Saturday, January 12, 2013

Thank You, Darrell Bock and Rachel Held Evans

Here we go again.

If you are an American and don't live in a cave with paleolithic technological capacities, you are no doubt aware of the latest skirmish in the tiresome, ongoing culture wars that have embroiled the nation over the past 3-plus decades. I am speaking, of course, of the "disinvitation" or withdrawal of Atlanta pastor Louie Giglio from participation at President Obama's second Inauguration on the 20th of this month. The reason? A 54-minute sermon he delivered almost twenty years ago, entitled “In Search of a Standard – Christian Response to Homosexuality” (audio available here), in which he decried the "aggressive agenda" of the "homosexual community" and warned, in his words:
[Gays are] not entitled to special rights. You’re not entitled to be recognized as a married couple and a family under God that can adopt children and have co-benefits in your health insurance plans and live as if that were a normal thing in this society. Do you understand that if the law were to change and homosexual marriage were to become prevalent in our society that that would run the risk of absolutely undermining the whole order of our society?
Not surprisingly, the gay community objected forcefully to the President's invitation of Giglio. It is also not surprising that the Presidential Inaugural Committee and Giglio caved in to the pressure, resulting in the pastor's removal from the proceedings. Least surprising of all, however, was the immediate response, in high dudgeon, from the usual suspects of the Christian right. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, with purple language, entitled his response, "Bully Bigots at Big Gay Declare War on Obama Inauguration Pastor." Joe Carter at the Gospel Coalition decried the "message of religious intolerance being delivered by President Obama." More temperately, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary laments the creation of a "de facto established state church" that disallows historic Jewish and Christian beliefs about human sexuality to be openly tolerated. SBTS President Al Mohler, if possible, raised the rhetorical stakes even higher when he deemed the disinvitation an example of a "new moral McCarthyism," harking back to one of the more unfortunate eras in American politics.

All this is predictable, and unlikely to effect anything other than increased "outrage" among the faithful and contempt among the secular-minded, not least those LGBT citizens whose lifestyles are thereby condemned and who, of course, are major players in Obama's winning coalition. That is why I was thrilled to read two responses from prominent evangelicals who, against all odds, have attempted to inject some much-needed reason into the discussion. The first, from blogger Rachel Held Evans, is hardly surprising. The second, from my old friend and thesis advisor Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary, might surprise those who don't know him.

Evans, as the title of her post indicates, seeks to dispel "Four Myths about Louie Giglio's Inauguration Prayer (or Lack Thereof)." Two stand out. The first is that Giglio, by his disinvitation, had his First Amendment Rights violated. Indeed, as Evans rightly notes, freedom of speech does not protect us from the consequences of what we say. In Giglio's case, the words he spoke almost two decades ago have come back to bite him in the bum. Granted that he is a preacher and that too much nuance, while essential in academic discourse, doesn't play well in homiletics, it is not exactly true, as Moore asserts it is, that Giglio said little more than what Scripture directly states. Yes, as I argued thoroughly in a series of blog posts last year, the Bible consistently condemns homosexual practice. But it does not discuss what we moderns have deemed homosexual orientation. And it is this distinction that Giglio effectively denies when he states that "homosexuality is not an orientation" and implies that it is a chosen lifestyle that, difficulty notwithstanding, can be reversed through Christian reparative therapy. Does the Bible actually say that, however? It does say that, through the Spirit, Christians must ruthlessly "put to death the deeds of the body" (Rom 8:13), and that of course entails that Christians who feel homosexual impulses must not give in to them. But nowhere does Scripture promise that such impulses will be reversed (learning to hate sin and being freed from its temptation are not, after all, the same thing). More significantly, however, Giglio's unnuanced remarks, quoted above, about gay marriage are increasingly out of touch with American public opinion, and the Inaugural Committee's disinvitation, if that is what it was, reflects that. 

The issue is, of course, a complex one. How indeed should Christians seek to influence the (secular) society in which they live? In my view, the old participationist/transformationist (Niebuhrian) paradigm, at least in the form embodied by the Religious Right, is increasingly becoming tired and threadbare, succumbing ever more to the temptation to manifest a selective self-righteousness. Better indeed, I believe, is the Anabaptist paradigm in which the church provides witness precisely in its distinctness and, indeed, distinctiveness. We as Christians certainly have the responsibility in the church to restrict, on theological grounds, patterns of behavior disallowed by Scripture. But do we have such a mandate for the culture at large? Somehow I cannot fathom St. Paul campaigning publicly, on religious grounds, to end cult prostitution in Corinth during his two years of residence in that notoriously immoral city. 

Evans likewise seeks to dispel the myth that Giglio's disinvitation is an example of Christians being "persecuted" in America. Though it might be uncharitable to speak of evangelical Christians having a "persecution complex," it certainly appears to me that an ever-increasing number of American Christians have adopted a siege mentality, vainly attempting to defend the culture from the barbarian hordes of secularists and pluralists seeking to overrun it. Nevertheless, as I argued last year, mockery and marginalization do not constitute "persecution." And to pretend they do trivializes the persecution that millions of Christians must face daily even today in the two-thirds world and may indeed one day be our lot in the West. Evans, for her part, agrees, providing a link to a post by Professor Robert Cargill, who argues that “there is a difference between persecution and the loss of privileged status.” As Hamlet would have said, "Therein lies the rub." We American Christians have become accustomed to the privileged status Christianity, of one sort or another, has historically enjoyed in our society. And we feel entitled to that privileged status by virtue of our historically superior numbers. Hence when such privilege is not accorded, we feel slighted and disrespected.

This is where Professor Bock's post must enter the conversation. Bock rightly notes that the present kerfuffle is just one more piece of evidence of how far American society has drifted from its prior, assumed Judeo-Christian views of morality. He likewise rightly criticizes the de facto lack of openness and tolerance manifested by Giglio's most strident critics. We are not, in reality, the "open" society we so like to pretend we are. Nevertheless:
My point is that Christians need to learn this, not be surprised by it, and learn to live and respond accordingly (not with shock or disappointment, but with an understanding that it may well often come with the territory). Our sense of cultural mandate that takes us to complaining may not be quite so biblical. The first Christians of the Roman Empire lived in such a world where they were such a minority in terms of not worshipping the many gods of Rome that they were called atheists. Many Christians around the world in other countries have lived in such a minority status world for a long time. Many have never known anything else. They knew and know what it is to live in such a context. They do not complain about it. They simply carry out their mission to faithfully live out their faith and trust God in the face of opposition while attempting to be as faithful to the calling as they can be. Maybe it would help us to talk less about them, and think more about us and how we are to live. ... I suspect there are Christians in other parts of the world who can help us see this other way of doing our business. We might pause and learn from them. I guess what I am saying is we need to live more faithfully, serve more diligently, preach more consistently, and whine far less.
This is the message we American Christians need to listen to. Constant hand wringing over marginalization and whinging over mockery demonstrate nothing more than an unseemly thinness of skin. Worse than that, it is an explicitly unchristian stance. Contrast the words of our Lord himself (for my comments on this text, see here):
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-12, ESV).
Bock rightly points to Matthew 10, which explicitly situates the inevitability of persecution in the "eschatological" situation set in motion by the Christ event (for my detailed discussion of this text, see here). Likewise, Timothy was told in no uncertain terms that those who live godly lives in Christ will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12). We Western Christians, for the most part, have been spared such treatment. If and when such persecution comes, may we emulate the example of the earliest apostles who, when beaten by the Sanhedrin, "rejoic[ed] that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name" (Acts 5:41). In the meantime, let us work for the kingdom, love our neighbors—including our ideological enemies!—as ourselves, and stop whinging about what is, after all, only a minor matter of civil religion.

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