a prayer for your enemy

February 17, 2009

“You can’t work together with people totally opposed to what you are.”

The President-elect received many comments along these lines from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists repulsed by his selection of Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. In response, Obama reminded everyone of his campaign promises to foster dialogue across party and ideological lines.

For the Episcopalian bishop whose ordination as an openly gay man precipitated a rupture in the Anglican communion, this was not satisfactory. “I’m all for Rick Warren being at the table,” said Bishop Gene Robinson, “but we’re not talking about a discussion; we’re talking about putting someone front and center at what will be the most watched inauguration in history, and asking his blessing on the nation. And the God that he’s praying to is not the God I know.”*

Ouch. Still, Pastor Warren comes by this condemnation honestly. This is a man whose support for Proposition 8 voided 18,000 same-sex marriages conducted in California. When given an opportunity to defend this political position, he stuck his foot in his mouth. Even when they are well articulated, some of the beliefs he and his evangelical Christians share are offensive. His own church welcomes gay men and lesbians as long as they are prepared to disavow their desires. Activists want to know: where’s the basis for dialogue here? All they can see is a symbolic move on Obama’s part that could not have been better crafted to batter the self-esteem of his many LGBT supporters. You want us to disagree without being disagreeable, some are saying, but this goes beyond disagreement: we can’t work together with people totally opposed to what we are.

These critics unwittingly echo another set of critics in a conflict with a similar structure and very different content. In the winter of 2006, Rick Warren, organizing his second conference on addressing HIV/AIDS globally, hosted by Saddleback Church, invited Senator Obama to speak at a session entitled “We Must Work Together.” A slew of loud objections followed, to the effect that Sen. Obama’s support for legal abortion (not to mention his opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation, his opposition to the Iraq war, his attendance at a UCC congregation shepherded by a disciple of liberation theology… take your pick) rendered him unsuitable to share a podium with someone representing the evangelical world. Dr. Wiley Drake, a VP of the Southern Baptist Conference, told the Los Angeles Times that by sharing the pulpit with such undesirables, Warren was leading his flock astray. His exact words were:

“You can’t work together with people totally opposed to what you are.”

Surely, this is a basic truth. When the opposition is to your fundamental identity and existence, you have to defend yourself. At the very least, you have to maintain a rich stockpile of objections, criticisms and imprecations, for your enemies, and also for your friends who fail to treat your enemies as their enemies. Everyone knows this.

Apparently, a number of Muslims failed to get the memo. In particular, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which invited Rick Warren to be the keynote speaker at their conference in December 2008, and invited Melissa Etheridge to perform at this same conference. Then they realized that Warren had been a vocal supporter of Proposition 8, and Etheridge had been no less vocal in her fury and disappointment when the Proposition passed. Any idiot could have told MPAC what to do next: make sure the cameras were there when they ran into each other and hope for some awkwardness, if not hostility, worthy of prime time. The MPAC conference would be immortalized in folklore… “Isn’t that where the lesbian rock-n-roll star punched out the big-bellied best-selling book-peddling Bible-thumper…?” But no. No, MPAC put the two of them in touch with each other, so they could talk in person and air out whatever needed airing out before the conference.

Rev. Rick said, early in his address: “I love Muslims. I also happen to love Hindus and Jews and Buddhists. Now this one will shock – I happen to love Democrats and Republicans. And for the media’s purpose – I happen to love gays and straights… Who came up with this idea that you have to agree with everybody about everything in order to love them? I’m commanded to love: Love your neighbor as yourself. And I love you.”

Well, agreeing on all the big points may not be a prerequisite, but it sure helps. “This idea,” as you put it, Pastor Rick, is still popular among normal people. So whatever you may say, and whatever work you may carry out on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, on whatever continent, you’re still (by your own admission!) an evangelical Christian, which means you still think everyone else is wrong and only you are right, and so we can keep on hating you no matter how much you say you love us. This compulsory pious duty you call “love” is no love we are obliged to recognize.** Haven’t you heard? We are totally opposed to what you are. And we can’t work together with you.

So far, so good. The only question is, what do we do about the stragglers?

Melissa Etheridge, for example, actually went on NPR after meeting Warren to debrief. “He’s a fine person,” she said cheerfully. The interviewer, Guy Raz, was clearly skeptical. He replayed for her a notorious snippet of an interview in which Warren defended his support for Proposition 8.

“Melissa Etheridge, it sounds like Rick Warren is comparing gay marriage to incest and polygamy here.”

“Yes,” she said, very matter of fact. “And I don’t think he’s alone there. I think there’s many many people who think that ‘if we let them gays get married, it’s just gonna open the door to all kinds of crazy stuff!’ Just because he thinks that does not mean that I have to not speak to him, or I don’t want to ever be in his company.”

Etheridge’s lifelong committed partner and mother of her children, Tammy Lynn Michaels, was likewise taken by surprise by the way Warren carried himself in the interaction. She marveled in her blog: “rick warren was humble and kind. honey and i are to go to his church sometime soon…” About their fraternization with the man who almost literally stands between them, as they live in California and would be legally married by now if not for Proposition 8, she wrote:

we are merely opening our hearts to love everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or religious orientation. isn’t that what life is about? cuz if we only open our hearts to people that we deem ‘safe,’ then where’s the hope for change? maybe… just maybe… he’s seeing the error of his ways, or maybe he just wants a famous sinner in his church to draw a crowd or publicity.

it doesn’t matter.

i’ve opened my heart. i’ve done the right thing. i’ve done the christian thing.

and now we all just have to sit back and watch the rickster.

Thank God there is someone out there who calls the risky business of opening up to profound ideological and theological differences, and to the people who carry those differences, “the christian thing” to do. That’s a shout out to Christ as well as a challenge to Christ’s people. When we want to give up on the idea of working together, when it all feels like trying to find harmony between Christ and Belial (2 Cor 6:15), we would do well to remember Michaels’ words and hear behind them the call of our Lord.

Remember him? “The one who changed my life: Y’shua, Esa, Jesus.” The whole mess began with him, didn’t it? Perhaps if he had set a better example for impressionable people like Obama and Warren and the Muslims and the rock stars and their wives, they wouldn’t have been so promiscuous, so careless with their very identity and existence. It was fitting that it should end with him, the one who taught us to pray – for our enemies.

*the Gene Robinson quote, together with a whole mess of Frank Rich’s astute commentary, is here.

**one of the better articulations of this refusal is here.


11 Responses to “a prayer for your enemy”

  1. g Says:

    So whatever you may say, and whatever work you may carry out on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, on whatever continent, you’re still (by your own admission!) an evangelical Christian, which means you still think everyone else is wrong and only you are right, and so we can keep on hating you no matter how much you say you love us. This compulsory pious duty you call “love” is no love we are obliged to recognize.** Haven’t you heard? We are totally opposed to what you are. And we can’t work together with you.

    Perhaps I’ve erred in disentangling sarcasm from reality here, but it looks as if you are saying that those who think (e.g.) that Rick Warren was a poor choice for the inauguration on account of his anti-homosexual activity (1) hate him, (2) do so simply because he is an evangelical Christian, (3) do so even though if they looked at his actions and not merely at what tribe he belongs to then they would have to change their minds, and (4) reject the idea that people ought to love their neighbours as some sort of weirdo Christian thing that they want no part of. And that the article you linked to in the footnote is a good example of all this.

    Whereas the reality, so far as I can tell, is that those people mostly (1) hate not Warren but what he has been doing and saying that affects gay people, (2) are opposed to him not because he’s an evangelical Christian — I think they would mostly be fine with Fred “Slacktivist” Clark, for instance — but, again, because of things like his campaigning for Proposition 8, (3) are in fact looking at his actions rather than his tribe, and (4) — and here I’m going on the basis of what you said was a particularly well-articulated example — don’t in the least object to the idea of loving one another, but think that Rick Warren, despite using the *word* “love” a lot, is in fact doing nothing of the sort.

    No one, so far as I can tell, is claiming that Rick Warren has to agree with everyone about everything in order to work with them, or in order to be properly said to “love” them.

    • apdraper2000 Says:

      From my own standpoint as a writer: if it “looks as if” I’m saying those things, than that’s what I said, and if I meant to say something else then I need a rewrite. So to get the obvious out of the way: I don’t consider any of your four assertions (as disentangled from what I wrote) true. That is not what I meant. Thanks for alerting me to a wasteful ambiguity.

      I think a lot of Warren’s critics could be read as saying, in your clarified version:

      We don’t hate Warren, but his political advocacy against gay marriage has hurt people, and since we don’t think you hurt people you love, we feel confident in contradicting him when he says he loves everybody.

      If that’s all there is to it, then I don’t have any complaint. I could try to argue that no one’s idea of love is so simplistic as to render it impossible to do anything hurtful, but that would be a quibble. There is no doubt in my mind that many many people would readily spout, “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” are hiding from themselves the reality of their own hatred for the “sinners” in question.

      My reading of Pamela Taylor, on the other hand, is that Rick Warren is doomed before he even leaves the gate because he is religious. This is weird, because Taylor is of course also religious, but I claim that the problem isn’t even that Warren is an evangelical Christian, but that he has assented to particular truth claims – any truth claims will do, really – that he thinks describe a common, shared reality. Once someone believes that there is such a thing as truth, and that people are capable of being closer or further away from a valid understanding of reality, while they can still love people “for who they are,” they can no longer affirm everyone else in their perspective.

      So my complaint is, crudely, that some people consider anything less than a full affirmation of their view of reality un-loving, and that this consideration is actually a greater obstacle to peace than a frank absolutism. I’m still not happy with that formulation – this is probably why I resorted to ambiguity in the post – but it’ll have to do.

      Warren has since made this clarification possible: he is largely to blame for a lot of this friction, because he is unwilling to stake out a clear position once and for all. A fantastic discussion of this problem is here.

  2. g Says:

    I’m not sure whether what you’re saying you don’t believe is (a) that the propositions I labelled 1..4 are true, or (b) that those propositions are what Warren’s opponents think. It’s (b) that I thought you were suggesting.

    Anyway. I don’t think anyone is saying anything as simplistic as “he can’t love these people, because he has done something that hurt them”. Of course one can love someone but still hurt them, in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons, some better than others; and I see no reason to think that people criticizing Warren are so stupid as not to realise that.

    What they are (I think) saying is more like: There are some things so predictably and obviously and needlessly hurtful that if you do them then you’re going to have to produce some damn good evidence if you claim that you’re acting out of love, and arguing for California’s Proposition 8 (for instance) is one of them. I don’t know whether they’re right to say that, but it’s not obviously stupid in the way that “he did something hurtful, therefore he’s unloving” would be.

    Anyway, I’m quibbling about what you concede is a quibble. Moving on:

    It didn’t look to me as if Pamela Taylor had condemned Warren from before he left the gate merely because he is religious; and, as you say, the fact that she is also religious is (some) reason to think that unlikely. If I’m understanding you right, what you actually think isn’t so much that PT condemns RW because RW is religious, but that PT condemns RW because RW believes that some things are true and others are false and therefore cannot “affirm” everyone, and PT thinks that everyone must “affirm” everyone else. Well: I cannot find the word “affirm” in PT’s article, nor do I see that she is insisting that RW agree with her or with anyone else. (She does mention “think[ing] that being a Muslim is one way to harmony with the Divine” as *one possible* less-content-free thing that RW could mean when he says he loves Muslims, but I don’t think she’s saying that that’s the only thing he could legitimately mean by it.)

    I do think that PT has a problem with some specific “truth claims” that RW (allegedly) makes. For instance, that “people don’t follow his brand of Christianity are going to burn in Hell”. But having a problem with that is not the same as having a problem with truth claims as such, or having a problem with not “affirming” everyone, or having a problem with being religious.

    It seems to me that if you believe that someone is going to hell, then ipso facto you believe — though perhaps you would never say it, and perhaps you believe some other inconsistent things as well — that it is, given that they are who and what they are, right and proper that they should spend eternity in torment. (I’m assuming here the traditional view of hell, which has fallen out of favour a bit among present-day Christians. I don’t know exactly what RW thinks about it, though there’s a Saddleback web page that says that hell is “eternal separation from God” and a “place[] of eternal existence”.) And, actually, I think that believing that really is incompatible with loving the person you believe it about, just as believing “X is a stupid wicked lazy useless good-for-nothing” is. And I really don’t see that thinking so amounts to thinking that to love someone you have to “affirm” them or abandon the idea that some things are true and some aren’t.

    Perhaps — no, probably — there are some people who “consider anything less than a full affirmation of their view of reality un-loving”. But I have yet to see any evidence that the people who have complained about Rick Warren are generally doing so because of any such view, nor that Pamela Taylor in particular holds any such view.

    In other words, I think you may be attacking a straw man.

    Describing anything posted by Fred Clark as “fantastic” is redundant. Fred Clark is made of win.

  3. apdraper2000 Says:

    Sorry for piling ambiguity on top of ambiguity: I’m agreeing with you that (b) is not the case, i.e. that the original assertions (1) to (4) are not reasonable assumptions about RW’s critics.

    “Made of win,” that’s great – I just want to say for the record that this is my first ever encounter with that expression.

    You are right: I may be attacking a straw man.

    I think the difference between your reading of Taylor and mine is the difference between reading her charitably and uncharitably. Since the exhortation underpinning my original post could be eloquently summed up as: “read people more charitably!” …I’m really on weak ground here.

    Nonetheless, I still see statements like Robinson’s (“we don’t pray to the same God”) and Taylor’s (“your use of the word ‘love’ is null and void”) as actual curses. If Warren were to say to them, or to gay people in general, “You’re going to Hell!” that would likewise be a curse; but that’s not what he said. What he said is, I’m trying to live out the commandment of Jesus to love my neighbors. (Jesus, who also held offensive convictions about Hell, nonetheless worth our attention re: love.)

    What I heard in some of the voices opposing Warren was a call for a moral tidiness which is makes every bit of sense – on paper. Why legitimize Rick Warren by giving him a moment in the spotlight when he advocated on behalf of what we deem an unjust law? Why muddy the waters?

    Insofar as Warren defended himself sensibly, he did so by drawing a distinction between disagreement and enmity. The response, from (say) Pamela Taylor, was: YOU, Rick Warren, went beyond disagreeing to concretely opposing the well-being of others. YOU chose enmity! And how had he done this?

    Maybe this is where I go astray. But what I heard from Taylor was that his offense preceded and transcends his opposition to Prop 8. Primarily, Warren exiles himself from the community of progress by his Christian orthodoxy. Evangelicals are seen as the ones who do not “play well with others” because they believe they have some privileged access to truth not shared by the general populace. Rick Warren actually believes his supernaturally revealed framework for understanding the world is true. Instead of revising it for the sake of ecumenical decorum, he lets it stand, without apology. Taylor’s ultimate accusation regarding Warren is that he wants other people to agree with him.

    Maybe this is where I willfully misunderstand Taylor and fall into a “straw man” fallacy.

    Ironically, it looks as though a big problem for Warren is being too eager to “agree” with disparate partners, leaving some people who would otherwise welcome him to the table doubtful as to his sincerity. We see some (oblique) evidence of that in this update to Tammy Lynn Michaels’ blog.

  4. g Says:

    I agree that Gene Robinson’s statement “the God that he’s praying to is not the God that I know” is a very serious thing for one Christian to say about another, and for what it’s worth it doesn’t seem justified to me. If Pamela Taylor said “your use of the word ‘love’ is null and void” or anything close to equivalent, then I missed it; what she does say about Warren’s use of “love” in this context doesn’t seem unreasonable to me (apostate that I am…).

    Rick Warren didn’t only say “I’m trying to live out the commandment of Jesus to love my neighbors”; he also said “If you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Proposition 8” and so forth. Do you really think that anyone is objecting to Rick Warren because he says he’s trying to love his neighbours?

    I still don’t see that (on the whole — doubtless there are exceptions) those who oppose Warren and thought he shouldn’t have been at the Obama inauguration are objecting to him because he thinks he has privileged access to the truth. They may be objecting to him because of some particular features of what he thinks the truth is (e.g., he thinks he knows that it’s a terrible thing to allow same-sex partnerships to be called marriages, and that in general people who are not Christians go to hell). It seems to me that there’s a big difference between “you are Not One Of Us because you believe you have access to the truth” and “you are Not One Of Us because the alleged truth you believe you have access to is incompatible with our principles”.

    Imagine that someone claims to have solid scientific evidence that black people are greatly inferior to white people in intelligence. (Some people do in fact make that claim, so it shouldn’t require a big stretch of the imagination.) That person would probably be unpopular with many of the same people who have been complaining about Rick Warren. But that wouldn’t be because they object to science, or to scientists, or to the idea that science is (at least sometimes) a reliable source of truth. It would be because they dislike, or disagree with, or question the real motivation behind, or are frightened of, or (etc., etc., etc), the conclusions that this person purports to have reached by scientific means. They would probably dislike that person even more if s/he went on to advocate that black people not be allowed to vote. It seems to me that the Warren situation is very much like this, although there are of course differences.

    I agree that Warren’s sincerity seems to be in some doubt, and that this probably isn’t helping him with a lot of people.

    • apdraper2000 Says:

      Same-sex marriage legislation is sometimes identified as the remedy to the inequality in civil protections for families. If that were the case, the moral lines would be more clearly drawn. However, the existence of “civil union” legislation is also an attempt to remedy that problem.

      A provision for same-sex marriage remedies another problem at the same time: a stigmatizing of gay relationships as somehow inferior to hetero relationships.

      The problem with erasing the stigma is that often what we’re told is that there’s no basis for the stigma, because there’s no reason to differentiate between men and women (and so no reason to distinguish MM or FF from MF relationships) and/or no reason to consider gay relationships as emotionally/physiologically/spiritually different from hetero relationships.

      A lot of thoughtful Christians can’t affirm these propositions. I can’t. I’m emotionally convinced that queer and straight are equal, because that’s my cultural background. But I’m not theologically convinced.

      What I see in the response to someone like Rick Warren with regard to his advocacy of Prop 8 is a complete inability or unwillingness to distinguish between homophobia and theology. It’s not that we have to see the man as heroic, or that the response amounts to “persecution,” but the hostility was clearly driven by a conviction that, not only had Warren done material harm to queer people, but that he could not in principle have had any good reasons for what he did.

      • g Says:

        OK, so now we’re getting to something I can agree with :-). I think it’s true (1) that it’s possible to same-sex marriage (or same-sex sex, or whatever) as a result of a theological commitment whose origins have nothing to do with same-sex marriage / same-sex sex / whatever else; and (2) that it’s therefore unreasonable to diagnose hatred, homophobia or other such psychological deficiencies just on the basis of such opposition.

        I have no idea what actually motivates Rick Warren, and I would therefore not accuse him of homophobia or hating gay people; and in the absence of good reason to think that anyone else knows what actually motivates him, I think it’s an error to make such accusations.


        Whether Warren hates or fears gay people, or is driven by prior theological commitments, or just says what he thinks will go down well with his congregation, may be of great interest to his psychiatrist, or to God if it happens that there is one and he’s as keen on judging as he’s sometimes made out to be. But I don’t see that it’s all that important to anyone else. What’s much more important is how Warren actually acts, and how he’s likely to act in the future. And for *that*, there’s not all that much difference between visceral hatred and principled theological commitment. For someone who thinks it important that same-sex couples shouldn’t be discriminated against, Warren is fighting on the other side.

        The particular people you quote aren’t (I think) objecting to Warren on the grounds that he’s a Bad Person, or that he is filled with hate or fear. Gene Robinson, for instance, is quite explicit: his problem with Warren is that he thinks Warren’s theology is so badly broken that he’s not even talking about the right god. Pamela Taylor’s main problem with him, also, seems to be with the positions he holds. (She does seem to think that someone who holds those positions can’t *really* love Muslims, gay people, etc.; I don’t think that’s so very unreasonable. That would mean that your ability to love can be limited by your beliefs, or vice versa, but I don’t find that implausible.)

        I don’t know how you know that the hostile response to Warren was driven by a conviction that he couldn’t in principle have had good reasons for what he did, rather than just a conviction that what he did was harmful and that his opinions on the subject are wrong. The particular examples you quoted don’t seem to me to show any sign of the former conviction. (Though perhaps Gene Robinson would say something like “If your theological position implies that gay people are second-class citizens or that their relationships are unclean, all that shows is that your theology is hopelessly wrong; a hopelessly wrong theology doesn’t constitute good reason for anything.” I think I’d disagree — in general, one can certainly have good reasons to believe very false things — but it’s not a more obviously crazy position than Warren’s own, so far as I can see.)

      • apdraper2000 Says:

        I don’t know how often I’ll get to say this, so I better take a moment to say it: I don’t have anything more to say because I think you’ve understood me perfectly and your criticism is just. (To sum up: my implied personal slam of some of these critics of the Rickster for their own implied personal slam of him is not fair.) Thanks for taking the trouble!

  5. g Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, and for providing something interesting to argue about.

  6. […] Another occasion I had to reflect on this was when Obama chose Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration.  I was struck at the time by the parallels between the frustration of the gay/lesbian community with Obama for his inclusion of Warren with the frustration in the evangelical community with Warren when he had included Obama in an event at Saddleback church.  I was struck by how hard it was for us to maintain membership in our “tribes,” without making our alienation from certain outsiders part of our tribal membership.  This to me resonates with Mclaren’s description of how he felt obliged to throw the “liberal” under the bus in order to demonstrate his own faithful membership in the evangelical community.  An extraordinary footnote to the whole story was that, in the aftermath of the highly tense battle over Proposition 8, Melissa Etheridge and her partner reached out to Rick Warren and refused to demonize him, and he attempted to reciprocate.  (If you want to read more about this, I wrote about it here.) […]

    • JJL Says:

      Wow! Amazing exchange between you and “g” It offers a wonderful model of civil conversation about controversial matters! There is something that you said that troubles me:

      “The problem with erasing the stigma is that often what we’re told is that there’s no basis for the stigma, because there’s no reason to differentiate between men and women (and so no reason to distinguish MM or FF from MF relationships) and/or no reason to consider gay relationships as emotionally/physiologically/spiritually different from hetero relationships.

      A lot of thoughtful Christians can’t affirm these propositions. I can’t. I’m emotionally convinced that queer and straight are equal, because that’s my cultural background. But I’m not theologically convinced.”

      My questions are: are you still not theologically convinced presently and if not why not?

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