Is Prophetic Neutrality Possible?

This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent those of the people, institutions or organizations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

I have been loathe to comment on LGBT issues for various reasons, but the recent statements by both Dan Savage and Andrew Marin have elicited a response. In his review of Jeff Chu’s new book, Savage says that the Marin Foundation “looks like Westboro Baptist in the drag of false contrition: God hates you — now with hugs!” Not surprisingly, and with good reason, Marin himself completely rejects this comparison. His concern, presented winsomely in his book Love Is an Orientation (IVP, 2009) and defended repeatedly on his blog, is to foster a space for a genuinely inclusive ethic of charitable and empathic engagement. He seeks to be a bridge-builder and peacemaker in the midst of a deeply polarized and politicized environment. In this regard, I have only praise for Marin and his fellow bridge-builders. His attempt to elevate the conversation through personal, nonjudgmental relationships is an honorable one. May his tribe increase. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am an editor at IVP, the publisher of Marin’s book, though I had no involvement with it. As always, all of my opinions are my own and do not reflect those of IVP.)

There is much to dislike about Savage’s essay. See the excellent response by Tony Jones for more. That being said, I think we need to attend more carefully to Savage’s own valid concerns. To be sure, I cannot condone his description of the Marin Foundation, but I can certainly empathize with it. And I can do so by way of examining Marin’s own analogies for his project.

Marin looks at two previous instances in which “sustainable, structural societal change” required honest bridge-building: the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) in the United States and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Marin is quick to point out that he does not intend the analogies to suggest that the LGBT issue is equivalent to the issue of racism, nor does he seek to present himself as an Martin Luther King Jr. or a Nelson Mandela. Instead, his point is that “for centuries culture wars and societal disconnects are perpetuated by these same two ideologies [i.e., bridge-building inclusion vs. revenge and exclusion]–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.” The problem—and no doubt Marin is well-aware of this—is that those struggling for LGBT equality do see their struggle as equivalent to that of racism. But let’s stick within the terms of Marin’s own analogy for a moment, and for now let’s focus on the CRM.

The problem I want to examine is a separation between form and content in Marin’s analogy with King and the CRM. The form is the mode or method of engagement, while the content is the basis and goal of this engagement. Marin, it seems, has isolated the form of King’s movement from the content that gave this form life and vitality. While it has a certain kind of persuasiveness, such a separation undercuts the viability of the analogy, or at least makes the analogy so loose as to be irrelevant. More concretely, the problem is that King’s approach was not simply “to build bridges between the oppressive white folks and his African-American community.” Nor was his ethic one of mere “inclusion” and “peacemaking.” And that is because the movement of which he was the leader was a movement that saw the entire issue as a matter of justice. One side was on the side of the gospel, and the other was not. One side was a co-agent with God in the arc of history, and the other was not. To be sure, King built bridges, but the bridge was built so that whites would cross to the other side and stand with their oppressed black sisters and brothers in the cause of justice. His was a radically violent act of sociopolitical upheaval—precisely in the form of nonviolent action. If we fail to appreciate this point, we miss the true significance of his social revolution.

Given that this is the fiftieth anniversary of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” I think it will be instructive to listen to his words in that magnificent document. King writes in this letter not against the white oppressors, the Ku Klux Klanners, but against the “white moderates” in the churches—those who desire peace and order more than justice. These white moderates, he says, prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” King writes:
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.
Notice what King is saying here. He is not advocating inclusion and bridge-building. He is instead advocating action that exposes injustice so that it can be eliminated. The white moderates advocated patience, in the hope that social ills would work themselves out over time. King instead declares that “now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” He rejects the policies of white-moderate “do nothingism” and black-nationalist “hatred and despair,” favoring instead a third way: a nonviolent action that is not less but more radical than the nationalists. In response to the claim that he is an extremist, King writes:
I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Here is the crucial point: King’s third way of “creative extremism” is an ethic of exclusion, not of inclusion. It is an ethic that names and excludes both negative peacemaking and physically violent hatred. It is not an ethic that assumes we can overcome our problems by learning to “live in the tension,” by bringing people together in order to “mix it up in one big holy uncomfortableness,” as Marin puts it. Justice and injustice, like a cosmic concoction of oil and water, do not mix; they only wage war. The Marin Foundation refuses to take sides in order to stake out a position “in the middle.” The problem is that, from King’s perspective, there is no middle. There can be no neutrality in prophecy. The cause of positive peace, of genuine justice, requires that we take a definite stance. King called Christians to take the side of justice and equality. The issue for King was not whether one takes a side—because everyone already does, whether they acknowledge it or not—but how one takes a side.

Let me be clear: I am not saying Marin is the LGBT equivalent of a white moderate. That would be wrong on two counts. First, King certainly did bring people together to hear their stories and engage in honest and open dialogue. So in that limited, formal sense, the Marin Foundation is engaged in King-like action. Second, Marin himself is not an advocate of “do nothingism.” He is most certainly doing things to mend wounds and advance mutual understanding. In a way, he has taken a side, if that side is one of love and empathy. He stands by and for his gay and lesbian friends. Like those white participants in the CRM, he has faced abuse from both sides. We might recall King’s words for some of his white allies:
I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some—such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle—have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as "dirty nigger-lovers." Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful "action" antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.
We can and should recognize something of Marin in King’s words here. And yet, if the Marin Foundation does not view the LGBT struggle as a matter of justice, if they refuse to take sides at that crucial point, then the analogy with King’s white allies breaks down. Marin has certainly “grasped the meaning of this social revolution,” but he has not “committed [himself] to it,” assuming such commitment entails identifying one side as being in line with the arc of history. This brings us back to Savage. We can refuse to accept his characterization of the Marin Foundation as Westboro Baptist with hugs, but we have to acknowlege that, from the perspective of those struggling for LGBT equality, the position of inclusive neutrality is in fact a position in favor of the oppressors, not the oppressed—regardless of how much they suffer the abuse and brutality of the oppressors.

Marin, of course, denies that he is taking a position on either side, since he seeks to defuse the entire rhetoric of oppressor and oppressed; he wants to elevate the whole debate above labels that characterize one side as right and the other as wrong. But if this is indeed a matter of justice, as one side emphatically proclaims—and that is precisely the central question in the debate—then his noble efforts are not merely in vain; they are actually wrong. If this is a matter of justice, then there is no inclusion without exclusion, no peace without a struggle of violent nonviolence. The question is not whether we will take a side, but how we will take a side. Unless and until Marin can say that one side, rather than the other, is on the side of justice—unless he can truly name the oppressors and the oppressed—he will continue to be seen by people like Savage as perpetuating a false, negative peace—if not much worse, as Savage’s review indicates.

Marin continues to be a faithful witness to a thoughtful, loving form of engagement, but if that love is not wedded to a prophetic denunciation of injustice and the clear exclusion of negative peacemaking (as well as positive peacemaking that refuses to take sides), then those who see themselves as oppressed will only experience this as an empty love that embraces tension at the expense of truth. We need to be honest about that experience and acknowledge its validity. Of course, if this is not a matter of justice, then the entire comparison to King is moot. A formal comparison with King without the material basis for his particular mode of engagement is meaningless, even if well-intended. Clarity on this point is necessary before any further progress is possible.

Let’s celebrate the good work that Marin and others are doing, but let’s also recognize that such work inevitably runs up against a brick wall: Is this a matter of justice? I understand all too well why evangelical Christians refuse to answer it: if you say no, then you appear to be denying the very real experience of oppression in the LGBT community; if you say yes, then you appear to be denying the teachings of scripture and capitulating to cultural norms. It is an impossible position to be in, unless one of those two consequences changes in its appearance. What is undeniable is that to avoid answering it altogether is not a solution. Those who choose this path of neutrality must be prepared to suffer the abuse that people like Savage heap upon them. And while such abuse may often be inaccurate, it will not necessarily be unwarranted, given the divergent starting-points. We must recognize that the difference between Savage and Marin is not a difference between two modes of engagement; it is the difference between two understandings of the problem itself. Unless we can agree on the problem, we will never agree about the right way to approach it.

In the meantime, from the perspective of those who identify with the LGBT community, King’s words ring as true today as they did fifty years ago: “The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”


Aric Clark said…
Right on. I hope that Marin takes note of this.