Sexuality, our culture, and the gospel

I read Rachel Held Evans’ new post “How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation” (primarily reflecting on the passage of Amendment One in North Carolina) with a growing sense of sadness and lament this morning.

I was sad to read Rachel’s highlighting of how many people of younger generations view the church. The (evangelical part of the) church HAS made homosexuality, inappropriately, one of two big issues we should care about. We have obsessed over, preached on, talked about this issue in such a disproportionate way that many in our culture believe it’s all we care about. Meanwhile, our marriages fail at the same rate as the wider culture, an increasing number of our teenagers and young adults openly have sex outside a marriage covenant, and an increasing number of heterosexuals cohabitate and participate in hook-up culture.

Many of these heterosexual couples enter church doors with folks knowing what they’re doing, but people are glad they’re there and hoping they find healing. People tend to “meet them where they’re at and love them” pretty well, generally speaking. Yet if a gay couple enters the church openly parading their lifestyle and commitments, they’re treated like filthy trash. This is wrong, dead wrong.

AND…

I then read Rachel proceed to write the rest of her piece and come to the capstone of her argument regarding Christians and “culture wars”,

“Young Christians are ready for peace. We are ready to lay down our arms. We are ready to start washing feet instead of waging war. And if we cannot find that sort of peace within the church, I fear we will look for it elsewhere.”

When I read that, I was saddened even further. Because while it is true that many people in our culture have been turned off by an unhealthy obsession with the issue of homosexuality, it remains true that the biggest portion of people are turned off by an insensitivity towards the demands of the truth. One of the things I observe with the younger generation surrounding me (in my church, neighborhood, city, and wider culture) is the belief that we innately and easily understand what is good and true.  Whatever comes most natural is interpreted as most true, to generalize the idea.  As it happens, however, the Scriptures remind us (and we can confirm with experience, if we’re courageous enough to face the facts) we are confused, selfish people darkened in our understanding of what is good, right, and worth pursuing in this world.

When confused, selfish people who are intimately shaped by our culture to think and act in certain ways are confronted with the truthful  way of the kingdom of God, our first (and for many, only) reaction is rejection. Nobody wants the core of who they are challenged. So when a group of people is openly advocating a way of life that is opposite in many ways to what you hold dear, you seek to discredit, diminish, or openly mock them. And I’m not talking about sexuality here at all. I’m talking about radical forgiveness, non-violence, the way of simplicity, covenantal marriage vows, humbly bowing before an authority that is not you. And the list goes on.

So, as it happens, because we all are so intimately formed by our culture, many young Christians live with a “Christian-lite” version of faith where any sort of stark line-drawing or boundary-making is interpreted as inappropriate and even hateful. Why? “Well, we may have given our lives to God,” we reason, “but God would never rip my life apart or subject me to serious emotional, spiritual, or physical pain for long stretches of time. God wants to enter into my life and make me more compassionate and caring.” We don’t want to look weird. We don’t want to stand out. So, if we “keep our faith,” we latch on to vague spiritual teachings and teachers that enable us to live our lives as normal with a little Jesus seasoning to alter the flavor a bit.

In addition, many young Christians are conflict-averse in the church, and when someone challenges their understanding of truth, are quick to be offended, unwilling to listen, and too quick to leave. Some may even leave a church because of political signs posted in the yards of other families in the church they disagree with.

And above all, many young Christians are so swallowed up in the values of the Babylon of our culture that we are blind and deaf to the call of God to become “resident aliens” in our culture, to be called out of the values of our culture and “called into” the values, boundaries, and lifestyle defined by a King and not by ourselves.

So, Rachel, when you speak of being “ready for peace,” I fear you misunderstand the gospel, which is deeply political, which does at times draw significant lines, which does draw boundaries around behavior, which does bring significant expectations.

In the midst of a powerful song confessing his own shortcomings and sin, Derek Webb sings these two piercing lines that continue to challenge me years after first listen,

“I repent, I repent of trading truth for false unity,
I repent, I repent of confusing peace and idolatry.”

What Derek highlights so well is how quickly in pursuit of being “at peace,” we seek to smooth over or deny differences, avoid our conflicts, and call that “peace.” He rightly reminds us that when those commitments overshadow our central responsibility to be faithful to the expectations of our Creator, we are engaging in idolatry. We only have to look quickly at the wider context of Jesus’ ministry to see that “peace-making” in God’s kingdom sometimes looks like scandalous welcome and other times looks quite harsh, exclusive, and judgmental.

We have much to learn in evangelical culture about a deeper compassion. Some may even say we’ve lost the virtue of compassion and need to give up making strong statements or drawing boundaries in order to learn that virtue again. I am sensitive  to and drawn towards that suggestion on the surface. I would suggest we instead choose to be chastened and “count the cost” of making judgments and drawing boundaries and consider whether scandalous grace is included in our actions.

But if we are to follow the advice of persons like Rachel and a host of other younger Christian leaders, we are to let people make their own decisions and to “love them” in that place. We are to be so careful not to offend persons (especially on the issue of sexuality) in the interest of them feeling embraced and cared-for that we avoid drawing strong boundaries. And that’s all in the church, far before we engage in conversations about our values in the public square.

It seems, if I take the blunt message of the essay, Rachel is suggesting the public square should be off-limits for Christians.

In regards to the public square and to Christians involving themselves in politics, I am interested in how “laying down our arms” applies for Rachel on this issue. She mentioned in her post,

“As I watched my Facebook and Twitter feeds last night, the reaction among my friends fell into an imperfect but highly predictable pattern. Christians over 40 were celebrating. Christians under 40 were mourning. Reading through the comments, the same thought kept returning to my mind as occurred to me when I first saw that Billy Graham ad: You’re losing us.

I assume Rachel is more connected to other authors and speakers in the Christian publishing world than I am by virtue of her being an author and speaker. So in addition to a “normal” friends list, Rachel is able to see the thoughts of Christian culture-makers.  I happen to share eighteen mutual friends with Rachel (some of whom are authors and speakers), and while many were mourning on my friends list, by and large they weren’t mourning as those standing on the outside observing the cultural moment. No, many were mourning as those who had actively campaigned and leveraged whatever power they had AGAINST Amendment One.

So, is the main spark here for Rachel’s essay that the church is too political, or that the church is politically involved on the side of an issue that she disagrees with?

This question leads me to reach two possible conclusions based on Rachel’s thoughts:

1) Rachel and others like her genuinely want Christians to stop participating completely in the political realm (or if they do, to not tell anybody about or seek to influence others), no matter what their political or cultural persuasions

or

2) Rachel used this anti-conservative-political-action essay to set up that group as the enemy, with the answer being progressive-political-action dressed in anti-political clothing. “They’re theocratic and oppressive,” could be the battle cry, “and we’re open and progressive. Completely unlike them!”

Maybe I’m pigeonholing Rachel with those two options, but I’d guess she’s probably pretty firmly in 1) and shading pretty heavily over into 2). I’d guess that she described her Facebook survey the way that fit the message of what she wanted to write, and that many of those lamenting Amendment One weren’t lamenting it because “Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics.” No, most of them (like my friends list) were lamenting it because they’re actively working for the open acceptance of GLBTQ persons and goals into the church. This is what I’d guess. I could be wrong.

Having stated my critiques and observations, I do feel a responsibility to say something positive and generative. It’s always easier to criticize than it is to create.

I would simply state I believe Christians should seek to influence our culture. And if we seek to influence our culture, we must constantly be aware of our goals and our methods to make them subject to the way of the kingdom of God.  Our actions should include everything from praying for certain leaders locally and in our church families and all the way up to national campaigns to organize our society.

Here are some examples:

I’ve worked with a local faith and justice organization here in Cincinnati in the past. We didn’t pick typical conservative issues to work at. We started with opening up access to jobs for ex-convicts in our society so they weren’t given an unofficial life sentence. We lobbied Cincinnati City Council to change the city code for hiring to open up access.  We succeeded. Persons might call that a liberal political desire. We didn’t care. We believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I’m connected with others in Cincinnati who have some questions about the downtown redevelopment of our city. We see lots of money being spent and city ordinances and zoning decisions being favorable towards the wealthy and powerful. We’ve started and signed petitions, written local councilmembers, and sat in on planning meetings to be more educated on the issue. Some may call these liberal political desires. We don’t care. We believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

In 2006, I voted in the affirmative for Virginia’s Marriage Amendment defining marriage as solely between one man and one woman. I would vote for it today. I don’t philosophically have a problem with North Carolina’s Amendment One.  It was poorly written and could have some unforeseen consequences as a result. I do find it strange that opponents called it frivolous and unnecessary to bring an amendment when state law already stated the same.  If the people of a state believe they should be organized in a certain way, they will want to strengthen their statement as much as possible.  Without an amendment, change is as simple as legislation signed by a governor.  With an amendment, it is significantly harder to override or change.  So you strengthen what you believe as a people.  Some may call such marriage amendments a conservative political desire. I don’t care. I believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I’m connected to a number of war-tax resisters who oppose their taxes going to fund the United States military establishment. Many of these people engage in political action to advocate for this cause. Some hold back a certain percentage of their taxes and give that money to organizations working for peace. Others give away every cent of money they make over the poverty line so no taxes make it to the Pentagon. A lot of them are still working and advocating for a Peace Tax Fund for conscientious objectors. Some may call that a liberal political desire. They don’t care. They believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I affirm the work of friends in the Consistent Life movement against war, abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia. Some may call this group a confused group of liberal and conservative political purposes. They don’t care. They believe their work to represent the values of the kingdom of God.

I’m a part of the work of Bread for the World, which advocates primarily in the federal budgeting process for programs for poor and malnourished people in our society. They work with all their guts to win a percentage of our budget to be given through various programs for the “least of these.” Public assistance, the SNAP program, children’s health insurance, and others are included. Some may call that a liberal political desire. We don’t care. We believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I believe that we should follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who in reconciling us to God sometimes showed radical inclusion and other times revealed a harsh, boundary-making approach. Both of those tactics were meant to draw people out of rebellion and into the life of the kingdom of God.

We should always at every moment ask ourselves two questions to guide our work:
1) Is this issue important and valuable enough to pursue at this time with the resources we have? and
2) What will we build into the way we communicate and advocate in our campaign to make sure we speak honorably so that we may dignify our opponents with what they deserve as our brothers and sisters?

It’s about time for Christians to abandon the cowardice of hiding behind conservative or liberal American political commitments and courageously face issues of importance carrying the values of the kingdom of God. Our work is the work of casting down idols in whatever arena of our society they may exist, including inside ourselves.

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