Dear Brian --
Long time no see. It's been a while since your last book was published, and since then some radical things have happened. Most notably the conversation known as "Emergent Village" has run out of things to say; your last podcast over there was in June 2009; and the fateful "looking for new voices" post which most people interpreted as the end of the old way of doing things came up in December 2009. It's funny how everything must change, but I am sure there is much still coming into convergence for you.
Well, I'm writing to you because I was checking the calendar this month and I noticed that 23 Jan 2011 was just around the corner -- in fact, it's this Sunday. Now, for me personally, that's when the reminder for my mother's birthday pops up, but the reason it came up on my Outlook was that it turns out that this Sunday will be the expiration of a 5-year moratorium you put into motion back in 2006.
I remember it clearly as you said this:
Usually when I'm asked about [homosexuality], it's by conservative Christians wanting to be sure that we conform to what I call "radio-orthodoxy," i.e. the religio-political priorities mandated by many big-name religious broadcasters. Sometimes it's asked by ex-gays who want to be sure they'll be supported in their ongoing re-orientation process, or parents whose children have recently "come out."Which is a wonderfully-transparent turn of phrase from you. For a fellow with a more Generous Orthodoxy, you can certainly make it clear in a few words what sort or people you have no real affection for -- and what others should think of them.
Now, I say "sort of people" and not "points of view" because you followed that paragraph with this one:
But the young woman explained, "This is the first time my fiance and I have ever actually attended a Christian service, since we were both raised agnostic." So I supposed they were like most unchurched young adults I meet, who wouldn't want to be part of an anti-homosexual organization any more than they'd want to be part of a racist or terrorist organization.You know: because comparing "anti-homosexual organizations" with "terrorists" and "racists" is utterly objective language -- just statements of fact which we should take as passe news reporting. One has to wonder what it would take to see something you say in this vein get labelled as "digital stoning" by the Christian tone police if this sort of rhetoric gets a pass, as it did 5 years ago.
And that statement was further developed as you said this in the same essay:
Most of the emerging leaders I know share my agony over this question. We fear that the whole issue has been manipulated far more than we realize by political parties seeking to shave percentage points off their opponent's constituency. We see whatever we say get sucked into a vortex of politicized culture-wars rhetoric--and we're pastors, evangelists, church-planters, and disciple-makers, not political culture warriors. Those who bring us honest questions are people we are trying to care for in Christ's name, not cultural enemies we're trying to vanquish.And this was the second-most enjoyable part of your statement -- because I wonder if Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Chris Seay, and Shane Clairborne would say that they do what they do with whom they do it because they are not trying to "vanquish cultural enemies". I thought one of the explicit reasons you guys find common ground is said here at the Emergent Village site:
Our dream is to join in the activity of God in the world wherever we are able, partnering with God as God’s dreams for our world come true. In the process, the world can be healed and changed, and so can we.Right? The explicit objective for you guys is to change the world -- so you're not really that much unlike James Dobson and Bill O'Reilly as you'd like everyone to think. And given the kind of language you plainly want to use to say what you say here, it's a little self-effacing to reject the title "culture warriors." I mean: everything must change. We need a New Kind of Christianity (on or after 11 Feb 2011 anyway, when the paperback comes out). Was it really then such a transparent statement to say that you don't actually want change and you aren't seriously trying to shave people off the incumbent forms of Christianity and add them to your village?
Now, I'm bringing all this up because, well, here's how you put it:
Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about homosexuality. We've heard all sides but no position has yet won our confidence so that we can say "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and us." That alienates us from both the liberals and conservatives who seem to know exactly what we should think. Even if we are convinced that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex. We aren't sure if or where lines are to be drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn.You asked us to take 5 years off and to think about these things and see if we couldn't come up with something "windy" to say about the whole ordeal. Frankly, I think your alleged agnosticism here on the issue is well undercut by the way you frame the view that homosexuality is a sin, and by the way you frame the humanity (or the lack thereof) of those who would say so. But that's neither here nor there, because here we are, 5 years later, and I'm writing to tell you what some of us have come up with.
Perhaps we need a five-year moratorium on making pronouncements. In the meantime, we'll practice prayerful Christian dialogue, listening respectfully, disagreeing agreeably. When decisions need to be made, they'll be admittedly provisional. We'll keep our ears attuned to scholars in biblical studies, theology, ethics, psychology, genetics, sociology, and related fields. Then in five years, if we have clarity, we'll speak; if not, we'll set another five years for ongoing reflection. After all, many important issues in church history took centuries to figure out. Maybe this moratorium would help us resist the "winds of doctrine" blowing furiously from the left and right, so we can patiently wait for the wind of the Spirit to set our course.
First off: your public comments have not improved with time -- not on this subject, or any other. Your conceit about being "pastoral" rings both hollow and offensive because you're not a pastor and don't intend to be one. You are more of a rabble-rouser who gets other people to say what he is too sly himself to say out loud, like the fellow two weeks ago who is doing for the irreligious what Pat Robertson does so well for the pious, which is to whip up fear in order to make a call to action. So as we consider your words and the challenge you gave us, let's not pretend they were high-minded words of concern for the health and welfare of Christian love and belief: they were overtly words meant to scare people into being what you wanted them to be.
Second: the discussion itself is an interesting one because you seem to think this is a question which was unasked and unanswered in the last 2000 years -- when in fact most places in the West under Christendom (and all the places in the East under Christendom) unanimously have rejected the question as untenable. The longer I have personally considered this question as you have framed it, the less cogent the question becomes. It is based on nothing but your clan's assertions that the moral issue needs to be reopened.
Let's face it, Brian: what you're really saying in this discussion is that Jesus wasn't really speaking from the Jewish tradition of moral and ethical reasoning. If we're to be as generous as possible with you that's just wishful anachronism on your part -- but truthfully you find "science" and "philosophy" as compelling as whatever it was Jesus was on about. You may in fact be an advocate of Doug Pagitt's view that the bible is only one voice which needs to be considered in a community of voices -- and that, only as one of a past generation.
But that said, what is also interesting to consider as the 5-year moratorium expires is that the vast majority of all human religious expressions disagree with you -- I would in fact be hard-pressed to find one moral code which actually found what you are seeking to advocate for in its "to do" list.
Third on my list of items for writing to you today is that if you want to go the route of L. Ron Hubbard and start your own religion, I offer you that as a clear and cogent solution to the many problems you face right now. You've written a few manifestos, and a few books, and you have a legion of followers who are spiritual but not religious, and you also have experience with trying to make a conversation into something more -- and to paraphrase Edison, at least you now know one way in which establishing a new religion will not work. If you want to establish a religion in which there is no ethical or moral difference between heterosexual unions and homosexual unions, I say swing for the wall. Please establish that religion -- but please stop trying to make this into an issue about what Jesus would "really" do.
What Jesus would really do is take the list of sins found in the Old Testament and proclaim them all from a mountainside, making all people doubt that they have any hope at all of being seen as righteous before God, and then when he had their attention and their conviction under the law of Moses, he would tell them that God saves sinners who repent. And then he would get on a cross and die for the sake of the sins of world, and raise himself from the dead to prove he wasn't kidding.
All that said, you have asked a very significant question which I think deserves more than a reading of the riot act against your spirited rejection of God's law: how can an institution with as much history as the Christian church speak to people like homosexuals who think that they are owed the moral right to adopt the forms and customs of prior peoples even though those forms and customs are explicit that these things are not for them?
Since you asked, here's what I think:
1. Somehow, the Christian church has to become, as it is called to be, the enemy of sin and the friend of sinners.
See: I'm not foolish enough to think you believe there are no sexual sins. Nobody believes that. There's nobody, for example, that thinks that Charlie Sheen is living a fine life -- and it's not just because he's been divorced more than once. I doubt that even he thinks he's a fine person for his escapades, and I doubt the people he gets involved with see their experiences as things they are proud of.
And it's easy to say to Charlie Sheen, "fella: just try to keep your pants on." He's an easy target. But it is the easy targets that help us see two things precisely: first, that there is a limit somewhere to what is and is not sexually acceptable; last, that we can draw that line and not be calling for a lynch mob against those trapped in sin but instead call them out of their sin because it is in fact destroying them.
I really do get it that the current logic is that somehow "consenting adults" should have a right to do as they please in a free society, but there's Charlie Sheen, Brian. Does it seem right that he should live that way? Is it comprehensible that his freedom should also be that matter-of-factly dangerous? Now: even if I concede that many homosexuals are not that self-destructive sexually (and I suggest that if you spent any time in the past 5 years considering this issue, I hope you spent some of it considering this sort of data), are the only dangers in life the ones which cause us health issues?
You know: the sad and morally-reprehensible Phelps clan seem to be in pretty good health. And they seem to be reasonably-consenting adults doing what they seem to think is right. But what they do is beyond the pale -- because their only objective is to heap scorn on the objects of their wrath. And they do it for their own religious pleasure, Brian -- would you agree?
So we also know that doing things which seem right to us can also be morally destructive -- of others, and of ourselves if we believe in God as Creator and not just companion.
While this letter is already over-long, and I will not work out the full case in Scripture against sexual sins, I will say this: ignoring this conclusion about morality to align it to the current trend in one form of sociology or psychology is simply self-ignorant. It abandons your own conscience and its ability and motives for drawing moral conclusions for the sake of some other objective which neither you or I would care to name.
In this, it is the obligation of the church, which has a mandate from God to call sinners to repentance, to find the right words in English to say that every sin is utterly reprehensible, but the person who sins can repent and be saved. We must not be the ones who enable sin by telling the sinner, "You do not have any problems, only differences, and in this I can just listen to and accept you."
2. The Christian church has many idols to overcome, and it will be painful to overcome them.
I bring this up because I think it is an utterly-valid objection to the apparent selectivity of some forms of church speech and culture. For example, fat people are not called to repent nearly as seriously as atheists -- even though they are both serving idols, and in some sense, their bellies. Greedy people are not called to repent with any vigor -- there are in fact television networks devoted to promoting the idea that only the Christian faith makes one healthy and wealthy, and the coalition to call these people out to repentance is pretty loose and thin. Murderers are not called out by the church, Brian: if we can agree that killing babies is the worst form of rampant oppression on the face of the globe today, doctors who kill babies in the womb can find refuge in churches all over the place and proudly say they are doing good humanitarian work.
The English-speaking church has a great deal to repent of, Brian. It has massive gulfs of moral and spiritual blindness which need more work to clean up than if BP had spilled all that crude oil on it last year. But here's the thing: the fact that the church is not perfect now does not mean it does not have any right to speak to the few things it still has not unseated.
And indeed: the only way to actually repent of what is wrong is at least to start from what the few things we can get right. What if all the church has is the fact that Christ died for sin, and that sinners must repent or be lost -- not just alienated from God but cast out from him? Should it not preach that simple truth? How can any of the things wrong with the church be corrected if this is not the starting place of the religion itself?
There's no question that real change must take place for the church to credibly preach the Gospel to the sexually-sinful -- from the licentious to the merely self-involved -- but that doesn't mean the message that all sin is sin should be mollified or set aside until all the reforms are complete. It is in fact that message only which can turn the church from its vacation in this secular paradise to the hard and narrow way of the cross.
When you abandon that, you abandon hope for all the souls both in and out of the church.
3. That doesn't change the Gospel one iota.
This is really the key issue. Even if the church is full of sinners -- and it is, as it ought to be -- the Gospel does not change, because it is not about what we can possibly do for ourselves or others. The Gospel is, and has always been, that at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly; God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That is: my problem is not that I have to accept who I am because this is exactly what God made me to be. My problem is that I am actually wretched, and I do things I do not want to do, and what I say I really want to do I cannot do. So I must cry out -- if I am not utterly deceived by my own desires -- "Who can save me? Can anyone save me?"
When we stop believing that, and stop declaring that, we are doing something reprehensible, Brian -- far worse than racism and terrorism. We are doing something which actually makes it easy for someone else to die forever, and never to see Christ as God's Son and our Savior -- but only as a final judge who will condemn them for their foolish belief that their pleasure right now was the most important thing.
So given my own sense of compassion, Brian, I end this letter to you plainly: after 5 years, I have considered this thing, and because of it, I call you to repent. Turn away from your cleverness, and your passive-aggressive moral intimidation of others, and your preying upon people who want to be seen as smart and cool and somehow also "spiritual", and turn to Jesus who is no longer hanging on a cross but justly seated at the right hand of the Father -- and repent.
Repent, Brian. Make that your new kind of Christianity -- the kind which the martyrs died for, and to which the abjectly-lost have run for millennia. I say it for your sake, and for the sake of the many you lead and mislead.
And I leave it to you in Christ's name.