To ban or not to ban

That is the question. . . .I think it’s good for people to hear from those who disagree with them. I believe in freedom of expression and freedom of conversation. Contrary to what some of you realize, I have banned people from this blog, those who kept throwing in racist comments or obscene language. Some of you have asked me to ban different commenters for being offensive in various ways. I have sometimes admonished the offenders, but I have resisted blocking them from participating in the discussions. But now I have heard in one of the comments (somewhere past 400 in the “Where are the Lutherans” thread) a new consideration. Some commenters, it was said, bring out the worst in some of you, to the point of making you sin in your reactions. That frames the issue differently, not in terms of rules but in effect, not focusing on a person’s misbehavior in isolation but on the harm it does to others, thinking in terms not of abstractions but in love of neighbor.

So what do you think? Should I ban participants in this blog with greater frequency? Are any of you being harmed morally or spiritually by anyone who comments here (no names need be mentioned)? Not just offended but tempted to uncharitable thoughts and emotions?

We really do have a kind of community here, so I take seriously what you think. Can we take a vote?

The sociology of the gay marriage debate

Australian Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent,  looks at the sociology of the gay marriage debate, how the cultural elite are using the issue to achieve moral superiority over the non-elite.

From a sociological perspective, the ascendancy of the campaign for gay marriage provides a fascinating story about the dynamics of the cultural conflicts that prevail in Western society. During the past decade the issue of gay marriage has been transformed into a cultural weapon that explicitly challenges prevailing norms through condemning those who oppose it. This is not so much a call for legal change as a cause: one that endows its supporters with moral superiority and demotes its opponents with the status of moral inferiority.

As a result, it does not simply represent a claim for a right but a demand for the institutionalisation of new moral and cultural values. This attitude was clearly expressed last weekend by Trevor Phillips, chairman of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. The burden of his argument was to accuse Christians, particularly evangelicals, of being more troublesome than Muslims in their attitudes towards mainstream views. In particular he warned that “an old-time religion incompatible with modern society” was driving Christians to clash with mainstream views, especially on gay issues. Incidentally, by “mainstream” he naturally means views he endorses.

Phillips’s use of language implies opponents of gay marriage are likely to be motivated by “old-time religion”, which is by definition “incompatible with modern society”. From this standpoint, criticism or the questioning of the moral status of gay marriage violates the cultural standards of “modern society”. What we have here is the casual affirmation of a double standard: tolerance towards supporters of gay marriage and intolerance directed towards its opponents.

The declaration that certain values and attitudes are incompatible with modern society tends to serve as a prelude towards stigmatising and attempting to silence it. That is why the so-called enlightened opponents of “old-time religion” more than match the intolerance of those they denounce as homophobic bigots. . . .

In the US, questioning the status of gay marriage is often depicted as not simply a rhetorical expression of disagreement but as a direct form of discrimination.

Consequently, the mere expression of opposition towards a particular ritual is recast as not a verbal statement but as an act of discrimination, if not oppression.

As American journalist Hadley Freeman wrote in The Guardian, gay marriage is not a suitable subject for debate.

“There are some subjects that should be discussed in shades of grey, with acknowledgment of subtleties and cultural differences,” she wrote, before adding that “same-sex marriage is not one of those”.

Why? Because “there is a right answer” she hectored in her censorious tone. The phrase “there is a right answer” represents a demand to silence discussion. And just in case you missed the point, she concluded that opposition to her cause should be seen for what it was: “As shocking as racism, as unforgivable as anti-Semitism.”

It is worth noting that the transformation of gay marriage into a crusade against sexual heresy coincides with the cultural devaluation of heterosexual marriage. In contemporary times, heterosexual marriage is frequently depicted as a site for domestic violence and child abuse. . . .

Paradoxically, in some quarters the idea that marriage for heterosexuals is no big deal coincides with the cultural sacralising of a same-sex union.

via Where gay matrimony meets elite sanctimony | The Australian.

HT: Joe Carter

The ethics of evangelism

Representatives of the World Evangelical Alliance (evangelicals), the World Council of Churches (mainline liberal Protestants, plus the Orthodox [why?]), and the Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue (Roman Catholic)  meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, issued a document entitled “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.”  It affirms the importance of evangelism (a.k.a. “proseletyzing”), but sets forth some ethical guidelines when doing so.  You can download the document at the link, but here is a news account summarizing the points:

There are three main parts that make up the Recommendations for Conduct.

The first part provides a biblical basis for Christian mission, asserting the Christians should follow the “example and teaching of Jesus Christ and of the early church” in their witness and that “conversion is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit.”

The second section outlines 12 principles Christians are called to follow in witnessing of Christ in a manner consistent with the Gospel. These include: acting in God’s love; living with integrity, compassion and humility; rejecting any form of violence; and offering respect to all people.

The document concludes with six recommendations to all Christians, church bodies, mission organizations and agencies.

They are: study the document; build respect and trust with people of all religions; strengthen religious identity and faith while at the same time deepening knowledge and understanding of different religions; advocate justice and respect for the common good; call on governments and representatives to ensure religious freedom for all people; pray for the well-being of neighbors, recognizing prayer is integral to the Christian life and of Christian mission.

via The Christian Post

See any problems with this?  Can you think of other ethical considerations or applications that should guide one’s “witnessing” or a church’s evangelism efforts?

UPDATE: Christianity Today has a fascinating article on what these new rules for evangelism mean and what they leave out. I think I’ll do a post on that next week.

“Is” vs. “Should”

Tom Gilson observes the shift that has taken place among those who reject the exclusive claims of the Christian faith:

The world has a big problem with Christian exclusivism—the belief that there is one God uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ, who is the one way, truth, and life for all people at all times. Theologians and apologists have defended exclusivism’s truth since time out of mind, but never so much as in these pluralistic and relativistic times. Recently I’ve come to wonder, though, whether we’re addressing the wrong question; for I am hearing less and less that exclusivism is false, and much more often that it is immoral. The difference is crucial.

I would never dispute the importance of the truth side of the question. I am convinced that Christ is indeed the one way to God. I am equally sure that the truth of this exclusive claim can be defended, and that when someone questions its truth, that’s exactly what we ought to focus on.

It’s just that this is not always the question; in fact in my (limited) experience, it’s no longer frontmost on many people’s minds. It used to be they said, “You believe that Jesus is the one way, but that’s not true.” Now more often they say, “You believe that Jesus is the one way, and there’s something wrong about you—evil, even—for thinking that.”

Or to put it another way: nowadays when people ask themselves, “Should I believe in Christianity?” it’s no longer primarily, “should I believe it on account of evidence or reasons that may support it?” (an epistemic should). Instead it is an ethical “should,” as in, “wouldn’t it be morally irresponsible for me to accept this belief?”

via The Morality of Christian Exclusivism (Part One) » Evangel | A First Things Blog.

Mr. Gilson promises to make a case for the morality of Christian exclusivism, which I hope to follow.

In the meantime, how would you answer those–including virtually all of the “new atheists”–who oppose Christianity on these moral grounds?  Doesn’t–or shouldn’t– “is” trump “should”?   Or is the alleged immorality of Christianity beside the point anyway, given  the theology of the Cross?

Getting treatment

Ruth Marcus, writing in the Washington Post, notes that today bad behavior is thought of in terms of “addiction” and the need for “treatment.”  She prefers the concepts of sin and absolution:

The arc of modern scandal is depressingly familiar. Transgression followed by exposure, perhaps accompanied by a fleeting detour into denial. Then tearful confession and, finally, the inevitable journey to rehab.

Didn’t you know, from the moment the story broke, that New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner would end up checking himself in somewhere?

I don’t begrudge Weiner the therapy — he could no doubt use “professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person,” as his spokeswoman said in announcing that he would seek a leave of absence.

But whether or not Weiner manages to hang on, the episode underscores how rehab has become an all-purpose laundromat for irresponsible behavior, an infuriatingly easy substitute for accepting blame and living with consequences.

Increasingly, in our Rehab Nation, the concept of sin has been replaced by the language of addiction. Shame has been supplanted by therapeutic intervention. The disease model of misbehavior dictates that there are no bad people, only damaged individuals compelled to commit harmful acts. In this scenario, personal responsibility evaporates and virtue becomes an anachronism.

“This is not something that can be treated away,” Weiner said at his tearful news conference. One excruciating week later, Weiner was, yes, getting it treated away. The congressman, his spokeswoman said, “has determined that he needs this time to get healthy.” Excuse me, but this isn’t about Weiner’s health; it’s about his shameful behavior. . . .

Writing on Time.com, Maia Szalavitz, herself a former heroin and cocaine addict, described the dangers of defining addiction downward.

“If anyone can go to rehab when his actions lead to public humiliation, is rehab still a medical treatment or does it become some form of absolution?” she asked. “If every time someone behaves like a jerk and the reason behind it is addiction, doesn’t that mean addiction is just an excuse for bad behavior?”

via In Rehab Nation, sin becomes addiction – The Washington Post.

Of course, some bad behavior does need “treatment,” just as, theologically, some sin calls for spiritual counseling and pastoral care.  And yet simply medicalizing sin, as in Rep. Weiner’s case, seems like a way to duck responsibility.   How can we tell the difference?  What bad behavior calls for medical help and what calls for spiritual help?

“But it’s not really adultery!”

My old friend Karen Swallow Prior has some interesting observations about the excuses of both Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner and their underlying gnostic assumptions.  The good news is that the public is no longer buying it:

Media coverage of the story and the public’s reaction seems to indicate that we’ve come a long way in our professed sexual ethics since the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, circa 1998. At that time, then-President Bill Clinton insisted that oral sex did not constitute actual sex, and that he had therefore not committed adultery. Although 87 percent of Americans disagreed with Mr. Clinton then, much public discussion at that time centered on the exact definition of adultery, and which particular sex acts crossed the line (fellatio?) and which ones didn’t (cigars?).

However, with Weinergate (as the case, naturally, has been dubbed), the discussion is a bit more morally sophisticated. For the moral debate swirling around this scandal, besides whether or not Weiner should resign, centers not on the merely technical definition of adultery but on the more holistic, and even more biblical, idea of fidelity. If the Clinton sex scandal focused on the letter of the law, the Weiner situation seems to be more centered on the spirit of the law.

Neither the public nor the proliferating experts and bloggers seem to be buying into a bright line between actual physical contact (which Weiner denies) and online liaisons, despite Weiner’s attempt to cop that plea in his confession. In fact, a quick poll done by the Associated Press in the wake of his Monday confession found that many Americans say that it doesn’t have to be physical to be cheating. In another poll, “60 percent considered sending lewd photos over the Internet ‘to people other than your partner’ to be cheating.”

Like the public, experts, rather than being concerned with one specific sexual act, have been discussing the larger context of marital fidelity, one describing Weiner’s online behavior as “foreplay for an affair,” stating simply that “cheating is lying [to] and betraying your spouse.” Over and over, the experts are wisely identifying the litmus test for infidelity as the question, “Would you do this in front of your partner?” Many say the congressman’s conduct does constitute adultery or, at the very least, an “emotional affair.”

Both national sex scandals — first Clinton’s and now Anthony Weiner’s, with oodles more in between — reveal at work the old mind-body dualism that Christian tradition has worked hard to overcome. This dualism sees the human being not as an integrated whole self, but as a composite of warring elements, material vs. immaterial, physical vs. spiritual, and, in this brave new world of technology, “real” vs. “virtual.” The Clinton scandal emphasized the physical aspect, such as which kinds of bodily contact are considered adultery. Weiner, on the other hand, parses his transgressions according to this body-mind split: he acknowledges virtual liaisons, but suggests that his alleged lack of physical contact constitutes a difference in kind not degree.

In the space of a decade and a half, these two cases reflect a subtle transition of our cultural mindset away from a modernist way of thinking, one based in black and white classifications and definitions rooted in a scientific worldview, to a more nuanced (some would say postmodern) way of thinking that focuses more on the relationships and contexts that transcend the old categories.

via Her.meneutics: Anthony Weiner, Gnostic.


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