In response to the Chick-Fil-A controversy, I had initially avoided adding my voice to the online dialog and instead pointed my friends to my “Tread Lightly" post, which asks people to think carefully about the impact of their words before posting rash and thoughtless comments about LGBT issues. Nevertheless, on a day when numerous Christians and conservatives are planning to dine at Chick-Fil-A as part of an "Appreciation Day" for the fast food chain, I want to draw attention to a growing trend I’ve noticed among my Christian friends and suggest an alternative approach to engaging our culture. I’m writing this post specifically for Christians, especially those Christians who support a traditional position on marriage and sexuality and who have vocally endorsed Chick-Fil-A throughout this controversy, and I hope you hear me writing from a place of genuine love and friendship. (I doubt non-Christian readers will find anything useful in this post.) Here’s the point I’m going to try to make: Eating a fried chicken sandwich is one of the most inefficient means I can imagine for protecting or promoting your beliefs about marriage and sexuality.
I believe Christians need to avoid like the plague doing anything that serves the primary purpose of making us feel good about ourselves. In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus describes three important spiritual practices (generosity, prayer, fasting) under the umbrella of one specific commandment: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1). When he provides specific instructions for the three disciplines, he’s essentially reiterating that primary commandment. Each of the three practices holds great potential for one’s spiritual life, but hijacking them in order to feed one’s narcissism or polish one’s reputation essentially defeats the purpose.
I don’t think Matthew 6 speaks directly to public demonstrations or protests, but my concern is that supporting Chick-Fil-A by patronizing its locations in order to protect and promote a certain understanding of marriage is so disconnected from the actual issue (What do waffle fries have to do with gay couples?) that it accomplishes little more than making Christians feel like they’ve accomplished something. If we approach the effort in purely economic terms, we can say it’s a pretty poor return on one’s investment: Yes, Chick-Fil-A donates an infinitesimal percentage of its proceeds to organizations that promote traditional marriage and sexuality (organizations many consider harmful), and yes, one of the company’s countless bigwigs has been vocal about his stance on marriage (which seems to have polarized many without persuading any); but if the issue at stake really is marriage, buying a fast food meal seems like a terribly ineffective way to achieve the goal, and it leads me to wonder whether Christians are more interested in puffing up their self-importance than they are in building up a constructive, convincing case for the marriage values they want to protect. (I’ve said nothing about the deleterious effects of vocally supporting Chick-Fil-A, like how it broadens the gap between the church and the LGBT community and how it causes pain to people who experience nontraditional sexuality inside or outside the church.)
The problem is much bigger than chicken sandwiches and gay marriage, though; the growing trend I mentioned earlier is an unwillingness to suffer with the world in order to empower others to maintain the difficult, counter-cultural values certain Christians profess. It’s much easier to vote against legalized abortions than it is to help a pregnant, impoverished teenager raise a child. It’s less work to enforce stricter penalties on drug users than it is to walk with a friend through the torment of detoxing. And it’s much easier to eat a chicken sandwich in support of traditional marriage than it is to navigate difficult questions about sexual identity and God’s will with actual human beings who experience nontraditional sexuality. When we succeed in forcing Christian morality standards on others, regardless of their faith convictions, we can assign them all the blame for failing to meet those standards, and we can rest assured of our own impeccable righteousness when we do manage to play by those strict rules. We don’t have to suffer with others because their suffering is their fault.
Hopefully you can guess where I’m headed with this: Jesus did something different. Jesus, who faced temptation but avoided sin, chose to identify and live with those who were on the margins of a society that was largely religious and hierarchical, often placing himself at odds with people who claimed to take obedience to the law seriously (Hebrews 13:13). Jesus, who shared a nature with God, voluntarily humbled himself to the lowest places, even allowing hands that would murder him to find success in their mission (Philippians 2:6-11). The example of Jesus is one in which surrendering all to the reign of God is infinitely more costly and infinitely more rewarding than anything we might do merely to make us feel better about ourselves in a never-ending culture war. In light of that heavy calling, here are my three suggestions for how Christians can more effectively engage our culture’s discussions about marriage and sexuality. I can assure you each of these suggestions is much more difficult than eating an 8-pack of chicken nuggets.
1. Take the plank out of your own eye.
Matthew 7:3-5 is one of those passages I revisit regularly because of the vividness of its metaphor, the sharpness of its brevity, and the searing impact of its insight into the dark places of my soul. I don’t bring it up to suggest that only perfect people have any right to rebuke lovingly the sins of others; obviously, that would lead to a gridlock in which none of us could ever challenge any of us. I would suggest, though, that those who are going to advocate loudly for a traditional view of marriage ought to go to great lengths to insure—not necessarily for the sake of reputation, but for the sake of integrity—they’ve submitted themselves to the full implications of the traditional view they’re espousing, because a traditional view of marriage certainly encompasses more than the “one man, one woman” definition to which current conversations have minimized it. Are you in a position to be removing specks from other people’s eyes, or is the plank in yours blinding you? How are you doing in terms of sexual purity, lust, and honoring people of other genders? If you’re married, how well does your relationship demonstrate mutual submission, self-denial, and faithfulness? If you’re not married, how closely do your thoughts and behaviors adhere to the kind of relationship dynamics to which God calls you? If you believe same-sex relationships are sinful, is it possible that any particular opposite-sex relationship could actually be farther from God’s design for marriage than a same-sex relationship, and if so, does that relationship (especially if it’s yours) merit more of your attention? It’s essential for us to ask these questions on the level of a church community in addition to the level of an individual: Does the church community to which you’re committed offer a compelling portrait of the interaction of radically counter-cultural marriages and other relationships, or do you all mostly mirror our culture’s patterns?
It’s become a sad reality of our era that cynical Christians (a circle in which I occasionally sulk) and non-Christians alike often make bets about which so-and-so prominent homophobic pastor will be the next to either come out of the closet or get tangled up in a messy sex scandal. Again, I don’t mean to suggest people with perfect marriages or single people with pristine sexual purity are the only ones with any credibility to speak about family values; and I certainly don’t mean to imply everyone who condemns same-sex relationships is harboring major sexual baggage. I simply believe setting an example of a life lived with integrity to one’s values is probably more compelling and persuasive than any theological argument or legalese; and I’ve seen countless times how nothing undermines the traditional position on marriage and sexuality more than the revelation of sexual misconduct in the private life of someone well-known for espousing those values. If you’re worried there’s a speck of immorality in our culture’s family values, start by removing the plank of immorality from your own eye.
2. Get to know a gay person.
Many Christians are understandably upset with how pop culture negatively portrays them. I’m thinking of shows like GCB (originally titled, like the book that inspired it, “Good Christian Bitches”) that paint caricatures of people of faith, turning an endlessly diverse group of people into little more than a shallow archetype. I genuinely hope no outsiders to faith base their perception of Christians on what they see in GCB. In the same way, I genuinely hope no straight Christians base their perception of gay people on what they see in Modern Family or Glee, because even though those shows are generally sympathetic in their portrayals of gay people, they’re still presenting an incredibly limited portrait with the intention of entertaining and not educating. If your support of traditional marriage and sexuality causes other people pain, remember that you’re not hurting Cameron and Mitchell, because Cameron and Mitchell are not real people. If you’re knowingly going to cause other people pain (as the support of traditional marriage and sexuality inevitably does, regardless of whether you believe you’re actually helping people in the long run by supporting those values), it’s essential to know whom you’re hurting and to understand why they’re in pain.
Don’t rely on those shows, and don’t assume a few degrees of separation from a gay person (“My mechanic’s cousin is a lesbian”) will do the trick. Talk to a gay person. Actually, since the main issue on the table is gay marriage, try to talk to a gay couple. Invite them into your home, if they’ll come. Ask them shallow questions about the Olympics and, when the time is right, probing questions about what they’ve experienced. Lest this all start to sound too devious and manipulative, let me insist: The goal here is not reconnaissance. The goal of these conversations is genuine empathy and informed understanding. Jesus made some incredibly bold claims on the people who followed him, and he sometimes called them to do shockingly difficult things—difficult enough that some who initially sought him out eventually turned him down to his face. Nevertheless, we cannot accuse Jesus of ignorance or unfamiliarity with the people he called; he knew each of them intimately, and he understood why they did the things they did, even as they rejected him. Christians would do well to emulate that approach, especially if the values they’re going to support seem incompatible with the direction in which our culture is moving. When Christians make broad, generalizing proclamations about the kind of life they believe God calls certain people to live and make those statements from a place of ignorance and misinformation, it rings false, shallow, and hateful to outsiders. Before you try to remove the specks from other people’s eyes (on an individual or cultural level), spend time trying to understand those people on their terms.
3. Carry each other’s burdens.
A few of my Christian friends have told me, “It’s not my job to edit the gospel to make it easier for people,” and that’s absolutely correct. If we cheapen the gospel in any way to try and make it more palatable or appealing to outsiders, that makes us condescending and cowardly. It’s not our job to edit the gospel. But it absolutely is our job to carry each other’s burdens, and if the call of Jesus on a certain individual’s life is unbearably difficult or onerous to that individual, then the community has failed to provide the support and help God calls them to provide (Galatians 6:2). Calling people to difficult standards is loving and Christlike; calling people to uphold difficult standards on their own is unloving and entirely antithetical to the gospel, especially when the standards you’re calling people to uphold are so closely connected to relationships and intimacy. The gospel is good news for everyone, and it shouldn’t be any harder for a gay person to be a Christian than it is for any other person to be a Christian.
Those Christians who uphold a traditional position on marriage and sexuality believe the call of Jesus includes abstinence from same-sex relationships, and reactions from outsiders (or other Christians who think about marriage and sexuality differently) toward that position range from dismissal to pain to horror. If those Christians are correct, it would take an enormous shift in worldview for someone to abandon a positive, loving same-sex relationship to pursue either celibacy or an opposite-sex relationship in the process of choosing to follow Christ. Those Christians who have never needed to wonder whether God might not want them to remain in or pursue a committed relationship (i.e., many straight Christians) might not take seriously how devastating and jarring that sort of requirement feels, at least as the person transitions into that new way of life. (The insensitivity and audacity of many of the comments I’ve seen online from Christians leads me to believe they’re not taking that pain seriously.) So, if God is calling people to uphold a traditional position on marriage and sexuality, and if some people in the community are hurting because of what that call requires, then God is calling all of the community to hurt with those people. Their pain becomes your pain, and if you’re unwilling to suffer with them, you’re spreading an incomplete and poisonous gospel.
I completely understand the concern many Christians feel about the ways our culture’s values on any number of issues seem to be changing with increasing speed, even if we might discuss in another setting which of those changes are actually most troubling and problematic. I also understand the appeal—especially having tried their lemonade—of trusting Chick-Fil-A to do the hard work of culture engagement for me. But if you’re sincerely interested in honoring and upholding a traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality in a meaningful way, avoid your local Chick-Fil-A and use the time to work on your own relationships, to engage a gay person in genuine conversation for the first time, or to offer support to the LGBT Christians in your life. The call of Christ runs much deeper than fast food and Facebook comments, and it’s time for Christians to trust the God who calls them instead of the corporations that feed them.
[UPDATE (8/2/12): I’ve written a follow-up, addressing the responses to this post as well as the event itself, and I encourage you to continue reading there.]
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