical (and pre-historical) process.

    It seems a deep problem in theology, where any belief in the trueness and power of god gets you caught up in questions of how far that belief should go.. what it really stands for, in the face of so much evil and hiddenness. It is philosophically unstable, because there is no there there. This is part of why religious liberalism seems a slippery slope to somewhere .. either full belief or non-belief.

    1. Since I've started a series of posts on the Progressive Religion/Fundamentalism divide for the purpose of considering objections like the one you raise here (the slippery slope objection being a common one), I won't address this comment here. But stay tuned for my heroic efforts to give progressive religion a stabler perch than the slippery apex of a buttered roof.

    2. Burk, you say the same things over and over without ever really *listening* to your critics... (the thing you accuse religious people of)

  9. We should boycott OPEC by not purchasing gasoline. After all, Saudi Arabia executes homosexuals.

    1. First, there aren’t any major economic or social consequences from boycotting Chick fil a (CFA), but there would be massive consequences if people just stopped getting gas. Second, although the Saudi government supports the death penalty for gays, I don't think they use gas-money to fund the killing of gays (though I’m not certain on that point). Contrast the second point with the fact that CFA uses customer money to fund organizations that are extremely anti-gay and needlessly harmful towards gays (it's way more than the CEO merely having conventional Christian beliefs)

  10. I feel that there are people this post applies to, but there are also people it doesn't. Two different evangelicals may believe the same things about LGBT persons, but when they actually meet one they react differently. Both are shocked to find out that their daughter's transgender, but one reconsiders what she was taught in favour of not hurting her daughter, while the other kicks "him" out to the curb.

    The former need to be shown something that causes them to reconsider. The latter just need to be stopped.

    1. I agree that we ought to act to protect the victims of those who are motivated by their ideology to do harm, if that's what you mean by "the latter just need to be stopped." I'd add a qualifier about seeking to protect the victims nonviolently.

      I'm hesitant about when to apply the "just" here, since acting to protect the victims does not always preclude ALSO continuing to try to break through the (potentially) tough barrier of ideological indoctrination so as to inspire the sort of inner transformation that will bring an end to future assaults.

      Inspiring such inner change is harder in some cases than in others (requiring more than "showing something"). There's likely a point at which one gives up for the sake of one's own welfare or simply because one has better things to do. A transgender child who is cast out from her family is certainly not required to keep on trying to show her family what they don't see, even at the cost of continued rejection and ongoing violation.

      We may all hit a point, eventually, at which we no longer seek to change someone's harmful perspective and just act to stop the harm, but the point at which the "just" kicks in is probably going to vary according to personal circumstance.