I debated whether to call this a love letter or an open letter. Love letter feels like a very southern white evangelical thing to call something that involves critical reflection and wrestling with concerns. But open letter feels too adversarial. We write open letters to celebrities with big platforms who might not engage us in direct conversation otherwise.
If you’ve been active in ex-evangelical Twitter lately, I imagine you already know what I’m going to write about. I’ve watched two personal mentors and close friends get quote-tweeted and dragged all over Twitter recently (“dragged” being the terminology used by those who are doing it): first Jonathan Martin and now Brian Zahnd. Jonathan Martin got in trouble for saying the Christian communion table is where oppressors and oppressed are reconciled. Brian Zahnd upset people by saying that gay people are welcome to participate in every aspect of the life of his church but they don’t do gay weddings (which is a very important aspect of the life of a church).
I felt some emotions seeing public rebukes of two men who have each poured hours of their time into personally encouraging me and building me up when my ministry was kicking my ass. Zahnd’s Beauty Will Save the World and Martin’s Prototype were incredibly formative for me and I quoted both of them extensively in my own book How Jesus Saves the World From Us. So that’s just to say that my mind is certainly clouded by some sense of personal loyalty to two people who helped me a lot in my journey.
I understand and agree with the critiques that were made of each of them, though I’m not 100% on board with the critique of Jonathan. I do think it’s easy for those of us with privilege to be overly facile about the reconciliation of oppressed and oppressor. A big theological stumbling block for me is thinking about what I will do if I have to face the church basketball coach who molested me after this earthly life is over. If Jesus says now come on, Morgan, be a good sport, I might punch him in the face.
At the same time, I’m not willing to say that the goal of reconciliation is itself inherently problematic. We just shouldn’t be glib about it. As the survivor of the most brutal physical violence any human could endure which was itself representative of the acute suffering he has always experienced in and through every victim of human sin as the divine core of creation, Jesus uniquely has the authority to broker restorative justice.
I believe that the safety of survivors is God’s priority, which is why I reject any blithe presumption of universal salvation, but I also believe that justice is supposed to be restorative rather than punitive and that the perfect outcome for humanity would be complete healing and reconciliation for everyone. So I find myself to be on board with both Jonathan’s statement about the communion table and the critiques that were made of it.
With regard to Brian, I get why people jumped all over him. To queer ex-evangelicals who have been deceived and manipulated by evangelicalism for so long, this seemed like the epitome of the evangelical bait and switch. It makes sense that there would be a lot of anger to see it happen again.
I do think it’s important to make a distinction. If we’re going to be advocates of church clarity, let’s seek clarity in how we talk about it. Unlike the pop-evangelical megachurches like Hillsong, Brian did not hide his non-affirming position; he articulated it straightforwardly. A precise critique would not say that’s he’s lying or being unclear, but that his definition of “full participation in the life of the church” isn’t valid.
I’m not going to defend either Jonathan or Brian, and I don’t think they would expect it of me. They’re used to getting in trouble with Christians of every possible perspective for all kinds of reasons. Furthermore, having worked in various social justice movements for the past twenty years, I understand that public pressure campaigns and social media “call-outs” are not about attacking individuals personally but about building solidarity and political power for marginalized people who gain their voice in the process.I do think that both Jonathan and Brian will continue to play a very important role in detoxifying white evangelical Christianity. It’s awesome when influential white evangelicals like Rachel Held Evans go all-in on inclusivity. At the same time, I also think that God is working through multiple fronts to make the church less toxic, whether it’s my conservative friends Alan Noble and Derek Rishmawy, who promote a less terrible version of Calvinism, or moderates like Greg Boyd, Bruxy Cavey, and Brian Zahnd who retain some conservative evangelical beliefs but reject the most misanthropic, nihilistic accounts of God’s nature.
So I’m not at all wanting to silence anybody from speaking their truth and rebuking views that have caused them harm on account of my having felt some feelings about seeing my friends get criticized. I do want to say gently that I hope we can speak our truths without getting consumed by malice for those who are not on the same page with us, even if we have been harmed by their theology. Not because powerful men with big platforms need to be protected from criticism, but because we can be spiritually damaged by malice, even if it comes from a valid place.
So here’s the concern part of my love letter. I read someone tweet that their spiritual gift is dragging white straight men. I know it was tongue in cheek and I certainly don’t want to pick on this person whose name I’ve forgotten. But it got me thinking about my own journey. I’ve had seasons of life where my only spiritual practice was raging against white evangelicals. In the process of writing my book that was supposed to be about how toxic those white evangelicals were, I discovered my own toxicity.
Righteous judgment is spiritually intoxicating whether we’re evangelicals railing against worldly debauchery or ex-evangelicals railing against evangelical misanthropy. Critique and judgment are the same thing; let’s not pretend that they aren’t and let’s not pretend that judgment isn’t a necessary part of fighting for justice. I’m not trying to make a moral equivalency. I’m just saying that judging others as our primary spiritual practice can damage us, regardless of how valid or invalid our judgment is.
I have no idea what other ex-evangelical tweeters do with the rest of their lives off Twitter; we are mostly anonymous avatars to each other. Hopefully you all have rich, life-giving spiritual daily practices that fill you with joy, hope, and peace. But I worry that some of you are drinking only from the well of rage, because I know how emotionally satisfying it is to rip white evangelicalism to shreds and snort up all the retweets like a line of coke.
The joy of taking people down on social media is not a solid foundation for spiritual identity. I know that many ex-evangelicals have decided they’re done with Christianity. I suspect that it’s necessary and valid and healthy to have a season of rage and deconstruction. Only you know yourself well enough to discern whether you’ve binged too much on rage and need to find something more life-giving to give you spiritual sustenance. But it’s something worth examining in yourself.
I write all these things because I care immensely about the ex-evangelical movement and I worry that we’re like Israelites wandering lost in the Sinai peninsula unable to find the promised land. If our only basis for community is shared rage, then our movement will burn out. It’s hard because we’ve scattered in such a variety of spiritual directions. I think there’s a need for ex-evangelicals like me who want to stay Christian to have a specific sub-community where we’re not held back from working out our beliefs by the pain of those who cannot stomach any Christian theology anymore. For example, grace is still a very fundamental value for me; some ex-evangelicals seem to view the concept of grace as irredeemably toxic when it has to do with anyone who isn’t marginalized.
So if any of this speaks to you, that’s awesome. If you’re thinking that white straight men like me just need to STFU, that’s cool too. Here are some life-giving, compassion-filled spiritual teachers who aren’t white straight men that you should follow if you don’t already: Alicia Crosby, AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez, Teresa Pasquale-Mateus, Jade Perry, Jarrell Wilson, Kenji Kuramitsu.
Find joy, hope, and peace somewhere. Don’t let Twitter be everything.