Mammy has spoken
One of Mammy Yokum’s pretentions to profundity went like this: Good is better than evil because it’s nicer. This fits the cartoon environment very well. Al Capp, Chester Gould, and other cartoonists often drew evil characters in unflattering ways. They grimaced. They were ugly or perhaps beautiful-but-snooty. They had various deformities. Their speech was harsh. Meanwhile, the good characters might have spoken in dialect and resorted to violence as needed, but they were generally cleaner, better-mannered, kind to children and animals, etc. The point is, you could tell which side to root for by paying attention to visual and verbal cues. Presenting genuine moral dilemmas in the comics simply wasn’t done until Stan Lee came along (although Lee’s good characters would soliloquize and agonize their way through moral dilemmas, so you’d know they were being thoughtful – which also told you whom you should root for).
On the surface, Mammy’s wisdom looks pretty sturdy. We identify with people who act “nice” and we want to include all nice people in the category of “our kind of people.” This has done serious harm to our ability to make theological distinctions, however. In particular, we who uphold the traditional/conservative/orthodox view on the use of the Scriptures and on Christian morality are constantly being accused of being “haters” because we object to the normalization and promotion of all things LGBTQetc, especially in the church. And the volume of abuse that is being hurled at us by the progressives is going to increase massively as we approach the Called General Conference of The United Methodist Church in February, where these issues are going to finally be discussed out in the open, in front of God and everybody.
The situation we all face is that, as sexual minorities are becoming more openly accepted in our society, lots of Christian believers and Christian leaders are meeting actual gay or transgender or [whatever] people. They are acknowledging that such people are in our families and in our pews and playing with our children. And you know what? They’re pretty nice folks. They can be good neighbors and good co-workers and helpful and courteous and smart and talented and all the rest of it. Those who know only how to divide the world into “us” and “them” and assume that that is equivalent to “good” and “bad” are dealing with a major case of cognitive dissonance. And as they learn that their previously unacknowledged neighbors with different attractions and behaviors are as nice as they are, they assume that that means that they (and their attractions and behaviors) must therefore be “good, and acceptable, and perfect,” i.e., that they are as much in tune with God’s will as anybody else. So refusing to perform their weddings and refusing to ordain them when they’re otherwise qualified looks wrong. Because they’re nice, you know. But who says “nice” is the same thing as “good,” let alone “righteous” or “holy?”
Let’s turn down the temperature for a minute and look at a parallel situation. Let’s talk comparative religion for a moment. There are many different beliefs about God, or the gods, or the nature of ultimate reality on offer. There are many different religious communities, each of which has a unique way of understanding and presenting what they believe about – well, everything. There are Christians and Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists, to name just a few, all of whom disagree about who God/the gods/ultimate reality is, how to connect with him/them/it, and how to live out one’s life as a professor of their beliefs. And there is no burking these differences. They are real, and they are fundamental. And yet they’re all “nice” people, by and large. They make good neighbors and good co-workers, and they are capable of cooperating with each other on many things. But they each think the others are wrong, and wrong about the most important things in life.
This disturbs many people – most of them white, Western, and well-educated. Surely, these folks have said, all the various religions are all trying to get to the same place. Surely, every sincere follower of any of these religions is doing as well as any follower of another religion. Aren’t they all just the same thing? The followers of other religions – especially the non-white, non-Western, and differently-educated – regard this conceit with either bemused tolerance or indignation. But the white, Western, well-educated elites tut-tut that and keep right on asserting what all of the major religions absolutely deny. And in doing so, they make two fundamental, and obnoxious, mistakes.
First, by graciously including all the other religious followers within the category of people like us, they display a grating condescension that ignores what all those other believers actually believe. “Surely, we’re all alike,” when you come down to it, means “surely we’re all like US.” This kind of condescension has other names when we do it in the political arena: imperialism and colonialism, to name two. We deny that they really mean what they say they mean, and that on their most cherished and fundamental beliefs, because we want them to be incorporated into the grand Us; you know, the Nice People.
Meanwhile, in order to construct this shared identity that only we white, Western, well-educated sophisticates actually believe in, we have to deny those things that our own inherited creeds most strenuously affirm: the uniqueness and utter necessity of Jesus Christ, as the only mediator between God and humanity. We become, to a greater or lesser degree, heretics. And in denying our own religious community’s core beliefs, do we relinquish teaching authority within the church? Oh, dear me, no. We are the enlightened ones, the nice people. We have to save our own religious community from its own more backward and angry members. So the self-censoring, no-longer-fully-believing leaders stay in their positions and multiply their followers, and the Church groans under the weight of their ineffectiveness and their unbelief.
The first step to mutual respect between peoples with different theological commitments is to get rid of the pompous fools who patronize the followers of other religions while perverting their own official beliefs and punishing those who would teach them. Once the elites are out of the way, ordinary folks meeting each other in ordinary ways will often find ways to affirm the niceness of each other, while not beating each other over the head about their differences. “They’re different, but they’re still nice” is a possible conclusion, reachable by lots of people without official guidance.
Well, moving from metaphysics to morals, from the is-ness of religion to its ought-ness, follows a similar pattern. The Scriptures and the Creeds define what Christianity is; the Scriptures and the Tradition (going back all through Judaism and into Christianity) define its sense of ought, its moral consciousness. And here, we find all kinds of people who do things we officially say they ought not do – people who are, pound for pound, as nice as anybody else we know.
This should not surprise us, since we know ourselves to be sinners, and so we also do things we ought not do. Once upon a time, we acknowledged this. The preacher could touch on your secret sin, and though it would make you mighty uncomfortable, in your heart of hearts you would acknowledge the rightness of what was said, and come back next week to hear it again. In the latter years of my active ministry, though, I noticed that people wouldn’t sit still for that anymore. If you hit a nerve, they would object. Somewhere along the line, practicing Christians came to expect to be affirmed in all their decisions and all their ways. Criticism of behavior, even in the abstract, implied that they weren’t Nice People. And that just couldn’t be let go without comment.
I preached a sermon on marriage a few years ago. I completely avoided all discussion of same-sex marriage. I didn’t talk about pre-marital or extra-marital sex. I didn’t mention divorce. It was a completely positive sermon about what marriage was supposed to be, and how to succeed at it. It was expressly labeled as being for the benefit of the young, to give them something to shoot for, to help them find that “happily ever after” we say we want. It was about love and fidelity and sacrifice and all the good stuff. And I got grief from some of my most supportive parishioners because they had a divorce or something in their background. I wasn’t even addressing their condition, I was speaking to the never-yet-married, but they wanted to hear that they had been right, all those years ago, to have severed their connections. They had a sore toe, and though I made great efforts to avoid it, the fact that I didn’t salve it, specifically, meant that it was throbbing. The bottom line was, they would prefer that I never help their children and grandchildren achieve a successful marriage, if it meant that they would not be properly and publically affirmed in all their past actions. They didn’t want to know about grace; they wanted judgment rendered in their favor.
This means that an awful lot of people can no longer distinguish between is and ought. And it means that we keep falling back from grace into legalism. They want to be defined as right in all their doings, not told that God has forgiven them. Once such people decide that their gay or transgender neighbors are as nice as they are, then they have no tools to distinguish is from ought, and they figure that if it’s legal – in the public, political sense – then it must be okay – in the ethical, moral sense. And it is for the church to adjust.
Now, these same folks, or at least some of them – say, a United Methodist bishop or two – will rail at how pernicious it is that the public law permits gambling; even worse, state-sponsored gambling. Somehow, even though that is legal, they still understand that it might not be moral. But, hey, same-sex marriage? The Supreme Court says everything’s okay, so the church needs to get with the times. Meanwhile, though I think gambling is dumb, and state-sponsored gambling a public evil, I don’t think it’s my duty to rail at people who gamble, or to be obnoxious to people who work at casinos. The gamblers and the casino workers are all just as nice as I am, maybe nicer; I’ve got no problem with them. And I can still make the argument that what we do, personally or as a matter of public policy, matters.
The same goes for the gay, transgender, and other people I know. They’re nice folks, many of them. I get along with them. I don’t shrink from them. And you know what? I know some people who dabble in certain drugs who are pretty nice, too. And I’ve known alcoholics and people who fiddled their taxes, and all kinds of people who have done things that are “bad,” but who are generally reliable and helpful. I was a preacher for over forty years, and I can tell you all about the sins, petty or otherwise, of nice people. I don’t write people off who I think are doing wrong things, nor try to exclude them from society. But when it is my duty to stand in the pulpit and define the ought-ness as well as the is-ness of the Christian faith, then I owe it to people to tell them the truth. To tell them comfortable lies because I like them (and I want them to like me) is not loving, though some may think it’s being “nice.”
But what if it’s one of your own family? Well, what of it? Leaving aside the issues of sexual attraction and behavior, much of which is beyond my personal knowledge, let’s look at issues of belief and worship. I have spiritualists in my family – real ones, who can (they say) speak with the dead. I’ve been to séances and seen the materializations. Those are my people, some of them, doing that. And keep in mind, I went to college in the Seventies. I’ve had friends who were into Eckancar and the mystical way of Carlos Castaneda. One of my best-loved cousins became a Hare Krishna devotee. I have people in my network of family and friends who describe themselves as “ex-Christians,” who now believe in other gods – and no god. I’ve known, and loved, people who were really different. And yet, they were also nice, and very important to me. I don’t badger them to adopt my beliefs and practices, though my heart longs for it. I don’t invite them to things where they would feel embarrassed to participate, though I still invite them to family gatherings and I still acknowledge their friendship. We find a way to genuinely respect and include each other, instead of me trying to define them into an Us that I can pretend encompasses us, or me playing fast and loose with the truth I have been entrusted with.
And that’s just human life. True respect, real love, means taking people as they are. And it means being who you are. And not playing games with either one. It can be very difficult. But it’s what we are called to do. You can love somebody without agreeing with what they do. You can affirm somebody in some ways without re-writing your core beliefs to include what you have been taught is wrong.
My hope for The UMC is that we will continue to balance on the sharp point of the truth we have embraced, without falling off to either side. On the one hand, we affirm that all people – including gay people and other sexual minorities – are loved by God and deserve to have all their civil rights protected. That they should be welcome in our services. On the other hand, we also affirm that the Scriptures and the Tradition teach that there are sexual behaviors that we cannot affirm, that are not part of what the Bible defines as “good.” We are to point the way to a different kind of ought. If someone disagrees, let them disagree. We will leave them alone, and asked to be left alone in our turn. But we will still acknowledge them as our neighbor when we meet in other contexts. Just because we disagree doesn’t mean we don’t think they’re as nice as we are. But we are not teaching the Gospel of Nice. There’s something more than Nice at stake when we are talking about the Holy.