My friend Neil’s been talking lately over at Godless in Dixie about some brouhaha going on in the Southern Baptist Convention that’s been percolating in the religious-world news, and I wanted to talk about it a bit today. (But first: OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG The Apostate has been blogging again! Here’s his latest, and if you’re an ex-Christian or friendly to one or even leaning that way yourself, you should be devouring his blog like a tween devours One Direction music.)
If you don’t follow religious news, and I can’t really blame you if you don’t, an SBC pastor has decided–after his own son came out to him as gay–to change his mind about homosexuality being quite so sinful and has stopped toeing the party line about it. It’s a sweet story, how this pastor realized just how horrible the SBC’s teachings on LGBTQ people are and how he decided to go against the grain. His son must have really trusted his dad to come out to him, and the gentleman sounds like he proved worthy of that trust. He didn’t quite go all in, but he sounds like he’s trying at least. Of course, the entire church had to be punished for this grievous transgression of having and displaying even one iota of basic human empathy. What sprang out at me, though, was how the SBC is now arguing within itself about how to handle this defection.
You see, I’ve seen this arguing before.
A long time ago, I played MUDs online. Those are Multi User Dungeons, a sort of MMO without the graphics, just all text. I loved them. I can’t draw a straight line, but I can “build” with words pretty well, and I read and type very quickly (to my detriment and yours, sometimes). So I took to MUDs like a duck takes to water. One particular game I played the most often was run by a guy named Chris, who was at the time the head IT guy for one of the biggest universities in the country. He’d taken an old DEC Alpha server and converted it to a MUD hosting box. No, really. I think I just made IT folks everywhere spew coffee at that idea. I sure haven’t heard of many online games that were ever run that way. Chris got the idea one day to see if he could actually make MUD code work on that beast, and it became his personal challenge to do it. And it ran great! We’d sometimes get angry kids threatening to hack our game in retaliation for some imagined offense, and Chris always reacted like that threat was the funniest thing in the whole wide world. He told me once why, but all I can remember is this: it’d have been easier to hack a Harvest Gold 1970s-era refrigerator as that ancient old box, and for very similar reasons. That thing was older than I was, and it’s probably still running the game.
But for all that technical genius our Implementor (or “imp;” this was the leader, the chief, the person who had the highest level and most powerful abilities ingame) had, one thing Chris was not, and that was a real presence on the game in those days. He’d customized the rather old C codebase of the game and let it run on his DEC Alpha, but he didn’t hang out an awful lot. Day-to-day decisions got made by a team of administrators, a team I eventually joined. And sometimes we had to make decisions based on what we thought Chris would want us to do–because none of us actually knew him in real life at the time or had access to him in case of anything but the direst of emergencies, except one admin who had his pager number and was allowed to use it only in the case of server shutdown or consta-reboots or the like. Eventually a few of us would move to his city for whatever reason, including me, and one of those admins ended up getting hired by him for the IT department of the school hosting the box. At that point the game’s owner became a bit more of a presence in the game. But in the era I’m talking about here, none of us had any meaningful access to Chris.
One day–not long after I’d become an admin there myself, maybe six months after my deconversion was finished–I logged on and immediately happened into a conversation that was going on between two of the other admins. They were talking about a policy decision. I don’t remember what it was, just that both of them were referring to documents Chris had written some time ago. One had a document that kind of implied that Chris wanted us to do one thing; the other admin had another document that kind of implied that Chris would rather us do this other thing. They were getting very heated over just how to handle this policy decision. Neither of them could actually go to Chris to ask about it, so these documents were all they had.
I hadn’t left Christianity all that long ago, but I suddenly got this sense of deja vu as I watched these two admins arguing. I’m sure you can see why. I began to see, in that argument, a lot of the religious disagreements I’d seen over the years. I began to perceive that all these people were basically arguing over what the game administrator would want, based on old documents and things he’d said or written at some point, and trying to make those things apply to sometimes-radically-different situations in the present. And sometimes they were right about what he wanted, but most of the time when he finally did filter in and get hammered with questions, we’d missed something and have to correct course based on his desires. Thankfully, these questions and course corrections didn’t crop up all that often.
Chris sometimes seemed frustrated with our inability to correctly interpret the documents he’d left to guide us. No, really. Once I built a 600-room area for new players–an absolutely humongous themed area for the game, and an addition that amounted to a WoW expansion realm–and totally didn’t realize he’d wanted me to put lots of starting equipment and basic gear into it for them. You could feel his frustration just crackle through the computer screen, because now I had to go in and add those things by hand, and then he would have to drive downtown to the school and his office, sit in front of that beast of a server, and reload the entire world file from the shell on the DEC Alpha directly (this was way, way, way before ingame creation tools became common in these sorts of games–and let me inform you that of all the totally useless, worthless, inapplicable skills I have, I’m extremely good at writing MUD rooms and whatnot by hand on the fly in a *nix text editor). We were always nervous that Chris might get skittish and run away if we peppered him too hard or fast with questions, but this stuff had to get asked somehow and he never seemed to have much time.
Of course, in religion-land, nobody has the benefit of having the site admin pop in sometimes–though that doesn’t stop people from claiming their god told them something personally about how to handle a new situation. Certainly the guiding document itself (the Bible) is very difficult to interpret in a consistent, coherent way, but that, too, does not stop groups like the SBC from pretending that their bead on it is the correct bead to take on it.
That’s why I see news like this, about how the SBC is arguing about how to handle the defection, and all I can think about sometimes is how I teased Chris one day by comparing him to Jesus Christ. He wasn’t quite as amused by the comparison as I’d expected him to be. But in my opinion he made a much better “Jesus” for our game than Jesus seemed to for Christianity. Our imp’s guiding documents were considerably-better written, for one thing, and way more coherent–and when confusions arose, as they inevitably do in any group, it might take a while to get his clarification, but we did always eventually get it.
Non-believers will sometimes compare these arguments to two children arguing over which Batman is the best Batman, and I know that idea irks Christians, but that’s really what it seems like to me too sometimes. I’ve been out of the religion for many years, but it’s still mind-blowing that so many utterly diametrical, categorically-opposed practices and beliefs can arise out of one document.
Worse than that inconsistency, though, there’s no external corroboration or guidance at all, and certainly no facts to bring to bear on the question (well, no facts that actually support the SBC’s contentions about LGBTQ people at least). So all they’ve got is this old soup that they just have to keep chewing and chewing and chewing. And whoever has the most persuasive argument or the loudest voice is who carries the day.
When I look at the list of options the SBC presented, though, I must admit I’m flummoxed by this idea that there is even actually a “third way” of handling LGBTQ rights. They act like they’ve found some miraculous escape from the issue that is currently destroying the Christian religion from the inside out. Here’s how they describe it in that link: “neither affirming or condemning homosexuality but ‘agreeing to disagree.'” And it sounds like that mishmash muddle is what this little church tried to do. That sounds like a weasel attempt to me, no offense meant to actual weasels which I understand are really cool. I don’t think that would fool any actual LGBTQ people any more than it did me. It’s just an attempt to stop a schism, nothing more–and an attempt to get people to quit bugging them on the subject of equal marriage. And even a mealy-mouthed attempt at placation wasn’t good enough for the bigwigs of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Agreeing to disagree” is an idea we’ve dismantled on this blog in the past. In short, the idea only works if both sides of a debate are equally valid. Both sides are not equally valid here. Heck, there isn’t actually even a debate. Bigotry is evil and hateful. It is diametrically opposed to love. One cannot “agree to disagree” with bigots. One cannot give even the smallest bit of implicit and tacit support to bigotry. At least one cannot do that if one wishes to convey love to one of the most maligned and mistreated groups in American society today. By staying out of what has become one of Christianity’s most polarizing culture wars, all the SBC would be doing is looking away from the suffering, pain, ostracism, and cruelty endured by LGBTQ people, largely at the hands of their own members. What is required here is a putting-down of the foot and a refusal to allow that kind of suffering to continue. And quite a few Christians (like the Unfundamentalists) have found a way to do that using the same exact source material that Southern Baptists themselves idolize, so I know it’s not impossible.
But we won’t see that kind of bravery or kindness out of the SBC. This culture war is one they helped kick-start. Hate sells. Fear sells even better. And this war is one that forms one of the very bases of their religious ideology. War on Christmas? Oh, they’ll go to the ends of the earth for that one. But when it comes to the systemic hatred of an entire group of people, they want to cringe away and look the other direction and wheedle for uneasy detente while bigots abuse the very people Jesus would have told them to protect and love.
It is quite clear to me that Southern Baptist leaders could no more quit demonizing and oppressing LGBTQ people than they could quit calling themselves Christians. If their leadership held a press conference tomorrow to announce that they’d realized they were totally wrong to pursue institutionalized bigotry, they’d end up alienating quite a few of the bigots they helped produce–and there’s no guarantee they’d gain any pew-warming butts in the process from those they’ve already alienated.
At this point, they really can’t win at all. They’re a business, and they’re going to pick the option that results in the most butts in pews at the end of the day, even if that option results in pain, division, and suffering. And they will use whatever they must to justify and rationalize whatever they decide.
What is needed here is genuine love.
A pity there’s not some religion or philosophy that stresses the idea of loving one’s neighbors and makes that love a cornerstone of its demands of its adherents.
Or at least an admin who can actually pop in sometimes to guide these people, since the religion’s guiding documents are so poorly-written that there can be such a fundamental confusion over the question of how to show love toward others. Yeah, I know–we can hold our breaths on that one, right?
I wish all the best to the church that dared to question the SBC’s morality in denying LGBTQ people their humanity and rights. I hope they don’t back down. I hope a lot more churches find the courage to join this small little group–and I hope they go all in on this issue and refuse to try to “agree to disagree” about something so hateful and nasty as bigotry. I hope this crack in the door becomes a trickle and then a deluge of people who refuse to use the SBC’s twisted, warped, evil redefinition of “love” anymore, and who moreover refuse to compromise about showing real love to people–no matter what it costs. I know that SBC churches often have a lot to lose by standing tall like that, but I hope they do.
We’re going to return to the “inescapable questions” that our apologetics author of the day is asking, but I had to say this here now because dang, people. Dang.
H/t: Tim Riches commenting on GiD.