The culture wars were on full display recently as the president came out for gay marriage at the same time as North Carolina voted for an amendment to limit all partnership rights to married heterosexual couples. While the nation is fairly evenly divided on the subject the trend lines are clear. The nation is growing more accepting of gay rights. Some statistics even indicate a growing civic position for gay marriage even though one’s personal religious position is against it.
One of the things I have found interesting is the response from the gen x and millennials regarding this last edition of the culture war. There some excellent posts from among others, Rachel Held Evans(and here), Beth Ellen Cooper-Davis, and Justin Lee. What they hold in common is a powerful yearning to get beyond the culture wars themselves. This desire for a third way that is rooted in reconciliation and understanding is, well, understandable. What we are seeing is across the religious spectrum, the younger generation just has no use for the battle being waged by the religious right. Even the younger evangelicals are getting sick of this political expression of their faith. The attitude can be summarized by a single word. Enough!
The question of how do we reconcile is huge. The point that attacking one another doesn’t seem to be the answer is well taken. However, as someone firmly on the side of gay acceptance for faith reasons, and definitely on the side of extending equality under the law, I get troubled sometimes by the talk of reconciliation. I wonder how much of it is a reaction against the messiness, chaos, and conflict that such culture wars produce. When I think about my own hopes for the culture wars to end, it is often out of the idea that we must be able to appeal to our common humanity. I mean, can’t we all just get along? And then I am reminded by the words of Reinhold Niebuhr.
According to the scripture “the children of this world are in their generation wiser that the children of light.” This observation fits the modern situation. Our democratic civilization has been built, not by children of darkness but by foolish children of light. It was been under attack by the children of darkness, by the moral cynics, who declare that a strong nation need acknowledge no law beyond its strength. It has come close to complete disaster under this attack, not because it accepted the same creed as the cynics; but because it underestimated the power of self-interest, both individual and collective, in modern society. The children of light have not been as wise as the children of darkness.
One of the advantages the religious right has is that it truly believes that it is in a culture war. In war truth is the first casualty. In war the enemy is demonized and stripped of its humanity. In war there is no longer anything honestly resembling Judeo-Christian morality. In war the children of darkness are in their element where strength of power and might is what determines what is right.
While it is obvious that many of the comments by the Christian right were ludicrous lies, my favorite being that gay marriage leads to people marrying desserts and animals, it is too easy to dismiss the people who make these assertions. Cue John Stewart:
|The Daily Show with Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Endless Suffrage 2012 – States’ Rights Edition|
Let us be clear, a stupid lie is still a lie. Even if a comment is so easily deconstructed that it is laughable, it is still a lie, it is still another act of war. It is the destruction of human dignity.
Why I bring up Niebuhr is because one of the great weaknesses in the progressive church, and for liberals in general, is the retreat from morality. While I am put to shame by Justin Lee’s faithfulness, I can’t help but feel his type of response leads us into the realm Niebuhr labels as the children of light. He argues against seeing this in the strict moral terms of prejudice and bigotry, but rather through the lens of education. In other words if people just had the right information about what it means to be gay, if they just got to know more gay people, then change would happen. I believe he is correct in his belief that there is a transformational power that happens through real relationship. I also agree that on both sides of this struggle are human beings with all the complexity, beauty, and brokenness that the word implies. However, I don’t believe that it is a sufficient moral context to understand anti-gay bigotry. As Niebuhr points out:
They [the children of light] expect modern society to achieve an essential uniformity through the common convictions of ‘men of goodwill’ who have been enlightened by a modern liberal education…
The foolish children of light are always seeking to mitigate prejudice merely by championing the minority groups and by seeking to prove that they are not as bad as their detractors claim them to be. This procedure preserves the proud illusion of the majority that its “mind” is the final bar of judgment before which all nations and people must be brought.
How I read Niebuhr’s words into this subject is that while the oppression at hand is the legislation of anti-gay bigotry, the real issue is bigger. In other words the fate of human dignity does not rest upon this issue, but it rest within the moral context of who gets to determine and confer human dignity. This is what ‘rights’ are all about. The moral context is whether such dignity is conferred by God, or whether it is subject to the whim of the majority’s “mind”.
The culture war used to be about different races, now its about sexuality, and in another few decades it will be about something else, but its always about human rights and therefor who is considered human. The moral dimension of all of this becomes clear when we simplify the rights question to ‘is the image of God something that can be taken away by another individual or group.’ Once a group sets itself up as the final judge of the imago dei, it has usurped the place of God and becomes an idol.
We can agree and disagree on many things, even most things. We can love gay people, we can hate the sin and love the sinner, we can believe gay people choose to be gay, or that it is an essential part of who one is. What we must not lose sight of is that this is a moral conflict driven by a deep and dark idolatry that will not loose its grip without a struggle. Whatever side you may think you are on, the ever present and powerful seduction of idolizing one part of the human family over the other is the ongoing source of this culture war. It would be foolish to forget that there are those who take great comfort in this idolatry, and that there are those willing to use its power to hurt others.
I realize that the posts I listed are nuanced in their efforts to change the dynamics of the culture war and this is truly a great thing. This post is not in any way meant to discourage those efforts. I am also aware that in trying to achieve a peaceful reconciliation it would be too easy not to recognize the tragic spiritual depth of the problem. Whatever a third way forward might entail, it will almost certainly involve God’s heart breaking over the many ways the human race continues to divide itself against itself.
The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification.
In this struggle we need both idealism and realism. Even more, we need to have the faith to live as children of the gray.