Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Not For the Last Time

I usually give David Brooks the “shorter” treatment. That is, I read his column, boil it down to a simple sentence (usually snarky), and post it.

Not this time. Today he has a column that needs a full-blasted rebuttal.

Mr. Brooks extolls the virtues of John Stott, an evangelical whom he considers to be the anti-Falwell; humble, soft-spoken, and not given to the showmanship and arrogance of the Elmer Gantrys of American evangelism. Mr. Brooks launches into this praise after raking the likes of Messrs. Falwell and Robertson (as well as Al Sharpton) over the coals, and it sounds like Mr. Stott may be one of those rare birds you know exist but hardly ever see; an evangelical Christian with an open mind. But then he drags out the usual evangelical selling points, and we’re back to Square One.

To read Stott is to see someone practicing “thoughtful allegiance” to scripture. For him, Christianity means probing the mysteries of Christ. He is always exploring paradoxes. Jesus teaches humility, so why does he talk about himself so much? What does it mean to gain power through weakness, or freedom through obedience? In many cases the truth is not found in the middle of apparent opposites, but on both extremes simultaneously.

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock – especially if you’re a Jew like me – when you come across something on which he will not compromise. It’s like being in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among nonbelievers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues. [Emphasis added]

It’s the last two sentences that are the deal-breaker.

In the first place, I am amazed that Mr. Brooks is still at the level of calling homosexuality a “lifestyle.” This is the refuge of the straight – to believe that being gay is a choice, because that is what “lifestyle” implies, and that you can change. Of course, ask a straight person if they “chose” to be heterosexual and you get a mystified stare; “Of course not,” they reply, but they’re incapable (or afraid) of admitting that there is no choice in the make-up of something as fundamental as sexual identity. There may be no absolute scientific proof (as if there is such a thing as an absolute in science) that being gay is genetic, but it certainly isn’t a choice any more than there is a choice in being left-handed, blonde, or five feet eight inches tall. But you can change, they say. Yes, and you can teach yourself to write with your other hand, get a dye job, and wear lifts in your shoes, but underneath it all you’re still the way you are hardwired at the factory. All the wishing and hoping and butch-assuring monster pick-up trucks aren’t going to change the fundamentals. It certainly isn’t environmental; I am the third of four children, and all of my siblings are – as far as I know – straight; they’re all married or widowed, and two of them produced children. My parents have been married to each other for over 56 years, so there’s no doubt on that score either.

“Lifestyle” implies a choice, and the way our society has become, it implies a casual choice, much as you’d chose the style of furniture you have in your home. Or, for that matter, the church you choose to attend. So can we say that being Jewish is a “lifestyle”? Certainly you can choose not to be Jewish or you can choose to be Roman Catholic. There may be certain ethnic traits to religions, but the act of worship is purely a matter of choice. You can be born into a Jewish family, but unless you’re raised in the traditions of the faith, you’re no more Jewish in a biological sense than anyone else born into this world whether it’s on a kibbutz in Israel or a pueblo in New Mexico. (Yes, there is the rite of circumcision, but that’s not unique to Judaism; trust me, I know.)

“Lifestyle” implies that you can change, just as you can re-upholster the sofa. This is what the evangelicals are hoping for; if they believe that anyone can change, then they believe that you can stop being gay and start being a good Christian. This has been their selling point through time out of mind, and this is where evangelism has wrought havoc – converting the non-believers.

Wars have been fought, genocide has been committed, and entire civilizations have been wiped off the map in the name of evangelism. The Christians are not alone in this, but they have certainly been the most widespread and most arrogant. Aboriginal people have been enslaved and slaughtered in the name of Christ, diseases have been spread by the mere presence of new people arriving in small communities, and the rightful resentment and rebellion against these crusaders has been ruthlessly put down by people with “backbones of steel.” Religious arrogance and homogenization has been the scourge of humanity since the dawn of time. As Aaron Sorkin pointed out in an episode of The West Wing, we can trace the current level of terror alerts back to Isaac and Ishmael, sons of Abraham. And it will never stop. There are those who believe in their souls that all the world should be of one faith, and there are those – the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons – who exploit that fact for their political and monetary gain. They can never accept the fact that being gay is not a choice, because to do so would be to give up the power – and mailing lists – of sowing fear among their followers: Give me $10 so I can make sure that no queers get married! By the way, this is a recent addition; it used to be that they preached against the mixing of the races and integration, but we have, to some degree, moved beyond that, thanks to “activist judges.” And World War II took most of the steam out of anti-Semitism, at least in the western civilizations. It is still the mainstay of Islamic evangelism.

And then there’s the wonderful paradox of being “pro-life and pro-death penalty.” In other words, all life is sacred until after they’re born. Then it’s okay to execute them.

Mr. Brooks ends his column by saying, “Politicians, especially Democrats, are now trying harder to appeal to people of faith. But people of faith are not just another interest group, like gun owners. You have to begin by understanding the faith. And you can’t understand this rising global movement if you don’t meet its authentic representatives. Not Falwell, but Stott.”

I understand them all too well. There are some things, even among Quakers, that do not engender tolerance; war, slavery, and bigotry among them. Evangelism has encompassed all three. This will not be the last time these arguments will be aired, and if the next four years are like the last four weeks, the battle against the rising red-state tide of evangelism and absolutism will be fought on a daily basis. Giving quarter or credence to it, even if it is packaged in the soft voice of John Stott, means a march backward to ignorance and arrogance.