An Open Letter to My Evangelical Friends and Family

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This post is part of a larger one I wrote about a month ago on the threat President Trump poses to people I care about and to my country. In that post I also had some harsh words for Evangelicals, many of whom I see as compromising their faith by unilaterally supporting Trump.

While I do think those problems are serious and widespread, things are never that simple. People and movements are complex. I known many good people who are Evangelicals. I think of my mom, who is one of the best persons I know. She is wise, industrious, kind, and resiliently joyful. In many ways she is my hero.

Or I think of the Filipino pastor who married me and my wife. Belief-wise he’s an old-school Fundamentalist. But he is also warm and funny. He drove four hours to help pick up my mom from the airport. And when we found out that her flight had been delayed, he was willing to wait in Manila all night for her. He gave me and Jen a lot of good advice. Quite a worldly-wise man in spite of his beliefs.

I can think of many other examples. I wouldn’t want to downplay that. Here might also be a good place to acknowledge that progressives like myself have our own blind-spots and flaws.

But those problems I identified remain. And I fear that political power and alignment with an administration as immoral as Trump’s will only further compromise Evangelicals’ commitment to love and justice.

Evangelicals, I implore you: good intentions are not enough. They must be matched with knowledge. History is strewn with examples of people who did massive amounts of harm under the best of intentions. If God reveals truth in creation – if all truth is God’s truth – please don’t be afraid of science or the testimony of your neighbors. Be willing to engage others and the world in a fair and open-minded way. Please learn to be more discerning in the sources you trust.

Be willing to approach Trump’s claims critically, given his history of whoppers. Are you willing to call him out when he lies? Are you willing to defend our free press, even when you disagree with the perspectives some sources take? People of the truth should have nothing to fear from transparency, fact-checking, or an open exchange of ideas.

Please consider arguments from a number of different perspectives about if the Bible is truly infallible or if it must be for God to use it in a powerful way. Please prayerfully study the Scriptures to see if I am right about love being at the center of God’s character and what he calls us to. I believe the Bible itself will bear this out, but also consider what other sources in natural theology such as miracles or religious experience indicate about the Divine. How would making love the center of your hermeneutic change how you approach God and others?

Please reflect on why the Bible spends so much time focusing specifically on the needs of “the least of these” – widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers. Why not just say “love everyone” and leave it at that? All lives matter.

Of course, all lives do matter. We are suppose to love everyone. Some aspects of loving others are universal to all individuals and groups. For example, for all people, love means being honest to them, respecting them, listening to them with an open mind, treating them with kindness and compassion, and seeking their happiness and maturity.

But vulnerable people groups need more than the everyday kindness or curtesy we might extend to another. They have urgent needs that more well-to-do souls simply don’t struggle to have met. They face oppressive circumstances that sometimes are quite different than those of majority groups. The Biblical authors were wise enough to recognize that. What would it mean to apply that insight more broadly to today?

Please reconsider how you treat LGBTQ people. Does the Bible even condemn being trans? you might be surprised. Whether gay or bi people should act on their same-sex attractions; please, please recognize they don’t choose them and cannot change them. Conversion therapy needs to go the way of the dinosaur.

If you expect gay Christians to remain life-long celibates, make sure you are going out of your way to provide them with the fellowship and support they will need to walk down that lonely road. Please reconsider your very condemnation of their love. I have written on why I changed my mind on this matter here. But if you continue to personally believe acting on such an orientation is wrong, reconsider your crusade of legal opposition to the rights of LGBTQ people.

Please reconsider how you treat women. Reconsider if the Bible’s overall trajectory is truly patriarchal. Recognize that any social arrangement of “separate but equal” based on something intrinsic such as race or gender inevitably lends itself to abuse and dehumanization. This is just a fact of social systems and human nature.

Please recognize how consummately strong, intelligent, charismatic, and gifted women are for most of the same things men are. See how women too have a variety of dreams and callings. Don’t be threatened by that. See it as something to celebrate and nurture. Respect women’s ability to chart their own courses, pursue their own dreams, and chose to be with the person they love. Abortion is a legitimate thing to oppose (obviously), but please learn to embrace other forms of birth control as tools that can be used for good as well as ill.

Listen to women when they tell you that something is offensive or even threatening. Respect consent and expect the same from others. Don’t tolerate assault or abuse. Ever. From anyone. Even respected authority figures. Become more aware of how thoroughly misogyny colors our history and still infects us in many ways. Be attentive to seeing it and confronting it in your own life and in your community.

Please reconsider how you treat people of color. Learn more about our racist history and about how much racism still pervades our lives today. Remember, racism is not necessarily about conscious hate; it is about systems of inequality and oppression. Become more aware of such systems.

Build relationships with black and brown people. Listen to them when they share with you about their fears and the dangers and indignities they face. Don’t assume they are wrong just because their experience is different then your own. Partner with them in opposing racism in all its forms. Not as a “savior,” but as an ally. This might mean stepping back sometimes and letting others lead. Some problems are not as easily solved as others, but at least recognize the problem and steadfastly pursue a just resolution.

Be intentional about watching yourself for stereotyping and kneejerk fears. Some people of all races really are bad news, but know that implicit bias is a thing. Take care to the sources you imbibe. Some will be more trustworthy than others. Some cater to prejudice (intentionally or not).

Learn to see the good in other cultures, not just the bad. Make room in your communities for leadership and representation by minorities. Be intentional about letting them bring their cultures and perspectives into the substance and not just the veneer of your teaching and worship. Don’t just expect them to take on your own culture. Don’t be afraid to “get it wrong” or apologize. This is messy work. Just keep trying and learning.

Please reconsider how you talk about and treat refugees and immigrants. Yes we have to take reasonable precautions for our safety and well-being. But there are ways to do that which are not xenophobic. Not everything is a zero-sum game. At least sometimes everyone can come out on top. Remember that “legal” is not necessarily the same thing as just; and “illegal” is not necessarily the same thing as criminal (in the moral sense).

Consider doing a study on what the Bible says about strangers and aliens. You may be surprised. Keep in mind that as Christians we are supposed to see others as, first and foremost, fellow image bearers of God. Our primary citizenship is in heaven, not the USA.

Be mindful of how racism and ethnocentrism can subtly creep into our reactions toward others, even when we are not intending to be hateful. Again, be mindful of the sources you gain info from. There are those that are intentionally trying to sow fear and animus; and not always for deserved, representative reasons.

If possible, built relationships with immigrants and/or refugees. Learn more about the challenges they face. Advocate for their rights and for immigration reform. Lobby the government to treat other countries in a fair rather than exploitive way. Resist unwarranted notions of American superiority or exceptionalism.

Please reconsider how you view and treat poor people. Build relationships with them. Treat them with dignity as equals. Don’t just give, be ready to be blessed in return. I know many of you are exceptionally charitable. Evangelicals are known for that. By all means, keep up the good work! Such work not only provides needed aid; when done well, it also builds up beloved communities.

But charity is no substitute for more thoroughgoing economic justice. Everyone has a responsibility to do the best they can with the hand they have been dealt. Of course we want to encourage people to work and take personal responsibility. Most people want to work. And we want to create jobs.

But the idea that people can normatively pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is not reality. Its very hard to escape poverty. Some people start out life with the deck stacked against them (or stacked for them, as the case may be). Sometimes circumstances happen that are outside their control. Injuries happen, plants move, industries change, stock markets crash, heads of households betray, and others act in a discriminatory way. And when they are able, those in power will engineer the laws and system to maximize profits at the least cost. No matter if this is sustainable for ordinary workers or the environment.

If that is the reality, why not work to ensure that peoples’ basic needs are met: needs like housing, clothing, food, education, and healthcare? Why not build coalitions of power from below – countervailing power to the power from above that tends toward exploitation?

The system is never neutral. Laws are crafted to benefit someone (see Reich). Please become more of a voice for the poor and working class. Don’t just give them charity, fight for their rights and for laws that reflect their interests. This isn’t just “bleeding heart,” it makes good economic sense.

Please reconsider how you view and treat Muslims. If you can, seek out friendships with them. Let them know they are welcome and safe in your community. Even if they were your enemies, Jesus commands that we love them. And love means treating them the way we would want to be treated.

But in fact, most of them are not our enemies. As I argued earlier, despite our differences, Muslims are essentially just like everyone else. And Islam too can be interpreted in a number of ways. Be willing to read about Islam from sympathetic sources. Or as you share your faith with them, ask your Muslim friends about what they believe. Arguably there are objectionable things in Islam; but a lot of the stereotypes about it are either wrong or simplistic straw-men.

More controversially, I would say be open to the idea that God could be inclusively at work in the lives of Muslims. This doesn’t mean that Christianity isn’t uniquely true or that Christ isn’t the ultimate source and end of their salvation, but it means God can meet people where they are and transform them without perfect knowledge. When you meet saintly Muslims, as I have, its hard to deny the Spirit’s fruit.

Stand up for the rights and lives of Muslims. Both here and abroad. Lobby the government to pursue fairer Middle East policies – for example, in Israel. But be willing to face fierce pushback from those animated by fear and prejudice. As I will write about more shortly, how we navigate beating back terrorism while protecting ordinary Muslims will be one of the great tests of our time. The temptation will be to write off all Muslims as subhuman. But that is not an option for Christ-followers. Will we fear God or man?

Implicit in all of this, please consider expanding the meaning of “pro-life.” Pro-life should not just mean pro birth. It should encompass the entire life-span. And it should encompass everyone; whatever their race, nationality, gender, or creed. Do all lives really matter to you?

Pro-life should include not just punitive measures against those who wrongfully take life (as needed as those are), but also preventative and restorative measures that decrease abortions and help families thrive.

While I am not a pacifist, the message of Jesus calls us to strongly prefer peace and non-violence when possible (at the very least). Are we willing to sacrifice just as much for waging peace as we are for waging war? How might such an ethic play out in how we view guns, warfare, or the death penalty? Obviously, that’s debatable. But I’m asking you to prayerfully consider it and read about it from a variety of perspectives.

Please remember, love should be our governing impulse; not power.

Finally, Evangelicals I implore you: be thinking about what moral lines you will not cross, no matter what incentives or threats are proffered your way. Most of you who are honest and informed know that Trump is a morally compromised leader. Perhaps you thought he was the lesser of two evils. I obviously don’t agree, but we are past that now. Just because he was better on the most important things (in your view) doesn’t mean he isn’t wrong on others. Be willing to criticize him where he is wrong and pressure him to be better. We liberals need to do that as well with our favored representatives.

But Trump is not the only danger. The coalition that helped elect him includes other dark forces. Don’t be fooled by the “alt-right” moniker. Their stated goals are racist and even genocidal. Many of Trump’s cabinet and inner circle harbor other intense prejudices – for example, Islamophobia.

Another part of Trump’s coalition are rich businessmen; be they Wall Street executives, oil tycoons, or weapons developers. Read about what Trump’s new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson did in Africa. It is chilling stuff. And we appear to be cozying up more to Putin’s brutal dictatorship in Russia.

There is a fascistic wing to the Religious Right that is very serious about making America into a Christian theocracy (see Hedges). Ruthlessness, greed, and power appear to be the common threads that hold all of these groups together.

Evangelicals, you are naïve if you think you can keep your seat for long at this table without intense pressures to compromise your faith. Be on your guard! In what ways might you have already started to go down that road?

And I warn you: Donald Trump has promised to do evil things, and I fear he will seek to do even worse before it is over. Be vigilant. What will you do when he calls for reinstating torture? How about targeting innocent civilians? Will you speak up against that? What if he seeks to violate Muslim Americans’ constitutional rights (or something even more sinister)? Are you willing to stand up for their religious freedom too? Even if that becomes unpopular or dangerous? What if he calls for deporting refugees who have been screened and are here lawfully? Would you stand up for them? Would you take them in and shelter them? Are you willing to protest unjustified police shootings (when that clearly is the case) and advocate for reform in our criminal justice system? How do you plan to address more subtle but just as deadly threats to poor people, Latinos, and others? We all have some soul searching to do in the days ahead.

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Why I Changed My Mind About Gay Relationships

(There’s a lot more I could say, but this old response I gave to a friend covers a lot of the main points.)

Ok, now to some of the places we are likely to disagree. Sara is right to ask about your view of the Bible and why you see it in that way. To my mind, a lot of this gets down to how we know what is real and how we discern what God’s will is.

I’ll let you elaborate and defend your view of that. But let me here explain mine. Christians have historically viewed the Bible as an authority. But they have approached it in different ways and they have always recognized other ways God reveals truth as well. For example, God also reveals truth through science, experience, reason, tradition, and the fresh leading of the Holy Spirit. Further, we recognize that the Bible and redemptive history are not “flat.” Instead, the person and message of Jesus are at the center. He is our salvation and the key to how we approach the rest.

I believe empirical experience is fundamental to human knowledge. By this I mean what we sense through our five senses as well as our moral and spiritual sense (holistic empiricism). Even knowledge of God and the Bible depend on experience of this sort being generally trustworthy. Where we have strong empirical evidence or experience of something, that truth is presumptive. This is even more so when it involves broadly shared patterns of experience or is strongly evidenced by rigorous scientific study. In general, even Christians would say that one’s assumptions about reality have to change if they don’t fit the evidence. We should not twist what we discover in the world through science and strong empirical experience to fit our assumptions about how it must be; instead our assumptions should be amended where necessary to fit with the reality we discover.

This should be transparently obvious. In any other context you’d agree. For example, do you think it would be reasonable for a Mormon or a holocaust denier to refuse to consider the evidence against their assumed bodies of truth and simply twist that evidence to suit their preconceived opinions? You wouldn’t accept that. How is it somehow noble for Christians to resort to the same strategy? Especially when we know that God reveals truth in creation and in our study of the world. The Bible itself teaches that.

Christians have historically believed that God reveals himself in both the Bible and in nature. What happens when what we see in the Bible seems to contradict what we learn about nature through empirical experience? We should go back and examine our interpretation of both. We could be wrong in either case; be that due to sin or human error. What happens if after we have done that there still seems to be an irreducible contradiction between the two? In that case it seems obvious to me that we should side with the well evidenced findings of science and strong empirical experience.

The Bible is first and foremost a collection of human documents. Whether God was involved in its production and the degree to which he was involved in that have to fit with what learn about both the world and the Bible itself through our careful study. (Ascertaining what the Biblical authors meant is itself an inductive/empirical enterprise.) It is my study of both of these that has led me to a different view of inspiration. In context, the Bible contains scientific and historical errors, failed prophesy, internal contradictions, and even (in places) immoral teachings. If you want some examples, I’d be happy to point them out.

Now obviously God cannot lie. This is not me maligning his character. My whole point is that for those who believe that God speaks through Scripture (as I myself do), we have to acknowledge that he accommodated some human error in inspiring broader principles and trajectories in Scripture. How do we sort the one from the other? We read the Bible through the lens of God revealed in Jesus and we do it in interaction with other Christians, in light of our considered experience, and through the prayerful leading of the Holy Spirit.

In fact, the early church took a similar approach to Scripture. For example, although there was intense debate among early Christians, eventually they felt free to reject the Old Testament laws because these were fulfilled in Christ. Their approach to Gentile circumcision is very instructive. As Kenton Sparks notes, “Circumcision is a central rite in the Hebrew canon, and the text explicitly describes it as an ‘eternal covenant’ (Gen. 17:13) to be observed by Jews, and most importantly, by any foreigners who wished to join Judaism (Gen. 17:27; Exod. 12:48).” And yet, based on the concrete evidence of the Spirit’s work before them, they felt free to reject this Biblical requirement. “The weaker position from Scripture, supported by the Spirit, bested the stronger position opposed by the Spirit.”

This and many other examples I could give shows that they were much more interested in God’s broader message revealed within Scripture; discerned according to their understanding of its higher principles of love, Christ’s message and work, God’s in-breaking kingdom, and their experience of the Spirit; then with slavish agreement with the original authors’ every meaning.

I want to say something more about the ethic of love because that is relevant. Jesus said that loving God and loving our neighbor fulfilled the whole of the law (Matt. 22:35-40). He felt free to heighten laws or negate them based on his perception of God’s in-breaking kingdom and based on how they fit with our call to love God and other humans. The early church also felt that freedom. I find it fascinating that Paul says basically the same thing as Jesus. In Galatians he says that we are no longer under the supervision of the law now that Christ has come (3:23-25); but that we are not to use our freedom to sin but rather to love one another, “for the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this command: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Likewise, in Romans 13:8-10 Paul says that the spirit of EVERY SINGLE commandment is fulfilled in loving our neighbor as ourselves!

Of course, it is AGAPE love that is in view; not some sentimental or self-serving type of love. We receive further instruction into what loving God and others means elsewhere in the teachings of Jesus and in Scripture. But seeing love as the central principle and seeing Jesus and the apostles feeling free to rework the Old Testament in light of the God’s in-breaking kingdom, in light of Christ, in light of the Spirit’s fresh leading, and in light of love gives progressive Christians warrant and guidance in doing the same thing with things like committed gay couples or full equality for women.

Whether a thought, word, or deed fits with agape love is the determiner of whether it is God-honoring or sinful. When we think of sins such as lying, stealing, adultery, gossip, etc.; it’s not that hard to see how they violate the spirit of love. But the same is not the case for loving gay relationships. These do not obviously violate agape love. On the contrary, in many cases they seem to be a noble expression of it.

We learn through science as well as clear empirical experience that in *most* cases one’s sexual orientation—that is, who we are attracted to—is not chosen and cannot be changed. I say “most” because some claim to have changed that. In many cases this appears dubious and numerous LGBTQ people have tried everything to change with no success. The American Psychological Association cautions that trying to get people to change their orientation is unlikely to be successful and can cause a great deal of harm. You might prefer to word this differently, but you seem to grant the premise. This means, for example, that gay men are only attracted to other men and can no more be attracted to women than straight men can be attracted to other men.

Then we observe that most LGBTQ people, just like most straight people, want to fall in love and experience the intimacy, dependability, and other benefits that come from being in a committed relationship with another.

We can see that those who try to suppress this desire and/or their orientation often face severe loneliness, self-loathing, mental health issues, and elevated suicide rates. This is prima-facie not good. The Bible itself testifies to the existential truth that it is not good to be alone (Gen. 2:18). Both Jesus and Paul say or imply that celibacy should not be mandatory (1 Corinthians 7:9; Matthew 19:11-12).

On the other hand, we can see that when they find that special someone, they experience love and joy and happiness; someone to depend on; someone that grows them and brings them outside themselves; really almost all the virtues that we associate with genuinely loving straight relationships. This seems prima-facie good. I have gay friends that have some of the most loving, and beautiful relationships I know. I can SEE the good they bring out in each other.

Of course, not all of these relationships are this healthy; just like not all straight relationships are healthy. Both have the same capacity for good or evil.

I say “almost all” of the same virtues because obviously gay people cannot reproduce in the same way that heterosexual couples can. But they can adopt and medical technology has expanded their options here. Studies suggest that children raised in intact gay families are just as healthy as children raised in intact heterosexual families.

And both experience and Scripture suggest that reproduction is not the only legitimate function of sex or romantic relationships. There is no principled way to say that sex has to be connected with reproduction without also stigmatizing heterosexual couples who themselves cannot reproduce.

Implicit with what was said before, we observe that gay relationships between consenting adults do not obviously harm anyone. Promiscuity, whatever one’s orientation, can be harmful. I’m not necessarily speaking to that. But gay people are not just going around having “gay sex.” This is about the full range of sexual and romantic expression.

Finally, we see our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Christ loving Jesus and bearing the fruit of the Spirit (which Jesus himself said only a good tree could bear (Matthew 7:16)).

To me, this seems like a very strong argument not just for the moral permissibility of gay relationships, but for their capacity for positive moral good. It is based in science and careful empirical observation and reflection. It results from paying loving attention to our neighbors and their experiences.

Opponents of gay relationships want to cite a handful of texts against that. What these texts are actually saying is debatable (see below). But to me, even IF they meant what conservatives say, science and experience should trump traditional interpretations of, what we know from other cases, is an all too human book. Further, loving gay relationships fit the gospel and Scripture’s dominant themes very well.

I know you likely won’t agree with this view of knowledge or the Bible, but please prayerfully consider it. I am fully convinced that it or something like it is true.

Know also that there are many who take a more conservative view of the Bible and simply interpret those 6-7 texts that have been used against gay people differently. I’m not sure I’m fully convinced (especially on Romans 1). I come to an affirming stance in the different way that I have described above. But they have some pretty powerful arguments. See, for example, Matthew Vines presentation here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezQjNJUSraY or Justin Lee’s here https://www.gaychristian.net/justins_view.php .

If I could recommend only one resource for you to check out, I would say read Justin Lee’s book “Torn.” It’s very accessible to conservatives. Lee has a gracious manner. Even if you end up disagreeing with him, it is eye-opening in showing just how hostile the church has been to LGBTQ people—even those who accept traditional interpretations and have chosen celibacy. We as a church have a lot to answer for!