A strong “Statement of Unity” is being issued by faith leaders in Richmond on Monday, denouncing racism, nationalism, and white supremacy. It originated in the conservative, evangelical Christian community, whose leaders signed it and invited representatives of “mainline” Christian churches to join them. By the time I saw it, many people whom I admire and respect, both in the conservative Christian community and in the more progressive churches, had signed on. I told one colleague, the strength of character of some of the signatories was so great that it made me want to sign on myself, just so I could be associated with them.
I signed the “Statement of Unity.” And I’m grateful to the folks who drew it up. It’s an important sign of unanimity about the dehumanizing forces of racism, nationalism, and white supremacy.
Some of the implied theology in the statement, however, gave me pause.
For over 32 years as an ordained person in the Episcopal Church, I have joined other progressive theologians in mainline Christian churches, as well as leaders of other religions, in proclaiming an inclusive and embracing theology. My focus has been more the religion OF Jesus, rather than a religion ABOUT Jesus, because I do not believe Jesus had any intention of starting a new religion; he simply lived a religion and spirituality of unconditional love that embraced all human beings.
But as many of us in the Episcopal Church and elsewhere have proclaimed this inclusive religion of Jesus and its social implications, we have watched as many of our more politically and socially conservative parishioners left our congregations to join more conservative, evangelical Christian churches, where we were denounced as heretics. My “heresy” has been my failure to interpret the Bible in the same literal or inerrant way that they do.
The problem some leaders in conservative, evangelical churches had with people like me was that we promoted the ordination of women, whereas, based on their interpretation of the Bible, some of their churches did not even allow women to teach Sunday school. Or, in some cases today, their denominational body has softened a bit and now says that local churches can decide whether or not women may hold leadership positions.
More recently, our affirmation of gay, lesbian, and transgender people has been a problem for some of these churches. Again, I have been labeled as a heretic by some more conservative, evangelical church leaders and lost some more conservative members to their mega-churches. When the Episcopal Church ordained a partnered gay man as a bishop in 2003, the charges of heresy, based on evangelical interpretations of Scripture, were rampant, and we lost even more members to evangelical churches. It happened again not long ago with our affirmation of marriage equality, though by now, most disaffected Episcopalians had already left to join more conservative, evangelical churches. Still, although many Episcopal churches have seriously declined over these years, others have thrived, as more and more people have come to appreciate a more expansive and embracing theology that, I would argue, is firmly based in Scripture.
Being labeled as a heretic has been frustrating and annoying for me at times, because usually, the people who have labeled my views as heresy have never had a conversation with me. Nobody likes to be labeled in such a derogatory way, especially when you’ve never met the labeler. But to be honest, I am not bothered by heresy. A heresy is simply a view that runs contrary to the accepted orthodoxy of the day. Often, heresy represents a healthy sort of diversity of opinion that religious people need, because we can be prone to close-mindedness and a herd mentality. Galileo was condemned as a heretic for espousing that the earth revolved around the sun.
So one of the first things I noticed about the “Statement of Unity” was its labeling of white supremacy as a “heresy.” As I say, I’m okay with heresy, but I’m emphatically not okay with white supremacy, which, if I had to label it, I would simply say represents an abomination. And if we need to use a religious label to describe the ideology of white supremacy, I would call it “blasphemy,” because it denigrates and denies the sanctity and divine presence in non-white human beings. Could we say the same about misogyny and homophobia?
Theological labeling was not my only concern about the “Statement of Unity.” I sense we all need help in labeling people less, in favor of getting to know each other personally more. I sense that books like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy have become popular in part for this very reason, following the 2016 presidential election. Nevertheless, I was uncomfortably aware of my reaction when I read the statement’s use of “heresy” to describe white supremacists, since the same word has been used to describe me when I have promoted women in leadership, the sanctity of gay and lesbian relationships, and affirmed the innate goodness and sanctity of people who are transgender. But it was other, theological assumptions undergirding the “Statement of Unity” that bothered me even more, assumptions that I simply do not hold and that I sometimes find potentially harmful.
For example, I do not believe that Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection “offers humankind the gift of eternal life,” as the statement says. I believe, rather, that God has given all humankind eternal life from the beginning. The crucifixion and resurrection, I believe, reveal the gift of eternal life that God freely gives to all, whether one is Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, or agnostic. I believe God shows no partiality, and those who do not subscribe to certain doctrines are in no way excluded from God’s loving embrace and gift of eternal life. Believing that God shows partiality to those who give their assent to certain doctrines can depict a capricious God and send religious people down a path that almost always does not end well.
Similarly, regarding the crucifixion, the atonement theology that seems to dominate some evangelical churches depicts an angry God who is prone to violence and who demands blood sacrifice and satisfaction. As many theologians have pointed out, this very entrenched theology might well be responsible for the bloody mess we are in right now. If we believe that God is angry, violent, and requires blood sacrifice, and we are made in God’s image, why should we believe that we will be less violent toward each other?
In addition, as the leader of a Christian faith community, whenever possible I want to sign statements of unity like this, that is, statements about our common humanity, with leaders of other faith communities who are non-Christian. When statements like this make it impossible for non-Christians to sign on (unnecessarily in my view), I feel somewhat complicit in deepening the very divisions with which we are grappling now. If members of the mob in Charlottesville were chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” this point seems particularly important right now.
The statement in question also refers to “God’s consummated Kingdom,” saying we expect it to be “a place of rich diversity and cultural expression.” I believe it to be and expect it to be universal. When only certain Christian leaders are able to sign a statement like this, it gives the impression that God’s salvation (i.e. God’s healing and wholeness) and God’s “consummated Kingdom” are limited to Christians.
The statement is strong about the sins of racism, nationalism, and white supremacy. In the end, some of my colleagues in mainline churches prevailed on me when I expressed my reluctance to sign. They pointed out that the absence of my signature might send the wrong signal, and I decided they were right. This is a time when Christian leaders need to show unanimity, particularly when some of the racist, nationalistic, and white supremacist views are countenanced in some churches. Thus, the rejections and denunciations in the “Statement of Unity” are probably, for many, the statement’s greatest virtue, making it important and even necessary to sign, as a show of unqualified unity against such destructive forces. I am truly grateful for this.
But I wonder if one of the statement’s greatest weaknesses is that it avoids one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings, which is to love one’s enemies.
Richmond is facing some important and highly flammable issues, and sorting out how to engage peacefully with people whom we perceive to be our enemies will be vital. And without a truly expansive theology, it’s easy to get stuck on labeling and denouncing. But I believe that for Christians, a truly expansive theology, one that goes beyond a religion ABOUT Jesus to the more embracing religion OF Jesus, could be key.
Clergy have a special responsibility to denounce dehumanizing forces of racism, nationalism, and white supremacy, and I am indebted to my colleagues in the evangelical church community for their leadership in this way. But theology matters. And if we are not more expansive in our theology so that we are appealing not only to sectarian interpretations of Scripture but to the loving God of all, if we are only putting labels on our enemies and denouncing them, then I fear our enemies will only become more numerous; they will become more firmly entrenched in their positions; they will perpetrate greater horrors; and we clergy will feel a need to issue even more emphatic rejections and denunciations.
And I’m just not sure where it all ends.