Fred Clark posted on his blog asking “What if I’m wrong about the clobber verses?” He is referring to the point, which he considers a valid one, that he could be wrong.
That anyone considers this necessary to point out is itself striking, and says a lot about humanity. There are, alas, people who don’t seem to realize that they could be wrong.
But what I was most struck by was the assumption that, since you might be wrong, the conservative or traditionalist objector’s stance should be adopted as the default position.
That seems to me at best an unjustified assumption, and at worst totally and completely wrong.
Is there any statistic indicating that when the church has stuck to its guns about a traditional viewpoint – or what it believed was a traditional viewpoint – that it has been right more often than not? Are the number of instances where Christians are proud of their traditionalism greater than those which fill us with shame and embarrassment?
This is a major issue I have with the conservative approach to Christianity. Its way of reading Scripture has led to the defense of traditional cultural values or views on scientific matters that just happen to be embedded in texts produced within the context of those values and views – about geocentrism, about slavery, about women, and so on and so on. Again and again, it has produced an interpretation of the Bible, and a praxis based upon it, that Christians have ended up ashamed of with hindsight. Yet those within conservative Christianity never seem to ask whether it is the case that the repeated wrong results indicate that something is fundamentally wrong with their approach to Scripture itself.
I found myself thinking about the aforementioned conservative assumptions when reading Tony Jones’ recent piece, which recalls the scene from the movie War Games in which the computer realizes that the only way to win the game of thermonuclear war is not to play. I think the analogy he makes with pietism works better if viewed differently than he does. Or perhaps, it works better with a reference to lyrics from the Rush song “Freewill”: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
Conservative Christians view the playing field of contemporary society, and since they cannot know whether accepting gays and lesbians, or drinking wine in moderation, or doing anything that involves nuance, will meet with divine approval, they abstain from making any changes to the way they have come to understand and do things.
But “doing nothing” is still a “course of action” in a very important sense, and most people would agree that, if you lived in Nazi Germany and did nothing, you contributed through your silence to what was unfolding around you. That that is an extreme example doesn’t mean that the principle is any less true on a smaller scale. When you look away when a single blogger is being bullied and their family harassed, and say nothing because you happen to dislike that blogger anyway, or simply don’t care, then the difference is one of degree, to be sure, but not of kind.
And so treating the conservative position, of at least trying not to change (and that itself involves strenuous action and is never entirely successful), as the default seems to me to be precisely the opposite message I get from the New Testament. There they were pioneering, taking risks, translating the message, embracing those previously excluded, and in a variety of ways “turning the world upside down.” That doesn’t seem to me to provide any grounds for the assumption that sticking with the past should be the default approach to Christianity.
Returning to the topic of gays and lesbians that sparked Fred Clark’s post, the key question is this: Why do some people assume that God will be more pleased with risking being insufficiently inclusive than with being too inclusive? Why do they anticipate divine judgment upon being excessively, rather than insufficiently, welcoming, kind, loving, accepting, and many other things which Jesus was accused of inappropriately being towards people in his time.
I think the time has come to say that every stance has the risk of being wrong, whether it is labeled “conservative” or “liberal,” and to say that when it comes down to it, we’d rather risk being wrong by having the courage to change and act positively, than to risk being wrong by going with the default, traditional option.
Isn’t it as a rule better to risk improving things, than riskily wager that the way things are is as good as things can be?
I’ll return to Fred Clark’s post and give him the last word, since he manages to put these points so very powerfully and eloquently, and with just the right dose of sarcasm (and s I really recommend clicking through to read the whole thing):
Risk-reward analysis is a prudent and useful tool for many things, but not for ethics. If you’re contemplating whether or not to accept an invitation to go skydiving, then by all means contemplate the consequences, weigh the potential risks against the potential rewards, and then make your decision. But if you’re contemplating whether or not to do the right thing — whether or not to love — then such considerations really ought not to be part of the equation.
When this sort of calculation takes over ethical decision-making, I’m not sure it even counts any longer as ethics. It’s more like profit-seeking. That’s the dismal effect of the reward-and-punishment framework that has supplanted love as the defining crux of ethics for many Christians. When seeking reward and avoiding punishment shapes our decisions, then love is always displaced and diminished.
This is yet one more reason that Huckleberry Finn ripping up his letter and turning around his raft is, for me, a canonical text. Unless and until one can say, with Huck, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” then one will remain incapable of love.
When my inquisitors seek to remind me of the consequences of “what if you’re wrong?” they have a very specific set of consequences in mind. What they really mean, in other words, is not so much “what if you’re wrong?” but “what if we are right?”
So it’s not really a question as much as a statement — another reiteration of their claims in the hope that they might somehow become more persuasive by brute repetition. And along with that statement comes a kind of a threat: “Woe unto them that call evil good.” (Isaiah wasn’t talking about homosexuality there, but was condemning those who “join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you.” But the prophet’s phrase and his denunciation in the same passage of “you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight” are an apt summary of my inquisitors’ criticism of my argument here.)
I appreciate the severity and the gravity of what they’re suggesting, but I have a hard time following how this is supposed to play out. I’m trying to imagine the scenario of my standing before the throne of God on the day of judgment and hearing God say: “Depart from me, for thy mercy and love exceeded mine own, and thou has accorded too much dignity to these, my children.” Or would it just be, “Depart from me, for I was gay and you did not condemn me and demand I repent”?
I mean, I’ve read that scene, so I know what comes after “depart from me” in that story, but that doesn’t help me imagine the script here.
I’m also not frightfully concerned with the supposed spiritual danger to which I’m allegedly exposing LGBT people. I understand the argument — that I should be demanding repentance instead of offering affirmation, that my love must be moreconditional. But let’s face it, if things work the way my anti-gay critics say they do, then those folks are already cosmically screwed and nothing I say or do will really change that. I suppose, if this crypto-Pelagian scheme is correct, that if we really crank up the misery in this world, then there’s a slight chance that a marginal few people might be coerced into the life of self-loathing celibacy that could save their eternal souls. I get the strategy there. But for the vast majority, that can’t and won’t change the unchangeable fact that they’re apparently predestined to God’s special Hell for Queers.
And, well, if that’s what inevitably awaits them in the next life, then the least I can do is try to reduce their misery a bit in this one. It seems kinder to extend to them here the grace that God will ultimately rescind and thus to allow them at least a measure of happiness in this world.