Friday, April 4, 2014

No, We Can't All Get Along

Like most people, I can distinctly recall where I was when certain news events occurred. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was getting ready for work when I saw the second plane hit the towers on live television. On the day after my 12th birthday, I was home sick from school but wanted to watch the Challenger take off. And when the Rodney King verdict was delivered, sparking riots in Los Angeles, I was a freshman at the racially diverse University of Southern Mississippi.
While the Challenger explosion was tragic, it was largely without conflict in terms of public opinion, where the acquittal of four police officers seemed to put many communities on edge, including our campus. In the aftermath of that verdict, I was never in danger of being harmed, and I did not fear for my safety. What I did lament, however, was how the issue seemed to be driving a wedge between black and white students. Rodney King (in a broken tone) asked the open question, "Can we all just get along?" The answer, it appeared, would be "no".

Of course, divisive issues are not new; the history of the USA is really just one big argument. In the beginning, there were heated discussions about King George and independence. There were then passionate debates about blacks being property or people, resulting in the repulsive "three fifths compromise". Ongoing questions of slavery and varying interpretations of the tenth amendment actually tore the nation in half, resulting in a war between the states; the union was eventually restored, but with almost a million fewer men. After much yelling and marching we have survived the arguments about a women's right to vote and public school integration. More recently, there have been many other issues that have divided our country and communities, including hanging chads, shock and awe, defining marriage, and Obamacare.

And yet, thanks in large part to the internet and the ubiquitous reach of various groups skilled at working the public to a boil for their own monetary advantage, it appears we are developing a new front. In this field, the very compliance of thought is demanded by any means necessary, typically through economic threats. One recent example is that of the evangelical humanitarian organization World Vision.

For anyone not aware of the recent controversy, World Vision works with dozens of Christian denominations to organize support for humanitarian aid "in nearly 100 countries, serving all people, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender...motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, we serve alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people." This is not an organization that primarily intends to convert people to some brand of Christianity (how could they, as converting a population to the teachings of the pentecostal Assemblies of God denomination would certainly be a concern for Southern Baptists) - but to simply meet the basic needs of "the least of these" from Matthew 25.

In the interest of focusing on this common mission rather than taking a position on a number of other controversial issues, the board announced on March 24th that they would allow homosexuals to work for World Vision. At the time of this announcement, president Richard Stearns told Christianity Today:
"It's easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there. This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.  We're not caving to some kind of pressure. We're not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us. This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We're an operational arm of the global church, we're not a theological arm of the church. This is simply a decision about whether or not you are eligible for employment at World Vision U.S. based on this single issue, and nothing more."
The backlash was immediate, as if Max had just decreed, "Let the wild rumpus start!" Within 48 hours the organization was forced to condemn its own action as "a mistake" after ten thousand children were financially abandoned by self-proclaimed Christians, their very lives considered acceptable collateral damage in the effort to punish the organization for their employment policies. Of course, not all groups responded in such a way; some denominations had themselves already accepted homosexual members (and some even clergy).

 It should not be surprising that most evangelical denominations would not agree with allowing gay staff members in the organization, but the scorched-earth retribution made as much logical sense as people destroying their own neighborhoods in Los Angeles or Detroit to protest a national news event. No, it is far worse: rioters and looters do not claim their efforts to destroy flow from their love of Jesus. To quote artist and blogger Matt Appling, "We have proven how many Bible verses we are willing to ignore to enforce what we believe about a few Bible verses."

Former CEO Brendan Eich
This demand for conformity is by no means limited to the religious right. Just yesterday, the CEO of Firefox maker Mozilla was dethroned after being in his position only eleven days. The reason was not embezzlement or incompetence (just think how many CEOs would be fired tomorrow if there were an actual standard on these issues alone), but that he dared to donate $1,000 six years ago supporting California's ban on gay marriage. The donation was personal (not done corporately) and he had not made any declarations on the matter as CEO; as an employer Mozilla supports same-sex marriage and provides benefits to same-sex spouses. So, the furor that eventually caused Mozilla to cast Brendan Eich overboard Jonah-style seemed unnecessary.

Every poll I see on the issue of "gay marriage" indicates that pubic opinion is solidly moving in the direction of acceptance, like it or not, so that battle is all but over. What someone said or did, especially years ago, has little bearing on one's competency in a corporate role, but again groups lined up to demand conformity. If your family is anything like mine, you may also have a grandfather (or uncle, or even mom or dad) that has made a comment here or there that is sexist or racist, but I have yet to oust my 90-year old grandfather for not conforming to the cultural norms of the 21st century. I can disagree with him about certain things and still accept him (maybe even love him) anyway. If he were the CEO of some large corporation, I wouldn't boycott or demand his head - the company would still operate by post-2000 norms even if the CEO still retained a small bit of 1950's bigotry.

While both of these recent stories revolved around positions on homosexuality, this is certainly not merely "a gay thing". There are other issues that have been as divisive (such as the role of church and state relative to the Affordable Care Act), I am just using a couple of recent examples where disagreements have translated into a demand for a certain result - or else.

I'm not saying there aren't issues of black and white. My wife is sometimes often frustrated by my own absolutism and "strong sense of justice". I am in no way suggesting that evangelicals should define their views on homosexuality by public opinion, that progressives should settle for "separate but equal" arrangements, or that you should accept racism because some relatives express it. What I am suggesting is that there is a difference between "black and white" and "all or nothing".

While actions can be black and white, people can't be classified in such a manner. No one is "bad" or "good". This does not mean that I accept some median gray where there is no absolute morality outside of personal perspective; a QR code may seem "gray" from a distance, but it is definitively black and white. How can society operate with groups that are willing to take such drastic measures because they can't accept a few pixels being the color opposite their preference? If the president of a group protesting another group has some personal belief that I don't agree with, do I now refuse to work with that group as well? Exactly how far down the rabbit hole are we willing to go?

This is exactly why we can't all get along.

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