A Thin Line

download-1 So many of the children’s books that I read with my daughter make the world appear so simple and straightforward. There’s a clear good guy and a clear bad guy, and you know who to cheer for and who to be against, and you can rest easy that if the protagonist does something, it’s probably good and right. And if it isn’t, it’s merely a mistake that the character will learn from by the end of the book and become an even better person. On the other hand, anything the bad guy does is wrong, and there are only unsavory motives in this character’s heart, and a necessary ingredient of a happy ending will be the vanquishing of this enemy.

But that’s not real life, is it?

Real life is messy. There are no clear good guys and bad guys, though preachers and politicians tend to tickle our ears and appeal to that insecure urge to return to our childhood worldview, telling us that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. We are the right ones and they are the wrong ones. We are the worthy and they are the unworthy. We are the innocent and they are the guilty.

One of the great things about reading the Bible to my daughter is that scripture doesn’t paint that picture. Ironically, though so many who are vocal and zealous for the Bible’s preeminence see the world in extremely black and white terms, the Bible doesn’t edit away the gray of the human story. Far from faultless heroes or young, good-willed underdogs who learn valuable moral lessons throughout their journey, God’s people often allow pride, self-preservation, fear, hate, greed, lust, and a host of other evils to drive their actions. Meanwhile, their enemies are often shown for the multidimensional beings that they are. Esau has a tender, emotional reunion with his brother (God’s chosen, by the way) whose duplicity permanently altered the course of Esau’s life.Nicodemus, staunch and proud Pharisee by day, has secret doubts at night and comes to Jesus for answers. Pontius Pilate has an internal conflict over allowing the injustice that’s being demanded against Jesus.

Real life isn’t full of good guys and bad guys. It’s full of people, all of whom bear the image of God, however distorted by sin and brokenness it may be. The true dividing line isn’t between the good and the bad, but the lost and the found. What separates God’s people from anyone else is the grace they’ve received through faith in his son.

Most people are familiar with the popular image of the religious legalist or the puritanical moralist who lacks any visible signs of grace or humility and who thinks himself superior to those who don’t share his worldview and lifestyle. But an interesting trend, particularly in the US, is that social progressives are gaining more and more cultural clout. And whereas the traditionalists were the “Us” and they were the “Them“, the roles are changing.

Today, the moral majority are those who are speaking out for the marginalized and for the oppressed. Increasingly, they are the historically marginalized and oppressed, collectively rising up to “speak truth to power.” In a sense, you might say that I am among them.

As a white, cisgender, middle class, American male,  I nearly hit the privilege jackpot. But the whole gay thing plants me firmly in a group of people who have been maligned and mistreated throughout American history, but who are now making quick strides in the political and cultural landscape.

Like others, I am vocal about privilege and discrimination, persecution and double standards. I advocate for gay Christians trying to work out what it means for them to live faithful lives within the church, and I try to help straight conservative Christians see the injustices that their blind spots have allowed to go unnoticed, so that change can be affected.

But unlike many others, my progressivism only goes so far. I am, essentially, theologically conservative. I just happen to think that conservative theology, rightly understood, is often more accurately displayed through what are often considered elements of social progressivism.

While I think the church, as a whole, has gotten it horribly wrong regarding the lgbtq community for a long time, I stand firm in my agreement with what was the unanimous Christian teaching on sex and marriage for nearly two thousand years, and what was understood to be God’s teaching from Genesis to Jesus, those thousands of years prior to church history.

But our polarized environment makes little room for the kind of nuance that requires.

Aside from the annoyance of straight fragility that pops up here and there, I find it quite easy to speak out against the marginalization of gay people. Conservatives are slowly learning to expect that, even if they aren’t always willing to validate what I’m saying. And I have a whole cultural shift providing momentum to my efforts. In this way, the zeitgeist is on my side.

But, as is a common occurrence in most revolutions, I run into roadblocks whenever I deviate a little from the script. That script reads eerily like the many children’s books on my daughter’s shelf: These people (historically marginalized groups) are the good guys, and those people (historically privileged groups, i.e., straight, white, middle-upper class, cisgender, American males) are the bad guys. And the only possible redemption for those who, to their horror, find themselves in that camp of bad guys is to take on an attitude of self deprecation and oversensitivity to, well, everything. Here’s Bill Maher’s take on one facet of this phenomenon, which aired back in April and has been making its way around social media even within the last month.

I believe wholeheartedly that things like privilege and intersectionality are valid concepts. And I believe that it’s extremely important for us to acknowledge them, learn about them, and be cognizant of their effects. But when they are used as tools to vilify people, or when they are set up as excuses to shut down a conversation or invalidate an idea that doesn’t affirm anything and everything about a particular marginalized group, we’ve stepped into dangerous territory.

Regarding sexuality, this looks like conflating homophobia and hatred of gay people with traditional sex ethics. When Christians do this, it looks like demanding a switch to affirming theology as a matter of morality and godliness, and immediately invalidating a person’s biblical, social, cultural, biological, or logical arguments for the traditional view, on the grounds that said view, in and of itself, is abusive and oppressive.

That’s not to say that the conversation isn’t being had well in a number of contexts by a number of people. Because it is. And the overcorrecting that’s being done by many Social Justice Warriors has a long way to go before it’s a bigger problem – or even as big of a problem – as the ones they’re addressing. But the troubling trend toward intellectual censorship does have real effects. So, for Christians, it’s a matter of striking a biblical balance.

There’s a thin line between standing up for the oppressed and acknowledging that God calls even the oppressed to account. Following Jesus is a beautiful thing, a liberating thing, and it is the path to eternal life. But it is also a costly thing, and Jesus warns us to count that cost in Luke 14:25-33. While God calls all to himself, and he is no respecter of persons, he calls us on his terms, not ours.  Every Christian is called to die to self, and that looks different for individuals, and it looks different for particular groups of people. Wesley Hill recently wrote an excellent article on the inclusion of the Gentiles into the early church, and what that meant for their identity as Gentiles. If we are shielded from the hard conversations, from having to consider not just that we must take up our cross, but how we must, even if it doesn’t seem fair, even if it seems like those who have oppressed us or hurt us somehow get some sort of validation from it, then we are missing a key aspect of what Jesus says true discipleship looks like.

For gay Christians, I think walking that thin line means being secure enough in our identities as God’s children to speak out and stand up for our right to be seated at the table along with all the other believers, while also being willing to be challenged on our beliefs. It means being willing to ask ourselves if, were it indeed God’s will for us to forgo our desires for a same-sex romantic partner, would we submit to that will, trusting that God is both sovereign and good.

For straight Christians, I think that looks like doing a lot of listening. It looks like self examination and genuine soul searching to see if there might be any fault in yourself or your church community, any area of needed repentance or change. I think it looks like enduring patiently with those who sometimes speak harshly out of a place of hurt. It looks like a commitment to relationships with gay people.

It’s going to be an awkward stumbling along, with no clear endpoint in sight. But the more time we spend walking this thin line, the closer we’ll get to true, God-honoring and life-giving change within the body of Christ.

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