It’s now been 12 days since the horrific shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando that saw 50 people killed and over 50 more injured. We did not publish anything on this event last week out of respect for the victims and because in the aftermath of such horror, silence is often the wisest response initially. That said, we’re now beginning to talk about it. We began with a post by Bernard Howard on gun control. Today we’re continuing with a reflection on the evangelical response to the shooting.
Can we mourn together? Do we even want to?
In a piece written shortly after the event, Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission asked if it is still possible for Americans to mourn a tragedy together without being driven apart by political disagreement. Writer Zack Ford had an answer for Moore:
Moore is right, of course, that tragedies like the Orlando shooting are reasons for everybody across the planet to grieve and to try to reconcile how such evil can even exist in humanity. He is wrong, however, to assume that everybody would want to grieve together. Just like the sensational violence ISIS uses doesn’t excuse other forms of oppression, this one violent incident was not severe enough to ignore or somehow reconcile other ongoing abuses. Why should he be trusted to provide comfort to the gay community when he has a reputation for doing just the opposite?
So began a predictable round of responses that all more-or-less took the same basic approach: Anything less than full affirmation of homosexuality contributes to the creation of an unsafe public space for LGBT individuals, such that those who affirm traditional Christian teachings on sex are complicit in the crimes of Omar Mateen.
Ford was one of the first to make the point, but he was not the last to do so:
It’s no surprise, then, that subtle disdain for L.G.B.T. people would eventually be expressed more overtly. In the case of the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, it was devastating. The Christians I know were grieved by the massacre and they want to know how to help. The best thing they can do is repent for the ways they’ve helped create a culture that devalues L.G.B.T. people made in the image of God, and then begin to tell a better story about us in their circles. If everyone grew up hearing that God delights in gay people and we have gifts to nourish our communities, I do not think we would be targeted for violence or discrimination.
Still, sadly, it is always possible to find a few awful fundamentalists on social media saying that “gays deserve what they get.” A typical evangelical in the United States today has moved to a rejection of such hate speech or of any violence toward L.G.B.T. people, but not to a place of acceptance of gay marriages, or of L.G.B.T. people in religious leadership. Hateful statements obviously create a threatening environment for L.G.B.T. people, but even polite half-acceptance leaves L.G.B.T. people in a demeaning second-class position.
Over the last 48 hours I’ve come to know that I am fully and finally done accommodating religious hatred towards queer lives — whether from foaming mouthed extremists from any religious tradition, or polite, “respectable” religious denominations with which I most closely identify.
I’m done. It’s over.
How utterly pathetic that it took 49 lives slaughtered for me to pack up my “thank you for your point of view on why queer lives are not fully human” table and close shop.
For too long I have tolerated “Setting a big tent” and “Allowing many points of view” and “Dialogue” when talking about LGBT people as if our lives are up for debate and as if the jury is still out on our humanity, our dignity, or our being made beautifully in God’s image.
Finally, and most notably, the NYT editorial board:
It’s hard to say how many politicians take these positions as a matter of principle and how many do so because it has proved to be an effective way in the past to raise money and turn out the vote. As the funerals are held for those who perished on Sunday, lawmakers who have actively championed discriminatory laws and policies, and those who have quietly enabled them with votes, should force themselves to read the obituaries and look at the photos. The 49 people killed in Orlando were victims of a terrorist attack. But they also need to be remembered as casualties of a society where hate has deep roots.
For LGBT individuals this response is understandable.
In one sense, it is easy to sympathize with Ford and company. Given the failure of given forms of identity—family, place, trade, religion, nationality—it is natural that something like sexuality would come to be seen as the sine qua non of a person’s identity. If, to borrow from Hauerwas, I have no story except the story I chose when I had no story, then it’s no surprise at all that sexuality would play a major role in our identities.
So much of modern life screams out at us that we are alienated, isolated selves. In contrast, sex reminds us that we are not alone. It reminds us that our purpose as human beings is found in the giving of one’s self to the other. Sex, by design we should note, is inevitably a rejection of individualism. So it’s no surprise that it would also come to play the role it has in how many people understand who they are. For many it bonds us to another human being more reliably and certainly than biological family, place, or anything else.
We’ve covered this point before—the breakdown of local community and the traditional home economy made all that we’re seeing today far more likely, if not inevitable. (Indeed, you could, if you wished to be a bit cheeky, argue that the shattering of the domestic economy in favor of a post-industrial economy created a kind of “same-sex” marriage long before the Obergefell decision.) If we do grant such a significant role to one’s sexuality, then it’s not surprising that moral judgment of same-sex behavior would be received with such hostility. What Christians see as a limited condemnation of a discrete, narrowly defined set of behaviors is, to LGBT individuals, a far more pervasive, wide-reaching judgment on their existence as a human person.
Put another way, the argument here cannot simply be over questions of religious liberty or the licitness of same-sex acts. It has to be over the most basic questions of human identity and Christians must have a credible answer to this question, which almost certainly means we need an answer that critiques far more than just our sex ethics, but the modern west, and the industrial and post-industrial economy especially, in fairly radical ways.
The way forward for evangelicals is to actually do the hard work of reimagining the political and home economies. It is, to borrow language from Rome, to do the work of creating cultures of life to stand against the dominant culture of death that shapes and defines so much of the modern west. (To be clear, a true culture of life will not simply be good for Christians. We’re not talking about trying to recreate mid 20th century America in which we still had a de facto Christian culture but our economy was already radically set against the family and the poor. A true culture of life will be good for everyone.)
Evangelicals are mostly craven and don’t understand rhetoric.
One of the most common responses I have seen from younger evangelicals is an attempt to apologize for evangelicalism’s often messy and distressing past with LGBT people in the United States. While this approach is certainly sincere and well-intentioned, it is also enormously unhelpful.
Here is Sammy Rhodes:
In the wake of the Orlando shooting (which doesn’t feel like a strong enough word), amidst the shock and grief of how broken the world can be, one thought particularly convicted me. Honestly it was a tweet from author and lesbian Támara Lunardo: “Straight friends, especially you Christians, please know: We hear your silence so loud.”
I’ve been part of that silence. I’ve (often) cared more about my theology appearing “correct” and orthodox than I have about loving millions of LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
This is my attempt at an apology. I’m speaking mainly for myself, although I hope I’m not alone.
Please forgive us that it took Orlando to open our eyes to the pain we’ve caused by our silence and indifference. Our eyes should have been opened so much sooner.
Please forgive us for not standing with you against the evil of hate. As if somehow you deserved that hate.
Please forgive us for not supporting you in the face of injustice and inequality, not just as fellow Americans, but as fellow image bearers of God. We’ve worshipped our own comfort and rightness more than we’ve loved you.
Here is Joshua Rogers at Focus on the Family:
As the church, we could do so much better. We could offer a spiritual family that’s defined by radical hospitality to the LGBT community, one that acknowledges people’s sexual desires but isn’t fixated on them. It’s a place where we embrace first and then embrace some more and then step back and say, “Welcome home.” As John Perkins says in the film series, “For the Life of the World,” “You don’t give dignity to people; you affirm it. Hospitality is saying, ‘You’re significant. I honor you. I love you. You are under my roof.’”
That’s the kind of invitation the church has to extend to the LGBT community before we’re going to have any meaningful impact in it. But it’s going to require a level of empathy, curiosity, and vulnerability that won’t come naturally to churches that are committed to a defensive posture.
Finally, here is Michelle Higgins:
Did evangelicals hesitate to mourn the loss of life and health when terrorists struck a marathon in Boston? Did we feel the need to offer theological caveats before mourning the victims at an AME church? Then why do we hesitate to acknowledge that the attack at Pulse in Orlando was fueled by bigotry? Why make note of the things we disagree with before we allow ourselves to lament?
Our Queer families see us when we are absent. They hear us when we are silent.
Perhaps we evangelicals are silent – some refusal to acknowledge the whole identities of LGBTQ+ people – because we are bigoted terrorists too.
Our propaganda: circulating a petition to boycott Target. Our victims: image-bearers whose souls conditions are neither revealed to or controlled by us. We live as if faith gives us the right to direct people’s bodies. This is not faith-filled living. It is oppression.
And much like the realization breaking upon us in the current political climate: this is not evangelicalism. At all.
If you’ve observed evangelicalism for much time at all, these responses won’t come as a total shock. They are theatrical and manipulative, two adjectives that describe any number of evangelical practices in the past 25 years, not least our approaches to public worship, cultural renewal, and evangelism. Put another way, for many of us the only way we have been taught to be public Christians is by being theatrical and manipulative. (It’s worth noting in passing that this same tendency to embrace the theatrical and pursue a place of status with one’s neighbors is at the root of much of the evangelical support for Trump coming from an older generation of evangelicals. As Matt said seven years ago, the new boss looks a whole lot like the old boss.)
These apologies won’t accomplish anything.
Of course, what is so depressing and laughable about these pieces is how ineffective they actually are. To folks like Ford and Rodgers, these posts will come off as dishonest and manipulative given that none of the writers reject traditional Christian teachings on sex ethics. They say a great deal about how unfriendly and unwelcoming other evangelicals are toward LGBT individuals, and yet they nowhere address the fact that their own views are equally unfriendly and unwelcoming in the eyes of many LGBT individuals. Ford and co. are not interested in apologies or acts of corporate repentance for our unkind treatment of LGBT people.
The critique Ford and Rodgers make of traditionalists is not about our lack of personal warmth toward LGBT individuals. It is about the content of our theology. Rhodes and the others, therefore, have placed themselves in an impossible position. On the one hand, they are trying to establish themselves as being different than those Christians. On the other, they’re not actually disagreeing with the folks they criticize on any substantive theological level that matters to individuals like Ford or Rodgers.
And so they are in the impossible position that many millennial evangelicals are increasingly finding themselves in: Their instincts toward niceness, desire to be liked by their non-Christian neighbors, and sincere wish to do good by apologizing for (often real) failings of evangelicalism have left them completely at sea in our new political order. In this regime, people no longer care that much about being kind or tolerant of one another and are far more interested in uniformity on what those outside the church perceive to be an issue of basic human rights. And if you will not get in line, it does not matter how kind you are; you are part of the problem. Worse still, what naive evangelicals see as being winsome, those outside the church will increasingly perceive as being dishonest and manipulative.
To be sure, we ought to mourn and express our deep sadness at the tragic events in Orlando. Taken most charitably, that is what Rhodes, Rogers, and Higgins are trying to do. But here’s the thing: Evangelicals are already responding appropriately to the shooting. We don’t need over-animated apologies that end up saying far more than they ought to. In the 12 days since the shooting, I’m still waiting to see a respectable evangelical leader say something insensitive and stupid about the shooting. (If you mention Pat Robertson or anyone that has agreed to be on Trump’s advisory committee in the comments, I will refer you to the word “respectable.”)
Indeed, the only prominent, respectable Christian individuals that I’ve seen publishing insensitive, tone-deaf pieces after Orlando are Catholic writers at First Things. The evangelicals, in contrast, have been gentle with their words, encouraged people to mourn, and offered positive ideas for how Christians can help their communities, most notably by giving blood. (To see a sample of evangelical responses, read the Storify post I put together of social media responses to the shooting from prominent evangelicals.)
If the responses from those leaders are anything to go on, we don’t need the theatrical rhetoric of Rhodes or Higgins to tell us how we ought to relate to LGBT people—we’re already doing that. Certainly there is room for improvement here, but the very fact of the responses linked above suggests that our leadership is willing to do that—and they’re willing to do it without needing to indulge in the rhetorical excess that defines the posts from Rhodes, Rogers, and Higgins. Of course, the fact that we have responded so well to the events and Gushee, Rodgers, and Ford still are taking the position they are should tell us all that we need to know.