Monday, December 2, 2013

Those Pesky Protestant Progressives

Apparently, the Church of England's recent approval of a plan to raise women to the episcopate was something of a last straw for at least one Catholic priest.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, seemingly outraged by the General Synod's resounding vote in favor of women bishops, posted a strident attack on the "insidious, dangerous, and relentless" pursuit of progress within Protestant churches. Labeling Protestant progressives "bullies," Longenecker opines that once the progressive fight for same-sex marriage is won, a fight for "child sex" may be next.

(I hope he has the good sense to apologize for this last bit of rhetorical excess, if for nothing else. Obviously, the pursuit of equality for a minority group that has been systematically marginalized--however misguided he thinks that might be--is not a slippery slope to advocacy for child sexual abuse).

Longenecker's article is heavy on shrill put-downs (Protestant progressives are not merely bullies but "tyrants", "(i)nsecure, immature people with a persecution complex", and "like a teenager with a hissy fit"). Such name-calling is not exactly an invitation to thoughtful discussion about any ideas that might be hidden amid the verbal abuse, suggesting that Longenecker is more interested in attacking Protestant progressives than in discussing his ideas with them. Nevertheless, he may have ideas worth discussing.

So what are his substantive claims? There appear to be three:

1. Protestant progressives are driven to pursue change for the sake of change--regarding the new as good just because it's new, and the old as bad just because it's old. In other words, their pursuit of change is indiscriminate.

2. Protestant progressives' pursuit of "progress" is so relentlessly single-minded that they pay no attention to stability and peace and the welfare of countless people who do not want the changes foisted on them. Thus, their idea of progress is achieved at a high cost in terms of social division and bitterness.

3. This indiscriminate pursuit of "progress" is motivated by the fact that it is through the pursuit of "causes" that progressive Protestants find subjective meaning in their lives. Without a cause to fight for, they "prowl around restlessly", like a teenage rebel without a cause...until they find one.

Let me look more closely at each of these claims.

Claim 1: Protestant progressives are driven to pursue change for the sake of change--regarding the new as good just because it's new, and the old as bad just because it's old.

There are people who pursue change for the sake of change. And there are those who pursue change for the sake of charity and justice. You won't tell them apart by the fact that they keep finding new causes to pursue. Given human finitude, our institutions will always be imperfect--and those moved by a spirit of compassion and justice will always find places where improvements can and should be made. While a restless desire for change for change's sake is surely to be found in some Protestants, it is far from being Protestantism's defining element. And an ongoing commitment to making existing institutions better, more loving, more just, should not be misconstrued as an indiscriminate identification of the new with the good.

Protestantism began with Luther's fiery protest against abuses within the Church, abuses that had real victims who were damaged by them. The spirit of that protest was one of reform. And reform is about love for that which is being reformed. The "new" is sought for the sake of making the beloved "old" thing better.

I belong to one of the denominations Longenecker mentions as being "on the relentless progress train": I'm a Lutheran, and specifically a Lutheran in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). We're one of those denominations that recently changed its stance on the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian clergy. We've had women in the ministry for years. And recently, we elected a new Presiding Bishop: a woman.

Did we pursue these things just because they're new, and jettison the old ways just because they're old? No. Lutheran worship is shaped by ancient liturgies. We affirm and recite the ancient creeds of the church. We love old hymns. Lutheran clergy wear the kinds of vestments that have been worn by Christian clergy for centuries. Every week we say the prayer Jesus taught us to pay, and bow at the altar and participate in the sacrament instituted by Jesus some two millenia ago.

Gays and lesbians within the Lutheran communion have not sought access to marriage because they hate the old. Marriage is old. It's really, really old. They value this old thing enough to want it for themselves. Likewise for the priesthood. Likewise for the episcopate. It is love for these old institutions, appreciation for their value, that inspires a desire to make access to them broader than it has been before. You don't fight hard to expand access to something if you don't value it. Anywhere you see the pursuit of broadened access to an old institution, what you are observing is a reform movement in the true sense: A change to the old that is motivated by an appreciation of the old.

And progressive Protestantism has been defined most obviously by such efforts at broadening access to established institutions. Hence, to claim that progressive Protestantism is defined most essentially by the pursuit of change for change's sake, by the indiscriminate love of the new and disdain for the old, is to miss the obvious. Longenecker gets the heart of progressive Protestantism dead-wrong, even if he correctly identifies a worry that all progressive movements should be conscious of and guard against.

Claim 2:  Protestant progressives' pursuit of "progress" is so relentlessly single-minded that they pay no attention to stability and peace and the welfare of countless people who do not want the changes foisted on them. 

Here's the thing about reform: it's routinely resisted, especially by those who benefit from the status quo. And so efforts to reform the imperfections in old institutions for the sake of those who are harmed by them will inevitably generate conflict. Finding the best path through that conflict is hard. Nor is it easy to know when the costs, in terms of stability and social harmony, are worth the conflict...and when they're not.

Progressive Protestants are as imperfect as the institutions they seek to reform, and so are prone to make mistakes. Protest is sometimes done in ways more likely to produce reactionary hostility than transformative introspection. Reformers can get carried away, willing to take actions that needlessly hurt defenders of the status quo.

Insofar as Longenecker's claim serves as an invitation for reformers to reflect on their methods, it has value. Certainly there are those within progressive Protestantism who are guilty as charged, and all of us need to keep in mind the risks of being too goal-oriented to see the damaging ripple effects of our actions.

But I think it is too easy to see one's opponent's methods as relentlessly single-minded (or as "bullying") when in fact they are not.

I believe strongly in the methods of social change advocated by Gandhi and King--relentless nonviolent resistance that begins with efforts at dialogue and strives to rely on methods that never shut down the hope of reconciliation and community. Reform efforts that spring from love for the victims of the status quo--victims of its inevitable imperfections--must also express love for those who are afraid of change or opposed to it because they see things differently.

Loving your opponents is always hard.

Reformers must be conscious of their own fallibility not only in this respect, but with respect to their judgments about what needs reform. Some things need to change, but other things are better off left the way they are. We can make mistakes about which is which. Longenecker apparently believes that progressive Protestants are routinely guilty of this error. I think he and others are guilty of it--but erring the other way.

One of us is wrong. I think it's him. He thinks it's me. I'm pretty sure I'm right, He's pretty sure he is. In other words, one of us is confident he's in the right...when he's wrong. What do we do in a world where that is so often true? Suspending judgment means inaction, which amounts to favoring the status quo. If we let our fallibilism take us there, we have a recipe for unchecked injustice.

Suppose you are convinced, based on experience and sustained reflection, that it is wrong to systematically exclude persons with a homosexual orientation from participation in the bedrock social institution of marriage. Suppose you have heard the suffering of your gay and lesbian neighbors and seen some of them driven to suicide by the alienation and despair created by the status quo.

The mere fact of human fallibility shouldn't be enough to paralyze you into inaction. In all of our human endeavors, there are two ways to go wrong: we can mistake falsehood for truth and act in error; and we can fail to see a truth we need to act on, and so do nothing when action is urgently required. The most strident opponents of reform are often those who are so afraid of the first kind of mistake that they persistently fall headlong into the second. It's important for reformers not to do the same thing in reverse. But it's even more important to act on conscience.

When we do, we should seek dialogue with those who resist the changes we are trying to make. We should seek to understand the human needs and feelings that underlie that resistance. And where there is truth to be found in our opponent's concerns, we should integrate that truth into our reform efforts.

But sometimes resistance is so strident and entrenched that no such dialogue is possible. What then? Do we give up? Do we "wait" until the society is "ready"? Martin Luther King's words about "why we can't wait" resonate with authority for all who stand witness to grave injustice. But so do his words about nonviolence and love, about reliance on methods of pushing for change that do not shut the door to future dialogue, that do not shut out the prospect of the Beloved Community.

King was prepared to use methods that weren't "nice." They were confrontational. They imposed costs on those who opposed the goals of the movement. But they didn't rely on the use or threat of violence. Those who refused to give in found themselves without customers, or with more customers than they could ever hope for (but all from a group they were unwilling to serve). Eventually, they found themselves living in a society whose rules had changed--a society whose rules and leaders no longer officially sanctioned their preferred form of discrimination. But that didn't turn the participants in the civil rights movement into bullies or tyrants.

If you want to discriminate against women and gays, you aren't being bullied if advocates for equality win the day through nonviolent action and moral suasion, such that your community's policies no longer reflect or sanction your discriminatory wishes. And if, committed to your wish to keep excluding some people, you break away from the community to form your own separatist group, it is oversimplified to treat the reformers as so trenchantly focused on their cause that they are willing to tear the community apart in its pursuit.

Longenecker has a legitimate concern if he insists that reformers need to pay attention to community and stability, and hence should seek change only when there are important moral or pragmatic reasons for doing so, and then in ways that seek to preserve community in the midst of disagreement. And there is no doubt that all human efforts at reform reflect this concern imperfectly. But this is not a reason to abandon a commitment to reforming imperfect human institutions, or to stop reforming them after one or two victories. We don't stop--or shouldn't stop--trying to improve ourselves morally after we overcome one or two vices. Moral improvement is a lifelong endeavor. Likewise for our human institutions.

Claim 3:  This indiscriminate pursuit of "progress" is motivated by the fact that it is through the pursuit of such causes that progressive Protestants find subjective meaning in their lives.

This claim is something of an exercise in mind-reading. I can testify, as a self-defined Protestant progressive, that Longenecker has not read my mind accurately. And his sense of what drives Protestant progressives in general has little substantiation in my experience of progressive friends and relatives--suggesting to me that he is projecting his own biases onto his progressive brothers and sisters, rather than discerning what is there.

Admittedly, my evidence is anecdotal--and Longenecker can probably offer his own array of anecdotes that support his assessment. But at the very least, my experience leads me to conclude that his take on what motivates progressive Protestantism is way too sweeping.

My progressive Protestant friends and relatives have rich, meaningful lives apart from their pursuit of social causes. They dance and sing and play sports. They have jobs they love. They find joy in their children or their intimate relationships. When they find themselves standing in a protest line or writing a letter to the editor or joining a social justice movement, it's not because they are empty inside and therefore need to "prowl around restlessly" for some social cause to give them meaning.

Rather, it's because they have seen a suffering neighbor, heard a heart-wrenching cry, witnessed the way that some feature of the status quo has injured or alienated or left people at the margins. And their compassion has not allowed them to stand by and do nothing. At first they may focus merely on binding the wounds of those who have been damaged. But as the existing policies keep grinding out new injuries, they find themselves driven to change the system if they can.

They nail some theses to a church door. When that fails to inspire the reform-from-within they might have hoped for, they find themselves part of a movement to bring about change.

Consider, for example, my cousins: Phil and Randi Reitan. When their son, Jake, came out to them in high school, they were leading a happy, comfortable life in the Midwest. They were financially comfortable. They were active in their church, active raising four bright and talented children. Their lives were good.

But when Jake came out, they struggled to understand what it meant. What it meant for Jake. What it meant for them and their family. And in so doing they became progressively aware of what gays and lesbians go through every day: the peer rejection and abuse, the social marginalization, the prospect of permanent exclusion from participation in the social institution by which new families are established and recognized. Phil and Randi reflected on how their own unconsidered beliefs, formed primarily by the teachings of their church, helped to perpetuate the harms they witnessed. Out of love for their son, they found they had to oppose those teachings--and the bitter fruits they bore.

Their love for their son expanded outward, taking shape as an inclusive advocacy for sexual minorities. They wrote letters. They became active in Soulforce. They participated in civil disobedience. They got arrested. And as the astonishing social changes started to sweep across the country, as one state after another started to embrace marriage equality, they celebrated with their expanded family.

Did their participation in this struggle add meaning to their lives? Absolutely. But it added meaning because it reflected their deep and abiding values. It wasn't some cause they seized upon at random, just because they needed some cause to give purpose to their lives. It was a cause they were compelled to pursue, because the deep values that already gave purpose to their lives required it of them.

These are not "immature, insecure people with a persecution complex" throwing a teenage "hissy fit." These aren't rebels searching for anything they can find to rebel against. These are, rather, people acting with integrity and conviction, refusing to hide from hard changes when their principles demand it.

This is the problem with sweeping generalizations, especially caricatured ones. When we consider what is revealed by any sustained encounter with Phil or Randi or countless others, Longenecker's characterization of progressive Protestant motivations is so far off the mark--so jarringly at odds with the real human beings I know--that it would inspire laughter if it weren't so offensive.

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