Smashing Our Idols: A Response from Evangelical Leader David Gushee

It took the Rapanui of Easter Island more than 1,000 years to begin smashing their idols.

The Rapanui honored their ancestors, called the moai, with large stone statues and, over time, each clan began to compete with one another over who could build the largest statues. Their religion dictated that they move the statues from where they were created down to the shoreline. To do that they needed a lot of wood, but the sixty-four-acre island could provide only so much wood. Eventually their supply dwindled to nothing, leaving them not only without wood to move the statues, but without wood to fix their boats or weave rope or clothing.

Historian Ronald Wright chronicles the plight of the Rapanui:

“There was nothing left but the maoi, the stone giants who had devoured the land. And still these promised the return of plenty, if only the people would keep faith and honor them with increase. ‘But how will we take you to the altars?’ asked the carvers, and the maoi answered that when the time came, they would walk there on their own. So the sound of hammering still rang from the quarries, and the crater walls came alive with hundreds of new giants, growing even bigger now they had no need of human transport.”

It wasn’t until the Dutch found the island in the early 18th century that the Rapanui religious worldview began to fall apart. The remaining Rapanui were still honoring the maoi, even as they lived hardscrabble lives in substandard housing.

United Church of Canada pastor and author Greta Vosper in her book With or Without God posits that it was perhaps “the arrival of the Dutch, with their splendid food, boats, and wealth that struck the sudden and killing blow to the worldview that had encouraged the Rapanui to entirely devastate their environment in deference to powers they believed lived in the great stones. By the time Captain Crook arrived on the island fifty years later, a vicious attack on the stones and the ancestors had begun. Statues were knocked over and destroyed, beheaded and cracked.”

The Rapanui felt betrayed by their gods. They revolted against the worldview they had been given by their ancestors and began to see what havoc they had reaped upon their own lives in the name of honoring the gods and beliefs of their tradition.

As Vosper points out “worldviews are primal” and people will fight to the death – or starve to their deaths – rather than give them up willingly. After reading about the Rapanui, I am not shocked at the cultural fight raging between those who oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians in church and society and those who insist that those rights be granted. We’re dealing with two very different worldviews, and the worldview fighting the hardest is the one based in “tradition.” But, as the Rapanui teach us – clinging to a long held worldview, simply because it’s been long held, can literally cost the lives of those unwilling to change. Even as they are cutting down the last tree on their personal spiritual or political island, they will insist that the god they are honoring will prosper them, even without a source of prosperity in sight.

Often our worldviews are unconscious – they have been handed down to us through our families, churches and societies. Because of this, our worldviews go largely unexamined until something threatens them. Then, we fight with all our might to preserve them. We have to understand how powerful our worldviews are. Those who oppose including gays and lesbians in the church or granting them marriage equality or other civil rights are not monsters, and they are probably not consciously bigots. The world where they feel safe and justified is a world where gays and lesbians are excluded and homosexuality is seen as a sin.

Instead of vilifying them as troglodytes or barbarians, we must be willing to be in relationship with them – to help those who are willing to explore the whys and wherefores of their worldview to identify and perhaps smash any idols that aren’t working for them anymore. This requires compassion and a lot of patience from all involved – especially those have “intruded” upon the “traditional” worldview.

My worldview has recently clashed with the worldview of a man named David Gushee, who is a prominent author and Christian ethics professor at Mercer University in Atlanta. I wrote of this clash in an earlier post, but here is a quick summary.

Gushee, an evangelical Christian, recently stated in a review of the book Crisis in the Christian Century that those in the church who have harmed gays and lesbians through the teaching of God’s rejection of such people must ask for the LGBT community’s forgiveness. I acknowledged that this is a good step for both Gushee and the wider church, but wondered at the sincerity of such a request for forgiveness, given Gushee’s past writings that encouraged acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church – as long as they understood that their sexual orientation made them somehow morally inferior to heterosexuals.

I wondered in that post whether Gushee had changed his mind in the year since he had written what his vision of a “welcoming” church looked like. I had complained that such a church was really just as unwelcome as a church that outright rejects gays and lesbians. A commenter on that post encouraged me to contact Gushee and ask if his opinion had changed.

I contacted Gushee who was gracious enough to respond and offer his thoughts. He was also kind enough to give me permission to share some of his email in this essay.

My starting point is an evangelical Christian identity and 15 years in leadership in the evangelical community. That community begins with a very high view of biblical inspiration and authority; the Bible is God’s truthful and inspired Word which is the premier source of authority for Christian life. I am not willing to budge from such core convictions.

The question from within that framework is whether such a view of Scripture requires belief that all sexual acts outside of heterosexual marital acts are to be viewed as contrary to God’s will. Evangelical Christians, like Catholic and Orthodox Christians, have long believed that this is in fact the case. Developments in church life, culture, and the sciences, I believe, require a rethinking of this belief today. Some have already done that rethinking and have settled on the rejection of this traditional view. I am in the process of such a rethinking and have not settled on such a rejection.

But meanwhile, as my Crisis review suggests, I am crystal clear on the rejection of a church-based culture of hatred toward gays and lesbians. I am calling evangelical Christians to demonstrate God’s love instead of what is often hate and rejection. I have also called for evangelicals (and Baptists) to undertake a serious discernment process related to the broader hermeneutical, theological, and ethical issues. And I have the joy in my current church setting of developing meaningful friendships with gay and lesbian Christians.

In short, the answer to my question was no – his view has not changed – but he was very clear that he has not arrived at a stopping point in his inquiry into the matter. He is still listening – still engaged in the question. He has been interacting with gays and lesbians – people he values as friends – who are teaching him about their lives.

I found his response forthright, honest, and in many ways refreshing. I fear my response to him came from a place of defensiveness – still insisting that his idea of a “welcoming” church was no better than a wolf in sheep’s clothing as far as gay and lesbian Christians were concerned. He was kind in his second reply and again reiterated his willingness to stay in dialogue.

Then I remembered: It took the Rapanui more than 1,000 years to begin smashing their idols. The idols preventing full inclusion of gays and lesbians in both church and society are large and solid, like those Rapanui statues on Easter Island. They took time to construct and those who honor them are loathe to do anything to destroy them even if keeping them around means their own ultimate destruction. However, progress on full welcome into church and society has moved at light speed compared with how long it took the Rapanui to renounce their concrete traditions.

For as long as there have been church musicians there have been gays and lesbians in the church. But, if we date the beginning of open agitation for acceptance of LGBT people into the church at Troy Perry’s founding of the predominantly gay denomination of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, then the fight for inclusion began just 41 years ago in 1968. The idols that have excluded gays and lesbians from the pews and the pulpit have been smashing ever since.

Over the years, David Gushee has smashed some of these idols himself. He has arrived at a place where, while he believes that sex outside of marriage is sinful and that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, he’s willing to smash the idol of exclusion of gays and lesbians from the church based on this belief. He’s able to still hold this view and open the church doors – even if it’s just a crack – for gays and lesbians. Certainly, Gushee has been criticized within his own evangelical tradition for shifting his worldview at all. But, we who hold the worldview that the church should welcome all, without condition, need to realize the tectonic shift that Gushee, and those like him, has made. Instead of vilifying him for not going far enough, we ought to commend and celebrate the progress he has made. He’s taken that first big whack at the stone statue of exclusion and it is beginning to totter.

When I put this all in perspective, thanks to Gushee’s gracious reply, I realize that Gushee’s “welcoming” church model, though imperfect, is a sign of progress, not regress. What may feel like “unwelcome” to me, or a slight to me, may simply be the best effort that the church and its members, like Gushee, can make right now. Whenever we find ourselves as the one being oppressed, it may feel like a personal attack or insult to feel conditionally welcomed, but we must give people time and space to come to the side of full equality. Those who are making an honest effort, like Gushee, must be applauded and nurtured – not attacked. In the same manner, we who want full, unconditional inclusion in church and society need to be in relationship with people like Gushee so we can encourage them to keep whacking at the statues of exclusion and oppression until they are finally gone.

In my book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, I make the distinction between what I call “drive by” attacks on LGBT people and those who seek honest dialogue but may still use hurtful language. Gushee is among the latter. He is genuinely hearing the pain from LGBT people and trying to build relationships. This is what the church needs most if it is to smash its idols of exclusion. It’s good to have someone like Gushee working on our behalf. He may not be a perfect ally, but he’s listening and he’s willing to chip away at the statues if not smash them outright.

I feel I must issue an apology to Gushee for not writing to him before my earlier post. It’s often easier to snipe at someone about their opinions than it is to dialogue. But, if we are to change the “traditional” worldview on gays and lesbians in both church and society, we must be open to dialogue and we must be willing to smash our own idols of exclusion and distrust in the process.

As someone who has written before about not being willing to compromise with those who oppose us, my tone may seem like an about face – but it’s not. I’m still not willing to compromise on full inclusion of LGBT people in church and society – but I am willing to be in dialogue with those, like Gushee, who are willing to examine the issue and change their hearts and minds. We must never compromise our love for one another, even in disagreement. We must not compromise on our insistence that God’s love is open to all – just as they are.

Remember, it took the Rapanui more than 1,000 years to even begin smashing their idols, but once the smashing began, they never looked back. Some in our churches and society will certainly refuse to smash all of their idols – just in case their worldview is finally justified. Not all churches and not all areas of society will fully welcome LGBT people – but, thanks to Gushee and other compassionate evangelicals, the idols are starting to fall.