The Problem Of Lukewarm
April 15th, 2013
Dan Savage’s New York Times book review on Sunday takes Jeff Chu to task for his new book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. Chu was raised Southern Baptist, became an accomplished journalist, married his husband (his mother refused to attend the wedding and cries herself to sleep because her gay son is “lost”), and still admits, “There are still moments when I wonder whether my homosexuality is my ticket to hell.” Chu spent a year traveling across America, meeting with preachers and ministers across the religious spectrum, and with gays and lesbians who struggle to reconcile their faiths with their sexualities. As Chu recounts those stories, Savage accuses him of going soft on the more hateful elements of Christianity while reserving his “sneering takedowns” for other Christians who embrace people in all of their sexualities:
There were moments when I wanted to throw this book across the room. In fact, there were moments when I actually did throw it across the room. Chu’s nuanced and surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Westboro Baptist Church — which rose to prominence protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepard, with members waving signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Fag Matt in Hell” — sits in sharp contrast with Chu’s sneering takedown of Metropolitan Community Church, a gay Christian denomination founded in Los Angeles in 1968. While Chu succeeds in humanizing the members of Westboro Baptist (a minor miracle), he dehumanizes the members of M.C.C. He complains bitterly about an older man at an M.C.C. service who winked at him; another hugged him a moment or two longer than necessary. If encountering a couple of creeps in the pews means an entire church can be dismissed, what do we do with the Roman Catholic Church, where ordained creeps have molested countless children?
Chu goes easy on Exodus International, the largest “ex-gay” ministry in the country, despite the harm the group does to vulnerable gays and lesbians, particularly gay children. He gives an approving nod to the sneakily homophobic Marin Foundation, an evangelical group that shows up at gay pride parades holding signs that say, “We’re sorry!” and offering hugs to paradegoers who have been harmed by religion. But Andrew Marin, the group’s founder and public face, has urged his followers to target Christian teenagers struggling with “same-sex attraction” because they’re easier to talk out of being gay. Marin has refused to say that gay sex isn’t a sin, and he seems to believe that gay people can change their sexual orientation. The more you learn about the Marin Foundation, the more it looks like Westboro Baptist in the drag of false contrition: God hates you — now with hugs! Chu blasts M.C.C., but Marin gets a pass.
It’s that second paragraph that drew a very quick response — not from Chu but from Marin. Marin’s work has focused on building bridges between the LGBT community and conservative Christians. But as a self-described bridge-builder, Marin has pointedly refused to answer some rather critical yet simple questions about his beliefs: Is homosexuality a sin? Is being gay a choice? Can gay people change? Should gay people change? His refusal to address those questions has naturally raised a lot of red flags among many in the gay community, your’s truly included. After all, these are some pretty fundamental questions which are not difficult to answer for most of us. But Marin argues that if he were to answer these “yes/no questions,” it would destroy his ability to remain in that middle space, which he calls “living in the tension” between full LGBT acceptance and condemnation. Marin’s response to Savage’s remarks is, characteristically, quite charitable before Marin contrasts his methods to Savages’s:
Dan and I have two completely different philosophical approaches to social change; both with the same goal–-that everyone, regardless of orientation, gender, race, color, creed or religious affiliation (or not), will be able to live safe, loved, dignified and cherished lives. I feel the crossroad lies in the view of what is deemed as an “acceptable medium of engagement.” This is not a new debate throughout the world’s history. Two of the more well known examples:
Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the only way for sustainable, structural societal change to happen was to build bridges between the oppressive white folks and his African-American community. And although later in life Malcolm X’s framework for social change began to align more with MLK, the majority of his public rhetoric was was strongly advocating for the necessity of African-American’s to overthrow the oppressive white “devil” and implement the same system of oppression upon whites as they had done to his people for centuries.
Nelson Mandela believed that the only way for sustainable, structural societal change to happen was to build bridges between the oppressive white Afrikaners and his black African community. His wife, Winnie, is famously noted for completely disagreeing with him. And during the intense years of apartheid, she strongly advocated for an overthrown white Afrikaner government where black Africans could then implement the same system of oppression whites had done to her people for centuries.
In neither of these examples am I suggesting a comparison between the American Civil Rights movement, the South African Apartheid and the modern LGBT equality struggle. I am rather viewing these examples through a lens of cultural engagement. I am also not saying that I am MLK or Mandela, and that Savage is Malcolm X or Mandela’s wife. But what I am saying is that for centuries culture wars and societal disconnects are perpetuated by these same two ideologies — both of which have their movement’s leaders and followers passionately believing their medium of engagement as the best way forward, thus causing many public disagreements. [Emphases in the original
Marin denies that he’s comparing himself to MLK or Mandela, or Savage to X or Winnie, and I’ll take him at his word. I’ll also set aside his completely misguided reading of the gangster thug Winnie Mandela, who cheered vigilante “necklacing” and who has for decades been implicated in the murder of two young activists in her home. But Marin also gets it very wrong when he describes King as a bridge-builder between “oppressive white folks” and African-Americans. If King had followed Marin’s example of bridge-building in 1963, we would have expected him to express no opinion about segregation, to say that both sides have valid points about voting rights, and to argue that while the kind of change African-Americans were seeking might be inevitable, the time might not be right.
But of course, King said none of that. He had some very strong opinions about all of those things and he possessed no qualms about expressing them. And he expressed them most pointedly in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, which he wrote exactly fifty years ago this week. The entire letter is worth a read, but I want to direct your attention to the section where King addresses white moderates — who saw themselves as “bridge-builders” of the day, and their reluctance to engage in the most fundamental questions:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
These aren’t the words of an on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that bridge-building guru who lets everyone be right and refuses to allow anyone to called out on their bigotry and who, above all, just wants everyone to get along. King was not a bridge builder, certainly not as Marin defines it. King was a fighter, fighting to take that bridge so he could walk to the other side to the land of freedom.
And I think it’s instructive that King speaks of the tension between the fight for civil rights and the reactionary forces aligned against it, much as Marin speaks of “living in the tension” and has even named his blog for it. But King described that tension as being a “necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace… to a substantive and positive peace,” and he directs his frustration for white moderates who would suggest that the tension is an acceptable status quo, for now. Marin seeks our appreciation for committing to live in that tension, perhaps forever, rather than hastening its transition to positive peace.
I appreciate that Marin’s goal, which he expressed so eloquently, is for everyone, LGBT or otherwise, “to live safe, loved, dignified and cherished lives.” I do believe his sincerity when he says that he loves, without question and qualifications, his many gay friends — of which he really does have many who are willing to make themselves known (quite unlike so many others anti-gay folks who claim to have “many gay friends,” who wind up remaining invisible). Apologizing to gay people on behalf of others who aren’t apologizing, as Marin has at Chicago’s Gay Pride parade, is a nice gesture despite its obvious limitations. If Marin can challenge conservative Christians to rethink their approach to gay people, whatever their motives may be, then that is, as they say, a step in the right direction. And if Marin can provide a non-condemning and authentically Evangelical experience for LGBT people, whatever the depth of that acceptance may be, well that, too, is better than the way things were before.
And who can argue that building bridges between the LGBT community and conservative Christians is not a laudable task? I couldn’t, but that didn’t keep me from feeling uncomfortable and distrustful about the whole endeavor. And until now, I’ve been unable to articulate why I felt so distrustful.
But thanks to Marin’s invoking the examples of MLK, now I can. And it’s the problem I have with a lot of people who try to build bridges. Too often, the bridge is treated as a destination when it’s really just a way of going from one side to another. But I think Marin doesn’t just see his bridge as a destination, but he confuses himself, the bridge builder, for the bridge itself. A bridge is an inanimate, unthinking thing, with no values, no conscience, no answers, no sense of purpose except one: to go from one side to another. And so Marin, like a well-built bridge, thinks that it is his duty to remains as mute as that bridge. Bridges are useful conveyances, and even though their utility is limited, I use them whenever I can. But there are two things we must remember about bridges. First, after we cross them, we leave them behind. And second, the only bridge we remember from the Civil Rights era is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
Marin’s example shows us that the problem isn’t a lack of bridges. Bridges are metaphors and we aren’t lacking in metaphors. What we are lacking is clear and honest communication, based on mutual respect (which doesn’t have to include mutual acceptance) and aimed toward the goal of mutual understanding (which doesn’t have to include mutual approval. Sorry, but there are some things I just won’t approve, but I can understand them much better than I do now.). This is the kind of communication which begins with some very hard but honest answers to very important yes/no questions. And by the way, just because the questions are in a yes/no form doesn’t mean the answers have to be. They can be “maybe,” “it depends,” or even “I don’t know,” as long as the answers are honest. But refusing to answer altogether comes across as sneaky and manipulative, as though that person was following a strategy to achieve a goal he won’t reveal. We’ve seen this pattern too many times before to dismiss it just because Marin wants us to.
I disagree with Savage when he says Marin is “sneakily homophobic,” only because I don’t believe that is Marin’s intent. And I don’t believe the Marin Foundation is “Westboro Baptist in the drag of false contrition,” although I get where Savage is coming from. If Marin believes that homosexuality is a sin and sinners go to hell — two questions Marin hasn’t answered — then the only difference between him and Westboro is that Westboro built their own bridge directly linking the starting point of the first premise with the destination of the second. I don’t believe that Marin believes those things, but only because Marin himself is willing to allow me to believe anything about him, including something that may not by true. And this conversation is far too important to be misled by falsely-held assumptions.
And this brings me to the real problem I have with Marin. He is much too lukewarm to be praised or condemned, “neither hot nor cold.” Instead, we see him giving refuge to those who “love the sinner/hate the sin,” which, when you think of it, is just another way of telling people where “their place” is. The “sin of Sodom” and the “curse of Ham” are only four chapters apart in Genesis, and millions have suffered because people spent centuries weaponizing those two chapters. And they were helped along, sometimes unwittingly but sometimes tacitly, by others who were neither hot nor cold. I wish he were one or the other, because then I could at least know who I’m talking to. If he is on the side of the angels, then he’s in danger of getting on the Angel of Revelation’s bad side, who also didn’t like lukewarmedness: “I will spit you out,” that angel told the Church of Laodicea, as one would spit out lukewarm coffee. King didn’t think much of those lukewarm whites of his day either: “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” he wrote from his jail cell. And so they were lost to history, spat out, as it were, as will be their modern-day counterparts.