We know many people who are surprised that we chose to become part of a Christian tradition that takes a conservative approach to questions of sexual morality. We’ve shared in previous posts that to us, LGBT issues are not the most important theological considerations when compared to other points one might explore when deciding where to attend church. To our way of thinking, questions of LGBT rights don’t even come close when one views the broader range of traditional Christian tenets related to Christology, sacraments, scripture, ecclesiology, and so on. We do view moral formation as imperative for living into the fullness of our Christian tradition, but have never been ones to choose a church primarily because of where a particular tradition stands on questions such as whether same-sex couples can be married. However, we’ve observed that in both our current and previous Christian traditions, depending upon the parish there can sometimes be a tendency to focus conversations about the Christian life exclusively on culture war issues. We think this approach is enormously problematic because the Christian life is about so much more than a list of thou-shalt-nots. Some people fear that shifting conversation away from the culture wars means ignoring morality altogether and adopting a relativist mindset where all kinds of behavior are equally acceptable. We disagree strongly with this perspective and believe that moving beyond a culture wars framework of morality is essential for discussing moral issues within Christianity and sharing Christ with others.
We’ve found that in conversations with people who are interested in Christianity, emphasizing central concepts from the Gospel is especially important. The Gospel is good news and presenting it as anything less is harmful. We can mistakenly believe that the Gospel is easy to understand and live fully because it has been given for all people. But if we stop and think more deeply about the life of Christ, how could we reasonably infer that anything about his way of interacting with the world was easy? The Gospel invites us to orient our whole lives towards Christ, and doing so is a daily challenge for most. Shaping one’s life as Christo-centric necessitates giving over one’s whole being. This is the lifelong task of every Christian, and giving so much attention to culture war issues in conversations about Christianity reduces being a follower of Christ to obeying a list of do’s and don’ts’. Focusing on the good news of the Gospel does not mean sugarcoating its message or the difficult parts of following Christ. It does not mean hiding your Christian tradition’s teachings about LGBT issues or other controversial matters, or pretending that these teachings are unimportant.
We’ve learned that when engaging in conversation with people who disagree with us on one matter or another, it’s essential to maintain a welcoming posture and recognize that all people who seek Christ are encountering him in many different ways at different times in their lives. Everyone is on a journey, and none of us knows where other people have been or are headed. As Christians, our encouragement should help point other people towards Christ. Often, we are unaware of other people’s processes when making moral decisions, or what they may or may not be working on with their pastors, priests, or spiritual directors. When our bishop visited our parish a couple of years ago, one of our fellow parishioners asked him a question about Christians who are lax on moral issues. Our bishop responded by telling a story about a person with a complicated orthodontic problem who had changed doctors. The new orthodontist examined the patient and viewed his x-rays, but couldn’t understand why the previous orthodontist had approached the patient’s problem in a particular way. At the same time, he also recognized that without a full record, he had no idea what the previous orthodontist had to work with when first meeting this patient. It’s the same with Christians and their spiritual fathers, the bishop reminded us. None of us know other people’s circumstances fully because we cannot be completely aware of everything someone else is discussing with his or her own spiritual director. Therefore, it’s best to avoid making judgments about another person’s journey to Christ.
Experience has taught us that when moral issues do arise, conversation about morality is much more meaningful and productive if anchored in the Gospel. Sometimes when responding to the question, “How should Christians live?” we fail to teach new Christians and children anything more specific than, “Be nice, do the right thing, do what God asks us to do, and don’t do the things God asks us to avoid.” It can come off almost like a set of middle school civics lessons: these are the laws we have to obey because something bigger than us says doing so is necessary for the good of society. However, the Gospel suggests that there is much more to being a Christian than following rules. In most Christian traditions, moral expectations are understood as rooted in the message of the Gospel. If a person is curious about what your Christian tradition teaches on sexual morality, it might be helpful to anchor the conversation in the account of the wedding at Cana or Jesus’ response to the Sadducees about who will be married at the Resurrection. Through our own conversations with Christians across the ideological spectrum on culture war issues, we’ve come to see that civil dialogue is much less likely to happen if one defaults to, “God says that gay sex is a sin and marriage is between a man and a woman,” or “God loves everyone equally including LGBT people,” without a further explanation rooted deeply within the tradition.
Furthermore, we’ve found that it’s rarely helpful to focus solely on moral prohibitions and fail to discuss moral permissions. When most non-Christian people think of Christian morality, then tend to jump immediately to things Christians can’t do. As Sarah discussed once before, sometimes even lifelong Christians are inclined to define morality in the negative. If you were to ask a large group of people how they think conservative Christian traditions counsel LGBT members, most would probably answer, “They tell them that gay sex is a sin.” Upon pressing further into what those traditions say that LGBT Christians should do, the majority would likely say, “Avoid gay sex.” Eve Tushnet has described this as a “vocation of ‘no,'” and highlighted the damaging effects of such an approach. Regarding other behaviors that conservative Christian traditions consider sinful, rarely have we encountered such strong, “Don’t do that!” messages. Rather, we’ve heard many more conversations about what Christians should do. In the case of, “Thou shalt not kill,” Christians don’t wag fingers and beat people over the head with commands of, “Don’t kill! Don’t do it! Avoid killing because it’s a sin!” Instead, we hear homilies about love, and we help each other toward developing greater love for all humanity. We increase respect for the lives of other humans by learning to love, not by repeating the prohibition against killing over and over again. It’s important to emphasize the moral permissions of discerning vocation because the purpose of vocation is to call us toward Christ. Focusing on “Thou shalt not” implies that life in Christ goes no deeper than avoiding sin.
Lastly, one of the most significant lessons we’ve learned from living in the midst of the culture wars is that it’s dangerous to lose sight of one’s own journey to Christ by devoting all of one’s energies to telling others how far they are from Christ. Matthew 7:3 asks us, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye?” This verse is quoted out of context frequently by folks who wish to argue for a moral relativist position. As a result, some people dismiss this important piece of Christian teaching. It’s far too easy for any of us to see our brothers’ and sisters’ faults more readily than our own. This doesn’t mean that we can never rightly identify instances of sin in other people’s lives. The point is, it’s not our job to make assumptions about what may or may not be going on in another person’s life. It harms our own spiritual lives when we make such assumptions and allow ourselves to become self-righteous as a result. It’s spiritual poison to devote time to discovering whether another person is sinning so that we can tell ourselves, “I’m doing better than he or she is.” The Prayer of Saint Ephraim ends with the entreaty, “My Lord and King, grant me the grace to see my own sin and not to judge my brother.” While we might be tempted to tell someone else what he or she should be doing to live a holy life, we must remember that it requires a mighty divine work for us to conform our own lives to the pattern of Christ.
Living a Christian life requires that people give themselves wholly to the call. Christ calls us to follow him in hopes that we will one day be able to reflect his image and likeness fully. We do not pretend to understand everyone else’s unique situations, but we are always happy to pray for others that God will guide them towards the Truth that is Christ himself. Relative to our own formation, we know that we’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. We’d be curious to hear if you have other strategies from shifting conversations away from the culture wars, and we always welcome your feedback on our writings in the comment box.
Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.