To be quite honest with you, I try not to pay too much attention to the news. I know I’m supposed to be “engaged” with culture and what’s going on, but I just can’t take it most of the time. I mean, Donald Trump is apparently a serious presidential candidate. DONALD TRUMP! The guy that we all imitated, laughingly, by saying “YAH FIAHED.” This man is winning polls in a presidential election. This is a thing that is happening in the world!
Can you really blame me for not wanting to pay attention too much? It’s just all so shouty and crass. Marilynn Robinson wrote a very good essay on fear and how its used in arguments about guns. And most pointedly, how its used by Christians, presumably the last people who should be using fear as a weapon (about weapons). I can’t say I’m really surprised by how we’ve done this, though, since fear is everyone’s weapon of choice these days. And I don’t really like spending a lot of time letting someone try to bludgeon me with a scaredy-club.
So I generally opt out.
If I’m paying attention to something, though, it’s likely a big deal. Not because I’m following, you understand, but…. you know what I mean. Anyway, I’ve tried to pay attention to the whole Kim Davis situation in Kentucky. You all could probably give the details of the case better than I could. The long and short of it is that she’s supposed to issue marriage licenses in her county. The Supreme Court has said that those licenses should not be withheld from gay couples. She has a problem with that. She won’t issue them.
I’m interested in her decision, of course. Conscientious objection and non-violent resistance are generally things that we endorse these days as enlightened Westerners (and yes, I do use those descriptors a tad sarcastically). We (rightly) praise people who use peaceful means to do the hard work of protest and even active opposition. I wonder about Ms. Davis and how much she thought about those things when deciding that this would be her course of action. Does she see herself as in the same moral tradition of those who practiced sit-ins during the Civil Rights era? I don’t know. I really hope not.
I’ve certainly been interested in how she has been talked about by those who disagree with her. I actually understand those who are very angry with her. Especially gay couples, in Kentucky or otherwise, who can use her as a symbol of years of what is perceived to be oppression. I get how infuriating that would be. How painful. I find it amazing, though, how quickly anger dissipates long-championed values specifically in regards to how we talk about women and their sexual history. Everything from her looks to her failed marriages (which, by the way, happened before she started following Jesus). Everything is on the table in the most profane language possible. Again, and I’ve noted this before in my blogs, I actually applaud the fact that we do apparently have moral boundaries in our culture. Some things are just so outrageously wrong to us (beyond the mass murder and rape categories that we’ve never disagreed on), the fact that people feel outrage at times is warranted. I too believe that moral outrage is warranted at various times and in different instances. However, I just don’t think the kind of language or spite is ever really permissible. At least, that’s how I’m raising my kids.
I’ve also been very interested in how those who support Kim Davis’ position have championed the hoopla around her. Rallies and signs and shouted support. As much as she has been made a symbol of hate by one crowd, she has been made a symbol of courage by another particular crowd. I found the rally for her, flanked by surprising presidential hopefuls, incredibly over the top. I was dumbfounded by the video. I thought people might agree with what she was doing, but I didn’t think they’d want to carry her around on their shoulders in victory or anything.
Like I said, I’m out of touch.
I watch all of these things with interest. I think about what I would do in her position. I think about what she, specifically, should do. I try to understand how those who hate her feel, and I am deeply saddened by their pain-fueled rage. To be honest, I don’t think I would do what she is doing. If I felt like I couldn’t do the job, and it was impossible to take my name off those marriage licenses, I’d probably just quit. Decisions have been made far over my head and I don’t think I have the power to stop them. So at that point, what are my actions accomplishing? I don’t think the benefits of this kind of active protest outweigh the costs. I would just quit my job, I think. I’d hope that my departure, maybe even public in nature, might cause enough of a ripple to make a few folks quit. And then I’d leave. I’m not sure, but I think that’s what I’d do.
Those thought experiments are interesting. The hypotheticals and the “what are they thinking/feeling” sort of questions. But I can’t really do anything about any of those scenarios. Really, I can only stand to the side and watch it all burn down. And what I see in the flames doesn’t interest me so much as deeply sadden me.
Christians stood there and rallied around a woman who briefly stayed in jail of her own volition. I think that the logic involves something about religious freedom. And religious freedom is a deeply important issue that many liberals dismiss as if there are no problems on the horizon in America. I find that point of view incredibly naive. But religious freedom appears to be the most important issue for many people when they see Kim Davis. I wonder if they realize what else it seems like they’re saying. There’s cheers and sarcastic Facebook memes and all this other stuff that is apparently entirely for religious freedom, but it reads like a lot of what people are against.
And of course, arrayed against Kim Davis is a whole host of people that seem to just be baying for blood. Who paint people that believe like her as unthinking bigot-hicks. There’s no time or space anymore “in today’s society” for people with conflicting moral constructs and who are unsure of their place in public life. I understand the anger towards her. But I see an equal unwillingness to consider what her public disorientation might feel like. “Who cares?! No one is taking away her rights!” And I get that objection. But she may now feel like she and others like her aren’t allowed to be moral persons in public service. Is that a right that’s being denied? I don’t know. But it could be confusing. And when your enemy has no value, no worth, things get ugly. And they have. I say that as someone who thinks that both sides in this fight have depersonalized “the other” to the extent that they’re just rhetorical punching bags.
To me, it just seems like two groups of people arrayed against each other in outrage, baying for blood. That image deeply saddens me. It’s very hard to come back from that place.
It’s not my job to speak for people who aren’t Christians. I don’t feel like telling on that side of the moral spectrum what they should be doing. But I know that I am very aware of what my people say and do in front of a watching world. Let’s say I agreed with what Kim Davis did. Let’s say that I thought this was a productive instance of civil disobedience. Even if all that was true, the massive rally to welcome her from jail… that was a bad idea. If Kim Davis needed to go to jail as a way to represent and protect religious freedom, it would have been a better idea, I think a more Christian idea, to quietly collect her from the facility and go pray quietly together. Christians should be sad when such means are necessary. And Christians should pray for courage to do what is right no matter what, sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The rally felt ridiculous. And it felt like a giant middle finger to everyone that we disagree with.
Quiet, faithful witness is powerful. Prayer and weeping for those that we love but disagree with is powerful. I think there is a real place for Christians to enter the political arena and fight. I thank God that people like William Wilberforce used the political arena to end the slave trade. In this particular case, I’m not sure that Wilberforce model applies. I think we may need to read the times and try to figure out what we hope to accomplish by these kinds of actions.
Most significantly for me, as I watch the images of this woman and those political candidates raising their hands at that rally, I think of Jesus on the Cross. I think of the members of the early Church who sang hymns as they burned or were torn apart in the arenas. And I just don’t think Ms. Davis’ example lines up with that history. I think the Church in America is maybe more interested in fighting than it is in suffering. Which is more reflective of the Cross? Public trips to jail and political rallies or a woman respectfully resigning her position because the government won’t accommodate her religious objection?
Look, I don’t know how all of this stuff is supposed to work out, exactly. I don’t believe in abandoning the public square. But I do believe in being very careful how you behave there. I want to be sure that when the ethics of the Church run counter to the ethics of the World (and I very much think they do here), that the Church is courageous and clear in its witness. But I also want to be sure that it is courageous and clear in its example.
We’re not fighiting a PR battle. Ever. We follow Jesus. And we try to live and die like him, too. If that’s not what we’re aiming at, then we’re doing it very, very wrong. I hope that’s not the case right now. No matter what “wins” we may scrap for now, we’ll lose what matters more: the hearts of our neighbors who desperately need to see the crucified God, made Lord and King. I hope I’m courageous enough to walk in the shadow of the Cross. If we can’t do that, then who are we?