Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Evangelical Christianity, Homosexuality and the Deeply Flawed "Tale of Two Bobs"

The other day I came across a blog post by Rod Dreher, in which he embraces a parable somebody wrote a couple of years ago about two neighbors, both named Bob, who get along even though the author assumes that they're not supposed to.

The opening of the parable could be this,
There once were two neighbors, both named Bob. One is a neo-Nazi, the other is Jewish. They've lived next to one another in a duplex for several years, and have been good neighbors: getting one another's mail when the other travels, hauling each other's garbage cans to and from the curb, and have occasionally had a cookout together. They are friends, but they've never really had a discussion about their differences.
Or this,
There once were two neighbors, both named Bob. One is a KKK member, the other is in an interracial marriage. They've lived next to one another in a duplex for several years, and have been good neighbors: getting one another's mail when the other travels, hauling each other's garbage cans to and from the curb, and have occasionally had a cookout together. They are friends, but they've never really had a discussion about their differences.
Or this,
There once were two neighbors, both named Bob. One is an evangelical Christian, the other is gay and agnostic. They've lived next to one another in a duplex for several years, and have been good neighbors: getting one another's mail when the other travels, hauling each other's garbage cans to and from the curb, and have occasionally had a cookout together. They are friends, but they've never really had a discussion about their differences.


The narrative continues,
One day, during March Madness, a stiff gust of wind knocked a tree limb into their power lines, and they found themselves without electricity, five minutes before the U of L game. They wandered out onto their respective porches and decided to go to a nearby pizzeria to watch the game.

Somewhere before the end of the game, this conversation began:
Bob 1: Isn’t it surprising that we've become friends?

Bob2: What do you mean?

1: Well, one of us has a [swastika / KKK emblem / rainbow sticker], and the other has a [Magen David / pro-diversity sticker / fish emblem]. According to most folks, we shouldn't get along.

2: Yeah, I'll admit it's crossed my mind once or twice. Does it bother you?

1: Does what bother me?

2: Well, that I am who I am?

1: Hmmm… I don't know how to answer that. Does it bother you that I am the way that I am?
The narrative continues,
Bob 2 scratches his chin, waits a moment.
2: I suppose there are two answers to that question. One is no, not at all. We've been good friends. You took my dog to the vet when it got into a fight with a possum. You share my hatred of the University of Kentucky. What's not to like? On the other hand, I think you've have committed your life to something that's toxic to our culture, and to yourself, and I wish for your sake, my sake, and the world's that you believed something different. So no. And also, I worry about you.
Bob 1 leans back a little, grinning.
2: Did I offend you?

1: No, not at all. In fact, I would probably give the same answer about you, though I'd phrase it a little differently.

2: How so?

1: Well first of all, I’d talk about your barbecue skills, and I’d admit that I like your smelly dog. Second, I’d say that I think who you are and who I am is more complex than beliefs and commitments… but I think that's true for myself too.

2: You don't think you chose to be that way?

1: Did you?

2: I guess I did and I didn't. Or maybe, I didn’t then I did. It was something I didn’t want, but eventually I had to admit it.

1: I guess I didn't and then I did.

2: That's a better way of putting it.

1: For both of us.

2: For both of us.

1: So all this simmers in the background while we see one another, day by day.

2: Yep.

1: But we just keep on being neighbors and sharing the occasional pizza.

2: Yep. Breathing the same air, trying to figure out how to get along.
The game got heated for a few moments and they drifted away from the conversation. Soon, it started up again.
1: Let me ask you something.

2: Shoot.

1: You're saying that you didn't choose to be the way you are, but then you did.

2: Yeah. It was a journey. I didn't want to believe it, but eventually, it became undeniable, and I had to accept it inwardly, and then I had to accept it outwardly.

1: How did your family react?

2: Well, they're more sympathetic to you than me… It wasn't easy. It still isn't. I get snarky comments occasionally, especially during election seasons.

1: Oh yeah… the worst.

2: The worst. Let me ask you something now.

1: Okay.

2: Has it caused trouble for you? Like, at work or anything?

1: Well, sometimes. Some folks just think it's awful, and you have to win them over by just being an ordinary person.

2: Because they think you're a monster?

1: Because they think you're a monster.

2: That's familiar.

1: Yep.
The game ends, the two walk back home, and their friendship resumes. Conversations return to this topic, and both try to convince the other of their errors… But thus far, not much has changed. They remain good friends and good neighbors.
The author argues,
This parable is meant to do two things. First, it’s sort of a Rorschach test. Which of the Bobs is a Christian, and which one is gay? In a culture that remains hostile to the LGBT community at one end of the spectrum, and at the other end, hostile to Christians who hold traditional beliefs, we will find folks like both Bobs: their social experiences are almost interchangeable.
Even within the context of "Which of the Bobs is a Christian, and which one is gay", the exchange is strange and contrived. When you recognize the fact that, perhaps with a slight adjustment for time and place, the exchange as easily "fits" contexts in which one person's views would be unacceptable by broadly held contemporary standards, the parable falls apart as a highly strained false equivalence. There is a difference between disliking somebody because of their beliefs, particularly when those beliefs cast you as somebody who is destined to Hell or inherently inferior, and disliking somebody over an aspect of their being that they cannot change -- such as their heritage, or their (or their spouse's, or their children's) skin color.

If you want to reduce it to a parable about mutual acceptance, to make it a song and dance number for a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, you don't need to bring religion or status into the discussion. ">The farmer and the cowman can be friends. You say tomato, and I say to-mah-to. You say goodbye, and I say hello. The exchange actually works better if you treat the disagreement as being over a triviality. Consider Dr. Suess's story of the star-bellied sneetches, creatures identical in all respects save for the presence of stars on their bellies, who come to realize the absurdity of using that distinction as the basis of a claim of superiority. That form of the narrative can still serve as an analogy for much more serious, real world, bigotry and discrimination, but without the need for a false analogy.



Secondly, I think this conversation is very real and true to life. It’s a conversation that I’ve had in one form or another with many friends over the years. I’ve also had conversations that were much less friendly. But the context here is, I think, the key: being neighborly, being a friend, creates space for conversations that are hard. And while that probably won’t resolve the growing public tension over these issues, it might help us to live at peace with our neighbors, and that is, in some ways, far more important.
Except the conversation is not real and is not true to life. I'm not going to rule out the possibility, for example, that a member of the Westboro Baptist Church gets along with his gay neighbor, but this is not the conversation such a person would be at all likely to have with that neighbor. Also, the author starts from the preconception that gay people "shouldn't get along" with evangelical Christians, and vice versa. While some evangelical Christian churches and movements do preach intolerance, that's not prerequisite to being an evangelical Christian. And while a gay person might not like getting the stink eye from somebody who is intolerant of his relationships, there's absolutely no reason to presuppose that being gay predisposes you to not "get along" with an evangelical Christian. For goodness sake, you can both be an evangelical Christian and be gay.

The parable seems to recognize the inherent weakness of trying to analogize the condemnation of a group of people based on status -- something they cannot change -- and criticism of people based upon their beliefs, even sincerely held religious beliefs. The Bobs are posited as having this interchangeable view of their realizing that they were gay, or their embracing a form of evangelical Christianity that regards homosexuality as a mortal sin,
2: You don't think you chose to be that way?

1: Did you?

2: I guess I did and I didn't. Or maybe, I didn’t then I did. It was something I didn’t want, but eventually I had to admit it.

1: I guess I didn't and then I did.

2: That's a better way of putting it.

1: For both of us.

2: For both of us.
The problem here is that "gay Bob" would be describing a process by which he recognized and accepted his homosexuality despite strong social pressure not to be gay. Accepting the fact that you are gay is not a "choice" as posited by the narrative. In contrast, if a person in fact struggles with whether to join a particular religious or social movement, and struggles with those portions of its beliefs that teach intolerance of others, their ultimate decision to remain within the movement and to embrace those beliefs comes as the result of an actual choice. Under the interchangeable narrative, "Christian Bob" describes himself as coming from a family that holds different views than his own, and is accepting of gay people ("they're more sympathetic to you than me"). While "Christian Bob" may believe that his religion dictates his attitudes toward gay people, under the narrative he chose the path that led to those beliefs.

Some try to draw a fine line between homosexual thoughts and homosexual practices -- the conception being that if a gay person doesn't accept his homosexuality, or if he does accept it but represses any action on his desires, that he is somehow elevated above a homosexual person who involves himself in a gay relationship. Under that thesis as it plays out in the real world, you're asking homosexual people to either live a lie, usually at the expense of another person (their heterosexual spouse), or to openly state that they are homosexuality and then to live a life of chastity. Even if the latter path were realistic, many evangelical communities would not be welcoming to such an individual. We can debate the extent to which that's the result of the teachings of their church, the result of larger social views, or some combination thereof, but it's a reality. There's a vast difference between not excluding a gay parishioner and welcoming them into your church as a full and equal member.

To the extent that the narrative reminds evangelical Christians of the teaching that you can love the sinner while hating the sin, that you can be accepting of others without compromising your Christian values, that you can be neighborly even toward people whose lifestyles you find to be sinful, great. The preconception of the narrative, that evangelical Christians "shouldn't get along" with gay people is not necessary -- you can be a devout Christian without hating anybody. Why does a contrary impression exist? Not only because of the antics of groups like the Westboro Baptist Church ("God Hates Fags"), but because of attitudes like those acknowledged here,
I can't look my gay brother in the eye anymore and say "I love the sinner but hate the sin." I can't keep drawing circles in the sand.

I thought I just needed to try harder. Maybe I needed to focus more on loving the sinner, and less on protesting the sin. But even if I was able to fully live up to that "ideal," I'd still be wrong. I'd still be viewing him as something other, something different.

Not human. Not friend. Not Christian. Not brother.

Sinner.

And despite all my theological disclaimers about how I'm just as much a sinner too, it's not the same. We don't use that phrase for everybody else. Only them. Only "the gays." That's the only place where we make "sinner" the all-encompassing identity....
The author clearly felt immense pressure within his religious community to reject homosexuals. He also speaks of how, upon reflection, he can continue to hold his religious beliefs without joining in with that type of condemnation of his literal and figurative brothers. The author of the "Bobs" narrative asserts,
Christians make space for others all the time; neighbors who are adulterers or gluttons, alcoholics or tax cheats. We have family members who are liars and Christians – at their best – love these folks because they know that they are no different but for the grace of God. And so, Bob can make space for Bob even while he lovingly extends the offer of grace in Jesus Christ. That offer includes a call to repent of Bob’s sins, and that’s a tough pill to swallow.
Save for the contrived assertion that "Gay Bob" is agnostic, "Gay Bob" could have been Christian who attends a church that is accepting of his homosexuality. I doubt that the same sort of emphasis on "the offer of grace in Jesus Christ" or repentance of sins would be asserted if this were "Evangelical Bob and Presbyterian Bob", yet save for the author's contrivance "Gay Bob" could a devout Presbyterian, perhaps even a minister.
But the truth is that the other Bob wants to convert Christian Bob too – not to being gay, of course, but to his own worldview.
As the "Two Bobs" narrative unfolds, there's no reason to believe that to be the case. That is, with "Christian Bob" being able to be friends with his gay neighbor, there's little more that "Gay Bob" could hope to accomplish -- and no reason to believe that "Gay Bob" would be particularly interested in trying to push "Christian Bob" into making further concessions. After all, if most or all evangelicals were as neighborly, the author would have felt no need to write his parable.

Dreher's take-away from the parable was this:
Cosper’s point is that Bob 1 can be the gay agnostic, or the traditional Christian, and the same moral would apply. If you can’t see how either one could play either role in the conversation, perhaps you need to work on your empathy.
For reasons I've already outlined, and which should be readily apparent from the applicability of the parable to other contexts in which it becomes instantly uncomfortable, Dreher's first take-away fails due to narrative's reliance upon a false equivalence.

The argument for empathy -- for mutual empathy -- is more interesting. While the narrative flounders when it attempts to draw a parallel between immutable aspects of a person and their social or religious beliefs, there is no question but that people can be friends with evangelical Christians without sharing or endorsing their beliefs. Sure, just as political discussions are off the table at a lot of family Thanksgiving dinners, there may be discussions that don't occur in the interest of good neighborly relations, but that's part of how we get along with others who don't fully share our views.

The false analogy makes the argument for empathy a bit awkward -- I'm hard pressed to think of any gay person I've ever known who held the sort of blanket views of evangelical Christians that the author seems to believe are prevalent -- but certainly, there's room for neighbors with different social, political and religious views to find common ground. (Nonetheless, if "Christian Bob" is marching with the Westboro Baptist Church or is actively protesting gay marriage and lobbying politicians for a ban on employee benefits for same-sex partners, he needs to take responsibility for the fact that his actions make it much less likely that he will find common ground with his gay neighbor.)

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