Friday, February 25, 2005

Ongoing conversation between my co-worker and myself as we try to decide whether or not to support Jim Wallis and the Sojourner's movement

I think the Sojourner's movement is exciting and good for our "cultural debate," my co-worker is hesitant to jump onboard because Wallis is reticent to affirm gay rights. I see her point, and think its a good conversation, so here it is.....

Quoting Jim (and this is a quote I have heard from him before):
"It is "traditional" or "conservative" on issues of family values, sexual integrity, and personal responsibility while being very "progressive," "populist," or even "radical" on issues such as poverty and racial justice. It affirms good stewardship of the earth and its resources, supports gender equality, and is more internationally minded than nationalist - looking first to peacemaking and conflict-resolution when it comes to foreign policy questions. The people it appeals to (many religious, but others not) are very strong on issues such as marriage, raising kids, and individual ethics, but without being "right-wing," reactionary, or mean-spirited, or using any group of people - such as gays and lesbians - as scapegoats. It can be pro-life, pro-family, and pro-feminist all at the same time. It thinks issues of "moral character" are very important, both in a politician's personal life, and in his or her policy choices. Yet it is decidedly pro-poor, pro-racial reconciliation, pro-environment, and critical of purely military solutions. "
Here's the thing: I don't think you can be "traditional" on "family values" and "sexual integrity" (I believe we know what that's code for) and ALSO be a feminist or fight for gender equality, because those things are not traditional and in fact are often opposed to traditional family values. Being a pro-family feminist would mean supporting the rights to family, and the ability to support families, of poor women, single women, single men, gay, lesbian, transgender people, etc. I honestly do not believe that Jim will stand up for the family rights of those people. Being a pro-family feminist would mean supporting sexual responsibility among young people -- and I don't mean abstinence-only, though abstinence has its place, I mean solid education in sexual matters and access to birth control, so that young girls of any socioeconomic level can have some control over when and by whom they get pregnant aside from abortion. I doubt this is on Jim's radar. Being a pro-family feminist would mean working against global HIV in ways that work, such as education and condom access, and I doubt, again, that Jim's movement would put pressure on the Bush administration to rescind the "abstinence only" version of American foreign policy aid in this area. Therefore I think he's being quite disingenuous when he says he is feminist or will support gender equality. I think he will do so only within the context of "traditional family values," which is to say not very far at all.
I am glad that he is standing up for the environment, for racial reconciliation, and for a modicum of thoughtfulness in our military policy, but I feel that he is far less likely to create a movement around these things (since they involve issues of economic and personal-safety sacrifice and risk-taking) than he is to reassure his listeners that they are quite fine where they are on sexual and gender issues (since that involves no effort at all on their part). It's human nature to avoid the hard things and take the pretty present, and I think he's offering them a way to feel good about their version of Christianity without challenging them very much. Anti-militarism and economic justice will take (and has been taking among progressive American Christians) generations of work, so some lip-service will do; on the issues of gay and lesbian rights and feminism, generations of work are now starting to bear fruit, there is opportunity to make or break progress, and permitting evangelical Christians to continue to believe that their religious life depends on "traditional family values" actually does make a difference in the here and now.
I'm definitely arguing for a worst case scenario -- it's the kind of person I am -- but the general slide of the country to the right is very frightening, and it worries me that the "leader of the religious left" will not take a stand on the issue that, like slavery a century ago, actually and in real time is splitting the denominations and religious Americans. Refusing to take a stand on a controversial issue does not solve the problem; it is a strategem that favors the conservative in any situation. The best thing that can happen is that evangelicals start voting against militarism and economic exploitation, and that these things (as they usually do) come along with candidates who also actually are feminist and support gay and lesbian rights, and that the evangelicals won't notice because they've decided that militarism and economic exploitation are more important than keeping traditional sexual mores at the center of their religious lives and self-definitions. I am afraid that this is unlikely.

My Response
About your responses to Wallis. I agree that the words "traditional" and "conservative" are problematic in that they seem inherently opposed to notions of feminism in particular. The "tradition" is patriarchy, and therefore, upholding that word is upholding patriarchy. However, I want to give Wallis credit as far as "knowing" this paradox and look for a possible optimistic understanding of what he's saying. I think he thinks that placing a premium on the realm of "family values, sexual integrity, and personal responsibility" has the potential to recast these ideals in a form that has at its heart the more typically "progressive" values of feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, etc. These values can be found in the tradition, and therefore a more lasting change on our society will incorporate our tradition into our vision for the future rather than dismissing the tradition outright in favor of realizing all our ideals. Though I don't affirm everything in tradition, I must recognize my rootedness in tradition if I am going to be able to grow toward what I want to achieve. Progressives are oriented toward the future. It is in the name "progressive." Conservatives are oriented toward the past--ideally, they hold on to the "best" of the past and thereby "conserve" it in their application of it toward the future as well. If Wallis is going to help usher in a dialogue between conservatives and liberals, he must find footing in tradition and vision.
As long as liberals are successfully labeled as "opposed to" family values, sexual integrity, personal responsibility, our movement will continue to remain on the fringes. "Down home" types can be won over to a platform that lifts up poverty, peace, and the environment, and perhaps even feminism and gay rights if we can re-frame the positive impacts of feminism and gay rights on family values. Now, I think you are right in saying Wallis avoids these hot button issues. But I think he is doing this very intentionally. --Probably one of the things you find disingenuous about him. However, He wants to expand the notion of "values" beyond sexuality and abortion rights: therefore he would be compromising his very agenda (at this point anyway) if he were to advocate one side or the other. I think he is personally "anti-abortion" and therefore would probably consider himself "pro-life--" but I think his adoption of this platform gives him the ability to speak to those who hold the same viewpoint and convince them that "pro-life" means something more than simply "anti-abortion." I find myself in this same camp. Though I don't know that I will ever say that a woman should never have an abortion, I think the ideal would be for our society to be able to have a real and nurturing alternative to simply terminating unwanted pregnancies. Though I'm not a woman and therefore am hesitant to weigh in on a woman's rights over her own body, I have to say that as someone who has watched a pregnancy develop, it is hard to deny the sacred quality of human life that exists within a woman's body for nine months. I recently read an article about the "pro-choice Lobby's" grip on the democratic party and how the Dem's allow less variation from the norm of "pro-choice" than the republicans allow with their platform on this issue. There should be a healthy debate on this greyest of grey issues in both parties instead of allowing our stances to calcify beyond reason. (For example, I think the Dem's holding out on 3rd term abortions is political suicide when doctors say there only very rare cases when 3rd term abortions are necessary, and for those very few circumstances where it might be necessary, a woman would have the choice to have an abortion if continued pregnancy would threaten her life even if the congress had passed the 3rd term pregnancy ban.) The problem with that issue is that we then begin to question, where do you draw the line on when pregnancy should be allowed, and then we really do start infringing on the rights of women. But---because that IS such a grey issue, why shouldn't we start lifting up other issues that have the potential to build a consensus? IF Christians are divided over the ethics of homosexuality, why shouldn't we try to unite those very diverse opinions on other issues that seem to be bridges rather than walls? IN doing so, perhaps many of those people who were previously "against gays" will have the person to person contact that will cause them to rethink their opinion? I don't know how many "small town Arkansans" I have come into contact with who were "against homosexuality" until they came into contact with a couple who were very much in love with each other and devoted to each other. Though it may seem degrading to have to "prove yourself" as a gay person, many who are against gay rights simply don't know any gay people (or don't know they know any). And their stance against is more a fear of the unknown. There's a new student at CST that quit going to Fuller b/c she was outed by another student. She could have stayed at Fuller if she agreed to go to the psychologist, but she obviously didn't want to submit to that, so she left. In doing so, she opened the eyes of many co-workers, students, and others who didn't know she was gay before, but since they found out she was gay they started challenging their own backwards ideas about gays. I guess I say all this to say, we'll never change the minds of religious right people unless we can frame our arguments in a way that really challenges theirs instead of just arguing around each other. By identifying the Bible as a cornerstone of social justice, the people on the other end of the political and theological spectrum have to take notice.
Though Jim Wallis is a challenging leader to rally around because he doesn't affirm every conviction that I affirm, he does understand that as long as we say "family values" with a bitter taste in our mouth, progressives will fail to be the majority political voice. I'm not satisfied to be part of a movement that is continually on the margins, I want to be able to find a way to articulate liberal values from the context of "mid-America."

1 comment:

  1. I would like to join in on this intriguing debate on Jim Wallis. I recently heard Jim speak in Los Angeles, and I am quite aware of his positions, growing popularity and national reputation. His magazine Sojourners out of DC, his book God's Politics, and a few appearances on shows like Meet the Press and Jon Stewart have made him appear as the "it" guy for the progressive movement. This is both good and bad.
    Unfortunately there was no election for nominating the leader and voice for the religious or progressive left, if we can call it that. By a unique convergence of events, namely the push for a moral referendum by neo-conservatives in the 2004 election, Jim Wallis came to fame. I don't want to knock down his rise to the spotlight, but I don't think Jim Wallis was really on the radar on these issues before the election. Sojourners and Jim Wallis for a long time had been about eliminating poverty, and still is, but suddenly, perhaps conveniently, the Wallis camp has taken up the whole quote and unqoute progressive agenda and prophetic voice for the nation.
    Nathan is right to say this is good for mid-America, because American needs an alterative to the fundamentalist perspective; but Wallis should not presume to speak for everyone. I strongly feel that Wallis has seized an opportunity to speak on more issues than he has been known for and some in cases misrepresenting them (i.e. women and gay rights).
    As a progressive thinker, a person of faith and conscience (regardless of the politics of scale whether in the minority or margins), I cannot embrace an individual or group that does not recognize the rights of all to choose. Furthermore, one of the most central issues to me is not that of the moral agenda as thrusted by the fundamentalist wing to perhaps to divide and conquer, but the political-economic agenda driven by war and greed.
    Until this country identifies the root of our systemic problems in the cycle of violence driven by war we will have a difficult time addressing our social dilemmas (i.e. racism, sexism, poverty). When 500 billion dollars, nearly have of our federal spending, goes to the military at the expense of other programs such as health care, social security, and education, I do not find arguments about a prophetic or progressive movement through Wallis very compelling. Hopeful and promising at best, but not fulfilling and far-reaching.
    Wallis should continue his book tours, make appearances on tv, and do whatever he can to shift public perceptions of the religious left, but we should be more persistent in asking ourselves what constitues justice and peace for all rather than what strategy or approach is most likely to appeal to the conservative populace. Wallis is an ally, but I don't think this nation has yet to see a leader who fully understands the difference between trying to win-over the right on "their" terms and standing up against them on "our" terms.
    I pose an entirely different question, perhaps, for another blog: what is the likelihood of witnessing a progressive movement, what might it constitute, and how would it take shape. Is it happening?
    These opinions reflect my own and not of any organization, denomination, or group.