Religion

The Promise of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 3

I call this last post The Promise Forgiveness & Reconciliation because I want to end on a hopeful note.

The Mystery of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 1

The Limits of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 2

I believe it is justifiably hopeful given the theory, theology, and practical parts of the topics. If I were going to teach a Sunday School class, or even present a lesson in a college education class, I would begin by scouring literature and web sites. I would, in the style of Worthington and Lederach, turn to case studies and current events. Much like these blog posts, the organization of a brief curriculum would be somewhat as follows:

  1. Introduction, Definition of Terms, Participant Questions
  2. Deeper Understandings: Contexts, Benefits, Limits
  3. The Scope of Forgiving and Reconciling: Interpersonal, Local, Global
  4. Putting It All Together, Where Do We Go From Here, Revisit Initial Questions

Peace Dove 1

I have included below Revisiting the 10 Practices of Just Peacemaking Theory by David P. Gushee (2019) from EthicsDaily.com. Developed by the late ethicist Glen Stassen. Although the practices reference peacemaking (which I use interchangeably with reconciliation, knowing there are differences) at the global setting, I believe they can be modified to allow us to act upon them locally.

  1. Support nonviolent direct action.
    Nonviolent direct action occurs when citizens confront injustice through peaceful public protests and other resistance strategies, including boycotts and strategic noncooperation. Practiced effectively by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat. 
  3. Use cooperative conflict resolution. These skills train adversaries to see each other as human beings with dignity and legitimate needs rather than as sub-humans whose every negotiating demand is illegitimate just because of how evil they are.
  4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice; seek repentance and forgiveness.
  5. Promote democracy, human rights and religious liberty.
  6. Foster just and sustainable economic development. Hungry people easily become desperate and violent, and, when they rebel, their need is at least temporarily exacerbated.
  7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.It stands to reason that the more nations are involved in these webs of interaction, the less likely they are to make war.
  8. Strengthen the United Nations and international organizations.
  9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.
  10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations. Everybody needs somebody looking over their shoulders to keep them in check. See the full article here

Peace, justice, dignity, equity, voice, and the resolution of conflict are the basis of reconciliation. What about forgiveness? Psychology Today states, “Forgiveness is the release of resentment or anger.” It does not mean reconciliation–no person or entity has to return to a harmful relationship. “Forgiveness is vitally important for the mental health of those who have been victimized. It propels people forward rather than keeping them emotionally engaged in an injustice or trauma.” It has physical, emotional, and psychological benefits, and has been shown to “elevate mood, enhance optimism, and guard against anger, stress, anxiety, and depression.” Forgiveness and Reconciliation are like a suit: you can wear the jacket and pants separately, but they also go together. Maintaining the distinction acknowledges the offended party (I am avoiding the word victim here). If this complicated process is worked prayerfully and diligently, there are situations where both are possible outcomes. Link to Psychology Today: Forgiveness

peace dove 2

The following is the beginnings of a collection of resources that I will add to over time.

  1. Duke Divinity School: Center for Reconciliation Resources https://divinity.duke.edu/initiatives/cfr/resources
  2. Peace Center for Forgiveness & Reconciliation http://www.choosetoforgive.org/
  3. The Forgiveness Project https://www.theforgivenessproject.com/
  4. Racial Equity Resource Guide http://www.racialequityresourceguide.org/organizations/organizations/sectionFilter/Racial%20Healing
  5. Racial Equity Institute https://www.racialequityinstitute.com/partner-organizations
  6. Reconciliation Ministry (Disciples of Christ) https://reconciliationministry.org/
  7. Conciliation Resources http://www.c-r.org/
  8. Truth and Reconciliation, Commission of Canada http://www.trc.ca/resources.html
  9. Community Tool Box https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/spirituality-and-community-building/forgiveness-and-reconciliation/main
  10. Center for Justice & Reconciliation http://restorativejustice.org/#sthash.i2cZEw7o.dpb
  11. Lederach, J.P. (2014) Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians. Virginia: Herald Press.
  12. Jones, G. (1995). Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  13. Worthington, E.L. (2001). Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
  14. Walker-Barnes, C. (2019). I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

 

asymmetrical-ethics

The Limits of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 2

I have heard horror stories of people in abusive relationships who have sought spiritual advise from their church leaders, only to be told that they should forgive their partners–forgive the verbal, psychological, physical abuse and/or infidelity, for example. They are told to forgive as God forgives (remember the theological model I mentioned in my last post?) The Mystery of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 1   People who have escaped relationships of abuse are even sometimes counseled to reconcile. Many years ago, I was divorced, and for years I had recurring nightmares that I was being forced to reconcile with my husband.

Forgiving and reconciling have limits that are dependent upon circumstances and injustice. I learned from my own experience that I forgive so that I can move forward, but nobody–not in dreams or consciousness–can make me reconcile.

Every kind of relationship includes relations of power, privilege, and politics–and these must be acknowledged. In The Politics of Apology and Forgiveness,  Joretta Marshall identifies five connections between power and forgiveness that I think are important. 1. The misuse of power invites power into a relationship. 2. The person who has the power to cause harm does not have equal power to require forgiveness—only to apologize and ask for forgiveness. 3. The giving or receiving of forgiveness, like an apology, cannot be coerced. 4. There is a dance between power and vulnerability in the forgiveness process. 5. Forgiveness emerges through the shifting of power in relationship. Forgiveness has its own subversive power in its potential for transformation.

In The Limits of Forgiveness, Norlock and Rumsey unpack the costs and limits of forgiveness, which are to be found in situations where “radical evil” exists. They argue that social and political recognition, including punishment of offenders and provisions for the economic and physical safety of victims, are requisite conditions” (p. 119). The authors demand that we critically analyze what we ask of those we expect to forgive offenders. What is that about? Forgiveness is fraught with complexity, and the existence of radical evil does not allow us the luxury of taking the process for granted.

I also discovered the book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, by Susan Neiman. This text, which is the kind of reading I do for fun (me = nerd), examines the intentional efforts at “working through the past” by the German people—individually and collectively—in the wake of the Nazi Reich. She argues that the United States—White Southerners, in particular—can learn and take cues from the Germans, although the evil of slavery and Jim Crow is a different kind of evil than Nazism. She explicitly states that this is not a suggestion of comparative suffering or oppression, but one of comparative reconciliation. Thomas Jefferson, the embodiment of questions Americans must ask of ourselves, said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that his mercy cannot last forever.” When I think about forgiveness and reconciliation, radical evil and sin, power and privilege—and how these fit in the Kingdom of God, I tremble too. Germans book

So whether we are talking about relationships at the personal or global level–or anything in between–power relations are maintained and reproduced that are paramount to the nature of the relationship. They also affect the approach, expectations, and limitations in the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. Social categories such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, and cultural background also have great bearing on the process, particularly since these categories are socially constructed, fluid, and flexible.

 

On our last day together, our F&R class organized our thinking around F&R on the board (see below). These are our findings:

Forgiveness is…

  • an ongoing process, as illustrated by Jesus’s metaphor of 70 X 7
  • an array of both positive and negative emotions
  • effective in an “I/Thou” relationship, such as that believers have with God
  • Jesus like
  • difficult and takes time
  • requires faith
  • a gift of mercy–to self, God, others
  • an aspiration (most of the time)
  • good for us
  • Note: “unforgiveness” has psychological and biological consequences

Forgiveness is not

  • the same as reconciliation
  • requiring of an apology or repentance
  • enmeshment or codependency
  • cheap or therapeutic
  • just saying “I’m sorry”
  • explicitly Christian
  • always equitable
  • a denial of hurt
  • earned
  • excusing abuse or the perpetrator
  • performative
  • an option
  • transactional
  • a feel good fix

Equity

Reconciliation is…

  • contextual
  • requiring of repentance
  • requiring of truth telling
  • requiring of solidarity, space, and safety
  • interpersonal and intrapersonal
  • often mediated by a third party
  • a process that requires something of the parties
  • an aspirational
  • messy
  • often confrontational
  • dependent upon justice
  • not always possible

Reconciliation is not

  • the same as forgiveness
  • mandatory
  • the same on individual and systemic levels
  • always fast
  • happiness-inducing
  • solidifying
  • without risk
  • agreement
  • a social contract
  • accompanied by compensation or reparation
  • always possible

I will add that reconciliation is part of the peacemaking process. In my next post, I will share 10 Practices of Just Peacemaking Theory from EthicsDaily.com.

Blackboard Outline Forgiveness & Reconcilliation

The Mystery of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 1

Growing up, when I thought about forgiveness–which is ever present in a practicing Fundamentalist Christian’s life–I thought first about God so loving the world that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. For our forgiveness. When I thought of forgiveness apart from the Cross, I thought about Jesus’s quip to Peter about forgiving an offender 70 times 7 (Matt 18:22). I remember calculating it in my mind, which Peter probably also did.

This semester I took a class with Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, whose new book, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation, brings Womanist Wisdom “to describe how race and racism work, what reconciliation really looks like, and how faith can help us work toward it” (https://drchanequa.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/my-book-is-coming/). When you stop and think about it, each of those concepts–forgiveness and reconciliation–are huge. So full of meaning and implications that it was and continues to be daunting to me. My classmates and I spent 15 weeks grappling with texts and ideas; now I find it less daunting than profound. What I mean is that it is important to put forgiveness and reconciliation in practice and help others to do so, too. I know it was a good class because we are leaving it with more questions than when we began. Success is often measured by knowing enough to know what you don’t know. Our final project was to create a curriculum on forgiveness and/or reconciliation.

cwb

Dr. Walker-Barnes’s Book

From the time the project was assigned, I began to have trouble with it. I had writer’s block for curriculum development. I realize I still have some sorting out to do with the two-in-one concept, since, as Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I don’t know what I think until I red what I say.” In this post, I will briefly sketch an overview of an introductory segment on the concepts Forgiveness & Reconciliation. Should spaces for dialogue ever come up, here is where I would start.

First, it is important to note that Forgiveness & Reconciliation is a whole field of study with a growing body of literature. Typing in the words, “Forgiveness & Reconciliation” on Amazon, for example, yields 437 results. Type in those same words in Google, and more than twelve million results pop up. To be fair, “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” by themselves are intermingled with results for the pair. I found this to be the case in our class, too. The topics overlap, bleeding into each other, as it were, to the point where it is hard to see where one stops and the other begins. Entangled, jumbled. This is not inappropriate.

Dr. Walker-Barnes organized the course into engaging topics, and you can see the intricate threading throughout: Theologies of Forgiveness; Theologies of Reconciliation; Remembrance & Repentance; Power, Apology, & The Limits of Forgiveness; Trauma, Anger & the Failure of Reconciliation; Reconciliation or Liberation?; Reconciliation as a Spiritual Journey; and Psychological Perspectives on Forgiveness. We read texts by Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis; John Paul Lederach, Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians, and Everett Worthington, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. There was a lot to read and talk about. If I were guiding a book talk on the subject, I would use some of the helpful strategies and models from these texts, developed by peace workers who walk the walk. Dr. Walker-Barnes’ book was published after our class had begun, so we only had a teaser chapter from it. It’s now on my Christmas break reading list!

The semester was spent painstakingly unraveling meanings. Here are some key points.

  1. Christians not only have an obligation to practice forgiveness, we also have a model. God forgives us.
  2. There are distinctions between forgiveness and reconciliation, even though they are a good matched set.
  3. Both forgiveness and reconciliation have important and often frustrating limits. If we know them going in, we will not have our expectations dashed.
  4.  Historically–both within Christianity and without–forgiveness and reconciliation have been abused, misused, oppressive, and suppressive. Survivors of interpersonal and/or systemic trauma/conflict narrate the journey to forgiveness and reconciliation. Survivors remind us of the high stakes involved in forgiveness and reconciliation; their voices are critical  to how we practice.

To further muddle my thinking, you have to consider forgiveness according to its various levels. Are we talking about forgiving another person? Groups of people? A whole country? What about reconciling? Couples reconcile (or don’t). Friends can too. Different cultures can reconcile–like in South Africa. People can be reconciled to God. I have to reconcile within myself. The scope is incredible.

I will end my overview with this: our participation in the divine life, that is, how believers exist in the world, is wrapped up in the tremendous Mystery. The gift and responsibility of forgiveness–and yes, reconciliation, too–are part of that mystery. And it is part of most believers’ theology. For example, while there are many subjects Jesus never mentioned, he was explicit about forgiveness: do it. So, as complicated and perplexing as forgiveness and reconciliation can be, it helps to approach them as sacred process.

Below is a picture of our white board from the last day of class, where we summed up what we had learned. In my next post, I will summarize them in talking points.

Blackboard Outline Forgiveness & Reconcilliation

 

“White Savior Barbie,” Not me!

I really love my seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. Faculty and staff there are committed to issues of justice and spiritual growth. It is also a place where only about 45% of the students are white. I want to support a place like that and more important, learn from the variety of perspectives and experiences of my classmates. It is a place where I can focus on issues important to me, like being a good ally by attending to my white privilege. I am convinced that my anti-racist work as a white Southern academic should also include theological and religious frameworks. I needed to get in touch with my Jesus.

White Savior

White Savior Movie

Part of the institution’s commitment to spiritual formation is the annual faculty, staff, and student weekend retreat, which the founding faculty built into the design of the programs. We just recently had one at the Pinnacle Center in the North Georgia mountains, where we spend two days worshiping together and getting to know one another. We build deeper relationships as classmates at a setting like this, where we pray and take communion together. This year, the dean announced he had been working with friends in Union Point, Georgia, to plan a work day at a historic cemetery near the original location of Mercer University. Here’s what he said:

This summer I learned of a neglected African American cemetery located nearby the Penfield cemetery. I have partnered with African American activists and other leaders to help them with a clean-up effort on October 26. I would very much appreciate it if you would join me as we honor this sacred space and practice remembrance.

He noted that enslaved persons were buried there.

Here is what I wish I had thought: Does it make a difference that the dean is a straight, white, cis-male? Were faculty invited to discuss this topic, welcoming voices from faculty of color? Could groundwork have been laid so that the announcement would have had context for the benefit of the students, most of whom were African American? What is motivating me to want to participate?

What I actually did, though, was volunteer to clean up the cemetery.

A few days later, the dean sent a reminder and included additional information that a filmmaker friend and seminary grad would be filming for a documentary. A few days after that, I learned that a group of African American students had submitted a letter to the dean to express concerns about the project. I have not seen this letter, but the seminary grapevine is real. That was the day I discovered the “Savior Barbie” Instagram account. If you haven’t heard about it, below is a Huff Post article, along with 2 examples of Barbie’s posts.

White Savior Barbie Huff Post

White Savior Barbie

White Savior Barbie pokes fun at people who suffer from “White Savior Complex,” the term used to describe the white Westerners who travel to third world countries and make the entire affair an exercise in self-congratulatory sacrifice. (Huff Post). The account owners, who remain anonymous, point out, “We have both struggled with our own realizations and are definitely not claiming innocence here.” “Barbie Savior, we hope, is an entertaining jumping off point for some very real discussions, debates, and resolves.” It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with doing volunteer work to help people. WSB targets the idea that Africa needs saving from itself and white people are the ones who can do it. Barbie Savior is there for a photo op, the ultimate selfie. This kind of thinking supported colonialism, conquest, and slavery. It is white supremacy.

Barbie Savior (@barbiesavior)

White Savior Barbie 3

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting for a minute that the McAfee dean is in error. I have no idea until and unless he discusses it what the process was for bringing this opportunity to the students. For all I know, he brought it to the faculty first for them to unpack together. The letter from students is said to contain references to a diversity strategic plan, which I imagine calls for voice and conversation and inclusion in initiative planning. I have no doubt he is prayerfully and profoundly considering what they have written and will respond appropriately. This is not about him; it is about my own complicity in maintaining racist systems in which the White Savior Complex operates.

So just what was I thinking? My first thought was what a great service project! As a Southern Christian who knows what “Decoration Day” is, I have cleaned old cemeteries for as long as I can remember. My second thought was about the historical significance of the place, for yes, I was in part motivated by it being a very, very old African American cemetery that was the final resting place of former enslaved persons.

My third thought was about my friend Edeltress in Baton Rouge, who had taken me on a detour to her ancestral cemetery one day while we were on a school visit for work. “Do you mind?” she asked me. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here. I was a little girl and my parents brought me.” So we drove to a countryside in Louisiana that I couldn’t find today if I had to. “Here it is,” she said. But looking around, I couldn’t see a graveyard. Just what looked like woods, undergrowth, weeds–way back, about a hundred feet off the side of the road. Edeltress laughed. “Oh, you’re looking for a white cemetery. This is how our cemeteries look.” We tramped around the site, being careful not to step on the graves, and on the way home, she told me stories about her father, who had driven an old broken-down truck so that his white neighbors would not recognize him for a landowner and successful farmer. My people were dangerous. So that is the image I got in my head when the dean asked for volunteers. I thought of paying tribute, in this small way, to my friend.

That is why I am going to acknowledge my white privilege, acknowledge the concerns of my classmates–for they hold us accountable for thinking of and processing these issues before complying–and then go clean up a grave yard. But you won’t see it on Facebook or Twitter. I will not take a selfie with a tombstone. Does this make me admirable? Is this sufficient acknowledgement, or am I assuaging my conscience? Am I asking the right questions? I don’t know, but it gives me something to ponder as I pull weeds.

White Savior Barbie 2

White supremacy can look like skin heads carrying swastikas; it can look like angry white people wearing red hats. It can be masked by well intentioned white people who secretly voted for Trump. And it can be a white seminary student who fails to do the work of problematizing a workday over the graves of enslaved persons. There is another White Savior resource I find relevant here. White Savior: Racism in the American Church (2019). The film “explores the historic relationship between racism and American Christianity, the ongoing segregation of the church in the US, and the complexities of racial reconciliation” (imdb). I recommend it. The film closes with an African American minister from the Bronx discussing being an ally. “Being an ally,” he said, “means asking ‘What do you need? and sometimes that means just shut up and listen.”

At the end of the day, I believe in a place like McAfee. It exemplifies the complexity of racial reconciling and justice. The messiness of it. It is a place where we can make all the mistakes–and there are many–and learn that the sky doesn’t fall when we make them. It is a place where, sometimes, we can just shut up and listen.

Race, Religion, and the Lost Cause: Observation from the National ONA Gathering

Today is June 19th, Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when news of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier finally reached enslaved persons in Texas. It coincides with the National Gathering of the UCC Open & Affirming National Gathering and a Race and Religion course assignment on whether the Lost Cause still exists in the South today. All things work together, and it is fitting.

When I was a kid my parents took my little brother and me to Shiloh National Military Park. This began and strengthened my fascination with the Civil War. Other Southern writers have written about how prominently Civil War lore figured into their childhoods, how it shape their psyches as Southern men. No major battles took place in Alabama like in Virginia and Tennessee, so my parents—who took exactly one vacation in their lives and it was NOT to the beach—hauled us on a day trip to Shiloh. We saw the exhibits with artifacts from the battlefield: bullets, bayonets, buttons. We saw a film that mapped out the two-day fight from April 6-7, 1862, the bloodiest battle until Antietam five months later. It remains the sixth on the top ten list. We walked around sites so horrific they had been named: Hornets Nest and Bloody Pond, water colored red by soldiers’ blood. At the end of the day, my parents took us to the gift shop, where we were each allowed one souvenir. My brother and I  got the same memento—a confederate private’s cap. We did not even consider the Union blue cap of the yankees.

Ku Klux Klan, KKK, Southern, Civil War, Lynching, Nostalgia, Lost Cause, Reconstruction

I think perhaps the Lost Cause takes on a different meaning for working class Southerners than it had for the old plantation class that evolved into wealth obtained from industry and later, investment. For us, the Lost Cause equated with the tragic romanticism of the lost war. The South is a contested place; it is a place looked down upon by those outside—and sometimes inside—of it. During the tour, my brother and I cheered for the Shiloh story of Day 1, that went to the confederates. On the second day, Grant’s reinforcements arrived, Albert Sidney Johnston was shot, and the battle went to the Union. The feeling I had then is similar to the physical and emotional drain I feel after the University of Alabama loses a big game to Auburn. It is real disappointment that I feel for the rest of the day. Our land had been invaded and we had lost. That was my lost cause, and its symbols took on religious meanings—the Stars and Bars battle flag, the gallant General Lee upon his steed Traveler (yes, I know the horse’s name), and of course, Dixie, our hymn.

Constructing the Lost Cause narrative so strong that is part of the psyche of Southerners who have no discernable connection to the Old South other than geographic location required a national comprehensive campaign. So the question to consider is, in whose interest was it to create the Lost Cause as an organizing theme? The white plantation class, supported by southern newspapers convinced poor whites that they were whiter than they were poor; thus, they allied with the people who looked like them. We continue to do this today, voting and allying against our economic interests because they are white. Northern and Southern Protestants turned defeated confederates into defeated Christians as the Lost Cause became a vehicle for Southern Redemption—redemption that was religious, social, and political.

Yesterday, I attended a session at the UCC Open and Affirming (ONA) National Gathering in Milwaukee, called Offensive Faith: Queering the Playbook for Religious Engagement. Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, of the National LGBTQ Task Force stressed the intersectionality present in dismantling systems of gender and sexuality oppression. People of color are disproportionately affected by violence in this country; the same is true for gender violence. One of the pictures she shared prompted my reflections here, connecting religion, the Lost Cause, and racial (and gendered) violence. I look at it now and am offended, yes, but I see it and know that the stirrings of nostalgia I also feel seeing the old black and white photo that could have been taken at Littleville Elementary School, where I grew up a confederate child. My nostalgia is a fruit of white privilege, and so too is offensive.

The second photo Rev. Leapheart shared will likely offend Lost Causers—not only them, it will offend many other white people. I think when we as a people can be offended by both images because they stand for a history of racial violence in which religion has been complicit—then we might hope for redemption.

Please also take time to visit the National LGBTQ Task Force web site and read about their All of Me. All the Time campaign for the Equality Act. They have this description:

The National LGBTQ Task Force educates federal policymakers about the need for non-discrimination protections that ensure the whole person is able to advocate for themselves when discriminated against, wherever that discrimination takes place. We work with a wide range of progressive partner organizations across the country both at the state and federal level, like the National Black Justice Coalition. The Task Force shifts the conversation from a political and technical one to a national and inclusive conversation based on morals and values.

National LGBTQ Task Force

Our Lady of Ferguson, Mark Dukes, Black, African American, Police Violence, Police Shootings, Black Madonna

 

Was St. Thomas Aquinas in My Head? A Very Fitting Study Prayer to Mary

Here is a prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas, addressed to Mary, whom he called on for inspiration and strength in school. Thank you to my McAfee Classmate Benjamin Smith for sharing it:pieta

O Mary, Seat of Wisdom,
so many persons of common intellect
have made through your intercession
admirable progress in their studies.

I hereby choose You as
guardian and patron of my studies.
I humbly ask You to obtain for me
the grace of the Holy Spirit,
so that from now on I could
– understand more quickly,
– retain more readily, and
– express myself more fluently.

May the example of my life serve
to honor You and your Son, Jesus.
Amen.

Other prayers: A Parenting Psalm: Wisdom Prayer for My Children (Un)Holy Saturday: A Community Lament Psalm Louisiana Black Church Fires: A Psalm of Community Lament

Inflaming the Christian Right: Franklin Graham, Pete Buttigieg, and Changing Our Mind

It should come as no surprise that they’re coming for Pete Buttigieg. He’s smart, frank, funny, personable, courageous~~everything in a politician that would constitute a threat to the one of the least popular incumbent presidents history. Strategically that’s why he’s already under attack. How he’s under attack represents low hanging fruit politically. Pete Buttigieg is a gay man. It’s low hanging fruit because this fact inflames–really inflames–the roughly 25% of Evangelical Christians in America who make up the president’s strongest base.

On April 25, 2019, Franklin Graham Tweeted (naturally) a response to Buttigieg’s candidacy, “God doesn’t have a political party. But God does have commandments, laws & standards. Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized….”

Pete and Chasten Pic

Pete and Chasten

Earlier in April, an NBC report suggested that Graham’s view is out of sync with that of most Americans. Polling data indicate that almost 70% of Americans would be either  “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” voting for a gay or lesbian candidate (USA Today). The remaining 30% is Trump’s hard core base and includes the 25% Evangelicals who enthusiastically support him regardless of evidence of impropriety. The Fox News/fake news true believers. My people.

I come from generations of Fundamentalist Christians, growing up in the Church of Christ~~a denomination that historically refrained from political engagement beyond the civic duty to vote. But even voting was private~~between you and God. We believed that “rendering unto Caesar” meant that our faith was personal and would come full circle on Judgement Day. All of that began to change with the campaign of 1980, when Ronald Reagan challenged the Son of a so-called New South, Jimmy Carter. Precisely because our denomination had not been political, the shift was very noticeable.

On April 26, David Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, and Director of its Center for Theology and Public Life, spoke with CNN’s Don Lemon in response to Graham’s Twitter attack. Gushee’s book Changing Our Mind traces his personal and theological journey toward inclusion of LGBTQ Christians (it’s in my Kindle as we speak!). (Franklin’s remarks, incidentally, make Changing Our Mind doubly applicable in light of the United Methodist Church’s February 2019 decision to exclude LGBTQ members from ordination and marriage.) A disclaimer: I am a student at McAfee working toward an MDiv and certificate in Christian Ethics, and I will take Christian Sexual Ethics with Dr. Gushee in the spring. His ethics are grounded in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and outlined in the seminal book on the subject: Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (2016), co-written with the late Dr. Glen Stassen. Although he wouldn’t do it because of his ethical convictions, I would put David Gushee’s understanding of Jesus’s teachings up against Franklin Graham any day. But again, I have a dog in the hunt.

I had an “ah-ha!” moment as the CNN interview concluded:

LEMON: ...I think it’s interesting that you say that the Christian right has been in the grip of the Republican Party for 40 years now and it’s getting worse….

Forty years. Reagan, the Moral Majority, Trickle Down Economics, strengthening the military-industrial complex, unregulated capitalism, corporate tax cuts~~the most significant political and economic ideological shift in U.S. history~~and I was there. I saw. From the pews of a little country church in North Alabama. My people~~those 25% die hard Trump supporters~~were the strategic targets of the Republican machine in 1980, and we remain in its grip today. I am not suggesting we are absolved of our complicity; we have not yet repented of our collective sin of racism, for example. I’m saying the Republican Machine (not persons who vote Republican, whom we love as Jesus loves) is like a crooked preacher: it knows the Bible well and uses it to sway the sheep. It uses cultural context or insists on literalism, whichever best advances its agenda–which is, again, to inflame good people to vote. Over nearly half a century, it has accomplished an astonishing goal, really: creating god in a Republican image and we, my people, worship at its feet. That’s called idolatry, y’all. Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics suggests a different way, a Jesus way, to do politics together as a people, but to see it we will have to melt the Golden Calf of the Republican god.

My people believe~~really believe~~that electing a gay man as president will doom the U.S. as God turn’s His (no gender free God here!) back on us. In fact, we see plenty of examples of how He is already exacting His punishment on us as a call to repentance~~a call to return to being a Christian Nation, God’s U.S. chosen people. I know a good man~~a Godly man~~who believes God is sending a meteor toward Earth as retribution. “We better turn back to God,” he says, “or He will destroy this sinful nation!” When Franklin Graham reminds Evangelicals that God’s “laws, commandments, and standards” supersede political parties, he gives them no option save worshiping the carefully crafted Calf. And yes, he precisely politicized Buttigieg’s sexuality. I know what my people will say to an interpretation of scripture toward a new Christian Ethic where Pete is evaluated as a candidate by his qualifications rather than as a person based on his sexuality. They will say, “Even the demons believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). They will be suspicious; they will believe they are being tricked by fast talkers and twisting scriptures. They will gather more closely around the Calf.

Changing Our Mind Cover

In a speech in early April, Pete said his relationship with Chasten had made him “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent.” He then directly addressed Mr. Pence, “as one man of faith talking to another,” the New York Times aptly puts it: “And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.”

That’s my favorite part because I identify with it. My relationship isn’t just a good fit in which I found a life companion~~it has brought me, in-relation, closer to God. It is in my relationship that I can feel the kind of love that God pours down on us, the kind God expects us to pour on each other. Not only that, it inspires me to act with love and compassion to others~~that’s pretty big! Jesus Ethics can be planted and take root in places where we talk to one another about compassion and decency and relationships that bring us closer to God. We can change our minds and decide to love.

Kingdom Ethics

David Gushee with CNN’s Don Lemon on Franklin Graham’s attack on LGBTQ Christians

USA Today: Franklin Graham calls on Pete Buttigieg to repent for the ‘sin’ of being gay

NYT: Pete Buttigieg, Gay and Christian, Challenges Religious Right on Their Own Turf

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