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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

The Conversation Our Culture Cannot Have, But Must Anyway

February 2nd, 2011 | 6 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

There is no understating the devastating nature of the tragedy last week in Uganda.  David Kato, a leading gay rights activist, was brutally murdered.  It is an unconscionable, horrendous event, the sort of tragedy that is not easily fit into the weightless transience of blog posts.

To be honest, I've already said more than I want to say.  I'd prefer to mourn the loss of another human and then fall into silence.  I really would.  If you look back through Mere-O's archives, since the Virginia Tech tragedy--where I learned my lesson--I have said almost nothing about the various tragedies that have since befallen America.  When a quake ruined Haiti last January, I wrote exactly one blog post exhorting people to pray and pointing them to a list of resources to give money.

I hate the endless spectacle of words that follows tragedies and how incommensurate they are to the reality of the situation.  While I am a wholehearted believer in the power of the internet to effect social transformation, I am an even more ardent believer in the power of prayer.  And when confronted by tragedies, I have attempted to make the latter my refuge, rather than the former.

Back in October, Dan Savage made national news by pointing out that "Gay kids are dying" to someone who expressed regret and sadness at the stories of gay kids who had been bullied.  John Corvino expounded:

If Christians would spend even half as much time denouncing anti-gay violence as they do denouncing gay marriage, I might have more sympathy for Savage’s letter-writer. But the denunciations of violence are usually tepid, and they’re too often followed by a “BUT.”  BUT we want to make it clear that we still think gay sex is wrong. BUT marriage is for a man and a woman. BUT we Christians are persecuted too, you know.

Back to Kato, when the news broke my friend Jonathan Fitzgerald  wrote a stirring piece on the harsh judgmentalism of evangelicals toward gays and lesbians that ended in this impassioned plea:

I’m calling for an end to this life threatening judgmentalism. I’m calling for a moratorium on debates over what qualifies as sin in other peoples’ lives. I’m calling for a change in priorities, a shift back to what we should have been doing all along. I’m calling for love, acceptance, and a global admission that we have wronged so many people. Ultimately, I’m pleading with my fellow Christians to change, to make a marked transition from being the most judgmental and angry, to the most accepting and loving. From being the police of others’ morality, to the bearers of others’ burdens. Peoples’ lives, it’s clear, are at stake.

Here's the painful reality to someone like me:  it doesn't matter how carefully I make the arguments, how vociferously I contend that people with gay desires are Christians, how rationally and civilly I try to make my case.   In a world where news stories dominate and facts are hard to obtain, the perception is all that matters.  And when the perception is that evangelicals hate gay people, every argument--of any sort--is inevitably one more piece of proof for the case.

Which means that even if conservative evangelicals did denounce anti-gay violence as often as we make the case against gay marriage it wouldn't be enough.  It's like fighting with your spouse.  When I'm angry with my wife, I treat even the nice things she says and does as implicitly spiteful ways of hurting me.  Even if I'm wrong--and frankly,  I almost always am--"equal time" is simply not enough for relational harmony to be restored.  I know he's controversial, but I am glad Marin's doing his thing up in Chicago.  We need more like him.

Look, I am wholly invested in efforts to have a civil dialogue on this issue and Lord knows I have tried to practice that here at Mere-O.  I have a lot of respect for the few vocal commenters here at Mere-O who have challenged my thinking on this issue throughout the years.   While I know intentions simply aren't enough, I have always tried to respond to the best arguments against my position rather than mucking about in the ideological rubble.

But we all have our "buts" and they are destroying the possibility of real, meaningful discussion about the question of gay rights in America and the possibility of meaningful discussion about the role--if any--of homosexuality within the church.

Read the final three paragraph's of Fitzgerald's essay.  His vague association between judgmentalism, debates over the morality of homosexuality, and Al Mohler's post insinuates that any moral judgment on the question that is anything other than affirmation is "life threatening" and tantamount to participating in the murder of David Kato.

It's nice of Fitzgerald to point out that the culpability we can attribute to the preachers who spoke in Uganda is "unclear and probably immeasurable."  But he trots right through that thorny problem with a "But..." and then proceeds in his final two paragraphs to lump just about every conservative evangelical who wants to say anything about gay marriage into a "life threatening judgmentalism."

Here's my point:  If overwrought rhetoric is harmful, then deploying overwrought rhetoric to counter it is just as harmful.  You say I'm taking the "life threatening" line too seriously?  I certainly am.  But that's the inescapable dilemma of blurring the line between our culpability for words and the bodily harm they ostensibly lead to.  And if my position is "life threatening" then I am in a position where it might be just for someone to physically defend themselves against me as a form of self-defense.  And by his own logic, Fitzgerald will be--ambiguously, at least--responsible.

Crazy talk, yes?  Yes.  But my real frustration is that Fitzgerald's plea for a moratorium on the debate about the morality of homosexuality actually destroys the possibility of real, civil discourse on the question.  Which is the opposite of what Patrol had set out to do. If rhetoric is powerful enough to kill people, then demanding that people stop speaking in a certain way is the equivalent of prison.  While it may start as voluntary, the logic is an illiberal one and once adopted it will be difficult to stop an involuntary suppression of speech on the part of those Fitzgerald disagrees with.

I've got a bit of a reductio working through here.  My goal here is to chase the logic where it leads and to point out the double standards.  I hope Fitzgerald clarifies his position and I'll link to anything he writes in response.  I take him seriously as a thinker and have a great deal of respect for him.  In fact, it's because I have such respect for him that I would love to see him clarify his remarks.  Because if he's right that rhetoric matters, then he needs to play by his own rules.

Let me say this in closing:  have evangelicals done enough to denounce violence against gays and lesbians?  Almost certainly not, especially given the contentious dialogue we're in.   Have I personally done enough to denounce violence against gays and lesbians?  No.

To me, it is self-evident that bodily harm or intimidation toward others on the basis of their sexuality is morally wrong.  But I am realizing that more than self-evidence is needed to make space for a healthy and civil disagreement on this issue.  Because I want to hold myself and Mere-O to a standard of discourse higher than anywhere else online—to be, as it were, “above reproach” in our public discourse—I want to acknowledge that shortcoming and say that I hope to remedy it.

This is a conversation our culture cannot have, but must have.   When I fight with my wife, reconciliation never really occurs until I drop my skepticism that her overtures and attempts at reaching out are genuine and remember that love "believes all things" just as much as it "hopes all things."  I believe that homosexuality is wrong.  My reason and my desire to be faithful to Scripture won’t let me think otherwise.  But I hope that gay and lesbian people will realize that the denunciations of violence that precede the “BUT” are genuinely grounded in real compassion that is motivated by our a sense of our shared humanity.  Because the possibility of a civil discussion may depend upon it.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.