Conservative Christians have lost the battle over marriage equality, said Religion Dispatches blogger Kaya Oakes in a recent post entitled, “Out of Options: Christians’ Losing Battle Over Equality.” But how they will respond to this loss may take a variety of different responses.
Oakes noted that, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefall v. Hodges, the responses of conservative Christian thinkers have generally taken two tacks. The first tack– retrenchment–calls for returning to the biblical view of marriage and sexuality in order to steer Christianity back toward a central place in American culture and morality. This tack also views “affirming homosexuality” as denying a truth about human nature. The alternative tack calls for “a compassionate model of engagement” on issues of sexuality and gender in order to “create a more attractive model of Christian life than retrenchment[.]”
According to Oakes, the equality gains for women and LGBT persons puts Catholic and conservative Christian churches in a bind. “Should they welcome women as leaders and same-sex families and trans individuals, they risk alienating some of their most committed members (and donors). Should they reject those same notions of parity, they risk losing (and in many cases have already lost!) the majority of Gen X folks and Millennials, who have grown up with feminism as a given notion and LBGTQ equality as the civil rights issue of their generations.”
These same churches also risk losing “the notion of a single, defined sense of a Truth that cannot change,” according to Oakes. “What we see in their writing of late is the shattering of that notion. It’s emotionally difficult to witness. The defensiveness, finger-pointing and circular arguments amount to the same thing: a sense of fear, devolving into resignation over the loss, shifting into ad hominem attacks[.]”
Oakes compared the fear expressed by some conservative Christian writers to the experiences of fundamentalist or orthodox Christians who lost their faith when they were had to face the idea that women were equal to men, or that some people loved people of the same gender, or that dressing in gender “inappropriate” way could be accepted. Oakes stated:
“[Y]ou will hear much the same pattern. Anger, rejection, fear. And then gradually, if they are lucky: acceptance, tolerance, welcome. The latter things usually came from individuals, not institutions. They came from encounter.”
While Oakes does not say so explicitly, encounter is the way forward. This is the example of Jesus.
Jesus’ ministry was characterized by acts of encountering and engaging persons, often the marginalized of his day. In the words of Pope Francis on the gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the blind Bartimaeus:
“Jesus has just left Jericho. Even though he has only begun his most important journey, which will take him to Jerusalem, he still stops to respond to Bartimaeus’ cry. Jesus is moved by his request and becomes involved in his situation. He is not content to offer him alms, but rather wants to personally encounter him. He does not give him any instruction or response, but asks him: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mk 10:51). It might seem a senseless question: what could a blind man wish for if not his sight? Yet, with this question made face to face, direct but respectful, Jesus shows that he wants to hear our needs. He wants to talk with each of us about our lives, our real situations, so that nothing is kept from him.”
Encounter is also the way forward as a church. Pope Francis stressed this point to Catholic leaders recently. Speaking to a group of Italian Catholic leaders in Florence in November, he said:
“May the Church be fermented by dialogue, encounter, unity. After all, our own formulations of faith are the fruit of dialogue and encounter among cultures, communities and various situations. We must not fear dialogue: on the contrary it is precisely confrontation and criticism that help us to preserve theology from being transformed into ideology.
“Remember moreover that the best way to dialogue is not that of speaking and debating but that of doing something together, of making plans: not alone, among Catholics, but together with all those who are of good will. Do not be afraid to engage in the exodus necessary for every authentic dialogue. Otherwise it is not possible to comprehend the reasons of the other, nor to completely understand that a brother is worth more than the positions that we judge as far from our own authentic certitudes. He is a brother.”
I agree with Oakes that a form of Christianity whose members preach “a Gospel of intractability and exclusion” probably should die “because it has very little to do with the person who started it,” but I am hopeful for Catholicism that is renewed through encounter and engagement.
–Cynthia Nordone, New Ways Ministry