News already is spreading that America’s leading evangelical Christian ethicist, Dr. David P. Gushee, has reversed his traditional opposition to LGBT relationships in a landmark book called, Changing Our Mind. One online news report about his new book racked up 42,000 mentions on Facebook by readers who understand the significance of this new stance by Dr. Gushee.
After 20 books—including the award-winning volume that now is a standard reference book for evangelical leaders, Kingdom Ethics, Dr. Gushee is completely rewriting his ethical and biblical approach to gay and lesbian men and women. The news has been welcomed by families, teachers and religious leaders who realize that traditional evangelical teaching has hurt countless men, women and teens. Predictably, the news also has sparked opposition from traditionalists.
Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm interviewed David P. Gushee about his book.
Crumm: Let’s start with the most obvious question: Why now? You are a devout Christian, a serious scholar and you’ve already written enough books to fill a shelf in the library. Now, mid-career, you’ve chosen to reverse yourself on one of the most important issues dividing thousands of churches and millions of families. This is a rare reversal for a scholar of your stature.
In his Foreword to your book, best-selling Christian writer Brian D. McLaren calls this a historic moment and compares your new stance to some others that made headlines. Brian writes: “Older readers will remember when Billy Graham shocked American evangelicals—first, by refusing to segregate his evangelistic crusades, and then, by working with Roman Catholics. Younger readers will remember when Pope Francis shocked Catholics by washing the feet of a Muslim woman, or by refusing to condemn gay Catholics.”
So, David, the first question is: Why now?
Gushee: More with this book than with any other book I’ve written, I have a sense of being carried along by a power that goes beyond me. It’s like these ideas have been germinating underground for a long time.
Now, I feel compelled to do more to address this issue in a public way. I feel that this is the issue of the early 21st century in the way that race was the issue of the 1960s and, in my evangelical world, the way that women’s roles became the issue of the 1980s. By God’s grace, I have evolved into a leader in American Christianity and I feel like I have not met my responsibility up until now to lead on the LGBT issue. Now, I’m ready. It took me a while to get here.
CHRISTIANS ON A JOURNEY
Crumm: That sense you describe of “being carried along by a power that goes beyond me.” Some of the early endorsers of your book are making this same point. One of the most inspiring, I think, is the strong endorsement by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America from 1994-2011. He calls your new book “courageous, clear, balanced and…grounded in biblical faith.” And then he writes that your book “will be a challenge to some, an inspiration to others, but a gift to all who find themselves at some point on this journey.”
What he’s saying—and many other Christian leaders are saying, too—is that this is a moment of historic change.
Gushee: For a long time as evangelicals we made it impossible for LGBT people to exist around us in an honest way. We allowed no recognized space to be an LGBT Christian. Of course, we know that there are millions of LGBT people in America, but in the spaces we controlled? There seemed to be zero. Of course that means LGBT people were hiding. We were forcing them to remain invisible. That’s a form of marginalization that’s as acute as it gets. We have been saying: In our world, you can’t exist. You can’t exist as a devout Christian. We have been trying to create and enforce environments where it’s impossible for you, as an LGBT man or woman, to exist.
We made people suffer through what we said and taught and, by enforcing this kind of environment where people had to hide, we made people suffer even more.
AN EMERGING JUSTICE ISSUE
Crumm: One thing that’s important to understand about your response is: You’re not saying, “Well, the culture is changing and we should change, too, to remain relevant.” What’s driving your new work is really an awareness of the suffering that traditionalist Christian preaching and teaching has caused among countless families—not only LGBT men and women but their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.
In the opening pages of your new book, Jane Clementi writes about the importance of your book to families who have gay loved ones. Jane and her husband now have co-founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation after their son Tyler was lost to suicide in the wake of that infamous case of cyber-bullying at Rutgers University. Jane concludes her note to readers this way: “Praise God for patiently guiding each of us to this place of new understanding as God moves the Church into the 21st century.” Unless your heart is made of stone, you’ve got to be moved by the Clementi family story.
So, your critics may accuse you of just surrendering to popular culture—but anyone who reads your book will realize that’s not the case. This is a theme that runs throughout your career as a scholar: In each time and place, we must look for those who are suffering and reach out to help.
Gushee: You’re right. Popular culture is not my prime motivation.
The prime motivation in all of my work is to help Christians discern what it means to follow Christ faithfully. Just because culture may be moving in one direction does not mean that we should just go along. My doctoral dissertation was on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust where millions in Germany simply went along with the dominant culture.
This is difficult to discern. Sometimes the culture is leading the way in a good direction; and sometimes culture is moving in a direction where the church should dig in its heels. My book addresses that issue directly: Is this change I am describing a surrender to sexual libertinism in our culture? Or is this an emerging justice issue for Christians who want to faithfully follow Christ? I don’t have any doubts about it anymore. This is an emerging justice issue for Christians who want to be faithful to where Christ is leading us.
I would say at the cultural level, while the conservative branches of the church are losing substantial numbers of people and substantial cultural ground on this issue, the responses I’m hearing from the cultural Right demonstrate they’re digging in their heels in a very strong way. Some on the cultural Right are going to be digging in their heels until the very end.
DISCERNMENT TAKES TIME
Crumm: As a journalist, I’ve devoted my career to covering religion around the world. I’m fascinated by religious leaders who break with tradition on justice issues. Recently, we published an interview with biographer Charles Marsh about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer became one of the first Christian leaders in Germany to publicly oppose the Nazis—way before other Christian heroes followed his example.
I always wonder: How did these heroic Christian leaders decide to step out into the forefront and take such courageous positions? What fueled their decisions? Another example: I’m fascinated by the life of John Wesley who took decades to figure out that slavery was wrong, that it was a Christian justice issue—but finally Wesley became a leading abolitionist and published a stirring anti-slavery pamphlet in 1774.
Gushee: It took me basically 20 years to reach this point: 20 years and 20 books before I reached this point of discernment on this issue.
I think that no human being has the bandwidth to reconsider everything at the same time. John Wesley didn’t. Discernment takes time.
In the context and pace of global change today, it may seem as though we’re reconsidering everything every day. But, as a Christian, you inherit paterns of belief and ways the Bible has been traditionally interpreted on dozens and dozens of issues—money, environment, war, human relations, on and on—and something has to arrive in our lives to crack open a settled pattern of interpretation. Usually that takes the form of a transformative experience with people who are negatively affected by that traditional pattern of interpretation. If we encounter the humanity affected and suffering because of a particular pattern of teaching—then our lives begin to crack open and there is space to reconsider.
If you’re a Protestant, then the Bible is your main authority in life. And, if you’re an evangelical, you want to be sure you have a solid biblical base to your thinking. So, I needed to revisit the Bible passages that have been the main cluster of passages raised when this issue is discussed in evangelical circles.
When I began that careful study, I realized that I should have been clued into the flaws in the traditional analysis long ago. None of the passages cited in the traditional arguments about gay and lesbian relationships is a central passage on which we as Christians normally base our lives. Think about what we consider central as Christians: passages like John 3:16 and the parables of Jesus and Jesus’s own teachings. So, I should have realized that there were flaws in that traditional biblical analysis when it rests on passages like the one in Leviticus. Where else in contemporary life do Christians quote Leviticus as a guide for daily living? Yes, there are a couple of passages in the New Testament that are often cited as well, but they’re not the core passages of the Bible on which we rely every day.
The more I studied this, the more I realized: What a disaster! We have allowed a traditionalist reading of a small cluster of relatively marginal passages in the Bible to trump the heartbeat of Christian morality, which is based on the teachings of Jesus. I feel the scales have fallen from my eyes on this. I’m saying we need to treat LGBT people like Jesus commanded us to treat everybody we meet.
A HUMBLE APOLOGY
Crumm: I was moved by your book, especially the final chapter. You close this book with a humble apology “to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue.”
And that passage made me look back earlier in your career to the years of research you conducted into courageous Holocaust rescuers—men and women who now are called “righteous gentiles.” These people risked their lives, and many actually died, because they were convinced that they should reach out and help the suffering during the Shoah.
I pulled off my shelf your book, based on those years of research, titled, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: Genocide and Moral Obligation. And, toward the end of that book you write: “Most rescuers … believe that their actions were in fact both morally obligatory and not especially commendable. Their obligation to help Jews seemed perfectly clear to them, and from their perspective a person deserves no praise for fulfilling an obvious obligation.”
Now, years after first publishing that book, you’re publishing Changing Our Mind and you close this new book on a similar note. You’re not asking people to praise you as a great hero. You’re humbling yourself at the end of this book. You’re publishing this book because it’s the right thing to do.
To echo a famous evangelical line: Here you stand; you can do no other.
Gushee: I’m really glad you discovered that quote in Righteous Gentiles. You’re right, I was deeply shaped by that research. I spent three years day and night reading about rescuers and researching in Holocaust archives—immersing myself in all of these hidden stories. That was my dissertation and the deepest I thought I’d ever go on researching any topic. Studying these rescuers set my course. I have been attempting to live up to what I learned from them ever since.
I’ve often talked about trying to follow a “rescuer Christianity” rather than a “bystander Christianity” or—even worse—a “perpetrator Christianity.” So, yes, I totally resonate with that quote you just read.
What I’m trying to do is to let Christians know: Here’s an idea. Treat gay and lesbian people just like you’d treat anyone else. Welcome them. Show them hospitality. That’s what we as Christians are supposed to do for everyone. This isn’t rocket science.
And, I don’t deserve praise for having taken 20 years to figure this out. Now that I have, I plan to stand in solidarity with the people we have made to suffer for so long—for the rest of my career. It is the least that I can do.