Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"In Reality, a Gospel without Justice Is No Gospel at All": Implications for the Catholic Church and LGBT People, and for Catholic "Bridge-Builders"

A key implication of Jemar Tisby's statement that, "[i]n reality, a gospel without justice is no gospel at all," is that the gospel itself — the good news of God's salvific, redemptive love for everyone offered in Jesus Christ — is unavailable to those who are not accorded justice. The good news of God's all-inclusive love for the world through Jesus is unavailable to those who are not accorded justice by Christians and Christian institutions proclaiming the gospel to the world.

Not only is justice not some kind of frill or add-on as the gospel is proclaimed to the world: it's essential to that proclamation. Christians who imagine they are offering good news to the world but who refuse to accord justice to members of their own community and to those treated unjustly in society at large are behaving oxymoronically. They are demonstrating that they have no good news to preach to the world, have not ever had any good news to proclaim, do not understand what the good news they claim to be preaching is all about in the most fundamental respects imaginable.

We who have been unjustly accorded the status of non-persons by Christian communities — in many cases, solely because we have chosen to be faithful to how God has made us to be and to love — end up in a position in which we cannot hear the gospel at all, when it's proclaimed to us by Christians and Christian institutions that in no way seek to redress the injustice we've experienced at the hands of Christian communities. When Christian institutions, including ones that purport to be all about building bridges between the LGBT community and the church, do not reach out in concrete ways to make justice flourish in the lives of those long treated unjustly by the churches, they undercut in the most radical way possible their proclamation of the gospel message.

Preaching the gospel is about doing the gospel, not saying the gospel.

Preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to the world is about reaching into the lives of those denied justice — including, and especially, those denied justice by Christian institutions — and doing something to make justice present where justice was absent before. Preaching the good news of Jesus Christ is about affirming those who have been dealt injustice by Christian communities, treating them as if they are in the room and as if their voices count, and not pretending that they have somehow earned their censure and expulsion from the Christian community and are "uncharitable" when they speak out strongly against the abuse they have suffered at the hands of Christian communities.

For many of us treated as non-persons by Christian institutions — for those of us dealt blatant injustice by Christian institutions — our experience has often been that no one reaches out to us, to tell us that we count, are wanted, have companions in our struggle to see justice done to us. When the very same groups that claim to be about building bridges between people like us and the church keep representing themselves as bearers of good news while they defend the deferral and denial of justice and promote a gradualism that continues to excuse the unjust behavior of their institutions towards people like us, the message they give us is that their good news is not for the likes of us.

It's for someone else. It's for those who have played the game right, abided by the rules, known the right people, made the good choices, been worthy of the gospel.

Martin Luther King struggled with the gradualist approach of so-called "liberal" Christian reformers during the Civil Rights period, and found it to be one of the biggest impediments possible to the quest for real, concrete racial justice during that period. It was a huge impediment to the quest for real and concrete justice because it gave cover to social and religious institutions to keep on doing what they had long done — denying justice to people on racial grounds. Gradualism in society-wide arguments for social justice always gravitates in the direction of the status quo, of power, of the institution under siege, and gives it a pass, protecting it from the claims of the oppressed that are hammering it to change — and to change now.

"It takes time to change things," these so-called "liberal" reformers said in the 1960s.

"Nothing changes overnight."

"We need to listen to both sides so that no one gets left out."

"Those defending the status quo have a point, too, and should be heard."

"It's uncharitable to characterize recalcitrant institutions that take time to change as on the wrong side of history's moral arc."

"Can't we all just get along together?"

These are the very arguments that led me, when my Southern Baptist church dragged its feet about whether it should admit African-American members in 1965, then had an ugly knock-down, drag-out fight about that decision which split the church down the middle, to turn to the Catholic church. Which seemed to stand unambiguously for social justice and civil rights in my small Southern town . . . . 

It was arguments like the ones above that led me in 1965 to request a meeting with the pastor of my Southern Baptist church in which he told me that I must be patient with the church, since change comes slowly and requires patience. It requires refraining from making moral judgments which clearly state that racial injustice is clearly wrong and that churches colluding with racial injustice clearly forfeit their right to pretend to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. In any shape, form, or fashion . . . .

These arguments propelled me out of my family's church, since it was obvious to me that when Martin Luther King stated in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that "justice too long delayed is justice denied," he was right — and that Christians like my church's pastor were giving a pass to injustice itself as they defended their church institutions when those institutions dragged their feet in doing racial justice and not just talking about racial justice.

It was obvious to me that Martin Luther King was absolutely right when, in that same impassioned statement from a Birmingham jail cell, he decried the (white) "liberal" churches of his culture as a "tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice." A church that places itself in the posture of the tail-light and not the headlight is a church that cannot credibly proclaim the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ — since "a gospel without justice is no gospel at all."


First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." 
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection (Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail).

These insights have been part of the furniture of my mind since I was a young adolescent growing up in the middle of the Civil Rights struggle in the South. They remain light-years away from the thinking of Catholic "liberals" today, including Catholic "liberals" who claim to be committed to struggling for justice for LGBT people within the Catholic church.

Why, I wonder? I have some thoughts about this, about the comfort many Catholic "liberals" find by remaining ensconced in parochial Catholic communities that don't listen much to communities of oppressed people outside the narrow purview of the Catholic institution, including to the voices of those shoved unjustly from their parochial communities. I'd be happy to hear your thoughts, too.

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