Compassion is Complicated

Or, My Heart is Very Tired

Richard Stearns, president of World Vision

Richard Stearns, president of World Vision

When World Vision first announced that they were open to hiring Christians in gay marriages, I was intrigued, startled, and very nervous. I didn't completely understand the rationale behind it and I didn't think it was going to be received well by the evangelical community for various reasons, some thoughtful and some very bad.

That it wasn't received well is an understatement, and I became progressively more and more disappointed with the prominent reactions (by mostly white conservative men) to the news.

Here I suppose I should admit that I stand in agreement with gay Christian author / New Testament scholar Wesley Hill, who finds that the Bible's narrative clearly teaches that human sexuality is meant to be expressed in a lifelong monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and that this is meant for joy and human flourishing--even for those who find themselves attracted for the same sex, or who are never able to be married for some other reason. And Wesley is very honest that he did not "choose" a "lifestyle," which unfortunately still needs to be communicated to some conservative folks. The lifestyle Wesley has chosen is celibacy, in what he feels is obedience to Scripture's--that is, God's--narrative about what it means to be human.

His is a difficult road, and when we speak of listening to marginalized voices I wonder who is really listening to his, and others like it.

However, most of the disappointed reactions I read seemed bitter, angry, harsh, knee-jerk, and sky-is-falling, lacking in subtlety and maturity and grace and patience. I discovered, not for the first time, that agreeing with someone in certain respects can be as difficult and grating as disagreeing with someone; perhaps more so. And I certainly understood why those who celebrated the news were celebrating.

Then They Went Back On It

What was initially confusing and difficult has now become a depressing morass of contradictions and shrill accusations. 

I am left feeling very tired and wondering how much longer any space will be held open on this subject for genuine nuance and dialogue, or if perhaps that space has closed and it is only now becoming apparent to me. I am left wondering if anyone who holds any position with respect to this situation and the underlying questions about the relationship between the LGBTQ community & the church is willing to practice the basic charity of seeking to understand their opponent's argument at its best, even if their opponent fails to articulate it that way (intentionally or not).

Many on the "conservative" or "traditional" side of this question have long been prophesying that this will become, or has become, a watershed issue to divide faithful from capitulators. I fault them for being so zealous to read the times rightly that they wrote the times themselves. 

Many on the "liberal" or "progressive" or "ally" side of this question have long been unable to countenance the idea that a viewpoint like Wesley Hill's could come from anywhere but homophobia. I have seen him, and others who question reigning dogma like my friend Brandon Ambrosino, accused of self-loathing and of providing ammunition to homophobes.

Conclusion: Questions and a Quote

So what I want to do is pose some questions that are still ringing around in my head and in my heart after a tumultuous few days.

1. Why can't Christian churches selectively partner with parachurch organizations even if those organizations have hiring standards with which they disagree? Doesn't this actually help reinforce the crucial distinction between church and parachurch?

2. Why, in general, do so many write so quickly and so angrily?

3. Why was it so difficult for some to take World Vision at its original word and engage in constructive thought experiments rather than immediately condemn?

4. Why did many Christians think it was a good idea to express their outrage by making impoverished communities and families suffer through the loss of their support?

5. Why do so many do such a bad job of adequately and charitably understanding others' positions before becoming angry and responding to them? For instance: why were some 'conservatives' so quick to bypass World Vision's original (admittedly muddled) rationale in favor of their own diagnoses? Why were some 'progressives' so quick to blame opposition to this on homophobia, rather than engaging actual arguments? Why do so many conservative evangelicals write and tweet with alarmist and gatekeeping tendencies? There are notable exceptions to this lack of nuance but they seem to grow sparser.

6. Why, at the core of all this, does it seem that many voices continue to be marginalized? Scripture's own voice is marginalized on different altars, such as the altar of shallow interpretation ("only eight or nine verses in the Bible deal with homosexuality," which is a misunderstanding of how we hear the Bible on any subject at all) or the altar of alarmist tribalism ("Farewell, World Vision"). Nuanced and careful voices like Wesley Hill or Eve Tushnet are marginalized because they don't comfortably fit anyone's narrative.

On that note, here is that quote:

What we need are three-dimensional stories—stories that highlight the successes and the failures of our churches, without downplaying either one. The culture wars tempt us toward one-sidedness; if we’re on the conservative side, we want to deflect the charge of homophobia, and if we’re on the liberal side, we want to expose the dangers of fundamentalism. But the truest stories rarely lend themselves to such strategies, and defensiveness is never the best, or most effective, apologetic approach. [read the whole post]