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.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reformations

Because yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation--marked by the publication of Martin Luther's 95 Theses--I've been thinking about the idea of reformation, and what significance that idea has for us today.

As a Lutheran, I belong to a church that was born through the efforts of Luther and Philip Melanchthon and others to reform the church. In taking that monumental step, not only did they stand against certain abuses of the church at the time while standing up for specific theological ideas, they also stood for the idea of reform itself.

Reform is not revolt or rejection. Reform begins with a spirit of allegiance. It begins with the idea that there is something here of value, but something that has become, we might say, deformed. We don't repair what we don't value. Instead, we throw it away. If a ship sets sail for a destination we don't want to arrive at, we may not be especially bothered if it has drifted off course.

The desire for reform is like the desire to heal the sick--something we wouldn't do if we didn't value them and their health.

In other words, there's something conservative about reform. When we heal the sick, we may try to cut out tumors or kill bacteria, but it's for the sake of the conserving the life of the patient.

But reformation is also about criticism and change. It is about identifying sickness and seeking a world where that sickness no longer distorts, no longer impedes, no longer puts us off course. It's about saying, "The way things are is imperfect. And these imperfections are not something we should just be content to live with. Even if perfection is beyond us, we can and must strive to move in its direction by identifying flaws and failures and correcting what we can."

Reform, in other words, is progressive. It is about valuing our inheritance enough to progressively identify and correct its flaws. To be a reformer is to criticize and correct.

And I don't think we can truly embrace the Reformation if all we do is embrace the specific criticisms and corrections of Luther and other reformers of that age.

Let me explore this point a little more deeply. Luther persistently declared that we are all in bondage to sin, and as my pastor reminded the congregation on Sunday, in the first of his 95 Theses Luther stressed that Christ "willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."

Repentance, like reform, is an act of change. It is a change of direction--the Hebrew word for it means "return," and is about turning back to God; the Greek term is about changing one's mind, or perhaps rising above one's mind (something that can only be done with the help of what is greater than oneself). To repent is to correct one's course or even rise above one's limits. When Luther claimed that the Christian life is one of repentance, he seemed to be envisioning an ongoing process of turning ever back to the only thing that can lift us above our limits, turning ever back because so long as our limits remain we will drift off course.

To become what we are meant to be--children of God who consistently reflect in our lives and our souls the loving essence of our creator--we must continually turn away from the pettiness and jealousy and bigotry and egotism that our broken natures incline towards. We must turn instead towards the God who is love, the God who loves us and calls us to love one another, the God who fills us with the power to love when we turn to God in love.

Or perhaps, in the spirit of Luther, I should put the point a bit differently: we must stop turning away from God, stop choosing the pettiness and jealousy and bigotry and egotism, stop hugging these things close to our hearts as if they were our god. We should, instead, let God turn us toward the divine love; and whenever we notice ourselves rejecting that love, as we will, we should again just stop.

To suppose that this is the proper life for the Christian but not the proper life for the church is to suppose that a community of people is somehow immune to the limits of individuals. And while it is true that communities can stand firm against things that individuals fall before, it is also true--as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his book, Moral Man in Immoral Society, that humanity in its collective life can fall prey to evils of a magnitude that no individual could ever dream of.

Human flaws play out differently in collective life than in private, but they play out with as much inevitability. Within a group, members can encourage and support mutual care in a way that makes us better towards one another than we might otherwise be. But often, as Niebuhr pointed out, the effect is to inspire us to channel our moral impulses so fully towards other members of the group that we direct none of those impulses towards the "other," towards people at the margins and members of other tribes not our own. Our tribal origins can lead us to restrict our moral sentiments so that we are moral only within our group. We fall prey to us/them ideologies that pit our group against others and that represent salvation as found in the defeat--the destruction or humiliation or oppression--of rival groups and communities.

Human communities are organized around institutions and ideas, social structures and systems of belief. And because human communities are made up of finite human beings with tribal impulses that create us/them divisions and limit our moral sentiments to "us", we are always in danger of shaping our communal social structures and belief systems to serve these tribal instincts. The way to overcome that is to never stop criticizing and correcting our own social structures and belief systems. And this includes the ones that are precious to us. In fact, it especially applies to the most important, the most valuable, the most meaning-enriching systems for organizing our social lives.

If there is a communal aspect to Christian life (and there is), it is the church. And so, just as repentance is a never-ending need of the individual, reformation of the church is the never-ending call of the Christian community.

It didn't stop with Luther and his allies. Luther was well-positioned by his life circumstances and unique talents to discern and speak out against a distinct set of abuses within the church. But like all of us, he was in bondage to sin, as is evidenced by his tendency towards rhetorical excesses that strayed out of the domain of passion into that of verbal abuse. More importantly, it is evidenced by the virulent anti-Jewish diatribes of his later life--diatribes that were used and exploited by the Nazis in largely-Lutheran Germany to fuel one of the most horrific genocidal evils of human history: the Holocaust that systematically organized the murder of millions of Jews (as well as gypsies, gays, and others).

I am gratified that my denomination, the ELCA, along with the Lutheran World Federation, in 1994 clearly and unequivocally repudiated the evil of Luther's anti-Jewish hatred and the deeper evils that it helped to breed. This reforming act was late in coming, and one might wonder how history would have gone differently if this act of reformation had happened sooner. But this very question speaks to the urgency of the reforming project. We are blind to so much, and we trivialize or put off what is far more important than we know. It becomes especially easy for our churches to capitulate to evils when those evils have seeped into and found expression within the church itself, and we have failed to take seriously enough the duty of reformation.

If we honor only the specific reforms that Luther called out for but do not embrace the spirit of reformation that Luther embodied, then we become mired in the limitations of Luther's vision. Worse, without ongoing reformation, those limitations are compounded by the distinctive limitations of each subsequent generation. Without ongoing reformation, each generation of the church has an opportunity to let its own collective expression of human sinfulness twist and distort and corrupt what it has inherited. Rather that progressively working to improve an inheritance that is inevitably flawed by human sin, we cement the flaws with our lack of critical reflection, and we layer onto them our own generation's unique ways of going wrong.

The Reformation isn't something that happened five hundred years ago; it's something that needs to happen over and over again. The Reformation was a reminder of a responsibility that all of us have at all times--something that the church did in fits and starts before Luther's 95 Theses were nailed to the Wittenberg Cathedral door, and something that we are called to do today. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Fear-Mongering Dilemma

This morning, I read an article: "The Allure of the Far Right Demands Immediate Action." It was about the recent Values Voters summit, especially focusing on Steve Bannon's fiery address at that event. The author, Adele M. Stan, describes Bannon's speech as "a dark, apocalyptic address" featuring a "burn-it-all-down litany of grievances" that "set the house on fire." She went on to speak in frightening terms about the overall atmosphere of the summit:
A menacing undercurrent flowed throughout the Values Voter conference, not only in hyperbolic descriptions of the supposed threats to Western civilization posed by Islam and the American left, but in veiled threats, couched in the language of violence, directed at opponents of the Trump agenda.
What we are left with is a portrait of fear-mongers skillfully fueling the anxieties of a group of people, inspiring them to see themselves as under siege, as facing such dire threats to their existence or way of life that they need to take decisive action to defeat these threats.

The article left me feeling more frightened than I'd been before, less optimistic about the prospect of a peaceful future for this country and the world, and more worried about threats to civil discourse and civil society. The message of the article was that these fear-mongers and their followers pose a serious threat to our safety and way of life, and we need to take action.

Here is the dilemma. Fear-mongering is dangerous. It puts people in a defensive posture where they see others as a threat, a posture from which they are more likely to strike out violently. The more that fear is stoked, the more serious our conflicts become and the less likely we are to find peaceful, integrative solutions that meet everyone's needs.

And there are people today--and I an convinced that Steve Bannon is among them--who have elevated fear-mongering to an art form and are stoking the human capacity for fear by convincing those who listen that their lives or ways of life are in dire peril. They are fueling divisions and inspiring fear of those on the other side of the fabricated divides, and their rhetoric is laced with violent imagery and the notion that a violent confrontation is inevitable.

And then there are those who warn us about these masters of fear-mongering and the crowds sucked in by them. And their warnings put us in danger of a second-order fear-mongering, one that fuels fear of the fear-mongers and their followers.

And I can only imagine that this isn't the solution. Urging us to fear those who peddle fear, it seems to me, can only inspire feedback loops of escalating fear and defensiveness, bringing us closer to the brink.

In fact, I suspect that the fear-mongers are counting on this response. "If we sow seeds of suspicion and fear among those who are prone to follow us, there will be those who will become more afraid of us and our followers, afraid of the growing potential for violence that we represent, and will begin raising the alarms among those who weren't sucked in by our fear-mongering. This will start a cycle that will help our efforts to sow fear, as our followers feel the defensive anger of these others in a way that we can play on to magnify the defensive hostility of those we've seduced."

But what can we do? Fear mongering is dangerous. It is a threat to civil society. So how do we get people to take it seriously and stand against it without issuing warnings that become a kind of second-order fear-mongering that only fuels the fire of fear? How do we mobilize the forces required to de-fang the fear-mongers without stoking fear?

There is a difference, of course, between legitimate warnings and fear-mongering--but my worry is that once fear-mongers have gotten a sufficiently strong foothold in our polity, this line of distinction begins to matter less, and even carefully circumscribed warnings can become fuel for feedback loops of escalating fear. We can't avoid calling attention to dangers, so what do we do?

My answers--sowing seeds of hope, becoming love-mongers, building wherever we can bridges of understanding that ease fears--make sense in theory. But how do we implement them at the scale that is required?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Some Thoughts on Freedom of Speech in Our Polarized Society

If we care about the founding principles of this country and the values that many have fought and died for, we will stand up (or take a knee?) for the legal right of all citizens to make nonviolent political statements through words and gesture, especially if those statements criticize the government (since the freedom of speech means nothing if not the freedom to criticize the government), and even if we personally think the criticism is misguided. If the statement offends us, we have the freedom to explain why; gratitude for that freedom should inspire us to affirm the right of others to say what offended us without fear of legal punishment.

None of this means any of us has a duty to provide a platform for speech that we think is misguided or wrong. None of it means we are obligated to cut short our time at the microphone to make room for ideas we think are harmful. Part of freedom of speech lies precisely in this right to decide whose voices we use our power to amplify. Another part of freedom of speech lies in the right to vocally denounce and protest the speech of others. This can mean refusing to clear the stage for someone else--refusing, in other words, to cede to them a space to speak without competing voices to distract attention.

We have the right to be a competing or distracting voice.

But the question of rights is distinct from the question of what is the morally best and wisest way to exercise those rights. There are things I have a right to do that I shouldn't do. While my freedom of speech gives me the right to denounce what someone else says based entirely on an unfair misconstrual of their views, that doesn't mean I should.

I should probably try to understand what another person means to say before I denounce it. If another person isn't preaching hate, I might want to hear them out. If good will and human understanding and the cause of justice can be advanced by giving an opposing viewpoint a seat at my table or an hour on my platform, then perhaps I should do that even if I have a right not to.

I should probably make decisions about who to allow onto my platform in ways that enable me to listen to people outside my echo chamber, even though I have a right to shut them out. I should probably also protect myself and others from speech that is just about attacking or degrading me or others--protect myself by refusing to give it a platform. And I should probably make a sincere effort to tell the difference between speech that challenges my beliefs and speech that is just verbal abuse.

The flip side of the freedom of speech is the freedom to listen. The most basic and fundamental way I can amplify another's voice is to turn my attention to it. The freedom of speech is thus inextricably bound up with the freedom to decide who we listen to and why.

And just as with the freedom of speech, we should use this freedom to listen wisely. Cultivating that wisdom is a personal responsibility. One of my most basic convictions about wise listening is this: if people are honestly sharing something of themselves--their values, their experiences, their feelings, their stories, their perspectives and ideas--that calls for more attentive listening than when people are simply repeating party-line talking points as a display of group allegiance or are simply making judgments about others.

When people are simply repeating others' talking points or putting others down, asking honest questions can sometimes inspired them to share of themselves. And this can move us beyond speech that functions as little more than displaying allegiance to "us" while denouncing "them," and towards speech that advances human understanding and community.

What would it look like if we all made the commitment both to protect the freedom of speech and to use that freedom--and the paired freedom to listen--as wisely as we know how? (Such a commitment, by the way, is not a commitment to judging other people for being bad at exercising these freedoms well; it is, rather, a commitment to endeavoring in our own lives to use these freedoms wisely.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Human Solidarity and LGBT Issues

I've been following some (not all) of the discussion inspired by my response to the Nashville Statement that appeared on Religion Dispatches a couple of days ago. A couple of the comments motivated me to reply--including one that I've decided to post here, along with my response, since I think the issue raised--solidarity in the face of sin--is important to think about in connection with LGBT issues. (Also, Disqus marked my reply as spam for some reason, and while I hope that is corrected I want to make sure the remark is preserved here if nowhere else.)

Here is the comment:

OK, I'm struggling with this whole issue. I would probably, at least nominally, place myself in the same camp as the Nashville Statement signers. I have not signed it though. I have read it, and had issues with articles 10 & 13.

So while I share the beliefs of the statement's signers (insofar as I agree with their interpretation of scripture regarding this issue), I'm not settled on whether something like the statement is the proper approach.

I agree with this article's author that Christians ought to listen more, and do a better job of imitating the kind of love represented by the good Samaritan (and I would add the kind of love Jesus showed to the adulteress and the woman at the well). However, like many other things with God, truth and love exist on a sliding scale. We give people false comfort when we offer love without truth; and we tempt people to despair when we present the truth without love. The right place is in the balanced middle.

That said, I don't know where that middle is with this issue. This subject has grown to touch on all the social taboos (e.g. sex, politics, and religion). So, figuring out how to talk about it is difficult. When asked, I feel like I have to first give a history lesson to explain how the Church as a whole erred in the latter half of the 20th century; the Church expressed a preference for legislating people instead of loving them. In doing so, they screwed up and became the bad guy in the eyes of the world.

So, today Christians probably owe the LGBT community an apology while agreeing to disagree on whether or not homosexual sex is OK in God's eyes -- with a huge caveat that many other "respectable sins" (pre-marital sex and divorce being high on the list) are equally not OK in God's eyes. This was a huge missed opportunity to say that we are all in this together, and that the Church is where anyone can come to find help and relief from the painful consequences of our collective struggle with sin.

I think that is my version of the balanced middle. So, it is really hard for me to agree with opinions that are too heavily on the far-end of either side of the scale. I can agree with the truth in the Nashville Statement while rejecting the statement as a silly way to express that truth.

And here is my response:

You are clearly sincere in your commitment to loving your LGBT neighbors, and as such you and I are on the same side with respect to the question that matters the most. But on the question of whether same-sex sex is or is not "OK in God's eyes" (specifically when it occurs in a monogamous and loving context similar to the one that we think renders heterosexual sex "OK"), I want to challenge you just a little in connection with a remark you make.

The challenge has to do with the following remark: "This was a huge missed opportunity to say that we are all in this together, and that the Church is where anyone can come to find help and relief from the painful consequences of our collective struggle with sin." This notion of solidarity before God is important, but I believe that careful attention to the lives of our LGBT neighbors shows that the capacity for cis heterosexuals to extend such solidarity to their LGBT neighbors is compromised by traditional teachings, by imposing on the latter burdensome and often life-strangling constraints that those fortunate enough to be cis heterosexuals have no need to bear.

This is a point I spend considerable time defending in my book, especially in terms of reporting on LGBT experiences (well, not so much trans experience, since the book was focused on same-sex relationships and marriage and in that context I could not do justice to the distinct set of issues that my trans neighbors wrestle with). I can't reproduce all of that here, obviously, but there is one short passage from the book that I want to quote, since I think it sums up the difficulty of promoting solidarity in the face of sin when same-sex intimacy is condemned as sinful.:

"When it comes to the condemnation of adultery, all of us can stand in solidarity with one another, supporting each other in living up to a shared constraint--because all of us have the potential to be attracted to someone who isn't our spouse. But a social norm condemning homosexual sex does not generate solidarity. It creates us/them divisions. When a community condemns homosexuality, the heterosexual majority is imposing a constraint on a minority group, demanding sacrifices that the majority doesn't need to make." (The Triumph of Love, pp. 85-86)

There are, of course, things that can be said in response here. Someone could point out that not everyone experiences the same desires and temptations, and the same problem with solidarity noted above might arise in cases where all of us would agree that a desire some people have is for something wrong, and we wouldn't want to address the problem of solidarity by pretending that the wrong thing isn't wrong.

But we also don't want to magnify problems of human solidarity by imposing moral condemnations where they aren't called for. And in the case of homosexuality, the kind of sacrifice that the privileged majority imposes on the sexual minority cuts to things generally viewed as valuable for psychological health if not central to it: an integrated identity, a loving and stable life partnership with a suitable mate, etc. For a majority to require of a minority that they give up the hope of these things in their lives imposes unique burdens to human solidarity. Given your sincere desire to promote a Christianity in which we all can stand in solidarity in our human struggle against sin, I invite you to wrestle a bit more with this difficulty--first and foremost by seeking out and listening to the stories of Christian and formerly-Christian LGBT neighbors who have become deeply alienated from communities of faith that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality.

Monday, September 11, 2017

My Response to the Nashville Statement on RD

Religion Dispatches has just published my response to the Nashville Statement, "A 14-Point Rebuttal to The Nashville Statement from a Straight Cis Christian Man."

The accompanying image of Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle church was not my idea, but it did make me smile.

Those who have read my book will be familiar with some of the main themes in the article--although, of course, I could only gesture to them. And many issues I cover in the book I couldn't even gesture towards. So if anything bears some shadow of resemblance to Luther's 95 Theses, it would be the book, not this article.

But, you know, it's hard to nail books to a door.

Selling People Their Own Need: Hurricane Irma, Price Gouging, and Martin Luther

There were numerous complaints of  "price gouging" in connection with Hurricane Irma putting Florida in its sights. Although some of these complaints were unfair, the basic pattern of dramatically raising prices for essential goods in a crisis situation is basic economics in a free market system, absent government regulations to prevent it: As demand increases for a fairly fixed supply of some staple, people with the means to do so are willing to pay more for it if it means access. It becomes a kind of bidding situation. The seller of the staple can therefore ask more for it--and, barring other considerations (such as concern about maintaining long-term goodwill among consumers), they will ask more.

If we're talking about a long-term increase in demand and a situation where it is possible to increase supply by re-directing production resources, this feature of the free market works magic: others see how much the seller of the product is making and wants a share in the profits, so they begin making it, too. Supply rises to meet demand, and prices begin to go down again until they hit their "natural price"--the price that represents their real value to society.

But in a case like Irma, there is no such magic. Skyrocketing demand for airline tickets, for example, was a short-term reality, existing in that short time between the emergence of Irma as a significant threat and its landfall. It does not appear that airlines were engaged in predatory price-gouging, by the way. Rather, airlines build supply-and-demand considerations into their price-scheme from the start: they have a set of cheap seats and more expensive seats, and as the cheap seats sell out only the expensive seats are left, meaning only those with more urgent need, or for whom the higher price isn't a big deal, will buy them. As demand for flights out of Florida rose in the face of Irma's impending landfall, all the cheaper fares were quickly sold and only the high-price seats remained.

But even if this isn't opportunistic price-gouging, it has something in common with such price-gouging. The reformer, Martin Luther, captured this common theme in a distinctively powerful turn of phrase, when he bemoaned the tendency of markets to "sell people their own need." (Thanks to John Kronen for pointing out to me this remarkable rhetorical flourish from Luther.)

Here's the idea. When an emergency situation arises and the need for some product increases, the price shoots up. But in many such cases (if not all) the cost of production hasn't gone up. The labor costs haven't gone up. The distribution costs haven't gone up. The quality of the product hasn't gone up. Nothing has changed from the standpoint of the seller, who was happily selling the product at a lower cost yesterday. So why are people suddenly required to pay more? Because their need has gone up.

And so, as Luther puts it, they are paying for their own need. And this makes sense when you think about it: If price goes up when the only changing variable is the consumer's increasing need, that increase in price is paid simply because of greater need--as if the business owner were selling them their own need. The practice, a staple of modern capitalism, horrified Luther. And when it shows up in moments of predatory price gouging, it horrifies most people today.

But the relationship between free market capitalism and human need is more complex than just the risk of price gouging, even if we simply focus on crisis situations. Because let's be clear about something. The very wealthy have more resources for weathering a natural disaster than do the poor. If they're stuck in the path of a hurricane and are injured, they're more likely to be able to afford medical care. They're more likely to own a home that is sturdy and able to weather the storm. If they live right where the worst effects are likely to strike, they are more likely to be able to afford a hotel room in a secure building where they can ride out the storm in comfort.

And when it comes to evacuation by plane, for the wealthy this might be just a luxury, since they have a reliable, fuel-efficient car that's got a full tank of gas, while the poor might have no car or an unreliable clunker that is always riding on nothing but fumes, since they never have enough to fill the tank.

The rich can't buy resurrection if killed, of course; and they might have bought a home right on the beach that the poor couldn't afford, but you get my point: the poor may need a seat on a plane more urgently than the rich; but it's the rich who can afford the seat, and so they're the ones who get it. Especially when prices go up, the market tends to distribute essential goods to those who need it less, rather than to those who need it more.

Put another way, as general need increases, the rich are willing to spend more because of their increased need, and sellers are happy to "sell them their own need." But the poor are left with more need and less ability than ever to satisfy it. The tendency for businesses to sell people their own need means that those with limited ability to buy will be priced out of the market altogether as soon as the rich start needing the same things with enough urgency.

What this shows is one final truth about free markets that we all must wrestle with seriously. Markets are not actually responsive to need as such. What they are responsive to is marketplace demand. And while need affects marketplace demand, it only affects it if those in need can afford to buy what they need in the market. The poor can't, and so their needs get ignored. At the same time, the mere whims of the rich get satisfied, because they have the resources to satisfy those whims in the marketplace.

This is why we live in a world where limited natural resources are directed towards making luxuries while masses of human beings don't have enough to eat. And if you think this is a tragic misallocation of resources (as I do), then we can't look to free market capitalism to correct for it. It is a great tool for correcting misallocations of resources when farms are growing more potatoes than people want and fewer lima beans.

But when it comes to responding to the reality of human need, free markets are often predatory (when those in need can scrape together the money to pay for their need) or indifferent (when those in need cannot). Of course, we can and should all work as we are able to meet out needs--our dignity calls for no less. But sometimes we our needs are so great they disable us. And even when that doesn't happen, desperate need is something the market exploits in another way: if there are enough needy people, the supply of people willing to work will exceed the demand, enabling businesses to exploit laborers for a pittance of what their labor is worth on the market. And so we have poor people working multiple jobs who are barely able to pay the bills--in part because their wages are depressed by the scope of human need, and in part because they are forced not only to pay for the goods of life but for their own need.

In a pure free market society, having needs is a liability--and the needier your are, the more you are prone to exploitation and marginalization. And Luther didn't just come up with a pithy phrase for capturing what is going on. He found it morally egregious.

The only viable fix for this problem that I can see is government intervention in the market in two ways: regulations that impose constraints and requirements on businesses to limit exploitation, and government programs that spend tax dollars on behalf of those in greatest need, thereby making the market responsive to those needs in a way that it wouldn't otherwise be.

This is why I think a mixed economy, that combines free markets with the right sorts of government regulations and programs, is the best solution for our human situation--and why I think that the more extreme libertarian deferrals to the free market to solve all problems is naive at best. The debate, for me, is about what sorts of government regulations and programs are the right ones. That is no easy question, but it seems to me the question we need to focus on.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Explaining "White Privilege"

Last night I posted a lengthy comment on a Facebook discussion thread sparked by the following meme:

Image may contain: 2 people, meme and text

Since my comment was appreciated and shared by a number of people (and was posted on Robin Parry's blog--thanks, Robin!), I figured it should go here as well. So here it is:

Here's how I explain the concept of white privilege in my classes: "Privilege" names an advantage that is possessed by virtue of systemic or structural features of a society, usually an advantage experienced because one happens to belong to a specific group. In this respect, it is the flip-side of oppression, which names a systemic group harm.

Those who experience privilege did not choose to be born into the class that society advantages through systemic forces, and they did not create those forces that advantage them. Furthermore, they have limited power as individuals to change society, and so are unlikely on their own to be able to divest themselves of their privilege. This means that having privilege is not something anyone should feel guilty about. You can't help it. While there are some advantages you can cast off, you can't remove the social forces that give people in your class a systemic advantage. So acknowledging privilege is not about feeling guilty or about casting blame. It is first and foremost about recognizing an inequity in the social structure, and then about making a commitment to working for change as one's life situation allows, and recognizing that having a particular kind of privilege may allow one to work for greater equity—work for a society in which one no longer experiences this privilege—in ways that those who lack this privilege can't.

Now we can talk about "all-things-considered privilege" and "specific privilege" Someone might have privilege in one respect but be oppressed in others, and end up being oppressed all-things-considered. It might sound strange to say that a black slave in the ante-bellum South experienced male privilege, but in saying this one is not saying that he was privileged. One is saying that although he was oppressed, horribly oppressed, the system did not make him a target for systemic sexual abuse by virtue of his gender in the way that it made female slaves a target. While he might still be raped by his owner, the cultural forces in play don't make him uniquely vulnerable to being raped in the way that female slaves were systemically vulnerable.

Likewise, to say that a person has white privilege is not to say that the person is privileged all-things-considered. The person may not enjoy much privilege at all, having been dealt a lousy hand with respect to an array of other social factors. In other words, it is perfectly possible for a person to truthfully say, "I'm not privileged!"—for that claim to be true about their overall condition in social life—and for it still to be true that the person is the beneficiary of white privilege.

The thesis that there exists white privilege is the thesis that there are various social forces in play (such as culturally ingrained unconscious biases and preferences, demographic facts about who is in the majority and who holds the majority of leadership positions, historical facts about who has held positions of power, implicit cultural conceptions of what is "normal," facts about which stories and films and works of art happen to be most prevalent and beloved, not to mention facts about past or present legal and economic structures that impact opportunities) that give persons who are socially recognized as "white" an advantage in one respect over those who are not (although, again, a white person may experience economic disadvantages and class disadvantages and disadvantages relating to sex and gender, etc., etc., and so not be privileged all-things-considered).

All of this is definitional. The question now is whether white privilege, so defined, exists. Well, here's one tiny thing that I noticed the other day. My kids dug out an old "How to Draw Faces" book that we'd gotten from relatives at some point. It was a few decades old. I leafed through it. Every face in the book was white. EVERY SINGLE ONE. The book was not called, "How to Draw White Faces." It was called, "How to Draw Faces." But there were nothing but faces that we'd classify as white. Of course, this book was a few decades old. Books you buy today will almost certainly exhibit more diversity. But these artifacts of history still litter our landscape—artifacts in which "face" is treated as equivalent to "white face." And the existence of these artifacts (but no comparable or comparably widespread artifacts treating "face" as equivalent to "black face") means that white kids will come across these artifacts and never have the experience that a little black kid will have: "Why aren't faces like mine represented?"

Of course, this is a small thing. But there are lots and lots of small things like that. There is the fact that 44 out of 45 US Presidents are white. There is the little fact that the majority of US Senators and Representatives are white. There is the fact that most CEOs are white. These are just demographic facts and historical facts, and I'm certainly not responsible for them and should not, as a white man, feel guilty about these facts being what they are. But they do mean that as I was growing up, I was inundated with role-models of leaders who were "like me." There was no need to seek them out, no need to set aside a special Black History Month to call attention to them. So, there is a set of realities about our society and its history that gives me an advantage, however small, over persons of color (and over women).

And these advantages hold even if we deny that there exist any implicit racial biases (unconscious, socially-ingrained biases favoring white persons over black ones). But the research shows that such bias does exist—all over the place in society. For example, there was a study in which college professors in graduate programs were contacted out of the blue with e-mails from individuals claiming a desire to study under them. The researchers varied the letters only in terms of whether the name was a common "white" name or a "black"-sounding name, Hispanic name, etc. They then tracked how likely the professor was to respond to the unsolicited email. Guess what? They responded less frequently to the emails with the non-"white" names.

And that is just one study among very many studies that all point in the very same direction over and over and over again. None of this means that a white person, by virtue of being white, is going to get white privilege checks in the mail. It doesn't mean they will experience all-things-considered privilege. And it certainly does not mean that the typical white guy minding his business and treating others with respect and decency is guilty of anything. It just means he has a kind of advantage that people of color do not have, because of a complex array of historical facts, demographic realities, legacy effects of segregation and red lining and other marginalizing practices from previous generations, self-concept affirming cultural artifacts, and persistent but unconscious culturally-ingrained biases.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Trailer for THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE

With copious assistance from my son and photo contributions from several friends, I was able to create a book trailer for the new book. Okay, to be honest, my son was able to create a book trailer. I simply provided a bit of violin playing and talked about the book on camera, solicited photos, and then handed it all to him, saying, "Can you turn this into a book trailer?" Then he worked his magic. Here's the result:


Monday, August 7, 2017

Interview About THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE

I did a short interview about my new book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic, for the press kit. I thought I'd include it here. The book is now available at a discounted rate from the publisher at the Wipf and Stock website, and will soon be available at most online book retailers.



1. What inspired you to write The Triumph of Love?

This book is probably the most deeply personal book I’ve written, because I have so many people close to me who are sexual minorities. For me, the “issue” of same-sex marriage isn’t some abstract intellectual question. It’s about people I love, about their experiences and the impact that their stories have had on my personal and intellectual journey. I wanted to write about that journey in a way that could answer a question that seems to genuinely puzzle so many conservative Christians: How can I, as a Christian, support same-sex marriage?

2. You are a philosopher by training, not a theologian. How does a philosopher approach these issues differently from theologians?

As a moral philosopher, I’m trained to think about concrete moral controversies in part by applying specific theories about the nature of morality. Christianity teaches that the heart of moral life is love, and that Jesus’ life is a model for what Christian love looks like. So what we have here is a distinctly Christian understanding of morality: the Christian love ethic. As a philosopher, I want to see what that ethic implies—in this case, for same-sex marriage. So instead of starting with biblical passages that talk about homosexuality or biblical themes about marriage and sexuality, my starting point is the love ethic, and my question is what love for my gay and lesbian neighbors demands.

3. But as Christians, we can’t ignore Scripture, can we?

Of course not. The love ethic flows out of Scripture, from the teachings of Jesus and the model of love He offered. And if we care about Scripture, we have to pay attention to that. If we try to draw moral lessons about homosexuality by interpreting isolated texts without considering what it means to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves, then we would be ignoring Scripture. If we don’t want to ignore this crucial dimension of what Scripture teaches, we should approach the interpretation of isolated texts in light of this attention to the ethic that, in Scripture, Jesus taught and modeled for us.

4. In addition to being a philosopher, you’ve also published short stories and won creative writing awards. How does that experience in writing stories affect your approach to this book, if at all?

It affects it a lot. I tell stories in this book. In fact, I think I have to, because a central thesis of the book is that love for our gay and lesbian neighbors requires paying attention to their stories. I could not do what I want to do in this book without sharing the stories of my gay and lesbian neighbors. And I didn’t set out to write an ivory tower book just for other philosophers and theologians. I wanted this to be a book that any educated reader can pick up and learn something from. Storytelling is part of that.

5. Do you think conservative Christian opponents of same-sex marriage will read this book? Should they?

I routinely hear conservative Christians ask how someone who claims to be a Christian could support same-sex marriage, given what Scripture says. Whether they agree with my conclusions or not, this book could answer their curiosity and help them to better understand why Christians like me reach the conclusions we do. More importantly, my aim in the book is not to bash conservative Christian opponents of same-sex marriage but to engage in a conversation with them. The love ethic calls us, straight and gay, to love our gay and lesbian neighbors, but it also calls us to love those we disagree with. That doesn’t always mean being “nice” or “gentle.” Sometimes love means calling out beliefs and practices we’re convinced are harmful. But in this book I’m trying to model loving engagement with those who hold opposing views. I hope that those who disagree with me will take up the invitation to discuss these matters in a spirit of love.

6. If there’s one thing you hope readers will take away from the book, what would that be?

Love begins with attention. We cannot love our neighbors as ourselves if we don’t pay attention to them: compassionate attention, empathetic attention. Whatever my readers think about the ethics of homosexual sex and same-sex marriage, I hope they come away convinced that they cannot love their gay and lesbian neighbors if they won’t listen with compassion to their stories and empathize with their lives and experiences. And this point goes way beyond gays and lesbians. Jesus especially challenged us to love our enemies and those who are lying beaten down on the roadside—in other word, those our society is most likely to treat as Other, those we are most culturally conditioned to ignore. If my book can inspire people to seek out and pay compassionate attention to someone from a group or community they’ve never really paid attention to before, I will think it a success.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

It's Here: The Triumph of Love!

THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE: SAME-SEX MARRIAGE AND THE CHRISTIAN LOVE ETHIC is now available for purchase from the Wipf & Stock website for $24.80. Amazon has created a page for the book, and you can buy it from other distributors through that page (Amazon will have its own copies to sell soon). The e-book should be out in a few months, and will be less expensive than the paperback.


Monday, July 24, 2017

Cover Reveal!

Aaaand...here it is. The cover of the new book! It should be out soon. Stay tuned for release date and more information.
Image may contain: one or more people and text

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What Business Does a Straight Man Have Writing a Book About the LGBT Community and Its Concerns?

"Are you LGBT? If not, why are you creating a book about us?"

Someone asked me this question the other day on social media, and it struck me as an excellent and important question, one that deserved a thoughtful answer. My forthcoming book--The Triumph of Love--aims to respond to those Christians who think that all Christian allies (not to mention LGBT Christians) are nothing but sell-outs to secular culture by explaining how and why I became an ally, and how and why my Christian faith and my Christian ethical commitments have become central to my support of same-sex marriage and LGBT equality.

But what authority do I have, really, to speak to the needs and experiences of my LGBT neighbors and the place of same-sex marriage in their lives? Do I think I can speak for them better than they can for themselves? Am I doing the straight equivalent of "mansplaining"? (God, I hope not.)

The answer I gave to my social media interlocutor seemed a fitting one to include here, and so I reproduce it (only slightly edited) below.

I think it is important for allies to speak about why it is important to be an ally. And within the Christian world, I think it is important for conservatives to hear from Christian supporters of same-sex marriage who can't be preemptively dismissed as just "defending their lifestyle."

I wrote this book, also, because there are people I love who are tired of being challenged to defend their most meaningful and important relationships, who just want to live and love without being targeted to defend their right to do so; and since my most meaningful and important relationship is not under attack I can draw some of that fire, offer some measure of the relief that I believe allies can provide.

And I write because I am full of an angry love that I feel compelled to voice.

And I believe I have an expertise about the Christian love ethic and it's implications that hasn't been clearly and fully voiced in the debates among progressive and conservative Christians (and those in between), a perspective that I believe may move that discussion in ways that will do some good for the most vulnerable.

And I write because my overarching message is not, "Listen to me!" My constant drumbeat-message throughout the book is that straight Christians cannot claim to love their LGBT neighbors if they do not pay compassionate attention to those neighbors--a message that, coming from another straight Christian, might inspire someone who doesn't pay attention to their LGBT neighbors (and so won't hear that message spoken by a sexual or gender minority) to look up from the pages of their Bibles and other books (including mine) and seek out LGBT voices.

I wrote this book because, tragically, we live in a world where it isn't obvious that love for someone starts with listening to them. We live in a world where too often Christians, who profess to live by an ethic of love, plug up their ears with Bible verses so they won't hear the anguished cries of the neighbors they are hurting (because hearing them might jar them loose from the certainty they need to sustain in order to continue to comfortably belong to their religious communities).

Because we live in such a world, I believe it can be helpful to have books that say, "Look up! Unplug your ears!" And we need some of those books to come from someone who isn't among those that the privileged are refusing to look at or listen to. A book by someone they are more likely to hear, but a book that points them to those they aren't hearing.

We live in a world where structural and ideological forces have invested some with privilege while marginalizing others. And because the privileged have power that the marginalized lack, they are capable of insulating themselves from the marginalized and their voices. But at least sometimes, allies enjoy access to the privileged that can help break down those insulating barriers. And I think that to the extent that they have such power, allies have a moral duty to use it.

I wish we didn't live in a world where that would be necessary, where some are so insulated from the marginalized others that it requires a voice from within their own circle of privilege to jar them from their insulation. But unfortunately I am convinced we do live in such a world. Despite all the advances that the LGBT community has made, we still do. And while it is the voices of the marginalized that will change that world, it is the duty of allies to say "listen!"

My book was born out of that sense of duty. My hope is that it will inspire someone, somewhere, to listen to their LGBT neighbors in a way they haven't before.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Proposed Script for THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE Book Trailer

So I'm thinking of doing a book trailer for my forthcoming book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. My proposed script for it appears below. Let me know what you think. Also, my son actually has some video editing skills, so I might be able to arm-twist him into helping me create something better than just a talking head. If there are any visuals that strike you as good supplements to me talking into the camera in front of a bookcase, let me know your ideas! 

So once when I was in college, a friend and I were talking to the woman who ran the cafeteria ID cards. When we told her we were Christians she snapped out, “Does that mean you think all homosexuals are going to hell?”

This was the late 1980’s, and as Christians we were used to getting push-back from secularists and “greed-is-good” materialists and classmates who just wanted to party and get laid. But this kind of moral indignation about Christian views on homosexuality? That was new to us.

Fortunately my friend jumped into the silence. “Of course we don’t think all homosexuals are going to hell.”

“What,” the woman said, “so you don’t think it’s a sin?”

It was at that point that my friend invoked the now-familiar saying, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” The saying wasn't quite so familiar then, certainly not to me. It sounded profound, and as my friend said it I felt this huge surge of relief: love the sinner but hate the sin! Yeah! I’m still a loving guy.

It wasn’t until I started making gay friends that I realized just how inadequate that response was.

Here’s the thing: Just because we can love people while condemning what really is a sin doesn’t mean we can take anything to be a sin and still love people the way we should. Can we love children the way we should if we think that it’s at all times and in all places sinful for them to play? What about loving our diabetic neighbors while declaring it a sin to use insulin?

And can we love our gay and lesbian neighbors properly if we condemn as sinful their most meaningful, loving, faithful, monogamous relationships? Can we love them if, convinced that homosexual acts are at all times and in all places sinful, we try to systematically exclude them from access to the goods of marriage?

Too often, Christians have used the Bible as a kind of weapon, extracting clobber passages and beating sexual minorities over the head. And then we use those same passages to plug up our ears so we don’t have to hear their anguished cries. Surely that can’t be the way to go.

Of course, Christians can’t ignore the Bible. But if we don’t seriously wrestle with what it means to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves, that’s exactly what we’re doing. If self-righteous certainty takes the place of compassionate attention, we haven’t been paying attention to Jesus. We need to listen to our neighbors in all their diversity, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transender, and beyond. We need to hear their stories—stories about how Christian condemnation has affected them, and what access to same-sex marriage means for their lives. And then we need to struggle with what that means for living out the law of love.

Only then can we hope to move closer to the one thing God longs for more than anything else: The Triumph of Love.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hypothetical Verdicts: Crutcher, Shelby, and Blame

Last night a jury in Tulsa reached a verdict in a high-profile case in which a police officer, Betty Shelby, shot and killed an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher. When she shot him, Crutcher was neither doing what she ordered him to do nor posing a clear threat (he was walking away from her with his arms raised, apparently putting those arms on the side of his car). Like so many other cases like it, the jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict.

I want to begin by saying​ something about this case that I think ought to be uncontroversial. What happened in this case is that a man with a drug problem who in fact posed no threat encountered, as part of a routine traffic stop, an officer who set out that day to serve and protect, not to kill people. And yet the officer shot the man, killing him. When that happens, something has gone terribly wrong.

What went wrong was not an "act of God." Crutcher did not die from an illness or a natural disaster. He was shot. And yet he did nothing that deserved death. He was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, and he wasn't perfectly obedient to the officers commands. But these are not the sorts of things that warrant death. And so something has gone terribly wrong.

That is the uncontroversial thing I want to l say. But now come the difficult questions. Suppose we accept the jury's judgment that the officer was not responsible for what went so terribly wrong. Who is, then? Is it appropriate to blame the man who died--blame him because in his confused state he wasn't absolutely and perfectly obedient, because he went to put his hands on his car in a move that trained officers (but not the man) have learned bad guys might use to grab for a gun? Is that the choice the jury was given? Blame the white woman in the police uniform, the one sitting in front of them looking earnest and just like them, a good citizen who means well; or blame the drug-using black man who is gone, who is nowhere in sight because he is dead, dead by a bullet lodged in his lung, a bullet propelled there by the twitch of that earnest woman's trigger finger?

Perhaps the jury had too few options. Perhaps when it comes to assessing responsibility for something that has gone so terribly wrong, juries are forced into a false dilemma.The jury was not given the option to  deliver, for example, the following hypothetical verdict: "We cannot convict you because the fault is wider than you and deeper than you. You were just there at that moment with the legacy of our cultural conditioning and our collective fears; you were there, and the systems and practices and norms of our society came together in you, pulling the trigger and making a man die, a man who posed no threat. But it could have been any one of us, and we would have done the same."

There was no option for saying that. Should there be?

Shelby and Crutcher were not alone in that moment. I don't just mean that other officers present and the helicopter whirring overhead. Social forces came together in that moment--including, perhaps, the white majority's collective fear of black men, a fear that we feed and perpetuate in all kinds of subtle ways. We feed it and perpetuate it in the unconscious minds of children who grow up wanting to serve and protect. And then one day an officer is afraid that she won't make it home alive--even though as a matter of fact the man was moving slowly away from her with his arms in the air.

Are we quicker to jump to threat scenarios when it's a black man than when it's, say, a white woman? To Shelby, it seemed like a vivid possibility that Crutcher, drugged and disoriented, might lunge through the car window to grab a gun, spin towards Shelby, and fire with deadly aim. It was so vivid, so live as a threat that she shot and killed this man whose hands were in the air, who had no gun, no gun at all. Would it have struck her as such a vivid possibility, such a plausible source of fear-- something demanding such immediate, fatal, and irrevocable action--if Crutcher had been a white woman? Also, would empathy and fellow human feeling have been potent in that case, acting to curb fatal mistakes by making them seem more dire?

I'm not talking here about overt racism. I'm not talking about deliberately discounting black lives because they are black. What I'm talking about are unconscious, implicit biases formed in us through social conditioning, biases we don't even know we have and which shape our perceptions in moments of crisis when there isn't time to make more steady, considered judgments.

Did the jury find her not guilty in part because they share the same fears, the same unconscious presuppositions that shape how they envision unfolding events? Did they identify with her and her perspective because they were subject to the same social conditioning? Was it especially easy for them, because of our shared culture, to understand why that unarmed man who was not engaged in hostile or aggressive action could appear to the officer in that moment as a deadly threat?

If this were a freakish case, an unheard-of anomaly in the American landscape, then we might accept the verdict, say "Whatever it was that went wrong, the jury looked at the evidence and decided it wasn't the officer's fault," and then move on with our lives. But we don't have that luxury, because this is not some unheard-of anomaly in American life.

If we accept the verdict, that means we must look beyond the officer to determine what went wrong, to discern what brokenness in our society needs to be fixed so that tragedies like this don't keep happening.

A guilty verdict would have said many things. Among them, it would have said to my black friends watching the trial with trepidation and a thread of hope that this time, in this case, a black life mattered. But a guilty verdict might also have said, "We've found the culprit, the source of the problem. It was this particular woman. The rest of us are off the hook." If we accept the verdict and we accept that black lives really do matter as much as white lives, then we need to ask why this sort of thing keeps happening and what we can do to fix it.

Maybe, in our current world, "not guilty" means "No one's to blame! We're off the hook!" while "guilty" means "That one person is to blame! The rest of us are off the hook!" Maybe there is no way, with the verdicts on offer, for any verdict to ever move us to ask what has gone so horribly wrong and what we can do, what we must do, to change things.

And so we return to my hypothetical verdict, a different kind of "not guilty" verdict: "Not guilty by virtue of the fact that we, society, are collectively to blame for the forces that came together in that tragic moment; not guilty because any one of us, conditioned as we have been conditioned and socialized as we have been socialized, might have done the same thing in that moment. Not guilty because we are all guilty, not guilty in a way that demands collective responsibility. Not guilty in a way that does not erase guilt but demand accountability."

And maybe that "not guilty"verdict needs to be paired with a different kind of guilty verdict: "Guilty by virtue of being an agent of something deeper than the individual, of social wrongs that found expression in this person at this moment but are not isolating to the individual; guilty in a way that does not let others off the hook but recognizes the deep roots of tragic wrongs and demands collective responsibility and broader accountability."

In our individualistic culture, we don't like those kinds of verdicts. Such verdicts would be a call to action, a call to social change. Easier to treat not-guilty verdicts as exonerating not only the individuals but also ourselves, and guilty-verdicts as heaping all the guilt on the bad guys so that the rest of us can feel cleansed.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bishop Oliveto, the United Methodists, and the Law of Love

A Personal Issue

On April 28, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church ruled that when the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC consecrated Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop, it violated church law. The law in question is an old one from the 1970's, one that precludes "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from serving as church leaders in the UMC. Bishop Oliveto, in case you haven't heard, is in a same-sex marriage.

Although I am now a Lutheran, I was raised in the Methodist Church: a mid-sized suburban UMC congregation in upstate New York. I was confirmed there and was active with the UMYF--the United Methodist Youth Fellowship--throughout Junior High and High School. One of my fondest memories from that time was an extended canoe trip through the Adirondacks with the youth group and the pastors of the church. It was a week of connecting powerfully to God's creation, and experiencing its beauty and power through the Wesleyan lens our pastor preached from his own canoe, a paddle in hand. Among the experiences that have given me a vivid sense of God's presence, this one ranks among the most formative.

I say all of this because I want to explain why these events in the UMC are personal for me. Although I am today part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was shaped by the UMC. When I picture a church, it is still that UMC church of my childhood that springs first to mind. And when I think about pastors who forged my faith in a God of love, one of the first to come to mind is Rev. Harrington, sitting in that canoe, his voice rolling along the river as he invited us all to take in the majesty of God's world.

Also, when I view the current turmoil in the UMC I recall the ELCA's struggles over these same matters, struggles I was personally involved with in numerous ways. I know first-hand what it feels like to be part of a church that's trying to find a way forward when it comes to inclusion of sexual minorities. At different times I was on both the losing and winning sides of the ELCA's fitful journey. Neither side was without its share of anguish. And so I look at the church of my childhood, and I share the pain.

Not Just an Issue

The controversy is so grave and difficult because it isn't about an "issue." It's about the fate of real people. It's about Bishop Oliveto but not just her. It's about Rev. Karen Dammann, who was put on trial and risked being defrocked for admitting to her congregation that she was in a committed relationship with a woman. It's about Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was defrocked for performing same-sex union ceremonies for members of his congregation. Closer to home, it's about Oklahoma pastor Kathleen McCallie, a friend of my wife who loved her work as a UMC minister but who faced the same choice as Creech, and in anguish chose to follow her conscience and so be expelled from the church and ministry she loved.

This is not an "issue" that members of the UMC can just agree to disagree about and then worship together amidst their differences. Why not? Because this is about the actual fate of real people within the worship life of the church. It is about who gets to perform which roles in worship. It is about which couples can get married in a church service, which ones can sit together in the pews without being labeled as sinners for it. It is about who can show up with their partners at an adult Sunday School class about building stronger marriages, and who will be told, "Your marriage should be voided, not made stronger, because your love for each other is a sin and the meaning and richness you find in life partnership is an abomination."

Love and Same-Sex Marriage

It's because of the persistent recurrence of cases like Bishop Oliveto's, cases that continue to cause so much turmoil and pain, that I felt compelled to write my forthcoming book on same-sex marriage and Christian love, The Triumph of Love. I cannot, in a blog post, do justice to all of the arguments in that book. But I want to sketch out a few of them here. In that book I argue that, if we want to love our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we should apply to them the same model of sexual restraint that has served heterosexuals through history: all of us should be urged to express our sexuality within the bonds of marriage.

Marriage, at its best, becomes a crucible for learning faithful love over a lifetime. Marriage is not just a source of joy but a source of meaning and growth in love. To withhold that from gays and lesbians, most of whom are as ill-equipped for life-long celibacy as their heterosexual peers, has substantial costs for their welfare.

But the cost goes deeper than simply losing out on something. The Christian tradition has long held that all same-sex intimacy, even in marriage, is a sin. If you think this, you think Christian communities should be structured accordingly. You think gays and lesbians should grow up being taught that their sexuality is fundamentally broken, that their intimate partnerships are an affront to God no matter how faithful and virtuous and life-enriching they might be. You think gays and lesbians should be systematically excluded from participation in the most foundational social and cultural unit. Not only are they forced to live their lives without the kind of love and companionship and lessons in Christian love that marriage brings. They are taught that, in a fundamental sense, there is not a place for them.

Because Christian communities have long been built around these assumptions, many gays and lesbians have been born and raised under these conditions. And so we know what it is like for them if we listen compassionately to their stories. I have done such listening, as have many other Christians who are, like me, progressive on this question. Like many others, I have learned some important lessons from that listening, lessons underscored by the corpses of those driven to suicidal despair by the conviction that they will never be acceptable in the eyes of God unless they close themselves off to their most intense yearnings for love and closeness. Countless witnesses reinforce a shattering message: traditional teachings on homosexuality can be soul-crushing for the sexual minorities who grow up in communities that teach it. While some break away, others just break.

Of course, much has changed in recent years. There are growing pockets of acceptance. Many sexual minorities have found peace and a place at the table within Christian communities. Instead of having to choose between their faith and their sexual/romantic selves--or having to live the lie of the closet--many are finding places where they can have what heterosexuals take for granted: the integration of Christian faith with their human longing for sexual intimacy and loving partnership.

To believe that all homosexual sex is sinful is to believe that such opportunities should be withdrawn and the closet door slammed shut. But that doesn't sound much like love to me.

Burying Talents

The current policies of the UMC perpetuate the marginalization of gays and lesbians. But they also diminish the church community itself. This is apparent in the current case of Bishop Oliveto.

In a statement earlier in the week, Bishop Oliveto made an interesting observation about the hearing that could decide her future as a UMC bishop: "What is fascinating about today’s hearing is that no one questioned the gifts and graces I possess for ordained ministry and specifically for the episcopacy. And no one has looked at my work and said my abilities for this task are lacking."

No one questioned this for the simple reason that her abilities aren't lacking. Had she been in a heterosexual marriage rather than a same-sex one, no one would have questioned her consecration. She felt called to the ministry. She felt called to the episcopacy. And according to friends of mine who are part of the Western Jurisdiction and who have met her, she is a person of grace, poise, wisdom, and competence.

When a class of people are excluded from church leadership even though they have the requisite gifts and have experienced a call, it is as if they are being forced to bury their talents. When Christ tells His parable of the talents, He concludes it by chastising the servant who chooses to bury the talent given him by his master. But Rev. Karen Oliveto chose to use her talents, not to bury them. She chose to use them on behalf of the UMC. The Western Jurisdiction chose to let her do so. If the UMC as a whole forces her out of the episcopacy--and the recent ruling is a clear step in that direction--then it is the UMC that is burying Oliveto's talents, and hence the UMC that must face Christ's censure.

Law and Obedience

The law of the UMC is plain enough, and the Judicial Council was probably right that according to that law, what the Western Jurisdiction did was unlawful. But this policy is the law of a human institution, and there is a higher law than that. The decision of the Western Jurisdiction to consecrate Bishop Oliveto despite church law was a case of civil disobedience. The purpose of civil disobedience is not to defy the rule of law. Its purpose, rather, is to seek to change an unjust human law based on a deeper obedience to a higher law.

Oliveto's consecration expressed Christian deference to a divine calling, one not beholden to the laws of a human institution. More importantly, it expressed allegiance to the law of love, the law that Christ lifted up as our most fundamental commandment.

Not everyone agrees, of course, that God would have the audacity to call a married lesbian to the episcopacy. Not everyone agrees that love for our gay and lesbian neighbors requires us to abandon the old teachings that have for so long been a source of so much suffering. But motives matter--and the motive in this case was not disdain for the rule of law but a sense of faithfulness to a higher law. One might disagree about what that higher law requires of us, but such disagreement does not change the motives involved.

Love Admidst Disagreement

But this brings me to the final point. The perspective I've articulated is hardly uncontroversial. I can already hear the clamoring questions: Doesn't it ignore what the Bible says? What about Church Tradition and Natural Law arguments? Isn't it clear from these things that God really does prohibit same-sex romantic love? And doesn't it follow from this that someone who makes a marital commitment to such love is making a commitment to sin? And isn't a commitment to sin incompatible with church leadership?

That is the conservative stance. I find it wholly unpersuasive, for reasons I explore in depth in my book. But I can't reproduce my entire book in a blog post, so let me limit myself to two points here.

First, the argument I've sketched out here, which challenges the conservative stance, isn't coming from secular culture but from the urgings of the law of love and my understanding of what that law requires. This is a Christian case for overturning the UMC's policies on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Even if you think that case is defeated by biblical arguments, it doesn't mean there is no case--a case that, if we trust what Jesus had to say, is rooted in nothing less than the most important commandment of all.

The second point is this: While defenders of the conservative view are sometimes moved by ugly motives such as homophobia, many are moved by sincere belief. Many are pained by the suffering of their LGBT neighbors and grieve the tragic frequency of gay suicide, but they have been convinced that the condemnation of homosexuality is God's word and that the solution to LGBT suffering must be found in something other than opening the door to same-sex marriage.

This is as true in the UMC as it is in other denominations. Those who defend the UMC's ongoing marginalization of LGBT Methodists cannot simply be dismissed as homophobes. Those who celebrate the Oliveto ruling are not all motivated by hate.

Perhaps they haven't heard, as I have, the litany of anguishing life stories, tales of suffering wrought by anti-LGBT policies of exclusion. If so, we need to invite them to hear those stories.

Perhaps they've listened to a handful of LGBT Christians who tell a comforting tale of becoming ex-gay (comforting, at least, if you don't want to find yourself standing opposed to the dominant teachings of your community and its understanding of the Bible). If so, we should invite them to consider those stories in a broader context that includes the many stories of hopeless efforts to "change," often followed by years of living a lie, a pretense of healing, and stumbling into unwise and ultimately tragic heterosexual marriages in a desperate effort to belong.

Perhaps they've been immersed in a theology whose views about the Bible make it seem as if there is no choice but to stand fast to the view that homosexuality is sinful, no matter what gays and lesbians may say about the alienation and despair that this inspires. There are those who think they would betray the very word of God if they shifted their stance, if they did anything short of continuing to endorse existing policies. And it doesn't matter how many talents get buried. It doesn't matter how many gays and lesbians are cast to the margins. The Bible is clear.

If this is what they think, we should dig into our understanding of what the Bible is and what it says. We should think together about the Bible's history, its context, the languages of the ancient authors, and the alternative ways of understanding how the Bible is related to the will and word of God. We should think together about which Christian approaches do the most to honor the incarnating, loving, sacrificing, redeeming God to whom the Bible testifies.

Those who stand witness to just how crushing LGBT marginalization has been must rise up in loving defense of the victims. Hearing what we have heard and believing what we believe, it would be unloving for us to do anything else. At the same time, we must strive to reach out in love to those who are sincerely convinced that God calls them to perpetuate policies of exclusion. Anger can be fitting, because there is such a thing as angry love. Painful honesty about the horrific consequences of their beliefs--honesty that pulls no punches in the name of "niceness"--can be appropriate, because love demands truth.

But we cannot descend into hate. We cannot resort to violence--either outward violence or verbal abuse or spiritual violation. We must remain open to fellowship when the terms of fellowship don't require complicity in perpetuating harm.

And if we wade into the fray--if we really wrestle with the conflicts and controversies--it can become very hard to sustain a spirit of love towards those we think are complicit in perpetuating harmful policies (or those we think are betraying the Word of God).

And so we need to open ourselves up to the grace that is beyond us, the transforming power of a divine love that can persist where merely human will must fail.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

On Wishing the Pilot (or President) Will Fail

Back in January, on the day of Trump's inauguration, I posted on Facebook a reflection on memes like this one: 

Image result for wishing for trump to fail meme

The post was quite popular, being shared and reshared many times through Facebook, but I never got around to posting it here. A friend just reminded me of that post, and it seems appropriate, after Trump's first hundred days in office, to revisit that reflection. So I'm posting it here now. Enjoy.

I have heard it said that wishing for President Trump to fail is like wishing for the pilot of the airplane you are flying in to fail. This is a fair point, but some things are worth noting about this analogy.

First, if the pilot is incompetent to fly the plane, what I'd hope is that this incompetence is made apparent by some early but reparable failures, so that the pilot can be ousted from the cockpit before crashing the plane.

Second, a lot hinges on what the pilot is trying to do. If the pilot of a plane bound for Denver is indifferent to the passengers' wishes and needs and aims to redirect the plane to Miami because it will earn him a boatload of cash, I hope someone catches on and stops him before he succeeds... although I'd rather he land it successfully in Miami than crash.

If a pilot has been paid off by villains to deliver a plane full of people to some remote island to be made into slaves, then I hope that the pilot will fail to realize that aim--and either be forced to land the plane anywhere safe or have control of the plane taken away and handed over to someone with more benign aims. But if the choice is between crashing and being sold into slavery, it would be a hard call.

But what if the pilot is planning to fly the plane into a crowded building in an act of terrorism? If I can't get control of the plane away from the pilot, I might in that case hope he's so incompetent that he crashes into a bog or lake, someplace where there is a chance of survivors.

And if it looks to me like the pilot is drunk when he staggers into the cockpit, I'm not going to "give him a chance." I'm going to do what I can to call his state to the attention of anyone who can stop him from taking off in that state. And if I fail at that, I'm going to prepare for the worst, maybe by trying to find out if any passengers know how to fly the plane and sharing my fears with them.

In short, a whole lot hinges on whether you think the pilot is sober, competent, and motivated to serve the passengers by bringing them safely and efficiently to the destination they've chosen. Likewise, what we think of Trump's competence and aims and temperament will influence what we hope for, as well as how trusting or vigilant we need to be.

But of course, this analogy is imperfect, since a president has a far more complex set of objectives than a pilot has. It's more about preserving and directing a complex set of social institutions in such a way that each of us can succeed in achieving our aims. If the president wants to dismantle an institution that I am convinced works well to help us achieve our aims, and has no clear plan for implementing something that works as well, I will hope he fails at that, and I may try to do what I can nonviolently do to secure that hope. At the same time, I might hope he succeeds at doing something else.

Of course, there are even more disanalogies between a pilot flying a plane and a president serving a country--disanalogies that came up in discussion on my original post. What disanalogies do you see, and what are their implications?