By David Gushee
Decades ago, theologian H.R. Niebuhr wrote that the first question of ethics is not “what should I do?” but “what is going on here?” He was on to something. So — what is in fact going on here?
A story about another subject might help.
In the summer of 2011 I had the privilege of participating in a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories under the aegis of Fuller Theological Seminary.
The trip was organized as a “dual narrative tour.” Our guides were young local women, one Israeli Arab and one Israeli Jew. Through their own personal stories, as well as their own way of telling the history and reality of circumstances on the ground, these wonderful young guides taught us that there are (at least) two narratives to describe everything that has gone on and is going on in the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. They were very kind people and had become very good friends but their narratives were very, very different.
That trip has come to mind often in recent years as I have pondered the LGBT issue. I propose that responses to this issue in the Christian community fall along dual (dueling) narrative lines. These narrative frameworks are so self-evident to most of their adherents that they often find the alternative narrative completely inconceivable — just like in Israel/Palestine. They offer two alternative ways of “seeing” what is going on in the contemporary LGBT debate. There is a dimension of moral tragedy here as serious, well-intentioned Christians see the same reality in fundamentally opposed ways, leading to ineradicable moral conflict.
Let’s call the first answer a narrative of cultural, ecclesial and moral decline. I know it well, because I have at times written in this vein and have certainly written about it, including in a book to come out next year. It can be framed from 30,000 feet as a story of western secularization and the collapse of Christendom or at least Christian cultural hegemony. It can be framed at 15,000 feet as a story of Christian capitulation to theological and ethical liberalism, with the consequent erosion of the vitality of the churches. It can be framed at 5,000 feet as a story of the collapse of historic Western/Christian sexual ethics under the assaults of the sexual revolution. All add up to the conviction that following Christ faithfully today demands resistance to this decline.
This narrative sees modern Western and U.S. history as mainly a sad story of apostasy from an original Christian core. Rarely focusing on historic conflicts and failures in Christian, Western or U.S. history, this story instead focuses on, dreams of or ruminates about a time when Christianity held the dominant position in Western and American culture, when Christian theology and morality more often prevailed, and when sexual ethics was understood along traditionalist Christian lines — heterosexual, marital, faithful, permanent, etc. The role of the faithful Christian Church is to stand against cultural decline or at least against the encroachment of such decline into the Church itself.
From the perspective of this narrative, the LGBT issue is framed as yet one more, and perhaps the most egregious, example of this cultural, ecclesial and moral decline. I myself once wrote (in Getting Marriage Right) that the gay rights revolution was one of seven revolutions weakening the historic Christian understanding of marriage. I framed it as connected to the sexual revolution, the dramatic rise in divorce and so on; to stand up for a strengthening of marriage in the church at least implicitly required standing against even partial acceptance of even covenanted gay relationships.
Because I once believed this, I find it very hard to demonize those who still do. I understand that narrative and the sense of grief that animates it. And I still believe everything I said in Getting Marriage Right except the part about gay people.
But there is an alternative story. Let’s call it a narrative of marginalization, resistance and equality. At 30,000 feet, this is a story of the sad but constant human tendency to pick out the Other for contempt, rejection and mistreatment. At 15,000 feet, this is a story about the ways Christians have so often participated in the damaging mistreatment of those viewed as sinful, marginal or less than, whether women, Jews, native Americans, slaves, African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, prisoners or others. At 5,000 feet, this is a story about how LGBT people and their allies have gained success in resisting further marginalization and have placed pressure on Church and society to change their attitudes and practices. From within this narrative, the role of the faithful Christian Church is compassionate participation in the struggles of LGBT people for inclusion, acceptance and equality.
Which narrative do you find most compelling to explain what is going on here? Which vision of the Church’s task in our age? Whichever one it is, do you see how particular exegetical decisions related to particular biblical passages do not fully account for it? Instead, what we are talking about is how narratives make sense for people of broader patterns of reality as they perceive it.
In general, traditionalist Christians all over the Western world are attracted to a narrative of cultural decline, and link the contemporary LGBT issue to that narrative. Especially after so many recognizable defeats on the cultural battlefield, and so much doctrinal and moral confusion in the churches, it is easy to understand why drawing a bright red line on this particular issue strikes some traditionalists as absolutely essential. This is Custer’s Last Stand against the rejection of Christendom, against the loss of Christian hegemony in culture, against theological liberalism and against visibly deteriorating sexual ethics in church and society, as evidenced by the ubiquity of divorce, cohabitation and the hook-up culture. Many will fight on this front to the last man.
Different kinds of traditionalists located in different ecclesial and cultural settings pick out different aspects of the cultural decline narrative on which to focus. Some are fighting hard against civil gay marriage, others are relentlessly focused on detecting and punishing what they see as doctrinal slippage, and others are more tightly focused on exegetical fights or ecclesial politics. Increasing numbers are turning to the protection of the civil rights of traditionalist Christians, as they watch themselves losing the broader cultural battle. And many have an uneasy sense of being propagandized by activists and just want to be left alone.
These are not just “fundamentalists.” Some quite thoughtful scholars and leaders in mainline denominations, or in the U.K. setting, for example, are reading reality in this particular way. Aware of really quite disturbing cultural trends toward total libertinism, in unhappy community with fellow Christians whose understanding of Christian theology is, one might say, pretty loose, tired of not being able to go a day without being confronted by this issue, they are worried that even qualified acceptance of devout gay Christians, or covenanted, exclusive, gay relationships, will just be a slippery slope toward (further) cultural, ecclesial and moral decline. So they draw the line right here, and sometimes quite vigorously.
I understand them. And in many ways I agree with their worries over post-Christian culture, theologically and ethically sloppy Christianity, and ever edgier sexual license. I cringe when I hear people make pro-gay arguments that are little more than individualism and preference-utilitarianism with a bit of religious language slopped on. That’s also why I never just use “welcoming and affirming” language about this issue — I need to know what exactly is being affirmed. And it explains why I do not think it is at all a good idea to encourage sexual experimentation and transgressiveness as a positive good, as often seems the spirit on our college campuses and among avant garde academicians. Where possible, I think it is best for young people to figure out a clear gender identity and sexual identity and stick with it. (Call me a conservative.)
But my dozens of encounters with serious gay Christians, many of them evangelical, many of them having suffered so profoundly at the hands of the Church, have detached me from the broader declinist narrative as it pertains at least to devoutly Christian LGBT persons. Perhaps my readiness to take these Christian sisters and brothers seriously has also been affected by serious study of numerous instances in the past and today when Christians have read Scripture so as to hurt and marginalize disfavored groups.
If what we are talking about is blessing an anything-goes ethic in a morally libertine culture, I stand utterly opposed, as I have throughout my career. But if what we are talking about is carving out space for serious committed Christians who happen to be gay or lesbian to participate in society as equals and in church as kin, I now think that has nothing to do with cultural, ecclesial and moral decline, and everything to do with treating people the way Christ did.