A Non-Zero-Sum Conversation Between the Traditional Church and the Gay Community


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today I am excited to share a guest post from my friend and fellow blogger, Richard Beck. Richard is Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University and the author of Unclean: Mediations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. His blog, Experimental Theology, was one of the first I followed and really connected with online. I had the pleasure of meeting Richard (and his delightful wife Jana) when I spoke at ACU earlier this fall. In fact, Richard and I participated in a fun forum on blogging, which you can watch herehere, and here

Richard has a way of connecting the dots between faith and sociology in a way that consistently resonates with me. He’s a brilliant conversationalist, whose skill in negotiating potentially treacherous ideological waters is something I’ve long admired, and I deeply appreciate his efforts here to try and forge a better way forward in a conversation that has been static for so long. 
 

Be sure to weigh in with your own thoughts…and enjoy! 

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Transient

I'd like to share a few thoughts about the conversation, or lack thereof, between traditional/conservative Christian institutions (e.g., churches, Christian universities, Christian organizations) and the gay community.

I have two interrelated frustrations about this conversation as it typically plays out.

The first frustration is that it tacitly assumed that the only issue at stake in these conversations is the biblical status of same-sex relations. From a biblical perspective, are same-sex relations permissible? No doubt that is the central question, but it's often assumed that this is the only question. That is, once this question is settled, one way or the other, the two groups have nothing much else to say to each other. Usually because they can't agree on this question.

Which leads to my second frustration: the zero-sum nature of the conversation. Since it's often assumed that the biblical status of same-sex relations is the only issue at stake, a "winner takes all" atmosphere is created. Either the traditional Christian side will win (in prohibiting same-sex relations) or the gay side will win (in affirming same-sex relations). This creates a zero-sum "I win. You lose." dynamic that isn't very kind or healthy.

Transient

I think we can do better. Even if we disagree on the central question.

Let me come at this from the traditional Christian side as I am affiliated with a couple of different traditional Christian institutions. Let's assume for this discussion that this side, given its traditions and the way it reads the bible, just isn't going to budge on the issue of same-sex relations. A lot of us are associated with groups like this, groups that, at least in our lifetime, aren't going to move away from traditional Christian teaching regarding human sexuality and marriage.

So, with that settled and out of the way, let us go on to ask: Have we exhausted this topic? Is that the only thing that can be said? Are there no other areas of mutual concern?

I think there are. I don't think the conversation is a zero-sum, "winner takes all" game. I think the conversation is non-zero-sum. I think the conversation between traditional Christian groups and the gay community is much wider than the narrow debate about the biblical view of same-sex relations. We have significant areas of shared and mutual concern.

Transient

To start, I can think of four:

First, I think both groups share a mutual concern in treating others with respect, love and dignity.We share an interest in the Golden Rule. We both want to be treated well.

This is such an obvious thing, but how often is it forgotten? More often than we'd like to admit. And one reason I think it's forgotten is that we tend to think that the only thing at stake is the biblical question on same-sex relations. This creates the tense and combative zero-sum dynamic. But there is more at stake in the conversation. 

Specifically, how we treat each other. And this is where our interests can overlap. We may disagree, but how we disagree is critically important. We can share the desire to be people of peace. Despite our disagreements.

Second, many within the gay community are confessing Christians. Thus, outside of the issue of same-sex relations just about everything else within the Christian experience is open to mutual cooperation and partnership. For example, traditional and gay affirming churches partnering on local projects, ministries, programs and initiatives that are unrelated to issues of sexuality (e.g., poverty).

Third, both groups have a mutual interest in speaking out against discrimination, oppression, and violence. I talked about this in a recent post, The Gospel According to Lady Gaga, regarding how Christian communities should take a more personal and active interest in protecting gay kids from being bullied in schools. Protecting these kids, and any kid being bullied, is an area of mutual concern, a location for partnership and cooperation between the traditional Christian and gay communities. As another example, I've heard conservative Christian friends of mine come out in favor of gay marriage. Not because they are gay affirming (they aren't), but because they see the issue as a matter of civic respect and fairness within a democratic society. A simple act of being a good neighbor. I doubt many conservative Christians will see it this way, but some do (often because they are libertarians) and it demonstrations another area of mutual concern/cooperation.

Fourth, even within the area of sexuality there is significant overlap between gay Christians and traditional Christians. For example, despite differences on the biblical status of same-sex relations, both groups can partner in speaking a clear prophetic word about sexual promiscuity. Additionally, both groups can partner in pushing back on our sex-saturated media. I have some experience with this as I was a participant in a discussion on our campus with SoulForce visitors on the subject of sex and the media. The gay and traditional Christians on the panel found significant areas of agreement in addressing this topic.

The point of all this: The game isn't zero-sum; it's non-zero-sum. Fighting doesn't have to be the only thing we have in common. There are significant areas of mutual concern, locations where we can drop our fists and partner together on important Kingdom work.

I'm passionate about this issue because I'm distressed about how toxic the conversation has become between the gay community and the traditional Christian community. And one reason the conversation has become so toxic is because we've become convinced that the only thing we have in common is the biblical debate about same-sex relations. And since this is believed to be the only area of mutual concern we treat the conversation as a winner takes all cage match. With the zero-sum outcome of exactly one winner and exactly one loser.

But we have so much more to say to each other. So many other things of mutual concern and interest.

And if we paid attention to these areas of mutual concern, speaking a word of peace to each other now and again, how much poison might be sucked out of the current dynamic? Imagine how the conversation would change between the traditional Christian and gay communities if traditional Christian communities became, say, known for their guardian angel and anti-bullying programs and initiatives, often partnering with local gay advocacy groups to get this work done. Imagine how traditional Christians would be perceived if, say, they advocated for gay marriage on the grounds of democratic fairness, this despite their deeply held convictions that God disapproves of those marriage. How might actions like these change the dynamic that is currently playing out?

There is so much work to be done. And most of it we can do together.

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