Fear and Danger: Responding to the SBC's Richard Land

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In last week's column, I said this about Fundamentalists:

I know from my heritage that they are good people, sincere, kind-hearted, and well-meaning. They don't think of themselves as extremists because they can always look to their right and see people more extreme than they. (And, of course, nearly everyone to their left seems extreme, too.) As a result, they see themselves as the moderate ones, and the rest of us are extremists (as, I think, nearly all of us do—most extremists are the last to know they're extremists). When people call them extremists, directly or by innuendo, they feel persecuted and insulted. They click into a victimization narrative which prompts them to become . . . let me say, instead of "even more extreme," "even less moderate."

I didn't expect such a vivid example of a victimization narrative to come up within the same week. But Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has provided such an example.

He told his radio listeners that "gay rights activists" are . . .

. . . recruiting down in the grade school levels. They're recruiting people for homosexual clubs and it's really child abuse is what it is . . . [T]hey are trying to brainwash our children in the public schools . . . [T]hey want to destroy marriage . . .

This kind of rhetoric is appalling and offensive to all of us who have gay family members and friends, not to mention those of us who are outspoken in seeking equality for them. We know that these kinds of statements are false generalizations, even viciously so. Sadly, though, they aren't uncommon.

Then comes the victimization narrative. According to Dr. Land, "The alternative is not live and let live—it is the marginalization and the ostracizing of people of traditional faith." Those of us who are trying to protect gay people from marginalization and ostracizing are, he asserts, trying to "reduce [Christians] to the level of the Ku Klux Klan."

So there it is: gay people and their allies are not simply wrong. They're out to hurt "people of traditional faith." They're out to render Christians as extremists.

Now I hope Richard Land is simply misguided, that he is sincerely afraid, because if he's not, if he's manipulating people with manufactured fear, that's frighteningly dangerous.

But at this moment, as I call attention to his rhetoric and to the victimization narrative that he is promulgating among his radio listeners, am I not becoming to him, and them, just another voice that's trying to marginalize him, and them?

And if I alert people like me to what seems like threatening language like this, am I not just inviting them to adopt a victimization narrative?

And if Christians like me become more and more afraid of Christians like Dr. Land, and Christians like Dr. Land become more and more afraid of Christians like me, where will that vicious cycle lead?

So what do we do when people feel threatened, cornered, and afraid, and in their fear, they become dangerous to others, who in turn become threatened, cornered, and afraid? If we call them out as dangerous, they feel more afraid, which potentially makes them even more dangerous. But if we don't call them out, they're still afraid and potentially dangerous. So what do we do?

I don't know. Except for this. I want to assure Dr. Land (and people who feel as he does) that I know many, many gay people, and many, many "gay rights activists," many of them Christians like me. Not one of us wants to recruit heterosexuals—adults or children—to be homosexual. Not one of us wants to brainwash children in public schools or anywhere else. Not one of us wants to destroy marriage. Might there be someone out there who feels this way? Perhaps, but painting us all with that same brush would be like painting all people like Dr. Land as equivalent to the Ku Klux Klan.

Speaking of the Ku Klux Klan, they used to accuse African American and Jewish people and their allies of plotting horrible things against white people. Now we know those accusations were false. So because I want Dr. Land to have the freedom to disagree with people like me freely and openly—without being compared to the Klan—I appeal to him and his friends to stop using rhetoric that makes those comparisons seem more likely.

We need the freedom to disagree—openly and even vigorously—but when we click into victimization narratives, we run the risk of becoming dangerous to one another. So, Dr. Land, be not afraid. Let's disagree. But let's agree not turn ourselves, or one another, into victims.