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Friday, August 21, 2009  

The Church

While I've been a consistent, if lukewarm, advocate on the "winning" side of today's votes in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's consideration of gay relationships and clergy, I don't feel too much like celebrating. Yes, it's a good thing that congregations who welcome same-sex couples have an explicit warrant to acknowledge and bless those relationships. Yes, it's a good thing that gay and lesbian candidates for ordination won't be required to lie or hide for the sake of their vocation. But it grieves me terribly that others feel it necessary to leave the church over these decisions. As they depart, much of the church's wisdom and faithfulness will depart with them.

As I've said elsewhere, I don't understand that view. Many bad arguments were churned up in this debate, from "I/my congregation/people like me will leave if you don't vote no" to "my gay cousin/friend/self will be hurt if you don't vote yes." Special pleading is never attractive and not a notably Christian way to argue. But a particularly bad, or at least radically underdeveloped, argument was that these resolutions would represent some watershed departure from the Scriptures and the Catholic tradition. Back in the days of Augsburg, we were content to have our priests left free to marry, while remaining in communion with the Holy See. That didn't work out. Later on, we decided to ordain women. We embraced the divorced and remarried, both in our pews and on our clergy roster. The Scriptures have nothing to say in favor of female liturgical leadership, and Jesus himself spoke decisively against divorce and remarriage. Yet we decided that the gospel as a whole tended towards a more inclusive understanding of ministry. For mainline protestants, this has left gays and lesbians alone to bear the wrath of the law. And I confess that it is very hard for me not to imagine less than charitable motives on the part of those who wish to maintain such a curious policy, in which 2,000 years of church tradition and the words of Christ himself are as straw for large groups in the Church, while the Levitical laws must be invoked against a small and easily marginalized group.

So grieve as I may, I lack somewhat in sympathy for those who will find the ELCA too hot and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (or Rome, or Constantinople) too cold for their liking. A boutique version of protestantism, in which women and the divorced are full members but gays are not, has no future in this country. That said, I really do think the church is threatened by various gnosticisms and post-Christian spiritualities, and I would rather have those who are presently disgruntled within the church to resist that tendency--which is hardly confined to the left of American Christianity (see Bush, George W.). It makes me very sad that some Lutherans saw in this vote a synecdoche of the whole crisis of American Christianity, when it was nothing of the sort. See what Matt Yglesias wrote just today, on an entirely different issue:

Everything [Josh Marshall] writes about Christian Zionist eschatology, the apocalypse, and Revisionist Zionism is true. But the larger truth is just that Evangelicals, on average, despite the fact that an intuitive reading of the Gospels points in a different direction, are just generally inclined toward an affection for violence, brutality, and authoritarianism.

If you look at support for executing felons or support for torturing terrorism suspects or support for launching aggressive wars, time and again you’ll see that white Evangelical Protestants are the leading proponents of violence as a solution to policy problems.

So if you totally ignore Israel, and just look at the “America debate” inside the United States you find that Evangelicals are much more inclined than Jews to believe that using the military to kill foreigners is a wise and moral approach to security issues. That’s not because Evangelicals are more “supportive of America” than Jews are, it’s because they’re more supportive of violence. (emphasis original)

This is not a cultural problem that is especially prevalent in the ELCA, as far as I can tell, but it's an enormous problem for American Christianity as a whole. It's a scandal, really--it confirms many unbelievers, quite reasonably, in their unbelief. And it springs from a particular intersection of one version of Protestant political theology with the ideology of American nationalism. It is neither cause nor solution to the problem of the ELCA's demographic decline, but it is a cancer on the American Church that we need urgently to address. To do so, I'm prepared to make common cause, politically and theologically, with Christians of a much different stripe than me.

In other words, I hope that we are soon able to see beyond the sturm und drang of a culture-wars showdown and towards the problems that will beset American Christianity in the decades to come. This will take time, and the process will not even be recognizable. Today's advocates of "traditional" marriage would put Abraham and Jacob out on their ears, and who knows what they might say about Rahab, Naomi and Ruth, the Samaritan woman, and a group of twelve guys who ditch their wives to live together. History plays a lot of tricks, but God remains faithful.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:59 PM
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