Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Time to "Cut Bait" with Evangelicals

When I was growing up, my Dad often used the expression “Fish or cut bait.” Seeing as neither I nor my father were big fishermen, it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood what the expression meant. To “cut bait” is essentially to cut your line, let your bait go free into the water and give up fishing. Dad would use this expression when it was time for us to act, rather than wallow in indecision.

This saying came back to me recently when I learned that Rev. Richard Cizik resigned from his post as vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). His resignation was prompted by criticism that came after an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s program Fresh Air. In the interview he was asked his position on gay marriage. He responded by saying that while he did not endorse gay marriage, he was open to the notion of civil unions. He also talked about his efforts to reverse global warming and his support for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.

Apparently, Cizik’s remarks did not represent the views of the powerbrokers within the NAE. Cizik’s remarks prompted NAE president Leith Anderson to write a letter to the NAE board of directors that Cizik’s positions did not represent the positions of the NAE. Mounting pressure eventually forced Cizik to resign, even though he is widely credited with being a fresh voice for the new evangelical movement and someone who is trying to engage evangelicalism and U.S. culture in a meaningful way.

I learned of Cizik’s resignation from blogs by Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, both long time progressive evangelicals who I deeply respect. Both Wallis and Campolo have had a significant role in shaping my understanding of how Christians should and can relate to the wider U.S. culture. Wallis expressed that he was “deeply saddened” by the NAE’s action but went on to say that he had trust in the NAE’s “commitment to the wider evangelical agenda beyond just abortion and gay marriage.” Campolo for his part said that Cizik’s resignation provided “one more reason why many of us are calling ourselves Red Letter Christians instead of evangelicals.” (For those not familiar with the term “Red Letter Christians,” it refers to the practice in some Bibles to put the words of Jesus in red letters, as opposed to black. Thus “red letter Christians” are those who follow the radical teachings of Jesus first and foremost). At the same time Campolo affirmed the common ground he has with evangelicals in regards to beliefs and the need for a “personal relationship with Christ.”

In spite of my respect for Wallis and Campolo, I have gone a step further, and “cut bait” with evangelicals. I first encountered the word “evangelical” when I attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the late 1970’s. After trying to figure out what constituted an evangelical, I asked my advisor and New Testament scholar, Dr. David Scholer (recently deceased), what an evangelical was. I have never forgotten his response: “An evangelical is a person who another so-called evangelical considers to be one.” In other words, evangelicals are a club, a social group, a political entity. As much they like to define themselves in terms of doctrinal and theological positions, evangelicals first and foremost are a socio-cultural group that determine who they like and don’t like. Many African American and Hispanic Christians share the same doctrinal beliefs as evangelicals, but are not considered “evangelical” because they didn’t make the club. Evangelicals are overwhelmingly white, middle class, and politically conservative. People like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne and Ron Sider see themselves as a “progressive” wing of evangelicalism, but how can the likes of these be seen in the same “club” as James Dobson, Joel Osteen or the Southern Baptist Convention, who continually rail against everything from global warming to the anti-war movement to a concern for the public education to gay marriage and abortion?

For years, like Sider, Campolo, Wallis and others, I considered myself an “evangelical,” but several years ago, I decided that was a club I didn’t want to be associated with. It is not because of their views on certain issues, because in fact in many cases I share their views or am close to them. It is their arrogance, self-righteousness, and intolerance of any dialogue. Had I wanted to stay in the club, I am sure there would be many who would want me out, just as they wanted Rich Cizik out. I simply saved them the trouble; I “cut bait” with the evangelicals long ago.

Stanley Hauerwas, theologian/ethicist at Duke Divinity School, says that one’s perspective on any given issue can not be divorced from virtue, or what I take to mean certain traits of character. For me the primary Christian virtues are servanthood, humility, and a willingness to listen. The NAE, and I fear even people like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, assume that Christianity can “make an impact” on US culture and government policy. Like Hauerwaus, I hold out no such hope. Rather as Hauerwas says our first task is to model justice and freedom in our relationships to each other, and by our life together as Christians bear witness to a different way of life and community possible in Jesus Christ. In other words the virtues of servanthood, humility and a willingness to listen first must be exercised by Christians with one another. I don't see any trace of that in the NAE.

Instead the NAE’s action in relationship to Rich Cizik is only the most recent of a variety of ways in which evangelicals have shown that they have absorbed our culture’s intolerance of difference, and taken on an attitude of arrogance that gets played out in our culture every day between groups of differing views. Moreover, this intolerance has played itself out on the world stage and involved us in two wars and alienated the US from many of the nations of the world, including our so-called allies. Instead of being a model of a different way, evangelicals have shown they are as much a part of the problem as anyone else. Other than the fact that both evangelicals and I share the label “Christian,” I’m not sure there is much else we share. For that reason I disassociate myself altogether – I cut bait.

The recent presidential election shows that declining influence the “Christian right” and evangelicalism are having in our culture. I suspect that Rich Cizik was not the only “evangelical” who voted for Barack Obama, despite his positions on abortion, gay marriage, global warming and the like because any thinking person can not be a one-issue voter. Moreover, any thinking Christian will recognize that on any one of these issues, there may be a variety of positions even among devout Christians. The ability to listen to one another and to interact in a compassionate and humble way requires an approach to dialogue that the NAE has neither understood nor accepted. I have no time for a group that is so rigid and close-minded that they automatically expel one of their own, when he happens to rethink his views on something. The Spirit of God is not contained in doctrinal statements or theological positions, but in the ongoing work of trying to engage the world with the love and justice of Christ found in the gospel. I feel badly for Rich Cizik, but in the end he is better off being set free from the rigidity of a group who has lost the Spirit of the One they say they serve.

3 comments:

boydwinton said...

Drick,
I only recently learned of this resignation (I guess I am really out of the club!) but I think I heard at least part of his interview on NPR (oops, another clue I am not in the club!).

Obviously, I left the evangelical movement years ago. First it was over the affirmation of gay/lesbian folks. But over time, I found myself discovering new ways of seeing the personhood of Christ, the role of prayer, the nature of God. When I find myself in an evangelical setting today, or when I read from the mainstream evangelical periodicals, etc I often feel like I am in a foreign country.

That being said, I continue to introduce and identify myself as one shaped by the old evangelical movement(pre Moral Majority and Religious Right as we know them) that emphasized a personal relationship with Christ (I focus on God, but appreciate the relational quality of faith), a passion and emotionality in worship and faith life, and a whole life commitment. It is these three elements that would help us in today's progressive church. The pursuit of justice and inclusivity we inherit from the mainline traditions is wonderful, but insufficient for faith today.

I appreciate the integrity and honesty of your journey. I won't hold my breath for the day you come to cherish Marcus Borg (!!) but look forward to more and more common ground.

Candace R said...

Drick, I got your Chirstmas letter today and checked into your blog. This is the first time I have read or commented upon a blog, and I feel very uncertain about the etiquette of blog comments. However, I do want to say that it is good to hear from you in a substantial forum. I will keep reading. Oh, and I do "cherish Marcus Borg," and the implication that you don't surprises me. Candace

Anonymous said...

As always, I appreciate your thoughts and now based on what Candace R said, I'm curious about what it is you don't like about Marcus Borg.
Sherri Michalovic