Walking the Walk: In Which Tony Jones Makes Good

This morning I expressed some concern about a conversation progressive Christian Patheos blogger Tony Jones had with an anti-gay Malaysian pastor:

Tony Jones 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.

Only hours after I posted this piece, Tony posted a piece called “Malaysian, Christian … and Gay.” In that piece he explains that after his conversation with the aforementioned anti-gay Malaysian pastor, he decided to actively seek out and fellowship with LGBTQ Christians in Malaysia. And find them he did.

I visited three churches here in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, and I shared a message at each. The first, Tabernacle of Shalom, is a Tamil-speaking emergent church. The second, Eternal Harvest Center, is a Tamil- and English-speaking Pentecostal church, and the third, Good Samaritan, is a church for GLBT persons.

In fact, it’s the only GLBT-friendly church in this entire country.

They worship at 2pm on Sunday, [Pastor] Joe [Pang] told me, because “all the gays go clubbing on Saturday night.” As you can see in the photo, about a dozen were in attendance when I went on Sunday, although a few opted not to be in the photo because the stigma of being gay in this culture is enormous.

I arrived during the singing, which was in both English and Chinese. Joe then preached the second sermon in a series that he’s doing on the Holy Spirit. He cut his sermon short to interview me, and then I shared a message about the movement of the Spirit in the Acts 3. They told me that I’m the first straight pastor to ever visit their church.

As I wrote last week, I was asked about homosexuality repeatedly during my visit to Malaysia. In fact, I was quite surprised that it was even an issue here. When I asked about the church’s response to GLBT persons, Good Samaritan was mentioned. But no one knew anything about it — where it met, who was the pastor, or what it was like. I was ultimately pointed to Joe by some members of “Friends in Conversation,” the group that used to be known as Emergent Malaysia.

Well played, Tony, well played. That’s called walking the walk.

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What the Ruff, the Spotted Hyena, and the Cuttlefish Taught Me about Gender and Sexuality
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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • smrnda

    I read both posts on Tony (who I had never heard of before) but I still feel that what he’s done is to say “Well, I have some friends who are gay, and I’ve now made friends with someone who wants to legally restrict the rights of gay people! Don’t I deserve so much credit for being so enlightened as to dialog rather than condemn one side and support another!” I may be understanding the exact stance of the anti-gay pastor here (I can’t be sure whether the anti-gay pastor just opposes homosexuality or whether he’s more political in his opposition, but if you’re in a nation where it’s illegal to be gay, the ‘it’s just my opinion that it’s wrong’ becomes a political statement whether you like it or not.)

    I understand the need for civic discussion, but whenever a person who isn’t a member of a marginalized group starts patting their self on the back for engaging people across both sides of an issue, it just proves to me that this ‘I can have friends on both sides’ is a luxury that privileged people can afford since they aren’t personally in any danger from the effects of bigotry and discrimination.

    A comparison might be a white preacher from the antebellum days in the South who decides that he has both friends who are slaves, friends who disagree with slavery, and friends who own slaves and he’s hoping to improve things by his influence, arguing that his use of diplomacy is both the strategically and morally preferable option. It’s a superiority complex from a person who doesn’t have to pay the price of oppression.

    Perhaps I’m a bit more selective about my friends or confrontational by nature, but the friends on both sides is saying you can legitimately be friends with both the oppressors and the oppressed. To me, any ‘friendship’ of that nature is worthless – friendship with the oppressed has to imply an inability to be friends with oppressors. I can’t be friends with the bullied kid and friends with the bully until and unless the bully totally admits fault and quits bullying; if I tried the kid being bullied should tell me to take my ‘friendship’ and screw off.