I have great respect for religion writer Jonathan Merritt, even though we disagree on a lot of social and theological issues. He evoked a maelstrom about his article suggesting the Arizona law allowing businesses to deny service to LGBTQ people was less than Christian, and yet he stands behind his words.
Basically, many prominent voices from the Baptist and Neo-Calvinist camps went berserk about his call for tolerance; never mind that he didn’t even take on the moral issues surrounding LGBTQ identity itself. It was simply enough that he called for equal treatment of all people as fellow human beings, period. But he broke rank with the conservative Christian rank-and-file, which depends heavily on uniformity of voice and position on key issues.
Merritt took a risk, knowing full well that he’d likely suffer for it. And he did. In a small online forum of fellow religion writers, he expressed dismay both at the aggressive, hateful nature of peoples’ response from the right, as well as the relative palpable silence from the center and left.
For that, to the degree that I can speak for myself and others like me, I’m sorry, Jonathan. When someone steps out like this, putting himself at risk, we should rally to support him, as much as those on the right rally behind causes.
The strength of the right clearly leans on a consistent, uniform chorus of voices to defend the ideals they deem valuable. This is their greatest strength. This is also why someone within their circles is subject to condemnation and even ostracization when they break rank. This makes what Merritt did all the more brave, as he knows the evangelical tendency to turn quickly on one who speaks prophetically in a way deemed to be heretical by his own.
But this is precisely what is needed if anything ever is to change in the mindset of Christians in positions of great power. We on the outside of those circles can howl all day long about the injustices done in the name of Christianity, but until one from the inside points to the problem and names it, there is no impetus to change.
Merritt’s article represents a coming sea change on matters of LGBTQ justice, not just in the culture as a whole (state by state, the laws are changing to include justice for same-sex couples) but even within mainline and evangelical Christianity. Yes, it is expected that he would be shouted down for acting as a dissident voice; this has always been the case. Consider the blowback Dr. Martin Luther King received from fellow pastors and other religious leaders for making a biblical case for race equality.
But the very fact that such a conversation is happening signifies that there are cracks in the evangelical ideological identity, and they are growing deeper and broader by the day. It is another sign that the preservation of the empire of Christian hegemony will not stand much longer, even in places where it has remained unchanged for decades. The conversations are out in the open, and the changes are happening.
It’s understandable that such schisms cause no small amount of panic for those who believe that maintaining Christendom’s place as the dominant force in Western culture is paramount. But for those of us who see the dissolution of imperialist Christianity as both a matter of justice and an opportunity for Christianity’s empire-shaking, subversive potential to be more fully realized, this is, in every sense, “Good News.”
So thanks, Jonathan Merrit, Richard Cizik, Alan Chambers and others within the evangelical Christian camp for daring to speak from your heart rather than from a preordained script. You are helping invoke a little bit more of God’s kingdom, here in our midst, even as you bear more than your share of the birth pangs in the process.
Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.
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