We’ve talked before about the not-pology, that kind of apology that isn’t actually a real apology. I’ve been reading PostChristian by Christian Piatt, who makes use of that common Christian distraction tactic early in the book. I’ll show you why he used the kind of apology he did, what he thinks it means, and what it really reveals about the people who use it–and why we’re on firm ground to view all similar apologies with deep suspicion, and most importantly, how we can do better.
The Human Virtue of Self-Awareness.
Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. . . Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.
Christians have an entire raft of traits they call Christ-like virtues that have nothing whatsoever to do with the character of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels–and which very few flavors of the religion actually come anywhere close to cultivating in practice. A while ago I realized that a lot of Christians just carry this image of Jesus around in their heads as a super-duper-good and supernally-kind person, and measure themselves and others by that image. The best one can say of these Christians is that they transcend their religion and their sourcebook.
Often, though, we can’t say that at all.
The way that Christian Piatt arranges his book PostChristian is a good illustration of that tendency. It’s arranged around Christ-like virtues and Christian scandals that are coin-flips of each other. Chapter 3 is about the Christian scandal of pride, so Chapter 4 has to be about the opposite of pride: the Christ-like virtue of humility.
The problem is that Jesus sounds pretty damned arrogant in the Gospels many times, and the religion’s always been built around telling Christians that they are better, smarter, and wiser than anybody who’s rejected the religion. It is only for the sake of argument alone that we can accept the idea that humility is a virtue that Jesus displayed in the Gospels.
In Chapters 3 and 4, Christian Piatt gets a lot right (like his unswerving condemnation of Calvinists). But he also gets a lot wrong–particularly in how he views humanity itself–thanks to his view of Jesus as humble.
He’s got this image in his head of how people must “accept our own lowliness” (p. 31) in order to accept ourselves and start displaying the virtue of humility–because of course people are “lowly” in his eyes. He’s in love with the idea of there being some kind of noble beauty to “the brokenness, the longing, the lack, and the hunger” that he sees in humanity. It doesn’t come across nearly as well as he’d like it to.
If we don’t accept that those qualities are somehow beautiful, inevitable, or intrinsic to people, then I guess we can go sit out in the hall because that core idea informs Christian Piatt’s entire body of work. Then he declares that this central image is “certainly countercultural. But the Gospel of Jesus is nothing if not countercultural.”
I don’t think he realizes that his religion has largely dominated, by the point of a sword in many cases, cultures all over the world for many centuries (edging close to two millennia in places). There is nothing whatsoever “countercultural” about a world religion that’s dominated global events for that long, nor in a salesperson declaring that people are in desperate need of the product he’s selling. Nor is there anything countercultural about someone in a ruling position in a group declaring by fiat that humility is a virtue for the lower-status members of that group; rulers everywhere have likely always found Christianity very useful indeed.
So when he decides to relay a little story about an apology his wife issued, we have to remember that he lacks the very human virtue of self-awareness.
He Even Tolerates the Intolerant, Y’all!
After declaring that pride is a Christian scandal on various levels, Christian Piatt turns his gaze toward what he sees as its flip-side: humility. In a purely breathtaking display that he thinks is demonstrating his Jesus Aura, he puts fundagelicals’ bigotry-for-Jesus on the same shelf as liberal Christians’ condemnation of fundagelicals themselves (p. 38):
We may parade around platitudes of inclusion and unconditional love, but there’s someone out there we consider “less than.” For most evangelical churches, members of the LGBT community are seen as the “other”; for liberal churches, it’s usually the evangelicals. It brings to mind the scene in Goldmember when Austin Powers’s dad says, “There’s only two things I can’t stand, and that’s people who are intolerant of other cultures, and the Dutch!”
He’d already lost me in the introduction of the book, but if he’d somehow kept me all the way through to Chapter 4, he’d have lost me right there. If you’ve ever heard Christians whine about people not tolerating their intolerance, that’s what this quote reminds me of.
There’s a very fine and valid reason why non-fundagelicals view fundagelicals with such deep disdain. It’s not because fundagelicals are “others.” It’s because they are horrible human beings who are using religion as an excuse to mistreat other people and try to seize power that they don’t deserve to wield. It’s because any decent human being would oppose them and their power-grabs to our last breaths.
But Christian Piatt is above all of that!
Ain’t he evolved?
YES. YES HE IS.
TELL HIM HE’S PRETTY NOW.
The Christian Scandal of Utilitarian Relationships.
Having established himself as someone who even tolerates those dreaded, intolerant fundagelicals, Christian Piatt moves into his idiosyncratic view of how to bring about (I guess?) world peace:
Truth is found when we reveal our own humanity to those we fear. In acknowledging the Divine in one another, brother and sister, we awaken to the realization that, in embracing our neighbor, we come that much closer to God. That experience, in itself, is humbling.
Bear that in mind next time a Progressive Christian wants to hang out with you. They might not be overtly trying to convert you, but they may well be seeing the interaction as some kind of religious devotion that you never signed up to perform with them.
Liturgical dance is really weird. But it brings in the parishioners.
Christian Piatt has a weirdly utilitarian way of seeing other people as mules for the Christian god; it sits very poorly with me. I can’t stop the guy from seeing me as a little spark of the Divine even though I don’t believe in “the Divine” at all, but when he presents me as such for a mass-market publication aimed at his fellow Christians, that’s way further into bad-touch territory than I ever want to go with a Christian.
I also take exception to the idea that anyone’s obligated to take chances around people they fear. The truth is, Christian zealots generally are the people most of us fear. I’m not missing out on any big cosmic truths because I refuse to get cuddly with a fundagelical. And it’s more than a little offensive to hear a Christian tell us that we need drop our defenses around people we rightly fear will abuse us. (Put this whole discussion in your hat for when we talk about his love of deliberately provoking people’s defensiveness. That’s coming soon.)
Further, he appears to be using a really strange definition of “truth” here. Truth is built from facts. Facts are (basically) assertions that we can show to be credibly supported by reality. A fact is something like the Theory of Evolution or the way mathematics works, or–to get more philosophical–the primacy of consent and self-ownership in both civics and in relationships. It’s hard to fathom what he even means by saying that “truth is found when we reveal our own humanity to those we fear.” What truth does he mean? In what sense? In what manner?
This whole book is such a mess. Nothing in this section is defined in any concrete way, and the example he’s about to give won’t actually do what he wants it to do.
Hooray Team Jesus…?
The Human Sandwich Board.
Most Christians subscribe to the idea of their lives being a sort of living witness to their beliefs. And they are correct. That’s exactly what’s going on. After seeing Christians’ behavior, people write off their sales pitches because it’s painfully obvious that these Christian salespeople themselves don’t even buy into their own threats and come-ons. Their behavior is a metaphorical sandwich board they wear that tells us what is really happening and what is really true. And it’s something the Christian shows us without realizing it even when they’re not evangelizing at all.
I knew someone at work some years ago who had terrible work habits and a grating, unpleasant personality–but who constantly evangelized her co-workers till I shut her down hard enough to make her oblivious ass understand that she was entering HR-patrolled waters. I’ve known a lot of Christians just like her–and so I already knew better than to point out that the sandwich board she wore 24/7 spoke much more loudly than her soulwinning attempts did. Christians like her would vastly prefer that people focus instead on how well they’re executing their talking points and sales scripts, not on how well they comply with their religion’s various demands.
What’s rare, however, is seeing a Christian take that idea of being a living sandwich-board-wearer literally, which is what Christian Piatt’s wife did.
In Chapter 4, he tells us about this one time he and his wife Amy marched in Portland’s Gay Pride Fest. She wore sandwich board signs that were printed on the front and back with the following (p. 46):
As a Christian I am sorry for the narrow-minded, judgemental, deceptive, manipulative actions of those who denied rights and equality to so many in the name of god
Amy Piatt and her husband were both scared for her to make this display–both because it’s very hard for even Progressive Christians to really apologize for anything, and because “there’s no telling what [people] might do” if they really didn’t like the sentiments expressed.
He’s projecting here, of course, and it’s easy to see why. Christians do all kinds of terrible things to people who express views that they don’t like. A couple of years ago a bigoted Wheaton College student threw a goddamned apple at another student who suggested that maybe, possibly, perhaps Christians might treat gay people with more kindness and compassion. And that’s one of the milder forms of retaliation routinely offered up by the (failed) ambassadors of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love.
And because fundagelicals apparently weren’t out in great numbers at the Portland Gay Pride Fest, nothing that the Piatts feared came to pass. Instead, he and his wife were “exhilarated” by the reaction of the people there. Some took photos; some cried. Some shared stories of how bigoted Christians had hurt them. Some gave the couple high fives. Of the reactions, Christian Piatt wrote (p. 48):
Truth was experienced on a deep and personal level. . . No one owned it. . . The words were symbolic of an act of submission, of humility, of willingness to lay down swords, to erase lines of division and to step out into unfamiliar territory, despite the obvious risks [LOLwut? — CC]. In experiencing this truth, this kind of deep knowing, this sense of peace beyond words, we experience what author John Caputo calls God.
And I gently say in response: that right there was a load of horse apples, son.
It was a nice but largely meaningless gesture that did a whole lot more for the Piatts than it did for anybody else seeing the signs–though to Progressives’ credit, these sorts of gestures do make bigots-for-Jesus hoppin’ mad. The Piatts weren’t refusing to bake cakes or campaigning to strip human rights from same-sex couples. They weren’t voting against non-discrimination laws or trying to ply LGBTQ people with endless coffee dates to bring them around slowly to their second-citizen status in those Christians’ eyes. The sign makes clear that they aren’t lying or insincere about their apology–and that they aren’t the bigots-for-Jesus causing problems for others.
So why this big production?
The idea that Christians need to totally apologize to LGBTQ people is gaining currency in certain Christian circles. Pope Francis said last year that Christians “must apologize” not only to gay people but also to a variety of other people that Christians routinely dehumanize. And the Marin Foundation, which is a pseudo-inclusive Christian group that runs a whole marketing campaign built around apologizing to LGBTQ people, is still getting mileage out of their “I’m Sorry” campaign. Preston Sprinkle would probably have signed on happily as well to the idea of apologizing for his tribe’s mistreatment of LGBTQ people.
The problem, of course, is that a lot of Christians apologize and then continue to mistreat LGBTQ people–either through outright abuse and bullying or by pursuit of discriminatory laws and measures aimed at stripping away rights from people they don’t think deserve them. The Catholic Church, the Marin Foundation, and Preston Sprinkle are all decidedly bigoted despite their pretty words. As such, their apologies are one-sided and meaningless–if not a smokescreen for their ongoing campaign against human rights.
The Impersonal Not-Pology.
Comments like this one on John Shore’s similar apology letter and the replies to it (and this early post from Friendly Atheist on the same topic) definitely sound like LGBTQ people are cautious about accepting Christians’ apologies. One can see why, too.
One of the biggest problems with these sorts of apologies is that–as well-intentioned as I believe Ms. Piatt’s was–they can be really impersonal. A Christian who probably long ago signed on to inclusion is apologizing to people she’s never even met for stuff she didn’t do, using a medium (the signboard) that keeps her from having to meet the eyes of the people who are receiving the apology, and then vanishing from those people’s lives forever.
I’m sure it was a hugely cathartic event for her and for the people who hugged and high-fived her and that’s probably the only element of this anecdote that I won’t criticize. Catharsis is important to human beings. Some of the best times I’ve ever had were cathartic reactions to something going on in my life. I’m just saying that once the catharsis wears off, there needs to be something meaningful afterward or the event passes without changing anything.
Worse, the Christian apologies I’ve seen seem to center the discussion entirely on the Christian issuing the apology–their sincerity, their sorrow, their recovery–and the product they’re selling. In one Advocate article about apology signs at a 2014 pride parade, most of the signs in Christians’ hands are divided between assertions that the Christian god totally loves LGBTQ people (assertions which are a problem in and of themselves) and simple “I’m sorry” signs that don’t mean anything definable. These Christians are selling their sincerity alone here. That doesn’t work outside of their tribe.
Often, they just don’t know any better.
The Good They Do.
That doesn’t mean these apologies are 100% useless. Fundagelicals are well aware of what these gestures mean for their culture war, for example. They know that the more signs they see at pride events, the more they’re losing their grip on this tribal marker belief of theirs.
And, too, it’s nice that so many Christians are starting to feel bad about how their tribe’s treated LGBTQ people. They damned well should. The natural urge in those situations is to try to heal that rift. I just don’t think that Christians have figured out how to do that yet. So if we can find a way to move them from apologizing to more meaningfully growing past their bigoted pasts, then these apologies can function as a gateway for people who want to do better.
And that’s a task many of us can identify with.
Those of us who’ve left behind fundagelicalism itself–through deconversion or simply switching to another flavor of Christianity–can also sometimes feel at loose ends about how to express our deep sorrow about having once been bigots-for-Jesus. That’s normal and expected. I’ve gone through that anxiety myself. So here’s an actual LGBTQ woman’s writeup of what people can do if they want to make amends for having once been terrible. (You won’t see walking around with a big ol’ sign on the list, incidentally.)
The upshot is that nobody really cares how sorry Christians are if they aren’t taking meaningful action to grow past their bad behavior. If they’re already doing that, then an apology can become a small part of a total package of growth and connection with others–but it can’t function that way in isolation.
Apologies start looking a lot like prayer, in the end. Both are often empty gestures that make the person issuing them feel really good without actually having to lift a finger to do anything meaningful. And I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but I at least want to hold myself to a higher standard than that. I hope you do too.
Join us next time as we look at the unraveling of Christians’ herd immunity–see you then! MWAH MWAH!
BTW, if I didn’t make it clear in earlier reviews, all quotes listed are from Mr. Piatt’s book unless directly specified. I learned not to use scare quotes a long time ago with Christians.
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