To Pastors Everywhere: Let’s Discern the Antagonisms

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It’s pretty much a monthly thing these days that pastors have to guide a congregation into an engagement with a thorny cultural issue. By ‘thorny’ issue I mean an issue without a prior consensus with potential for huge conflict. If the culture proposes a norm on said issue, we are tempted to either agree with it or disagree with it, get behind it or resist it, take a position on it and then rally the troops to get behind our new position statement. But, I contend, in order for a church body to truly engage such cultural issues, we must first understand the violence/antagonisms potentially at work within the issue. Only after we have discerned the antagonisms at work (or not at work), can we then discern whether to engage on the terms as given, or not engage, or indeed open up space for a witness to another way (a counter politics made possible on Jesus Christ).

Take for instance the recent Supreme Court decision declaring Same Sex marriage legal in all fifty states. In many churches and denominations, there has been a rush to make some sort of a statement that states our church’s relation to this cultural landmark event. On facebook there is a rush to update my profile picture with a rainbow filter. We rush to line up on sides. To me these are all exercises in missing the point. There may be reasons to do this or that, but the reality is that there is more at work in this event than the actual event itself. There may be seething antagonisms which we are enflaming. By our lining up on one side or the other, we increase the tension, enhance the violence and catch people into the antagonism. The resulting anger and/or self-congratulation shapes our characters and our desires. In the process we are distanced from the other side. Furthermore we have made our church space unsafe for people to talk about the vulnerabilities, hurts and confusions that they are struggling with sexually. For all these reasons, I exhort us all to discern the antagonisms.

My own study of ideology (found here) has taught me how the nature of ideology is to run on antagonism (sometimes called the “dialectic”). My own work on this argues that “the empty politic” of the a world living in autonomy from God, by nature runs on a swirl of antagonism. This is the energy that keeps a people together. The gathering of people into Christ’s body does the opposite. This body is shaped by mutual submission, the giving up of violence, forgiveness and the flow of God’s gift in and through Jesus Christ. I call this ‘the politic of fullness.’ The empty politic shapes us against other people, and other things and turns people into objects. It separates us from Mission. The politic of fullness draws us into the Triune God’s work in the world. It is a life lived out of the fullness of the Trinity. It draws us into Mission. 

There is a swirling set of ideologies swirling around the notion of Same Sex marriage in our culture. The “same sex married couple” has become an idealized object around which both sides now make judgments and carry out assumptions concerning marriage and sexuality. The same sex couple has become the political football over which we now make war over and gather sides over.  In the process we no longer engage real people. We are fighting over ideology. We bypass the opportunity to look at our own practice of marriage and sexuality and the deviance that not only we should be dealing with ourselves, but is behind much of the miscommunication. This is the way ideology works.

When a denomination makes a statement protecting itself from the possibility of being sued for refusing to do same sex marriage, it is often entering the ideological discourse on the terms of the ideology. It becomes part of the ideology and indeed  stirs up the antagonism even more. We are separated from Mission. Wouldn’t it be better to just risk taking a few lawsuits for Jesus? When the Christian with good intentions downloads the rainbow filter over the facebook picture, that person too enters the ideological discourse and indeed the virtual war (literally) that breaks out on facebook/twitter. He or she has become part of making a host of judgments being made on both sides of the issue and we distance ourselves from one another and those we seek to engage and be present to in the current day struggles to be faithful in our sexual lives. By doing either one of these two things, we do not stop to ask are we aligning ourselves into a set of violent relationships that subvert the Mission of God.

When we resist entering the violence, we find ourselves with another option. The option of opening up space (I prefer around a table with food) where we bring together all people who do not agree, who all struggle with some sexual issue in their life whether they are straight,gay or other. We gather in safety to tend to one another, listen to one another, discern and unwind antagonisms (instead of enflaming them), proclaim the gospel, practice forgiveness and reconciliation, and allow space for God to heal us all. All this would be foreclosed if we just drove right onto the ideological highway of antagonism. Some people call this a third way. I call it MIssion. I see it as God’s KIngdom at work. Anything less is not worthy of Christ’s church.

Please don’t misunderstand me as another soft liberal saying we just need to listen to each other (although we do). Please do not misunderstand this as another conservative trying to hide his consternation of same sex marital relationships (I am not). Instead I am trying to point out all the ways that entering into an ideological discourse on its own terms absorbs us into a violence which works against the relational presence that makes the Kingdom work possible.

All this to say ….  before we do any of these things … let’s discern the antagonism. Amen? 

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6 responses to “To Pastors Everywhere: Let’s Discern the Antagonisms

  1. Discern the antagonisms. That’s certainly wise, otherwise we won’t understand all we are "saying" culturally to the many who may hear us.

    And listen to the other. Definitely. Non-negotiable. It’s a space that’s open to hear and be changed by the other.

    But having discerned the antagonism, taking a "third way" (or fourth, or fifth, or…) isn’t always the right option (if there is a fully "right" option). Sometimes you’re called to (imperfectly) stand with an imperfect "side." Or else the antagonism can control me (and my ability to be relationally present with the other) in my refusal to engage the territory it claims just as much as if I dove in and embraced it whole-heartedly on it’s own terms.

    Just my two cents

    1. Jennifer – I wonder if it’s possible "to stand with" – and be present to – persons without having to identify with a side?
      I suspect the answer to this question is what Fitch is getting at, no?

  2. DF, I have finished all of ‘End of Evangelicalism except the last chapter. I started reading it just after reading NT Wright’s Surprised by Scripture. I have been struck by the realization that much of what you talk about is, in its concrete reality, exactly what NT Wright talks about as the very worship of other gods that the prophets warned about and Paul taught against. So, with that in mind, why switch ontologies? Why go from "a politic of emptiness" to one of "fullness", and, in the process, totally switch ontologies? If what you are talking about is really a question of worship and idolatry, then there is a consistent ontology, and, I strongly suspect, the same concrete reality. As you discuss, the ideologies are crafted, they shape us, and we sacrifice things for our allegiance to and energy into them. That’s exactly what happens in idolatry! I have been thinking through and working on how these parallels work themselves out in the three main chapters of End of Evangelicalism, but, I think the basics would go like this:

    Inerrant Bible –> worship of Apollo ("just the facts ma’am, just the facts"; we fear Medusa after the particularly modern version of Babylon)
    The decision –> worship of Aphrodite/Dionysius (all about desire)
    Christian Nation –> worship of Mammon, Mercury/Hermes, Demeter, Ares, and possibly some others, too (in my study of this, I discovered that the temple to Hermes, who was also a god of merchants, was also a race track – rather interesting)

    Disclaimer: I could see how part of why you would or could not take this route is because of the necessarily particular way of telling the story of what gods are being worshiped. I chose Greek/Roman versions pretty much just because those are the ones I know the most about. But I think those mythologies are translatable (with some possible/probably occurring in the change in the translation).

    I also wonder if you lack NT Wright’s conviction that the ancient myths are translatable to today…or if you don’t think they can provide a way a telling our contemporary story?

    Also – this doesn’t mean I don’t agree with your book or the blog post. I dig it, and it has taught me a lot. I just suspect that you and N.T. Wright are saying the same things in different ways, and, in that light, I wonder why you would switch ontologies. Or if that is even really possible. I would think that such a switch is only possible in or after modernity, too 🙂

  3. Also, if we talk about this in the language of worship as in the scriptures (as NT Wright does in Surprised by Scripture and other places), there is no switching ontologies. It remains a question of worship. There is a fullness on the other side of the veil, regardless. It becomes a question of what it is that is on the other side. Which gods/God? (rather than whether our politic is "empty" or "full")…

  4. This is a very challenging issue that requires much examination of our history, our present culture, our soul, and God’s revelation that takes us into God’s desired future. I am very interested in this because I am preparing to be what many would consider an antagonist, a flame thrower, etc, when really I am offering a simple rebuke and correction to what many consider holy, and have some passages to justify it. I have already heard many knee jerk reactions as I present the scriptures that show severe error on the part of the practice of fellow believers. It’s almost because I give a Biblical basis that they react with the greatest relationship rejection. If I was just giving my opinion on an idea that might work better and might have some evidence to show for it, they would not react with vehemence because they could just say "I see it different". But when scripture is presented and they see they must throw the scripture out to maintain their practice, their only perceived option is to reject me, the messenger. The ad hominem logical fallacy is their only life raft to continue in their world view. We have to deliver the message as best we can. Is there really this perfect, Godly way to be God’s messenger that never results in recoil or rejection of the messenger? Is there a possibility we will always be stuck with a large dose of rejection?

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