You Gotta Offend Somebody

You Gotta Offend Somebody September 5, 2017

John Fea may be right that something is changing the “religious landscape” of the United States but the thing may not be the “court evangelicals,” the one’s who provide spiritual advice to President Trump.

Consider the following.  Some evangelicals denounce both Neo-Nazi defenders of Confederate monuments and those who disobey biblical teaching about sex.  Other evangelicals only denounce Neo-Nazis and also object to evangelicals who defend biblical teaching on sex.

For instance, John Piper has been openly critical of President Trump for his response to the events in Charlottesville:

Of course, the President’s words (both in spirit and content) fanned the flames of conflict among those whose passion was white supremacy, those aiming at counter-demonstration, and the wider population concerned about Southern-cultural heritage. Mr. Trump especially touched the nerve of the concerned Southerners when he lamented the removal of Lee’s statue by drawing attention to memorials for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, saying, “You really do have to ask yourself, ‘Where does it stop?’”

My interpretation of that last question from the President is this: If you don’t know where to stop, don’t start. Which means this: the President is opposed to the removal of Confederate memorials. He did not say this in so many words, but that was the implication as I heard it. For the President to offer in passing a facile judgment about such a weighty and far-reaching issue for our nation was deplorable. His job is to help point the way to conflict resolution, not to cynically sweep the issue aside as foolish.

Piper also signed the Nashville Statement on sexuality and defended it fulsomely:

The Nashville Statement is a Christian manifesto concerning issues of human sexuality. It speaks with forthright clarity, biblical conviction, gospel compassion, cultural relevance, and practical helpfulness. There is no effort to equivocate for the sake of wider, but muddled, acceptance.

It is built on the persuasion that the Christian Scriptures speak with clarity and authority for the good of humankind. It is permeated by the awareness that we are all sinners in need of divine grace through Jesus Christ. It affirms with joy that no form of sexual sin is beyond forgiveness and healing. It touches the most fundamental and urgent questions of the hour, without presuming to be a blueprint for political action. And it will prove to be, I believe, enormously helpful for thousands of pastors and leaders hoping to give wise, biblical, and gracious guidance to their people.

Chris Gehrz teaches history nearby to John Piper, at Bethel University, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also identifies as an evangelical (and a pietist and a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a pietistic communion of Swedish extraction). Like Piper, Gehrz opposed defenders of the Confederate monuments and signed an “Open Letter” with other Christian scholars that expressed such disapproval:

​Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.

At the same time, the letter goes on to defend free speech and encourage those who oppose white supremacy to respond non-violently to demonstrations like the one in Charlottesville. Perhaps most importantly, Kidd and Hall “recognize that white-majority churches and denominations have too often lagged in discussions of racial injustice and inequality, or have even been sources of the perpetuation of white cultural dominance and racial injustice.”

I was especially happy to add my name to a document that — even more so than the Confessing Faculty statement that circulated earlier this year — spans the political spectrum. While national surveys find a growing partisan divide on the extent to which racism still plagues American society, this letter has been signed by at least as many conservatives as progressives and moderates.

But when it comes to the Nashville Statement, Gerhz worries about sending the right message:

The Nashville Statement strikes me as theology for the Age of Trump because it’s being thrust into social media for little purpose other than to energize allies and troll enemies — distracting our attention from more pressing problems in order to demonize minorities whose existence causes anxiety among the many in the majority.

It’s not truth written in love of people who share innate human desires for love, self-worth, and identity, bearers of God’s image who know their own shortcomings far more acutely than what others presume to judge in them from afar.

It’s red meat tossed to the hungry members of a passionate, but small base.

Gehrz qualifies that statement in a recent post since it turns out that explaining the Nashville Statement as “theology for the Age of Trump” was not quite as charitable to the statement’s signers as the charity for LBGT folks he advocated in his post. Still, he is worried about being needlessly offensive to people who identify as LBGT.

In which case, the lesson is that statements offend someone (and draw lines perhaps needlessly). What is missed is that signers of the “Open Letter” did not worry about whether Neo-Nazis or white supremacists would feel marginalized by the denunciations of Christian scholars. Of course, someone may well be wondering why anyone should care about such vile people. But when did Christians ever get a pass from showing charity or generosity to other human beings, or why would Christians ever want to portray other humans in such a way that they would never countenance the gospel? Imagine if the statement that the president of Gehrz’s church had ever written about white supremacists the way he did about gays:

We recognize the very real sense of pain and marginalization that can occur in our society around LGBTQ matters racism. I don’t doubt, whether intended or not, there are times Covenant churches, as others, may not have always been a safe place to ask questions and seek counsel. For this I grieve. As the church, our sentiment is not to fight a culture war but to love people. We believe it is possible to hold to our biblical view while acknowledging the humanity of all individuals, ministering to needs with pastoral sensitivity and graciousness.

Can anyone imagine churches being safe spaces for racists to work out their demons (not to recruit)? Can anyone, from John Piper to Chris Gerhz, imagine a group more marginal than self-identified racists? And has anyone noticed that the 81% of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump are not exactly getting a lot of charity in certain sectors of evangelical opinion? And have the opponents of the Nashville Statement displayed an awareness of those Christians who have lost jobs or face legal penalties for their convictions about homosexuality? Those questions do not mean that racists or defenders of slavery should be regarded as normal or average. But if you can think of Neo-Nazis as strange and abnormal, why doesn’t your fear of marginalizing human beings with some major warts kick in and prompt some love for enemies?

The realignment of the religious landscape in the evangelical world may be the one between evangelicals who worry about offending certain groups and those who are willing to offend regardless of the group.

Either way, offense happens.

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