Ratcheting justice

Ratcheting justice September 3, 2014

Back in July, Brian McLaren wrote about the White House forum on Global LGBT Human Rights. McLaren called for efforts “to encourage religious leaders to move incrementally along a spectrum …”

He lost me at “incrementally.” I tend to flip a little mental switch whenever I see that word in discussions involving justice and human rights. I’ve learned that it’s almost always a dodge, an evasion, a “yes, but …” stalling tactic employed to put off doing what ought to be done and what needs to be done.

Incrementalism usually seems to be a cousin to the kind of by-standerish gradualism advocated by the white clergy of Birmingham, to whom Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Justice incrementalized tends to be justice too long delayed.

So I distrust that word and, therefore, disregarded the rest of McLaren’s post. For a while.

But I think that was unfair. What McLaren describes as “incremental” change is a step-by-step process, but he’s not asking us to be satisfied with any step along the way. And I find I keep going back to his description of that process because it helps me to think about how best to approach different people at different stages along the way.

Here’s McLaren’s four “incremental” stages:

1. Promote violence against and stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.

2. Oppose violence but uphold stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.

3. Oppose violence and seek to reduce stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.

4. Oppose violence and replace stigmatization with equality in the name of God and religion.

He’s specifically addressing religious leaders here, which is necessary because it is primarily “in the name of God and religion” that LGBT people are being denied justice, equality and basic human rights around the world. But I think the map he draws applies more broadly, so let’s consider that without the sectarian references:

1. Promote violence against and stigmatization of gay people.

2. Oppose violence but uphold stigmatization of gay people.

3. Oppose violence and seek to reduce stigmatization of gay people.

4. Oppose violence and replace stigmatization with equality.

This isn’t a good, better, best spectrum. It is, rather, a spectrum that runs from Monstrous to Awful to Slightly Less Awful to Adequate.

Remember that McLaren introduced this idea of stages or zones in the context of a forum on global human rights for LGBT people — in the context of things like Uganda’s efforts to pass a law mandating life in prison, or even execution, for LGBT people there. The Ugandan government sits squarely at “Zone 1” on McLaren’s map — actively promoting and carrying out violence. It would be a major improvement if they could be convinced to abandon and oppose such violence. “Zone 2” is still a shamefully unjust situation, but eliminating that violence would be a significant positive step.

Of course, even the fourth step there — “replace stigmatization with equality” — isn’t the New Jerusalem. That’s not perfect justice, but simply a return to zero — to the fundamental starting point, the prerequisite of equal treatment without which justice is an impossibility. To arrive at his fourth step is not really to have arrived — to have achieved some form of perfection or enlightenment. It just means you’re no longer running a deficit. You haven’t become an exemplar of perfect justice, but you have, perhaps, finally come to a place from which justice becomes a possibility. (Or, more hopefully, that you’ve come to such a place, but not “finally.”)

The modesty of such a goal shouldn’t make it any less urgent. If you think about it, the extreme modesty of such a goal makes it more urgent.

Let me further summarize McLaren’s four stages:

1. Violent exclusion

2. Exclusion

3. Semi-reluctant exclusion

4. Inclusion

“Many religious conservatives (Evangelicals and Catholics in the US) are in Zone 2,” McLaren writes. Those religious conservatives are likely to oppose and denounce the progression he describes simply because it is a progression. Anti-gay religious conservatives are likely to view it, instead, as a regression — a backsliding erosion of real, true Christianity and an incremental rejection of the authority of the infallible dictates of clobber-text-clobber-text-clobber-text.

“It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

I anticipate that response and worry, a bit, that McLaren’s description and discussion of this progression might wind up being counter-productive — prompting a reflexive defensiveness that will make those he’s hoping to persuade even more resistant to change.

But ultimately I don’t think that’s a problem.

What’s really interesting to me about the path McLaren maps out here is that I’ve seen plenty of religious conservatives follow this trail from Step 2 to Step 3 to Step 4. (I’ve done that myself. So has McLaren.) Yet I haven’t seen any at all heading in the other direction — traveling from Step 4 to Step 3, or from Step 3 to Step 2, or from Step 2 to Step 1.

It’s certainly possible to make the journey in the other direction, but it seems rare. There seems to be a kind of ratchet effect.

That’s how the Apostle Paul described it, too. “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” Paul says Jesus told him on the road to Damascus. Conversion isn’t geared for injustice.

Anti-gay religious conservatives here in America — white evangelicals and the Catholic hierarchy — are struggling to hold back the church, keeping it from moving from McLaren’s Step 2 to Step 3. They’re losing their grip, though, because none of those stages is sustainable or defensible as a place to stand for long. (Which is also why I’m not too worried about those advocating McLaren’s third step — semi-reluctant exclusion — as a Hegel’s Bluff “Third Way” resolution. That can’t last. They can’t stay there.)

Consider, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention. Richard Land was the denomination’s chief “ethical” spokesperson until 2013, and he used that platform aggressively to “uphold stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.” Land has since been replaced by the younger, friendlier face of Russell Moore. Moore hasn’t in any way changed the substance of the SBC’s official position on LGBT equality — he’s still very much agin’ it. But he recognizes that Land’s vehement anti-gay rhetoric could be off-putting, coming across as unloving and unlovely. So Moore has sought to soften the tone of that same position, emphasizing that this stance is simply a matter of obedience to scripture and that it doesn’t reflect animus toward the LGBT people being excluded.

Under Moore, then, the SBC is trying to retain its earlier Step 2 position while adopting the rhetoric of Step 3 — that of semi-reluctant exclusion. But that kind of rhetorical shift is hard to maintain unless it produces a corresponding substantive shift. We must be careful about what we pretend to be, Kurt Vonnegut warned us, because we become what we pretend to be. The SBC doesn’t want us to think it enjoys excluding LGBT people, and trying to convince us of that is diminishing its (for now, still-formidable) capacity for enjoying it. Thus the expedient pose of reluctant exclusion, first embraced in the hopes that it might preserve such exclusion, gradually becomes an actually reluctant exclusion. The rhetoric constructed to defend Step 2 points the way toward Step 3.

And Step 3 isn’t sustainable either. That which we do reluctantly we tend not to do well or for long. “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it,” Maya Angelou said, and once people arrive at the point of actually not liking their policy of exclusion, many begin to see the wisdom of that.

None of this is to say that progress is inevitable or inexorable or easy — see again the first sentence of that MLK quote above. But I also believe what Theodore Parker believed, and what he stated in a passage that was one of MLK’s favorites:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.


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