My Thoughts on Sojourners, Coalition Building, and LGBTQ Rights
On my personal blog, I traced my journey on the issue of homosexuality and explored the challenges of coalition-building. It's from this place that I've been reading about the recent critique of Sojourners over their decision not to accept an ad that would have, in their opinion, "taken sides" on homosexuality.
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Some progressive Christian friends of mine have been very critical of this decision and the rationale offered for it, issuing some highly critical statements about Sojourners and its founder, Jim Wallis. Other voices have been raised to counter some of the critique. (Here's one, and here's another.) And a few have noticed that sometimes progressives can develop a dualistic, polarized rhetoric that is remarkably similar to that of their mirror image, as Aaron McCarroll Gallegos commented:
At some point doesn't this show the "if you're not with us, you're against us" thinking that is exactly what we "progressives" have been fighting against all these years?
I served on the Board of Directors for Sojourners for several years, the last few years of my term as the chair. So I know the organization more closely than most people who have been issuing their assessments. It's no surprise that phone calls and emails have been coming in asking my opinion. Did Sojourners make a mistake in rejecting the ad?
Yes, I would say, if it were only the ad (which wasn't very edgy at all) and if Sojourners were only a magazine for progressive Christians.
But my more thoughtful answer is that Sojourners, as I understand it, is doing coalition work. They are currently focused on building a broad coalition of evangelical Christians, Catholic Christians, and progressive Christians primarily around the issue of poverty reduction. And the coalition they're building is an essential one, especially as our nation makes historic decisions on getting its budgetary house in order.
Will a majority of evangelical Christians continue to support policies that are careless towards poor people -- as Tony Hall has so eloquently lamented? Will mainstream evangelical and Catholic Christians continue to put weapons above health care, and tax cuts for the rich above a safety net for the poor? Sojourners' founder Jim Wallis recently helped lead a fast on this issue -- no small thing -- and my suspicion is that if anyone can continue to nudge an evangelical-Catholic-progressive poverty-reduction coalition in positive directions, it's a coalition in which Sojourners is a key convener.
But again, there's a cost to convening that kind of coalition. One can't lead on other issues that would split the coalition. (Yes, one can stretch the coalition on some issues, but not too many, not too far, and not too fast.) If Sojourners decides to lead on LGBTQ issues, someone else will have to arise to lead a broad coalition on poverty issues because Sojourners will be -- as things stand -- excluded from the table. Conversely, if Sojourners decides to lead a broad poverty-related coalition, others will need to lead on LGBTQ issues.
And that's where I understand the frustration of those who are frustrated with Sojourners. They wish Sojourners would lead in this issue too. Frankly, so do I when I forget how hard it is to build coalitions, and when I forget that taking bold stands is only one important part of the complex process of social change.
If I were to boil down messy contemporary reality to an equation, here's what it would be:
- You can't lead a coalition of progressive Christians without being an outspoken leader on LGBTQ issues.
- You can't lead a coalition that includes mainstream evangelical and conservative Catholic Christians if you are an outspoken leader on LGBTQ issues.
Eventually, Sojourners may change its policy. The organization may decide to switch its focus from a broad anti-poverty coalition to a multi-issue progressive coalition, the kind that many folks thought Sojourners was already leading. Or maybe more evangelical and Catholic Christians will stop refusing to be part of coalitions with gay-affirming folks, making it possible for Sojourners to stretch the coalition faster and farther? Or maybe Sojourners will stay on their current course, staying focused primarily on poverty and paying the price by having to remain silent on other issues? If so, new organizations will need to fill the role of leading a progressive Christian coalition.
But as soon as that new coalition forms, you can count on this: Some folks will sooner or later want it to be more outspoken on more issues than the coalition originally intended. And tensions will arise. And these could be destructive tensions, tearing the coalition apart. But they could also be creative tensions -- growing pains, if you will -- pushing people out of the status quo into terra nova. I wouldn't have moved from "conventional" to "accepting-but-not-affirming" to "internally-conflicted" to "coalition-building" to "being an ally/advocate" if it weren't for a lot of this creative tension. And I'm still in process -- unfinished, phasic -- because my tensions are not resolved.
That's one of the curses of being progressive, I suppose. Once you make progress on one issue, if you stop and conserve those gains, you become conservative. (That's an important job. Somebody's got to do it.) If you want to stay progressive, you must move on to new issues. Progressivism is a moving target.
Sadly, though, we aren't making sufficient gains in relation to poverty, as I've written about elsewhere. If anything, in terms of income and wealth inequality and opportunity for the poor, and in terms of the raw numbers of people living in poverty globally, we're losing ground fast, and we're in danger of losing even more ground.
So my advice is to appreciate Sojourners for their important, irreplaceable work on building a coalition of Christians who care deeply about poverty. And look to others to take the lead on human rights and full inclusion of LGBTQ people, at least for the immediate future.
And feel the beauty, struggle, messiness, and agony of change in all its phases. This stuff isn't easy. For anybody. And we're all in it together.
What's in a name? In this case, more than we realize.
Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a former pastor and the author of over a dozen books, including Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words.