The progressive Christian organization Sojourners propelled this ad into greater attention, as the TV networks did for the UCC’s “bouncer” ad a few years ago, by refusing to run it. Their executive director, Jim Wallis, explained with a six-point essay that in my eyes adds up to: “The church is split on this and we don’t want to alienate either side.” They want to focus on their mission and not get involved in something that is not a “critical issue.” Aside from the insult of trotting out the existence of one’s own staffers as a shield (“We have been accepting and welcoming of gay staff here at Sojourners for many years”) while implying that the church’s ostracism of those staffers and their families is a minor issue, I’ll just note that if Wallis hoped not to have to spend any time on a controversy about LGBT issues, well, I’m guessing he has spent at least half his week fighting this fire, and it isn’t out.
He wrote, “Essential to our mission is the calling together of broad groups of Christians, who might disagree on issues of sexuality, to still work together on how to reduce poverty, end wars, and mobilize around other issues of social justice.” I can appreciate this point of view to an extent. They are building a coalition (as all social-change organizations do, some better than others), and that means setting aside issues on which the coalition members do not agree in order to make progress on the ones on which they do. However, in that case, they should define themselves more narrowly than they do, perhaps as an economic justice and anti-war organization. According to them, their mission is “to articulate the Biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church and the world.” That’s pretty sweeping. Also, the church is no more divided on homosexuality or even abortion than it is on the death penalty, war, and economic justice–and one can cite one’s Bible to defend a wide range of positions on all of them. So all Wallis has done is to beg the question, “Why do you take sides when it comes to our economic arrangements, but decline to do so when it comes to our exclusion of LGBT people?”
As Robert Chase of Believe Out Loud, the project that created the ad, has said, it isn’t even as if the ad is asking the church to support civil marriage for LGBT people, or to ordain LGBT clergy. It’s asking the church to welcome us as members–and especially, to welcome our children. Even this is controversial to some churches, but that it is controversial to Wallis and Sojourners is just depressing.
The fact is that Christian churches, particularly the largest and most powerful ones in the US–the Catholic and evangelical Protestant–have long led, and continue to lead, the ostracism of LGBT people. Wallis knows very well that the church has to take sides on questions like this; he’s one of the most eloquent voices against the idea that moral neutrality is desirable or even possible. And yet he is trying to justify neutrality here as a “third way.”
It seems to me that Sojourners wants to reap the advantages of being controversial (for example, appearing morally courageous by knocking powerful groups like the GOP leadership) without reaping the disadvantages (such as alienating some of your supporters). They should take a cue from Jesus: it takes as much courage to stand up to your friends as to your enemies. Oh, wait, that was Dumbledore. They’re so easy to mix up . . . Jesus is the one who defied his religious leadership by teaching his congregation to go beyond the teachings of the Torah and prophets; who alienated his disciples by welcoming those they despised into his circle: Samaritans, tax collectors, women. He believed that his God called him to go beyond what was comfortable for him or his followers. I’m not even a Christian, nor a theist except in the naturalistic sense, and yet I believe that too. What does Sojourners believe?
Events like this one ought to teach them, and all of us who try to engage in controversial issues, which is what all religious bodies are called to do, that when it comes to the most pressing moral issues of the day, you are eventually going to be asked where you stand, and then you will be hopping on the hot seat no matter what you do. Jesus knew all about that too.
But it’s easy to pick on someone else. I think what Chase and his organization are trying to do is push self-described Christian progressives to take a stand, not just on the issues they’re comfortable with, but on the ones that challenge them. So I’ve just assigned myself a re-reading of “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” so that the most vivid writer on the topic can goad me again to answer the tough question: on what issues am I playing the good wishy-washy liberal, when I should be challenging myself and my church? What does the divine require of us that we are shying away from doing?