When Christian Gatekeepers Attack

When Christian Gatekeepers Attack July 17, 2017

Dave Gushee writes about last week’s Eugene Peterson debacle as someone with first-hand experience of what it’s like “When the evangelical establishment comes after you.” It’s not a pretty story:

Eugene Peterson discovered painfully that the evangelical establishment will immediately seek to destroy anyone who breaks with their understanding of orthodoxy on LGBTQ issues.

Nothing he did before mattered. Nothing else he believes mattered.

The guns were turned on him, posthaste, in a choreography of rejection as public and painful as possible.

This has happened so many times before that the real wonder of events last week was that Rev. Peterson somehow did not anticipate that it would happen to him. …

This is evangelical nuclear deterrence, and it works very well most of the time to beat wonderers and wanderers into submission.

But when it fails, and someone strays, those body blows from former evangelical friends are enough to make most anyone shake at the knees.

He cites the example of World Vision, a huge evangelical institution that does top-notch relief and development work around the world. A few years ago, World Vision briefly revised its employee benefits to include same-sex couples. The gatekeeper backlash was fierce — with tens of thousands of evangelicals cutting off support and ending their “child sponsorship” arrangements with the agency. World Vision soon backtracked, offering the same kind of groveling apology that Eugene Peterson quickly performed last week.

Gushee doesn’t mention the recent experience of InterVarsity, the evangelical campus ministry, which traced the same path recently — bowing to the gatekeepers and retracting the powerful, spirit-led witness of its Urbana conference focused on support for the claim that Black Lives Matter. (Yeah, see, it’s not just the anti-gay thing. The gatekeepers also won’t allow white evangelicals to make even the bare-minimum statement that “Black Lives Matter.”) Nor does he mention the recent ritual apologies demanded from and performed by Russell Moore, the very conservative Southern Baptist spokesperson who offended evangelical gatekeepers by criticizing Donald Trump.

The thing about such apologies is they never work. And also that they’re not really apologies. An apology involves the admission of wrongdoing, along with the offer to correct the wrong, thereby rehabilitating the status of the wrongdoer. But these apologies are not about rehabilitating the “wrongdoer,” only about reaffirming the authority of the gatekeepers. That is their function.

Peterson and World Vision and InterVarsity and Russell Moore all apologized, unconditionally surrendering to the authority of the gatekeepers. But none of them was subsequently restored to full standing within the gates of those gatekeepers. Their status is probationary and conditional — just as it always was, really, but now more explicitly so. Battering them into an apology made examples out of them, and that is what they become, henceforth — living examples of what happens when you dare to buck the Powers That Be.

Which one do you think sells more books?
Which one do you think sells more books?

Gushee goes on to recount his own experience on the receiving end of this tribal-gatekeeper “deterrence,” and to offer some wise counsel and spiritual advice for anyone else who finds themselves in that position.

He recognizes that these coordinated (and well-funded) attacks don’t ever stop. The gatekeepers of the white evangelical establishment are not the sort of bullies who will just “go away” if you ignore them. “Look at the persistent attacks on those who won’t be beaten into submission,” Gushee writes, “dissenters like Jen Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans.”

Those examples are important. Evans and Hatmaker, unlike Peterson, have stuck with their convictions. This is the right thing to do morally, of course, because integrity is better than duplicity. But it’s also the wiser and more practical course because, again, no amount of groveling and apologizing will ever “work.” Attempting to please people who, by definition, will never be pleased, is a fool’s errand.

It’s no coincidence that the clearest examples of “those who won’t be beaten into submission” turn out to be women. As women, Hatmaker and Evans were never permitted access to the kind of influence or power or livelihood that the patriarchal white evangelical establishment controls. To their great credit, neither of them ever really sought that kind of role. There’s a sense in which the levers of power the evangelical establishment uses to keep others in line don’t work quite the same way when they’re employed against those who were never allowed to get in line to begin with. (For another example, consider Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Tenure couldn’t save her job at Wheaton College, because there’s no such thing as tenure within the gates of the gatekeepers. But those gatekeepers were powerless to stop her from landing a better job at a better school.)

Such resisters also demonstrate a fundamental weakness in the scorched-earth ultimatums employed by the gatekeepers. “Apologize and get back in line,” the gatekeepers demand, “or be cast outside the gates.” That’s not a bluff, exactly, but it turns out there’s a big, beautiful world outside of those gates. To be cast out of the tribe is to learn again what every child learns half-way through every rendition of that viciously evil “children’s game” of musical chairs — the “losers” on the sidelines are having way more fun than the handful of bullies-in-training still out there squabbling over an ever-diminishing number of seats.

The more people who are cast out into exile, the smaller and smaller the population controlled within the gates becomes. The establishment closes ranks and expels Jen Hatmaker’s books from LifeWay, but they cannot remove her books from Amazon, where their vocal attacks do less to censor than to amplify via the Streisand Effect. And the more times the gatekeepers repeat this process, the fewer options remain there on the shelves of LifeWay, and thus the more likely even those within the gates are to turn to Amazon.

So I think in the rock-paper-scissors contest of integrity vs. power, integrity is ultimately bound to win out.

But, as Gushee describes, the path to that eventual victory will not be pleasant. The gatekeepers — infuriated by the challenge to their supreme authority, and frustrated by their ultimate impotence to suppress the truth — will employ every nasty trick and weapon at their disposal to tear down anyone who refuses to bow to them:

If you do decide to make the break, you have to be spiritually ready. You have to know what’s going to happen. You have to count the cost before saying anything. You have to understand that those who stand with scorned and marginalized people will be scorned and marginalized.

But he goes on to say something I think both Jen Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans understand — and something that Eugene Peterson has demonstrated he doesn’t:

You have to realize that whatever abuse you are taking from evangelical authorities is nothing compared to the abuse that LGBTQ people have taken from pastors, teachers, parents, and “Christian friends” every day of their lives. …

So don’t worry about me, or about the rough week Eugene Peterson had. Do worry about those LGBTQ Christian kids who continue to experience stigma, rejection, and even contempt in their own Christian homes, churches, and schools. Worry about what the events of last week taught them.



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