Thursday, March 27, 2014

Come again?

So let me get this straight. World Vision announced three days ago that it will be hiring Christians who are in same-sex marriages and the reaction, according to Rachel Held Evans, was that thousands of Christians withdrew support from the children they were sponsoring, thus forcing World Vision yesterday to renege on their original policy change to stop the financial hemorrhaging.

Thousands of needy children were abandoned because some Christians didn't want to be working on the same team with gay Christians in same-sex marriages.

What kind of gay Christians are these people whom others found so abhorrent? Well, they are married, which means they are not living a "lifestyle" of promiscuous sex and one-night stands. They are Christians, which means they seek to live as sexually chaste as possible. Not everyone can handle living celibate so many gay Christians get married to same-sex partners. The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:9, "But if they cannot exercise self-control let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion." These gay Christians have taken that biblical exhortation to heart.

What kind of gay married Christian would want to work for World Vision? Probably someone who has a heart for children and for the poor, who wants to serve Christ's kingdom, and who is willing to make the financial sacrifice of working for a non-profit organization. Usually someone like that is a fairly committed Christian, kind, idealistic and compassionate. It's amazing how many gay Christians I've met who have a heart for missions and the poor. The marginalized relate with great tenderness and empathy to other marginalized people. It's a perfect fit.

World Vision probably recognized this too, which is why they didn't see a problem with the change in policy. I keep wondering why they didn't count the cost before taking that step. My best guess is that they expected blowback, but they didn't expect that Christian supporters would actually drop their sponsorships with their children as a way of protesting. I mean, who does that?

And what was the reason again for so many Christians dropping their sponsorships? Because they didn't want to labor on the same team as some of the most dedicated gay Christians in our midst, who have made the sexually responsible commitment of being in a marriage relationship, embracing the church's teaching not to be promiscuous or live the lifestyle. These are the Christians that others couldn't abide working with, even for the sake of relieving the suffering of a destitute child.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Never mind

Aaand within hours of my post supporting World Vision's very reasonable decision, they reverse themselves. Object lesson: don't underestimate the clout conservative evangelicals have on organizations that try to take even a conciliatory stance on gay issues. It explains why progress at evangelical leadership levels moves so slowly. The peer pressure, financial pressure, and threat of ostracization make it hard to think outside the box. Whether or not you agree with World Vision's original decision, surely you can see that this culture of conformity is just not healthy.

World Vision's surprising rationale for hiring Christians in same-sex marriages

I'm impressed that World Vision president Richard Stearns gives surprisingly logical reasons for the organization's recent policy change that they will now hire Christians in same-sex marriages. According to Christianity Today, Stearns says:
Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues. It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.
Stearns explains that World Vision is a parachurch organization that doesn't take sides on controversial issues that divide the church. Unlike the church they do not make doctrinal pronouncements, but seek to include Christians from all sides in an effort to fulfill their ministry's goal of serving the poor.
"Denominations disagree on many, many things: on divorce and remarriage, modes of baptism, women in leadership roles in the church, beliefs on evolution, etc.," [Stearns] said. "So our practice has always been to defer to the authority and autonomy of local churches and denominational bodies on matters of doctrine that go beyond the Apostles' Creed and our statement of faith. We unite around our [Trinitarian beliefs], and we have always deferred to the local church on these other matters." 
World Vision has hardly tried to court favor with the LGBT community in the past. They've recently fought for their legal right to hire and fire according to their own religious beliefs and resisted USAID pressure to employ non-discrimination hiring policies covering sexual orientation.

But that's what I admire about World Vision's approach. Fight for your legal right to control your own hiring and firing policies as a faith-based organization, then make fair policies on your own terms. Allowing gay Christians who are in same-sex marriages to work for World Vision is fair and consistent with their organization's historical approach to any controversial issue.

There are those who say that this is about moral compromise. "Would World Vision allow adulterous Christians to work for their organization?" some conservatives are asking. I guess it depends. There are those who say that Christians who have divorced unbiblically and remarried are adulterers, but others say grace should be extended in such situations. World Vision says they defer to local churches and denominations on the issue of divorce and remarriage, which implies they do hire Christians whom some would define as adulterers. But the point is, because there are valid arguments on both sides of the divorce and remarriage issue within the church, World Vision recognizes that professing Christians can believe one way or the other. And being a professing Christian is all they ask of their employees.

Likewise, there are Christians on either side of the same-sex marriage controversy. That is why entire denominations are splitting down the middle over it. Those who accuse World Vision of morally compromising are missing the point. The point is whether there are legitimate biblical arguments on both sides of this issue. "Legitimate" isn't defined as "what I agree with." I personally don't believe blessing same-sex marriages in the church is biblical, but I understand that many of those who disagree with me are also Christians like myself. They have biblical arguments for their position and at times they have come close to persuading me. World Vision is simply acknowledging that the same-sex marriage issue has proven to be, over time, a legitimately tough call for churches, and therefore they are going to adjust their hiring policy to be consistent with the way they have dealt with similar issues in the past. It's an amazingly rational and fair step to take.

All over the Internet I see 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 being quoted by conservatives who are throwing down the challenge for Christians to "truly" believe this verse:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor homosexual practicers . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God.
But lately, I've been wondering if I "truly" believe this verse in Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (italics mine).
What should I believe about those professing Christians who have shown open, unrepentant hostility toward gay and lesbian people, making false accusations against them about their experience of sexual orientation, and contributing to needless, hurtful conflict within their families and church congregations because of these accusations? The Bible says persons who practice such enmity, strife and divisiveness "will not inherit the kingdom of God." Should I "truly" believe what this verse says about the many conservative evangelicals who seem to fit this description?

For my part, I would rather hope that grace and Christ's blood can cover some of these follies, and leave those who seem caught up in them in God's hands to sanctify or judge as he sees fit.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why the legal case for gay civil marriage is also a moral one

Recently I saw this YouTube of Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, a devout Catholic, announcing tearfully to his constituents why he is not going to defend Kentucky's ban on recognizing same-sex marriages from other states. As I saw this man's struggle of conscience it occurred to me that the legal arguments for civil same-sex marriage, which Conway clearly anguished over, aren't understood all that clearly by the average Christian who opposes gay marriage on religious/moral grounds.

For years now I've given my fellow Christians a pass if they bristled at the mention of gay civil marriage. "Look," I'd tell them, "you don't have to agree with my political views," then I'd try to discuss something about gay issues that was a little less advanced. But how long can evangelicals insist that they oppose gay civil marriage on moral grounds when they fail to see that there are also moral grounds for supporting it?

Many Christians have an underlying suspicion that people who focus on the constitutional arguments for same-sex civil marriage are doing so because they don't have biblical morals. Civil liberties is just a secular morality, a substitute ethic that has blinded the secular person from seeing the truth of the Bible's teaching.

There may be something to that. But what's damaging to our Christian witness is that the reverse is also true. Fixating on the Bible's moral teaching on gay sex blinds many evangelicals from seeing that the case for gay civil marriage is more justified, both legally and morally, than they think. It isn't about those who care about morals versus those who don't. In fact, the reason secular people are quicker to catch on to the civil liberties argument is that they don't have a religious prejudice against understanding it. As a Bible-believing Christian myself I hate to say it, but I think it's true.

Attorney General Jack Conway stated, "I came to the inescapable conclusion that if I [defended this case], I would be defending discrimination. That I will not do." As a Catholic he is not unaware of the moral teaching of his church on homosexuality, but as attorney general he knows he would betray the public trust in his office if he supported legal discrimination against gays. For Conway opposing discrimination is also a moral stance, and one that evangelical Christians would do well to understand better.

I'm not a law expert by any means, so I will explain my own lay understanding of the legal case for gay marriage in the best way I can:
  • We have something called the Fourteenth Amendment in our U.S. Constitution. It states the following:
"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
  • The part I italicized contains what's called the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. Due process protects individuals against arbitrary government intrusion into life, liberty or property. It has to do with interfering with a fundamental right. Equal protection has to do with treating all citizens equally under the law. 
  • If a law either 1) interferes with someone's fundamental right (Due Process), or 2) denies Equal Protection to a group of people who fall under a "suspect classification" (more on that later), then such a law can only be justified if passes the standard of "strict scrutiny."
  • "Strict scrutiny" is the highest standard of judicial review (as opposed to the lesser standards of "rational basis review" and "intermediate scrutiny"). Strict scrutiny means you have to demonstrate that this law serves a "compelling government interest" (e.g., our national security is at stake, multiple lives are in danger . . . that level of urgency). Plus, it must be "narrowly tailored" to achieve that government interest using the "least restrictive means." Discrimination is serious business, so if the law in question isn't directly on target to achieve this compelling interest, or if it is in any way overly restrictive, then it doesn't pass strict scrutiny. It gets the eject button.
  • There are two possible grounds for arguing that laws prohibiting gay marriage should be subject to the highest standard of strict scrutiny: 1) they interfere with a fundamental right to marry the person of one's choice, contra Due Process, 2) they discriminate against gays and lesbians because of their sexual orientation, contra Equal Protection. 
  • Re. ground #1: In the Loving v. Virginia decision which struck down laws against interracial marriage, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote "marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival." Denying gays and lesbians the right to marry the person of their choice is denying them a fundamental right. 
  • Re. ground #2: If gays and lesbians are denied the right to marry because their choice of partner is dictated by their sexual orientation, then they are being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Now, remember I mentioned earlier something called "suspect classification"? This refers to a classification of groups of people that meets certain criteria making them susceptible to discrimination. The Supreme Court currently recognizes race, national origin, religion and alienage (being a foreigner) as suspect classifications. Whenever a law targets a suspect class, the courts subject it to strict scrutiny to determine whether it violates Equal Protection. Right now, sexual orientation is not considered a suspect classification. 
  • However, in the recent Proposition 8 case Judge Vaughn Walker argued that sexual orientation should be a suspect classification because as a group, gay and lesbian people fit the criteria: 1) they have a history of being discriminated against, partly due to stereotypes, 2) they have an immutable and/or highly visible distinguishing trait, 3) they are powerless to protect themselves in the political process, 4) their distinguishing trait does not prevent the group from contributing meaningfully to society.
  • It turned out Judge Walker did not need to make the case for sexual orientation as a suspect classification (requiring strict scrutiny) because he determined that Proposition 8 did not even pass "rational basis review." What's that? Well, if strict scrutiny is the highest standard of judicial review, rational basis review is the lowest standard. It demands only the barest rational justification for the unequal treatment of one group of people over another (e.g., 18-year-olds are allowed to drive but 12-year-olds aren't). The judge apparently thought Proposition 8 was so discriminatory it couldn't even clear the lowest hurdle of review.
  • Some say that sexual orientation is currently being treated as a "quasi" suspect classification where an intermediate standard of review is being applied. Whatever the case, it's clear that whichever standard of review ends up being used, at minimum you have to come up with a rational reason for treating gay and lesbian people differently than everyone else. You have to show that their sexual orientation makes them psychologically unstable, less capable of contributing to society, morally inferior, a danger to others, or something of that nature, and you have to provide evidence that this is true of them as a class. There are simply fewer and fewer psychiatrists, sociologists and historians who are willing to stand up in court and testify as an objective fact that gay people are inferior to straights across the board.
So here's the takeaway. "Discrimination" in the legal sense shouldn't be taken as a word people are using just to sound off about their feelings or suspicions or political leanings. Laws that target specific classes of people for unequal treatment must be examined with the greatest of care, otherwise we are in danger of discrimination. We are in danger of legalizing the treatment of certain types of people as inferior human beings.

When Attorney General Jack Conway said, "I came to the inescapable conclusion that if I [defended this case], I would be defending discrimination. That I will not do," he wasn't capitulating to secular values but standing for his Christian beliefs. Opposing discrimination is very much a Christian moral issue because our Constitution, in its own methodical, pedantic way, upholds the principle that all human beings should be treated with dignity as creatures made in God's image.

We think we are being a good Christian testimony when we take a moral stand against same-sex civil marriage. But it may be that the message we are really sending to outsiders is that we think gay and lesbian people are less deserving of legal protection, fairness, dignity and respect than everyone else. If that's not how we want to be understood, then like the attorney general we should start concerning ourselves with the more fundamental moral issue of opposing discrimination, and leave the moral question of gay sex to the 5% of our society's population for whom it is personally and directly relevant.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The comments section: my four and a half year experiment

On June 24, 2009 I enabled the comments section of this blog in order to participate in "Synchroblog Day" on which I and sixty other bloggers addressed the same question on how to bridge the gap in our conversations about faith and sexuality. Until that point I didn't allow comments on this blog. However, I decided to try it since the whole point of the synchroblog experiment was to interact with other bloggers and share readers' reactions. Afterward I kept the comments section enabled to see what would come of it.

These past four and a half years, I've learned that the readers of this blog are far more respectful and restrained than some of the commenters I've read on other blogs. I've gotten to know many of you better from the comments you've left. I've seen encouraging feedback and thoughtful interaction. Some of you have shared prayer requests or put up links to additional material that might be of interest to other readers. I'm grateful for all the good that's come out of that kind of sharing.

All that said and acknowledged, I think it's time to close off the comments section once again. I came to this conclusion because I am also a big reader of blogs and websites, and lately I've noticed that there has been an increasingly negative feeling toward comments sections in general. You read a great article that makes excellent points and you wonder what's not to like. Then along comes the comments section. It's not that there aren't worthwhile comments being made by people who actually read and understood the article. It's that what usually carries the day are the inflammatory remarks on tangential points, and the long thread of debate that results.

The outcome is that a lot of intelligent people are discouraged from posting feedback because they don't want to be attacked by those who just like to be inflammatory. No one likes to "toss their pearls before swine," to use the biblical metaphor. So my suspicion is that many of the people whose feedback would be most worth reading aren't sharing it, at least not publicly.

I've been a long time fan and supporter of Andrew Sullivan's blog The Dish and have benefitted from much of his wisdom about blogging when I first started out. The Dish has never had a comments section, which for one thing makes it more pleasant to read. Instead Andrew will often share excepts of what readers email to him privately, and I've noticed that they are some of the most memorable and insightful contributions I've seen published on any blog. What you write privately to an audience of one individual is more honest and free than what you will say publicly before strangers. In a public forum some of the best stuff necessarily gets held back.

I've jumped on the bandwagon of having a comments section for the past four and a half years, but now I'd like to go back to the way things were.

If there are any posts or links from any of the past comments sections on this blog that you would like to copy and save for yourself, I will keep those available until the end of this month (March). But after that I am closing it all down. Blogger assures me that comments won't be erased but merely hidden on this blog, so if there is something you would like to retrieve after I've already closed down the comments section, email me and I will send you a copy of what you want.

Come April send me your feedback by email. If I want to share what you've written in a post I will ask your permission to do so.

Thanks, everyone.