Being Civil Does Not Mean Selling Out the Underprivileged

[Note: For an update, please see my followup post, Walking the Walk: In Which Tony Jones Makes Good.]

I’ve written before about the importance of civil discussion, and about reservations I have about the widespread use of shame as a tactic for effecting change. But just as abusive name calling is a problem, so too is relativism, especially when the rights and lives of underprivileged groups are at stake.

Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. Tony Jones is a progressive Christian blogger here at Patheos. He and I have had some interesting dialogue in homeschooling in the past. Anyway, he is currently at a conference in Malaysia and on Friday wrote a post about how he answered a Malaysian pastor’s questions about his views on homosexuality. After expressing concerns about the history of cultural imperialism in the American church, he finishes his post as follows:

After explaining that I am a strong advocate for full inclusion of all persons at all levels of church leadership, and that I also advocate for full, legal marriage for gay and lesbian couples, I said something else. I said that as an American Christian, I realize that this puts me at odds with much of the rest of the world. …

I think there’s no quick and easy remedy for this. Those of us in America who are allies are following out consciences and our best interpretations of the Bible and the Christian tradition, I said, and he is doing the same in his context. I asked him to afford me the benefit of the doubt, and I would do the same for him.

No one converted yesterday. I didn’t recant my stance on sexuality, and he didn’t become an ally. But he did pull up a chair next to me at lunch, and we sat together again at tea. He even intimated that if I come back, he might ask me to preach at his church. To be honest, I think that I made a friend yesterday. I hope that I did.

I understand Tony’s desire to avoid the cultural imperialism the American church has been so heavily tainted with in the past. He didn’t want to use his position as an American pastor to dictate to third world pastors as has been done so often in the past. I get that, and that’s extremely admirable.

But here’s the thing. Tony could only say what he did because he is straight. In his post he speaks glowingly about how he avoided American cultural imperialism and made a friend while in Malaysia sodomy is still punishable by twenty years in prison and whipping. He looked into the face of an anti-gay Malaysian pastor and said “I have my views, but you have yours.” If he had been gay, he would have had other things to worry about. If he had been gay, making that friend would not have been possible. And because of that, reading Tony’s post left a sour taste in my mouth.

It is absolutely true that making personal connections like this is critical in winning hearts and changing minds, and I definitely think saying things like “I understand that you are doing what you think is right” can be very productive. The thing is, you can’t stop there. The trouble is the “I’m doing what I think is right, you’re doing what you think is right, now let’s be friends” dance Tony describes above.

What if the issue had been slavery? What if Malaysia was a country with institutionalized slave labor? Would Tony have answered a question about his beliefs regarding slavery by saying “I have my views, but you have yours”? Somehow I think not. Or, what if women in Malaysia were considered legal property, and Tony had been asked about his views on that? Would he have fudged on that too? Again, I doubt it. So why here? Why tell anti-gay Malaysian Christian leaders “you believe your thing, I’ll believe mine” rather than taking an unequivocal stand for what is right?

Concern about perpetuating cultural hegemony should not stop us from being willing to unequivocally stand up for the weak, the persecuted, and the suffering. Human rights are universal. Should we be concerned about engaging in cultural hegemony? Of course! This is actually why I refrained from writing about the Indian rape protests as long as I did – their women’s movement must be their women’s movement, just as the movement for equality for women in Egypt must be led by Egyptian women, and so on. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see gender equality as a universal human right or that I don’t condemn patriarchy wherever it manifests itself.

What does this have to do with what I’ve written about civil discussion? Namely, I think that sometimes when a person argues in favor of civil discussion, just like when a person argues against cultural imperialism, that position can be interpreted as a sort of embrace of relativism. Or to put it another way, some people appear to think that adhering to civil discussion involves being willing to sell out the underprivileged. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Believing in civil discussion does not mean becoming mealy mouthed when it comes to what is right. It does not mean failing to call out and condemn evil and injustice. It does not mean fudging when it comes to the rights of the vulnerable and underprivileged. It does not mean embracing relativism at the expense of the rights of others. And I don’t think working to avoid cultural imperialism has to mean doing any of this either.

[Note: For an update, please see my followup post, Walking the Walk: In Which Tony Jones Makes Good.]

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