A few weeks ago, I wrote a post suggesting that when someone asks, “what is your position on LGBTQ?” the best answer could be “we have no position.” In response, both conservatives and progressives pushed back strongly. People like Steve Knight, Jay Bakker and Wendy Gritter suggested in one way or another that to not have a position is to side with injustice. Conservatives, on the other hand, persistently accused me of having a position but being too scared to say so. The fact that both sides sounded so similar in their logic suggested a warning to me that in fact ideology might be at work. Two weeks later, I remain convinced neither side got what I was saying when I say “We don’t have a position.” So at the risk of appearing too stubborn, here’s one more stab at explaining this.
“My position” (if I can say it that way now) is that before one can engage cultural issues both inside and outside the church, you must step back long enough to discern ideology at work. Because, once you take a position on the terms offered from within an ideology you have in essence already assented to that ideology. There is now no way to escape it. The ideology now determines how you will live out this issue in your life on the terms it puts down. By participating in that language game you have succumbed to the language game before you have even discerned the language game. You have in essence become absorbed by the Big Other. This applies equally to both those who affirm or do not affirm LGBTQ sexual relations. This goes for any number of social/cultural issues including justice and economy.
I do not know if affirming or not affirming LGBTQ sexual relations is indeed a participation in a particular ideology or not. But this much I know, I do not know what it means to “affirm” or “not affirm” LGBTQ relations. To “NOT AFFIRM” means what? I do not affirm LGBTQ people for what? I happen to know that within LGBTQ communities you can find wonderful friendships and camaraderie and love. Does not affirming LGBTQ mean I do not affirm that? To “AFFIRM” means what? Does it mean I affirm each one of these letters as a legitimate sexuality? What does that mean? Does it mean I affirm faithfulness within each one of these sexualities? If so what does that look like for a bi-sexual person. The fact that I cannot answer these questions reveals how much I need to be present “with” the LGBTQ community before I go making pronouncements. To the degree all my LGBTQ friends cannot answer what affirming LGBTQ means or does not mean suggests this could just be an ideology perpetrated by some larger (dare I say corporatist) powers (Foucault’s famous argument). It’s operating as an “empty signifier,” a sure symptom of an ideology. At the very least, whether I am gay or not, these are things we must discern. Wouldn’t you agree?
I have argued for several years now that the church in the West must accept that it finds itself in the minority position in an increasingly post-Christendom culture. I have drawn from Anabaptist and Neo-Anabaptist theologians (and their philosophical friends) to teach evangelicals how to be alright with that and indeed come to a new self-understanding as the church in Mission in the West. (This book is a practical outline of this self-understanding and what to do with it). I have also argued that evangelicalism has much in its history to take and learn from in this new journey forward. But more and more, over the past five years I have seen the need to discern the ways ideology works and how it thwarts our engagement with culture. To me, a good Anabaptist theologian needs to understand the critique of ideology (here is where people accuse me of being a Marxist which is hard to do if you’re an Anabaptist rejecting church-state alignments). My book End of Evangelicalism? carries out this argument extensively using Slavoj Zizek. If you want a great introduction to history of ideological critique read Terry Eagleton’s Intro to Ideology.
A good critique of ideology should teach you:
- How to recognize the signs of an ideology at work. And so often, when you dare to reveal contradictions at work within an ideology, or use a code word differently, you will see an explosion of excess emotion, fear and anger. If you threaten an ideology that people are most comfortable in, it cuts to the core of our deepest fears and angers. Be of with that. Recognize it at work in yourself. Be ready to repent.
- That you cannot directly criticize ideologies. You have to kindly provoke, push the ideology’s absurdities to their extreme to reveal the powers at work. Let people come to their own revealing. Only then can they “traverse” it and be “saved.”
- That ideologies run on lacks, and antagonisms and fears, the opposite of what should be the body of Christ’s fullness in the Triune God. So whenever we see fear and anger and security driving a discussion in the church, we know that the church itself has succumbed to ideology.
When discerning ideology, we the local indigenous community must be present. Instead of conceptually entering into an ideology and taking positions to win some “street cred,” instead we must discern individual issues one at a time together with real people in relationship. The first church did not have a “position” on pro-life/pro choice. They simply went about rescuing babies as they were confronted with infanticide in their streets. That was their position. And in that witness, the world was changed. Today, we must do likewise.
In Prodigal Christianity we describe what this looks like in the New Testament.
In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul takes this position about not judging outsiders. He makes the distinction between judging those within the community and those outside it. He asks, “What have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside” (vv. 12–13 RSV). We should not judge those we do not know and are not in relationship with in Christ. Yet for Paul, we do judge those inside (“the brother”) the community (vv. 11). We are to mutually discern the character of our lives together under Christ.
At the same time, the writer of the epistle, James, warns against speaking evil of or judging a “brother” inside the community (James 4:11). Here we are told not to take the law under our own control and judge our brother, for “there is only one Lawgiver and Judge,” who is God (v. 12 NIV). The apparent contradiction between Paul and James can be solved when we realize that James is encouraging the posture of submission and humility in discernment before God. James is speaking about the process of coming alongside one another in order to discern moral issues together. And so he encourages coming together to seek agreement in submission to God and humility with each other (vv. 7–10), resisting the pride and boasting that lead to slander and division.
There is a difference between judgment, whose goal is to condemn, and discernment in mutual submission to Christ, whose goal is the redemption of one another in love and humility (1 Corinthians 5:5). This coming alongside, being “with”, is a practice of God’s in-breaking kingdom.
This way of humility and vulnerability is an extension of the incarnation. It makes possible the crossing of boundaries to enter into the far country. This posture defines the welcoming and mutually transforming community.
To me, this embodies the “I have no position” posture I am advocating in these posts. If you want to read more from that quote it’s on page 124-125 of Prodigal Christianity.
OK, so does this clarify “Not Taking a Position” a little? If you are a conservative or a progressive, have I answered any of your questions? Or am I still operating from a position of power? (what I have often been accused of in these posts) Why or why not?