How does Third Way, rooted in Romans 14-15, apply in the era of a Donald Trump presidency? Like every application of Third Way, this one depends on how we read the situation on the ground. In this case, what do we make of the words, policies and phenomena surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign and his unfolding tenure as President-Elect? First, some background thoughts. Continue reading
An answer to a perennial question
“It is the work of the oppressed to resist oppression, it is the work of the oppressor to dismantle oppression”
This is a paraphrase of a comment I ran into the other day at a local SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice) meeting. For context, we were (and are) a group of white folk working to support social justice organizations and movements led by people of color, and at the time we were talking about why we exist the way we do because, lets face it, it is weird to be an anti-racism organization with overwhelmingly white membership. Now the fact of the matter is that SURJ emerged as a result of a lot of white folk who had become aware of racial injustice in this country asking people of color what they could do to help. One of the most common answers was (and is) that we could help to educate other privileged folks. Hence SURJ, an organization dedicated to “organizing White people for racial justice”.
This gets at the heart of a perennial question for would-be allies: “how can I be responsible with the privilege I have?” I have written in another post about some of the answers I think the Bible provides to that question, but this comment I ran into at our meeting the other day has me thinking about it again. It isn’t a simple question after all, and as someone who considers myself an ally – a feminist ally, an LGBTQ+ ally, a ally to people of color, among other things – and an imperfect ally at that, I hope that I will be forever thinking about and refining my thoughts and actions on this question. So here’s the quote again:
“It is the work of the oppressed to resist oppression, it is the work of the oppressor to dismantle oppression”
My job as Mr. Privilege
I am a middle class, college educated, straight, white, cisgender, American, Protestant male. I am practically oozing with privilege. I live in a society and civilization which was literally built to serve people who are like me. I know this. It means, among other things, that my voice will automatically be amplified in most contexts, that my opinion is far less likely to be questioned on the basis of who I am, that I am able to glide through my daily life without worrying about whether I will be safe when engaging in normal, healthy human behavior like holding my spouse’s hand in public, shopping, walking down the street, or worshiping with my religious community. It means that I have the option to ignore just about every oppressive system and prejudiced person in my society without any fear of personal consequences. And as a Third Way follower of Jesus, it means that I cannot give in to the temptation to do just that.
Where does the Third Way come into it?
Probably the most recognizable difference between a Third Way approach and the more typical “Open and Affirming” approach to sexuality and the Church is the Third Way’s openness to the presence of non-affirming Christians within the community. This is both a tremendous strength and serious challenge for Third Way communities. It means that Third Way communities, while demanding full participation for LGBTQ+ individuals in the full life of the church, risk the possibility of having their spaces (physical churches, small group homes, community gatherings, online and social media spaces etc…) become places where non-affirming Christians (in Romans 14 parlance “the weak”) engage in conversation and behavior which is less than perfectly safe for the LGBTQ+ folk who have already been attacked, harmed, and marginalized by the greater Western church. At the end of the day, for all of its value, diversity is less safe than homogeneity.
In this context, it is the special responsibility of Allies to stand up for our LGBTQ+ members and, when called upon, to engage positively, lovingly, educationally, and firmly with our non-affirming members when they (intentionally sure, but also and more frequently unintentionally) engage in speech or behavior which threatens the inclusion and welcome of LGBTQ+ folk. This does not mean that LGBTQ+ folk should not engage with non-affirming members around contentious and debatable topics, that is up to them. They are living in the environment that a historically homophobic, transphobic church has created and their work in this environment is varied, diverse, and subject to the leading of the Holy Spirit. What they do in that context is a conversation that they get to have among themselves, with the other gifted and brilliant LGBTQ+ leaders in the church, with those they trust within strong community, and, most critically, with the Holy Spirit. Our work as privileged members of the Body of Christ is to engage in the messy, complicated, process of dismantling the systems (whether structural, mental, or theological) which have been used for oppression.
My intention is not to say that LGBTQ+ folk cannot, or should not, engage in whatever way seems best to the Spirit and to themselves, it is to suggest that, as privileged people it is our responsibility to engage in the task of dismantling the systems and structures which give us that privilege.
This is especially vital in Third Way communities because it is in Third Way communities that these situations are most likely to arise. We will all get it wrong sometimes, and a community dedicated to following Jesus and to the unity of His Body along a Romans 14 model must be a community of grace, truth, and humility for the times we get it wrong. We who are allies must be engaged in the work of dismantling the systems which keep us apart. Remember that the divisions of the church in Rome were eventually dissolved, they are not the specific issues that the modern church wrestles with. So there is every reason to hope that this will not always be an issue which divides the church, but that will only happen if those of us who could ignore oppression choose instead to stand on the side of the marginalized.
A call for input
All of this is a statement of how I see myself as an ally. And as such I want to own the fact that my privilege numbs me to jagged edges of this work. So I would be incredibly grateful for input from other allies and from the LGBTQ+ members of the Third Way community. What have I missed? What message do you think the Third Way ought to have for allies as we move forward together?
Talking about politics?
The general focus here at the Third Way Newsletter is often on issues of gender and sexuality and the Church. That makes a lot of sense given that questions and contentions about sexuality and gender seem to fuel much of the disagreement, debate, and disunity within the church in the global West, and particularly the United States today; LGBTQ+ concerns are the experimentum crucis for a Romans 14, Third Way of dealing with debatable matters in the Church today. Recently though (and I am embarrassed that it has taken me so long to notice) it occurred to me that this year, the church in the US seems to be contending nearly as much around the issue of politics.
Now historically (at least in recent history), I would argue that political disagreement within the US Church has mapped fairly easily onto the larger, pre-existing denominational and identity divides. White Evangelicals vote Republican ever since the rise of the moral majority, historically black churches trend Democrat, mainline Protestants have largely followed their geographical demographics with a bit of a tendency towards the Democrats, Anabaptists and Quakers don’t vote (or secretly vote but don’t talk about it), and Catholics have their own liberal/conservative theological divide which generally maps onto a Democrat/Republican political affiliation. Of course there have been exceptions which have been more or less notable, and in the last few American elections, millennial Evangelicals have gained some attention by shifting towards independent and Democrat affiliation.
But this election seems different, and I think legitimately so. The old categories are breaking down (has anyone decided yet whether the new designation “Progressive Christians” are Evangelicals or Mainline Christians? Where are all of these neo-Anabaptists coming from?) and with them, so are the easily mapped political associations. I know self identified Evangelicals (my own roots) who are planning to vote Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Constitution, and Green; some will be engaging in a principled abstention from voting and others won’t be voting out of cynicism or a generalized political apathy. The political landscape of American Christianity is changing.
What does this have to do with the Third Way?
And there is a lot that is good to be said about this increasing political diversity in the Church. In fact, I am a huge fan of disentangling Jesus’ church from secular politics. I am really happy that being an Evangelical Christian no longer automatically means being a Republican in the US. I think that this shift away from automatic political identification is a positive one. But we need to realize that it comes at a cost. One of the great lessons I have learned over the last several years is that diversity is better, stronger, and more beautiful than homogeneity but it is also harder. A diversity of political affiliation (including disagreements over whether we ought to have a political affiliation at all) within the body of Christ is a strength but is also a place of vulnerability. It is a chance for us to be divided, to lose our love for one another. To borrow a metaphor from Paul, it is when the hand first realizes that it is not an eye, that it is most likely to say to the eye “I don’t need you”.
Of course this is another iteration of Paul’s whole point in Romans 14. We are to be one, despite our political, theological, and other identity differences, we are to recognize our oneness in Christ, we must continue in our love for one another.
In this political season that is not at all easy. Remember, we are talking about real disputable matters here, not matters of no importance. Or relationship to politics (secular or ecclesial) matters. I genuinely believe that the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election will be a matter of life and death for many people. It will determine the foreign and domestic policies which drive military intervention abroad and medical intervention at home. Even the decision whether or not to participate matters. My Anabaptist friends remind me that the act of voting entangles me with the system of Empire and will incline me towards identification with the world, my progressive and conservative friends remind me that silence in the face of injustice (or potential injustice) allows the perpetuation of injustice.
These points are well made, the positions are well reasoned, and I am not neutral about them. I am fully convinced that by supporting the positions and candidates I disagree with, my fellow Christians are actively contributing to damage in the world. And yet…. and yet I also notice that, like me, they are acting out of their best understanding of what God is showing them. I must see that they too are trying to choose, and act out Love Himself. Once again, here again, we must remember that we may be among the weak, or we may be among the strong, and that either way we are called, neither to give up our beliefs, nor to cease in our love for our family in Christ. We can mourn (and I do) the very real damage the Jesus body has done, is doing, and will do to “the least of these” but we must mourn as one body; it is our body, the body of Christ, and if He can love His whole body, I believe that I am to love it as well.
So what am I going to do?
This last Sunday one of our pastors told us that Jesus had broken her heart over the disunity of the Church in this political season. She called on us to join her in fasting and prayer every Tuesday between now and the election for the unity of the Church. I want to extend that invitation to you. I do not expect that I will radically change my beliefs about politics or society, and I don’t intend to back down or stop calling for what I believe to be the most loving actions US citizens can take in November, but I will commit to stand in the Spirit of God and pray against the division of Jesus’ church. I will repent for the times I have allowed politics to make me think of the members of Jesus body as “the other”, and allowed my love to wane. I will pray each Tuesday that God increases my love for those whom I believe are wrong. And I will pray that you will join me.
I had a little break from Third Way Newsletter thanks to a generous 3 month sabbatical from my co-pastor duties at Blue Ocean Faith, Ann Arbor. But I’m back. Here’s what’s been happening in my life as it pertains to all things Third Way.
Second Edition of A Letter to My Congregation
During Sabbatical I finished up revisions for a second edition of the book that got this started. Various reviews and critiques alerted me to a few sources I hadn’t been able to include, primarily the work of James Loader, mentioned in the Tim Keller review. So I incorporated these into the second edition. I made the most changes to the chapter on the biblical texts dealing with same-gender sex. It’s the chapter I was least satisfied with and it felt good to re-work it for added clarity, in addition to a couple of scholarly updates.
I also added two chapters. First, an introduction to the Second Edition, which also dealt with the question of my claim to the label “evangelical.” Second, a “What Happened Next” afterword chapter that updates the reader on the surprising and painful effects (best of times/worst of times) of publishing a book that was ultimately rejected by my former denomination, Vineyard USA. By the way, if you’re ordering the book from Amazon, it usually ships in 2-4 days, not 2-4 weeks as Amazon incorrectly reports. Continue reading
One of the frustrations I have discovered writing about LGBT questions from a Third Way perspective is that I, and many of us who take this perspective at present, end up writing from the standpoint of the “strong”. As a result, I am constantly in danger of coming off as condescending (a perennial temptation for “the strong”) and am regularly accused of arguing for an approach which would privilege my take on the relevant theology. Continue reading
Wheaton College is in the news again, this time for suspending Dr. Larycia Hawkins for asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. (Check out recent coverage in The Atlantic and New York Times.) Wheaton also houses one of the biggest collections of the works of C.S. Lewis in the world. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is on course to sell nearly 100,000 copies again this year. I’m partial to this little gem of a book because it fostered my return to faith after a brush with adolescent atheism. Continue reading
The members of a congregation who want to follow the Third Way in the LGBT controversy are asked to make a simple pledge—one that is made in response to the apostolic commands of Romans 14-15 in the face of hotly contested “disputable matters.” Continue reading
It’s been nearly two years since I proposed Third Way as a new approach to the full inclusion of LGBTQ people with the release of A Letter to My Congregation. Many existing churches have transitioned to Third Way, including congregations in a new church network called Blue Ocean Faith. Several other church plants have launched with Third Way as part of their foundation—a much easier task than transitioning an existing congregation. From the collective experience of many churches, transition to Third Way is challenging. It requires, so far as I can tell, five things. Continue reading
Many of us will soon gather for Thanksgiving dinner with extended family and remember what an odd, glorious, and Saturday-Night-Live thing a family is. Family! Nobody is born or adopted into a family they have chosen. We get assigned, like roommates in a freshmen dormitory. And often we find ourselves thrown into close proximity with people we seriously wonder about. Continue reading
Some believe the Bible forbids all same-gender sexual relationships. Others believe there is sufficient evidence that the Scriptural prohibitions are aimed at practices that can be meaningfully distinguished from modern-day same-gender covenantal unions (e.g. orgiastic sex, prostitution, pederasty, slave sex.) Continue reading
When A Letter to My Congregation came out early in 2014, it was difficult to predict whether voices like Justin Lee, leader of the Gay Christian Network and author of Torn, would multiply or dissipate. Since then, however The Reformation Project, led by Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, and the work of significant evangelicals scholars like David Gushee (who wrote the forward for A Letter to My Congregation) and Jim Brownson, at Western Seminar all added to a sense of growing momentum. This was only reinforced by the recent change of heart announced by Tony Compolo, a well respected evangelical voice for decades. Pastors like Fred Harrell at City Church in San Francisco and Danny Cortez from New Heart Community Church in Whittier, California, and Adam Philips at Christ Church, Portland have either adopted the Third Way explicitly or used it as a resource in moving toward full inclusion, as have others around the country. Language and theological perspectives differ, but the church is finding a new way forward in an attempt to put “Love your neighbor as yourself” into practice in the face of harmful exclusionary policies. The following article in Reuters offers a recent and helpful summary.
Parker Palmer is an educator, thinker, writer, and Quaker best known for The Courage to Teach and more recently Healing the Heart of Democracy. In a recent On Being column, he says, “Today we Americans need to find a Third Way. That does not mean making cheap compromises, as in, “I’ll stop caring about the poor if you’ll stop caring about more money for the military.” Instead it means holding our differences in ways that open us to possibilities we never would have imagined if we had failed to hang in with each other” Yet another sign of a brewing conversation in the face of growing polarization. (Parker’s column features an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, an activist who influenced Martin Luther King,)