Every discussion about homosexuality is fraught with a singular challenge. It is the challenge of civility. I believe civility is the Third Way in this moral debate. On this blog last week we published “A Letter” and then Andrew Marin, a Christian friend and advocate for Christian civility, posted a response (we will be posting about his new book Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation With the Gay Community
soon). Today I’d like to post my own challenge to all of us.
How can we learn to be more civil with each other in this discussion/debate? What can each ask of the other?
I want to begin with something I read in Richard Mouw’s book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World
: referring to something said by Martin Marty, Mouw says “one of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility.”
Right here is where we need to begin: I cannot understand why strong-convicted Christians, on either side of this debate by the way, refuse to act with civility. Perhaps it is because they are so passionate about this issue, so convinced it is a matter of ultimate justice or ultimate fidelity, that they think they must become strident and fight this issue to the ground until it gives up the ghost. Perhaps it is because they think they are called to play the role of prophet, and that means for some the use of prophetic, denunciatory rhetoric. Plenty of examples are available; I see no need to point fingers. We need to move on.
Mouw is right, civil folks often lack conviction and conviction folks often lack civility. He’s right about something else:
What we are in most need of today is “convicted civility” (p. 12) or what we might call compassionate conviction or principled passion. It is the rare combination of civility and conviction, tempered as it must be by anyone who lives the Jesus Creed, by faithful compassion. This is the Third Way and we need it today. One who is fully dedicated to this today is Andrew Marin, and his new book from IVP is an exceptional attempt to foster civility with a traditionalist viewpoint on homosexuality. His book is just now available. Buy it now because we’ll be discussing it in the month of May (Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation With the Gay Community
Today I’d like to speak to two issues: the bottom line in civility and the intent of our convictions.
The bottom line in civility issue is this: For
pro-gay-as-Christian or pro-gay marriage/civil union folks: Christians who differ from you are entitled to take their stand on what they
think the Bible says and say they think such views are contrary to God’s order as revealed in the Bible and as taught in the history of the Church. They deserve, even must, be respected for that
view. If you label such persons as dinosaurs or bigots in order to brand them and exclude them, you fail in love and you fail our society.
For anti-gay-as-Christian or anti-gay marriage/civil union folks: Those who affirm civil unions, gay
marriage, etc, are entitled to form their own viewpoint in believing that they think these relations are justifiable for Christians and they must be respected
for their viewpoint. If you label such persons as morally bankrupt in order to brand and exclude them, you fail in love and you fail our society.
The issue here is entitlement. I contend that folks must be given the freedom to believe what they want. When we refuse to let others think what they want, we break down a civil society. This has nothing to do with whether we think the other person is right. We may well think they are not.
Until we get to positions of mutual respect, we cannot have a conversation and cannot make progress. Until we get let the other person say “I think you are wrong and I have legitimate grounds for thinking so” we cannot genuinely sit at the table. When the other person’s viewpoint is grounds for exclusion — and I see this from both sides of this debate — we haven’t even achieved a tolerant society. In fact, we strain the tethers of a tolerant society. And this doesn’t even bring up the Christian virtue of charity or love: those who love others will never exclude from the table those who differ from them simply because they have a view that they think wrong.
And, yes, this must be done while holding to what Mouw calls convicted civility or what can be called principled passion. Hold your views with clarity and with conviction, but we dare not let ourselves become so committed to our views that we cannot engage the person as a person. It is too easy to convert the Bible into a lawbook or into irrelevant antiquity. We hope for a Third Way in reading the Bible, too (see my The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible
This leads me to the issue of intent in conviction. What is the intent, I want to ask, of declaring — and again this is about both sides of this issue — the other person wrong? Is the decision of what is “right” vs. what is “wrong” the final goal? I sense for many it is. Once one has determined one’s views and then declared that view, some folks think the job is done. “There,” they might say as they wash their hands with the conviction of fidelity and purity, “I’ve held my own and taken my stand.”
No, I would argue: the ultimate aim is not to declare one’s view but to live a life of love of God and love of others, with convicted civility, and to live with others in the hope of bringing all to the goal God has in his redemptive designs. Love and convicted civility can co-exist for the Third Way. For one side, this will mean living with those who are gay or lesbian with a view toward transformation. My contention: those persons are entitled to believe that and to hope for that and to work for that. For the other side, this will mean living with those who think gay marriage/civil unions are “contrary to God’s order” with a view to their transformation. Those persons can believe that and hope for that and work for their view, too.
This is hardly compromise; this is convicted civility at work. May God’s grace be at work.