Friday, June 26, 2015

What Should Christians think about Today's Historic SCOTUS Decision?

Actually, I don't intend to answer that question here. I can't. To do that, I'd need to write a book--well, probably more than one. (And I intend to.)

What I can do here is warn against certain sweeping claims about what Christians should think. More precisely, I want to warn against an all-too-common practice among Christians today when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriage: The tendency to think that all Christians, to be truly Christian on this matter, must agree with us.

First, an obvious point: While Christianity might have something to say about who we should and shouldn't have sex with, it isn't a religion about who we should and shouldn't have sex with. Christianity is about who God is and what God has done, who Christ is and what Christ did. Christians are followers of Jesus. And Jesus said nothing about gay sex.

The Christian debate about homosexuality and same-sex marriage is not a debate about the heart of the faith.

Beyond this obvious point, Christians need to move past false or overgeneralized claims about the motives of their Christian opponents.

Conservatives have a tendency to portray Christians who are progressive on this issue as sell-outs to secular culture. In doing so, they ignore the fact that Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves sits at the heart of progressive Christian arguments on this issue.

By contrast, I have liberal Christian friends who dismiss conservatives on this issue as ignoring both Christ's command that we love our neighbors as ourselves and Christ's call not to judge, lest we be judged ourselves. But in offering such a sweeping assessment, they ignore my Christian friends who earnestly wish they could support the intimate relationships of their gay friends, who are pained by what they see as a divine requirement to condemn those relationships--who wish it were otherwise, but who can't see another way to interpret what they take to be God's word.

Let me be clear: There are plenty of conservative Christians who are not motivated by love for their gay and lesbian neighbors. There are plenty who invoke the slogan "Love the neighbor but hate the sin" without paying any attention to what comes before the "but". There are plenty of Fred Phelpses in the world. Many are just less honest and open about their bigotry.

But this doesn't mean that all conservatives on this issue are homophobic in their hearts. It doesn't mean that every conservative is insincere about the desire to love their gay and lesbian neighbors.

I believe, and have argued, that their belief about homosexuality operates as an impediment to their expressing that love properly--that they are unwittingly feeding their gay and lesbian neighbors poison based on the false belief that it is medicine. But I also believe that these Christians would weep and repent were they to realize that the doctrines informing their relationships with gays and lesbians really are as soul-crushing and anti-Evangelical as my experience with gay and lesbian friends teaches me they are.

Where I disagree with these Christians isn't at the level of their intentions and their sincerity. And while I take today's ruling to be a cause for celebration, I don't think every Christian who believes otherwise is therefore a bad Christian. I think they're mistaken, but that doesn't mean they aren't striving to live by the law of love as best they can.

Likewise, let me be clear that there are surely plenty of progressive Christians who haven't wrestled deeply with the issue of same-sex intimacy in the light of their Christian commitments and values, who are just going with the flow, following the prevailing trends. But to treat such motives as the core of the progressive Christian stance is to ignore or fundamentally misunderstand what progressive have been arguing for years.

The birthplace of progressive Christian support for same-sex marriage isn't found in secular culture. I would argue--and in fact have argued--that the causation moves in the opposite direction: Secular culture has come to see same-sex relationships differently because the spirit of agapic love has taken root there.

Gays and lesbians are not only a minority, but an easy out-group to scapegoat and marginalize. If you're straight, then a prohibition on gay sex is no prohibition at all. Hence, such a prohibition has, for the majority, the effect of offering easy righteousness. "I can feel morally superior without expending any effort, because whatever I do at least I'm not one of those fa**ots."

If there's a reason why our broader culture has moved away from this, it isn't because of an anything-goes secular permissiveness that would allow the heterosexual majority the moral freedom to have sex with people they have absolutely no desire or inclination to have sex with. It's because of empathy. It's because, over the last forty years, gays and lesbians have been really heard for the first time in history. People have put themselves in their shoes. They have asked themselves the question at the heart of the Golden Rule: What would I want done to me, if I were in their place?

Christian reformers on this issue argue that when we really pay attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors, it becomes increasingly clear that "How do we love the sinner while hating the sin?" is the wrong question.. The right question is this: What can we take to be a sin while still loving our neighbors as we should.

And loving attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors teaches us that calling all same-sex intimacy a sin is doing harm to them, the kind of real harm that love must stand against. Contestable biblical interpretations and natural law arguments must give way before what loving attention teaches, or we end up loving our own beliefs more than we love our neighbors.

This progressive view isn't about selling out to secular culture. It's about trying to live by Christ's command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Christians may disagree with my take on these issues, just as I disagree with them. But these lines of disagreement can't and shouldn't be treated as the dividing line between real Christians and sell-outs, or between real Christians and homophobic bigots wearing the cloak of Christian righteousness to justify their prejudice.

All Christians should strive to love their gay and lesbian neighbors as themselves, and should wrestle sincerely with what that call to love demands. All Christians should strive to rise above the whims and vagaries of secular culture, informing their life and values in relation to God, not Hollywood.

But there are Christians celebrating today's SCOTUS decision who embrace both of these things. There are Christians bemoaning it who embrace both. Recognizing these facts should be a starting point for any serious attempt to decide what Christians should believe about today's historic decision.

If we don't start there, we will model pugnacity and prejudice instead of Christian love.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Racism and the Charleston Shootings: Individual and Collective Responsibility

Over the last few days I've seen the following meme reappear on social media. It shows up every once in awhile, usually when someone has done something horrible. This time, it's resurfaced in reaction to discussions about the tragic mass shooting at a black church in Charleston. Here's the meme:

This meme troubles me a lot. I'm a fan of individual responsibility and accountability. My worry is that this meme, in the name of accountability, functions to immunize us from it.

Let me explain. Clearly, the person directly responsible for the deaths in Charleston was the shooter, Dylann Roof. And he should be held accountable. He should be put on trial and, when convicted (which he presumably will be), sentenced harshly.

But when this Reagan quote resurfaces, as it has a tendency to do in the wake of horrific crimes, its purpose is not to encourage holding the agent of the crime accountable. It's purpose, rather, is to point the finger away from ourselves. "Hey, everyone! Look over there! Look at that deranged racist, that agent of horror."

If the trick works, we avoid having to look collectively towards ourselves and the ways in which we as a society contribute to the conditions that breed such agents of horror.

In Matthew 7:3, Jesus offers the following rhetorical question, intended to inspire us to look to ourselves, to see our own sins and not just the sins of others: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

Of course, Dylann Roof's sin is more than just a speck or sliver. People are dead because he pulled the trigger of a gun, again and again and again. He shattered lives. And none of us did anything as bad as that.

But there is a sense in which Dylann Roof is just a speck of sawdust. Because there is in America today the plank of racism, and what Roof did is a sliver off that plank.

"But I'm not a racist! I'd never do anything like what Roof did! What he did horrifies and outrages me!"

I like to think that every reader of this post thinks these very things, and thinks them sincerely. But racism isn't something that springs up in the hearts of individuals all by itself. Racism is learned. Racism isn't an individual thing but a cultural and systemic thing that takes root in individuals.

And all of us play some role in shaping our culture, for better or worse. All of us can take responsibility for fighting to make our society less racist, for identifying the subtle social forces that marginalize black Americans every day, for working to dismantle the hateful ideologies that make them targets for overt acts of violence.

I'm resistant to saying things like, "All of us a racists," because I think this sort of statement generates more heat than light. But even if we aren't all racists, racism is first and foremost a collective phenomenon, not an individual one. Social structures and cultural patterns conspire to make life harder for black citizens than for white ones--and these structures and patterns are bound up with implicit racial biases that most people don't even know they have. These biases are planted in our subconscious minds by broad cultural forces, coloring our choices and our thinking in ways we aren't aware of, ways which are at odds with our conscious values and commitments.

The grim truth is that many white people who aren't racist, who abhor racism, are victims of systemic and cultural racism in a different way than blacks are victims. White Americans who want to promote equality and justice are too often infected, against their wills, with cultural forces that compromise their own best intentions. That's why I prefer to say that those who harbor implicit racial biases are victims of racism, as opposed to being racists. But implicit racial bias is a problem, even if those who harbor those biases aren't individually responsible.

The evidence of this is clear all around us, and documented in study after study: Well-meaning preschool teachers who earnestly read "Martin's Big Words" to their students on Martin Luther King Day are nevertheless more likely to perceive black and white children differently in the classroom without even knowing it. They are, especially, inclined to perceive them as more responsible for their misbehavior. Liberal college professors who preach against racism in the lecture hall are nevertheless less likely to respond to inquiries from prospective graduate students if they think they're black. When I step on an elevator with a woman, she never unconsciously clutches her purse more closely to her body. But this happens to a black friend of mine regularly.

Why does this happen? What are the cultural forces in play? And how are these forces related to the forces that still today perpetuate the more overt forms of racism, like what we saw on display in Charleston? Dylann Roof didn't spring out of the ground. His racist ideology didn't come out of nowhere. What stew of social influences made him ripe for the more overt racism that found voice in his hateful manifesto and eventually drove him to kill? And what can we, collectively, do to change those forces?

These are questions that we need to tackle. If we want to stop tragedies like the Charleston shooting, we need to wrestle with how individual hate crimes are related to broader social patterns, patterns that won't go away just by punishing individuals. Unless we all take collective responsibility for the social force that is racism, that social force will keep giving birth to new Dylann Roofs.

Quoting Reagan may make us feel like we're off the hook. And that's the problem. We didn't shoot those people. And we may not harbor racial prejudices ourselves. But racism is a collective, structural, ideological, and cultural reality. And the only way to end it is if all of us take responsibility for asking the right kinds of questions, for listening to the stories of our black neighbors, for tackling the complex, thorny social issues that keep racism alive.

There's a plank in America's eye. We need to work together, all of us, to pull it out.