Thursday, July 23, 2009

Christ or Culture: Framing the Anglican Debate about Gay and Women's Rights

Recent commentary (e.g., here) about what’s happening in the Episcopal Church asks whether it’s church or culture: do churches stand against and hope to lead the cultures in which they live; or do they cave in to the culture around them and go along with cultural trends antithetical to the gospel?

This stark either-or understanding of the complex dialectic relationship between church and culture is simplistic in the extreme. It ignores the reality of how church and culture have always related to each other throughout history: at some points, the culture leads, developing insights, norms, and trends that challenge the church to be more acute in its reading of the gospels and more faithful to the gospels; at other times, the church calls on culture to abide by the culture’s own norms of fair play, justice, and decency.

As the question has been framed in the American mainstream media for some time now, the church appears to have only one choice: either to stand doggedly against culture when culture moves in directions the church condemns; or to give in to culture and lose its soul. The question has been framed that way because this is how the religious right chooses to see the church’s options vis-à-vis women’s rights, abortion, and homosexuality, each of which has been made by the religious right a litmus test of orthodoxy and a test case for the church’s willingness to preach against or capitulate to the culture at large.

This simplistic either-or way of framing the church’s options at this point in history completely overlooks the significant classic work of H. Richard Niebuhr, which found a variety of options for churches as they confront the cultures in which they live. Niebuhr offers five typologies: the church can stand over against culture; it can succumb to culture; it can seek to place itself above culture; it can view its relationship to culture as paradoxical; or it can concern itself primarily with transforming culture. As an accomplished student of Christian history, Niebuhr found all these options running throughout Christian history. And he noted that churches can incorporate several of these tendencies simultaneously at any given point in history.

Though the dependence of H. Richard Niebuhr and his brother Reinhold Niebuhr on the social gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th century is often not acknowledged because the Niebuhrs were critics of the social gospel, both accepted key principles of the social gospel theology even as they critiqued this theology. One of these principles—which strongly underlies Richard Niebuhr’s work on Christ and culture—is that the kingdom of God (and, consequently, the church) and culture co-exist in a constant dialectic relationship throughout Christian history.

This approach to the question of Christ and culture, which is central to the thought of leading social gospel theologians including Walter Rauschenbusch and Shailer Mathews, assumes that the church exists primarily to proclaim the reign of God and to prefigure the reign of God in its own life, over the course of history. Social gospel theologians followed German biblical exegetes who, by the latter part of the 19th century, became aware that Jesus’s life and ministry were focused on proclaiming the imminent arrival of the reign of God in history, not on founding and building a church.

The concept of church is nowhere to be found in Jesus’s thinking. This concept, and the structures that flow from it, are later developments in response to Jesus’s proclamation of the reign of God, and to his death and resurrection. The church is an attempt to institutionalize the memory of Jesus’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and his proclamation of the reign of God.

Out of these biblical findings—which have long been accepted by both Protestant and Catholic scripture scholars and theologians, and are resisted only by marginal fundamentalist groups within the churches—the social gospel developed a theology focused on the church’s obligation to respond to the culture around it in dialectical fashion, as both the world and the church move towards the consummation of history that Christian faith identifies as the reign of God. Social gospel theology recognizes that both the secular and the sacred realms can prefigure the reign of God through their moral insights, their vision of the possibilities of human existence, and their pursuit of justice for all.

Social gospel theology thus provides an important optic through which Christians can view some cultural developments as challenges to the church itself, because those developments more adequately realize the notion of the kingdom of God that Jesus set forth in his life and preaching than the church has yet realized the notion. This is the insight Martin Luther King—who was influenced in important respects by the social gospel and the Niebuhrs—was articulating when he said that the church ought to be the headlight of movements for justice, but often finds itself the taillight.

The church has found itself challenged throughout the course of history by secular developments that are more adequate expressions of the reign of God than are to be found in the church’s own life and teaching. Conversely, there have been times in the course of Christian history when the church has played a prophetic role in calling cultures to accountability to their secular notions of justice and fair play.

From an historical standpoint, the church’s relationship to culture is always dialectical. It is more complex than any one typology can capture. It is a dance, a give and take in which the culture often leads, and the church follows, or the church leads, with the culture following.

It would be fatuous for anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of Western history to deny that the churches have often been capable of shocking, grotesque cruelty and injustice: the churches have again and again betrayed Jesus’s notion of the reign of God in their behavior and institutional life. The churches have blessed and helped to foment wars, even calling wars “holy.” They have tortured and burned “heretics” and “witches.” They have fostered pogroms against the Jewish community, and in the Holocaust, many believers and many church leaders turned a blind eye to the mass murder of Jewish people. The churches long accepted and even practiced slavery. The churches have historically oppressed women and sought to subject women to second-class status as human beings.

In many cases, the churches only gave up these inhumane, cruel practices when secular movements began to challenge the church to recognize that its way of dealing with particular groups of people was immoral and antithetical to the Christian gospels. In many cases, secular societies have had to make laws to force the churches to adhere to even the most fundamental moral principles inherent in the gospels that the church proclaims as its foundational documents.

The debate now underway about the role of women and gay people in church and world cannot be reduced to a simplistic church-vs.-culture analysis, in which many churches’s anti-gay and misogynistic stances somehow have the blessing of the gospels, and the culture’s willingness to accord rights and freedom to women and gay persons represents an abdication of Christian principles. The debate cannot be reduced to that simplistic text, that is—the text the Christian right wants to continue seeing throughout the mainstream media—if we are honest about what is going on in this debate, and what the debate entails.

One of the grand ironies of the either-or church-vs.-culture analysis is that the very groups within Christianity who now want to claim that they and they alone are standing stalwartly against culture in resisting women’s rights and gay rights are themselves deeply enculturated—and enculturated precisely in their misogyny and homophobia. Misogyny and homophobia are every bit as much historically developed cultural patterns as racism and slavery are.

In defending racism and slavery in the 19th century, the predecessors of those Christian groups now claiming to be saviors of the church against corrupt gay-affirming mainstream culture constantly maintained that they alone had maintained the doctrinal purity of the church throughout history, with its blessing of slavery. In defending racism and slavery in the 19th century, the predecessors of Christian groups now defending misogyny and homophobia claimed to stand on orthodox ground and perennial “truth,” while they were actually fighting to maintain historically developed cultural practices that have nothing at all to do with the gospels and the reign of God, and everything to do with the power of select groups over groups on whose backs that illicit power rests.

As the Anglican communion struggles with questions about how the church ought to respond today to the legitimate demands of women and gay persons to be treated as fully human, many Catholics are looking on with a smug sense of superiority founded on an illusion: this is the illusion that the Catholic church somehow holds to higher standards, which set it apart from culture more successfully than is the case with the Episcopal church.

What we really need to ask ourselves, we Catholics, as we watch the fray with those smug grins on our faces is whether our superiority, our resistance to cultural captivity, means then that we stand against women and gay persons, in their battle to be accorded full humanity and to be treated as persons with the full range of human rights accorded to all other persons. If not—if we do stand with misogyny and homophobia because we stand for orthodoxy and perennial "truth"—then can we truly claim to be standing with the gospel and Jesus, even as we stand proudly against culture?