Friday, November 12, 2010

Gay Suicide and the Evangelical Ethic of Love: A Response to Eric Reitan’s Article

Eric Reitan’s article in Religion Dispatches, “Gay Suicide and the Ethic of Love: A Progressive Christian Response” addresses the recent string of tragic suicides of young gay men. He asserts that the evangelical response should be one of love rather than a fixation on a “conservative interpretation” of scripture that focuses on judgment. “Any theory of the Bible,” Reitman states, “that requires me to ignore my neighbors in favor of teasing out the correct meaning of Romans 1:24-27 seems to do an injustice to the Bible’s heart.”

Reitan’s framing of this issue is on point—he suggests that many evangelicals focus on fragmented passages of scripture rather than the Bible’s overarching message. However, I take issue with the way Reitan structures possible responses in either/or terms: either one wholly celebrates or wholly condemns homosexuals and homosexuality. This is a shallow and unhelpful treatment of a complex matter. In an attempt to flesh out a fuller understanding of this issue, I will make two claims in what follows: first, that there is an alternative response to the problem at hand for evangelicals. Secondly, this response—given the fact that the conversion of many conservative evangelicals to what they see as a “gay agenda” is not to likely to occur quickly—is the most pragmatically fruitful.

Reitan says that: “If you accept the conservative view about the Bible’s content and its relation to God, either you’ll need to stifle the lessons of compassion and empathy, or you’ll need to refuse to listen with compassion and empathy in the first place.” Here Reitan asserts that there can be no loving response to homosexuals outside of total acceptance of all facets of homosexuality. He seems to assume that a full conversion of the deep-rooted beliefs of evangelicals is necessary in order for them to address gay suicide in any kind of meaningful way. It is undeniable that many of the evangelicals in question have paid little to no attention to this problem and have, in many ways, even condoned it. However, I question how constructive Reitan’s proposition is when it essentially calls for evangelicals to change much of their foundational moral authority overnight, but I will say more to that later.

I suggest instead a third, seemingly obvious, but more pragmatic ethic to propose to opposing evangelicals: Christ’s command to love one’s enemy. An ethic of love founded in the gospel teaches us that we are intended to love not just our neighbor, but also our enemies. The implicit suggestion of this proposition may seem harsh—that homosexuals are the enemies of evangelicals, but it is a starting point for dialogue. It works to seat these parties at the table, in spite of their enormous differences. It reminds evangelicals that, regardless of their convictions about the (in)validity of homosexuality, they are morally obligated by the gospel to reconcile with this group. The discussion then is no longer about whether or not homosexuality has a biblical foundation—it can assumed for the sake of argument that it does not—but rather about how one can be most obedient to the gospel command. Evangelicals, if they heed Christ’s command, must sit down and address the safety of LGBTQ populations directly, instead of engaging in debates on its “naturalness” or biblical validity; tabling this issue is the beginning of an evangelical response.

Reitan’s starting point, conversely, seems to be that evangelicals should be persuaded by the progressive perspective to wholly change their views and accept the validity of homosexuality. In this sense, Reitan is not supporting an ethic of love, which obligates Christians to address the problem by working toward reconciliation, but rather he seeks to solve the problem by removing it altogether. He suggests an assimilation of progressive values by evangelicals which does injustice to the inherent complexity of this issue. An ethic of love which seeks assimilation instead of reconciliation is neither an ethic nor is it loving, but rather it is a patent annexation of one ideology by the other. Interestingly, this morally thick rhetoric is similar to that used by many of the said evangelicals who turn a blind eye to the issue of gay bullying and violence. Thus Reitan’s ethic of love may differ in content, but in terms of structure and style it is essentially the same argument as that of his opponents. Genuine transformation and reconciliation does not occur through polemical debates such as these but rather through mutual respect and dialogue.

The reason why Reitan’s approach fails prima facie is because, as mentioned above, he frames the issue in a polemical manner that has a divisive function. Reitan’s approach ultimately fails because he takes for granted just how dissimilar conservative evangelicals and progressives are. Implicit in his article is the idea that these two groups share enough foundational values to challenge one another’s interpretations. However, they are two very different ideologies with distinct moral vocabularies. “At the center of each are two distinct conceptions of moral authority,” James Hunter explains, “two different ways of apprehending reality, of ordering experience, of making moral judgments. […] Each side represents the tendencies of a separate and competing moral galaxy.” Thus for Reitan to assert that conservative evangelicals can or will assume progressive views such as the affirmation of homosexuality is largely naive of the fact that the difference is essentially a categorical one. The conservative evangelical view of homosexuality then is not what stymies engagement between these groups. Rather, it is the evangelical understanding of the nature and authority of scripture, Christian doctrine, and traditional mores—which are the hermeneutical framework through which all other experience is adjudicated. All ideologies are necessarily mediated through experience. If homosexuality were simply a matter of the interpretation of scripture, then the views of these two groups regarding the discussion at hand (and many others) would be much easier to reach consensus on.

Considering the fact that these two groups are fundamentally different, restructuring our understanding of how they should interact is pertinent. Dialogue between them should focus less on ideology and more on shared goals, since, as mentioned, change in ideology is not likely to happen quickly, if at all; such a change is not a pragmatic solution for an imminent crisis. A goal oriented approach which respects differences between groups while looking for ways to collaborate resembles healthy interreligious dialogue more than inter-Christian dialogue. In the former, religious groups do not challenge the premises of each other’s religion; they look for places of “shared righteous action,” as Christoph Schwobel conceives of the matter. They focus on common goals such as justice, compassion and safety for all people, despite the fact that they approach these issues from different premises. Many Christians may find my suggestion that these two groups are so radically different troubling. I find it troubling also. However I believe this is an important distinction to make in order to address the issue at hand. It is my hope that evangelicals and progressives can recognize this difference so that, rather than arguing over the premises in which their claims are founded, they can approach the crisis of gay suicide with a focus on ending it.

Works Cited
Hunter, James. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books Press, 1991.

Reitan, Eric, “Gay Suicide and the Ethic of Love: a Progressive Christian Response.” Religion Dispatches (October 2010) /3531/gay_suicide_and_the_ethic_of_love%3A_a_progressive_christian_response (retrieved October 31, 2010) [The article which the author is responding to]

Schwobel, Christoph. “Particularity, Universality, and the Religions.” In Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions. Edited by Gavin D’Costa, 30-46. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,1992.

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