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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Crises—Moral Opportunism or Moments of Moral Clarity?

Supernova this poem appears in the collection Wells of Knight (click HERE for my review of the full collection) by my friend Gabriel Blanchard who blogs over at Mudblood Catholic. While the collection was released in February of this year, I first encountered it years earlier when Gabriel read it to our writers group/philosophy club (we call the group Pints & Prose) and it sort of messed me up. Yes, the subject of the poem is tragic, and yes, the poem showcases Gabriel's particular talent for poignancy but that isn't what got me. It is message of the poem itself that has shaped me(1).

Beyond the tragedy of the suicide in Supernova is the instrumentalization of the suicide. Now that it is too late for him to change his mind, the suicide spends his last minutes being informed of how competing interests are going to use his death to further their own agendas. The tragedy behind the tragedy is its reduction to argument-fodder. It is a reduction which effectively erases the personhood of the suicide himself; not only has he lost his life, he has lost possession of his life's (and death's) meaning.

What I took away from Supernova is a visceral reminder of the second (and to my mind far superior) formulation of Kant's Categorical Imperative(2): That we should treat persons (ourselves and others) always as ends in themselves and never as means only. The application here is that we should never reduce a person to a tool only, that is, we must not instrumentalize a person. Any action we take has to be one which recognizes the full personhood of the persons whom that action will impact. It is important to notice at this point that this does not mean that we should never act in a way that treats people as a means—the only is crucial here—it means that we cannot treat persons as mere means. After all it is basic to cooperation that we are using ourselves and others to achieve a goal. What it important is that we do not, at the same time, lose sight of that person's own good. We can (often we should) use people to accomplish our goals, but we can only do that if acting in that way benefits them as well.

After the horrible mass shooting in Las Vegas the reactions were rapid and predictable: We started with grief, already tinged with a little suspicion. We watched one another on social media to see how others were reacting, many of us watched particular accounts and outlets for cues. Calls to reexamine gun regulations came out at nearly the exact same time as calls to not talk about gun regulation and attempts to portray the people who talk about gun regulation in the immediate aftermath of a gun related tragedy as macabre and insensitive. The White House has promised "we'll be talking about gun laws" and has also said that we should not talk about guns yet. The talk show hosts have talked about the shooting and have tried to use their platforms to move the country on the issue (I'll post two of the more moving monologues at the bottom) and various media outlets and analysts have attempted to give us some insight into the issue(3). And while the analysts skew left, the right has been staking out a "moral high ground" position by calling on everyone not to "politicize" the tragedy. And of course the crazies are already screaming "conspiracy."
So... yeah this isn't going very well

Here is the thing. We can't not politicize this tragedy.

It is basic to human nature that when something bad happens we want to help. That is a good thing. People near Las Vegas were lining up to donate blood because that is a way they knew they could help. The stories already coming out of this tragedy about the heroism of first responders and crowd members reactions to the shooter are heartbreakingly beautiful(4). In times of tragedy many of us want to help. It is what we do. But most of us can't actually do much. We can donate money to the red cross and we can post supportive statements on social media, but after this sort of tragedy there isn't a whole lot we can do.

Except that we can try to make sure it doesn't happen again. See, there are actually two problems with calls not to politicize this (or any of the other) shooting tragedies. The first problem is that it smuggles in (or sometimes outright states) an accusation of opportunism. The underlying message in the calls against politicization is that calls to change our laws in an attempt to prevent future tragedies are violations of the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative: that people who call for gun regulation in the wake of these crises are reducing the victims to political tools.

The status quo is an invisible position
but it is still a position
That charge may or may not be accurate—we cannot know the hearts or basic motivations of anyone else—but it is certainly not charitable. To conclude that someone who calls for gun control in the wake of a mass shooting is violating the second formulation of the categorical imperative is to forget that it is entirely possible to relate to people as both means and ends. It is to assume that the gun control advocate does not believe that gun regulation is in the interest of the victims (or their families and goals). And those are some pretty ridiculous assumptions.

The second big problem with calls not to politicize these tragedies is the fact that "we should not change our laws in light of these events" is, itself, a political position. I don't know how to emphasize this enough. Because we live in an existing country, with existing laws and existing social structures, to call for silence is to tacitly advocate for the politics of the status quo. "Things should not change" is just as political a statement as "things should change".

Of course it doesn't feel that way to the folks making the charge. The status quo doesn't feel like a position, it feels like "normal". So calls to change the status quo hurt. People may well be crying "opportunism" because it feels like they are being attacked when they are hurting and vulnerable. At the same time gun regulation people are calling for moral clarity in light of greater evidence of damage, others are feel that their emotions are being manipulated in their moment of pain—and they want to push back.

So how should we respond to tragedies like this? My only real recommendation is that we try to do it with a lot more charity and a little more honestly. We mourn, and we help. Just don't try to pretend that people who want to help in a different way aren't doing the same thing that you are. What looks to you like moral opportunism may be their moment of moral clarity.



(1) I like to imagine that I got out of Supernova at least roughly the message that Gabriel meant to put into it but if not, then I will have to be content with thanking happy chance.
(2) I am not, as a rule, an enormous fan of Kantian ethics. However, with quite a few other non-Kantian ethicists, I am a fan of the second formulation. So please don't read this as an endorsement of Kantian Deontological ethics as such.
(3) has a compelling piece about the statistical victims of gun violence (it is suicides) for example.
(4) Also there is the story of that one guy who reacted in a quintessentially American way and stood up under fire to flip the shooter the bird.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Two Tales of one Tactic: Trump's SoB rant and the Nashville Statement

Unity in Diversity

As an Anabaptist, I don't spend a lot of time making favorable comparisons between the church and the Unites States government. That said, there is one particular value, which they share, which I like, and which I have been ruminating about recently; let's call it unity-in-diversity. In US parlance this takes the form of the national motto e pluribus unum (out of many, one). In Christianity it appears in Jesus' upper room discourse in John 17:20-21 where he prayed "that they may be one" and in 1 Corinthians 12 (among other places) where Paul uses the image of a single body with diverse members.

Both within the church and within the US, this has been a historically hard value to live in to. Unity-in-Diversity seems to be more often a tension we live in that a truth we live out of. In both cases the natural human desire for community is in tension with the also natural human desire for safety and the fear of "the other". The ordinary result of this tension when applied to States is nationalism, or when applied to smaller groups of people we would probably call it tribalism. In any case it is the attempt to establish a community which feels safe because it contains people who are like us and excludes people who are not like us (the gold-standard read on this subject is probably Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities). This tendency towards tribalism is one which may well be fairly natural to humans but it is something that both the New Testament and founding values of the US resist fairly adamantly.

In the new testament, Jesus' final "high priestly" prayer for those who follow him is that we would be "one" and not just that we would be "one" but that our unity would be a reflection of the unity between the first and second persons of the trinity (all being united in the 3rd person)(1). Paul goes to great lengths to establish, enforce, and reinforce the principle that all who follow Jesus are members of a single "body"—the Body of Christ—and that, far from implying some form of homogeneity, our unity also requires our diversity. We are specifically called to be different from one another and also unified as members of one Body. Our diversity is understood to be unified around the central person of Jesus Christ; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 is worth quoting at length:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
Similarly, the Unites States has historically understood itself to especially value unity in it's diversity. The theory might be put something like "You are free to be any sort of American you like, so long as you are American" Rather than insisting on perfect homogeneity, the founding documents carve out protections for the exercise of particular individuality. While the country has always struggled (and often failed tragically) to live up to this value, the fact of the value itself remains. Again the diversity of America is imagined to be unified around a central political philosophy. After his visit to the US G.K Chesterton described the phenomenon this way:
Image result for GK ChestertonThe Americans are very patriotic, and wish to make their new citizens patriotic Americans. But it is the idea of making a new nation literally out of any old nation that comes along. In a word, what is unique is not America but what is called Americanisation. We understand nothing till we understand the amazing ambition to Americanise the Kamskatkan and the Hairy Ainu. We are not trying to Anglicise thousand of French cooks or Italian organ-grinders. France is not trying to Gallicise thousands of English trippers or German prisoners of war. America is the only place in the world where this process, healthy or unhealthy, possible or impossible, is going on. And the process, as I have pointed out, is not internationalization. It would be truer to say it is the nationalization of the internationalized. It is making a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles.
G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America
In both cases the idea seems to be that diversity is to be celebrated in the context of a broader and more powerful definitional unity. We may all be different sorts of Christians, but we are all in Christ; we may all be different sorts of Americans but we are all Americans. Now it is obvious to me that those to claims must be in some degree of tension with one another—there cannot be more than one center in your centered set—but that tension only exists because both entities (the US and Christ) claim to be the unifying center around which our diversities orbit; thus the value of unity-in-diversity is a shared one(2).

Further, both groups (the Church and the US) have a long history of inter conflict over this issue. Much of the book of Acts is the story of the early church learning, fighting over, and adjusting to the fact that more and more types of people (Samaritans, Eunuchs, Women, Gentiles) were all offered full participation in the body of Christ without being asked to renegotiate their particular identities in favor of the "original" Jewish identity(3). Similarly, while it is accurate to say that unity-in-diversity is a founding value in the philosophy of the Unites States, the actual application of that value is one that has been only slowly playing out over the centuries. At our outset, the "diversity" was limited to a handful of non-Catholic Christian denominations and a limited but real scope of economic diversity. Our founding documents exclude the full participation of black, native American, and female human persons from the unity-in-diversity(4). In the evolution of our legal documents it is clear just how excruciatingly slow and difficult the unfolding application of the ideal has been as the acceptable domain of "American" has been expanded.

Two parallel stories

Image result for two booksSo it struck me recently that Evangelical Christianity and the Unites States have recently experienced the deployment a particular tactic. In Evangelical news, a few weeks ago the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released the Nashville Statementan extremely anti LBGTQ+ statement with signatories from all around the conservative Evangelosphere denying the Christianity of people who believe that God is cool with LGBTQ+ folks, condemning all same-sex sexuality as sinful, and even condemning people who identify as anything but straight and cisgender (you can find my thoughts on those subjects by clicking HERE for LGB theology and HERE for transgender identities). In America news, President Trump referred to Colin Kaepernick and the other athletes who protested police brutality and violence against black men by taking a knee during the national anthem as a "son of a bitch", suggesting that they ought to be fired, and then proceeded to characterized his statements as a defense of the US flag and, by extension, America itself. Two systems which claim to value unity-in-diversity, two lines drawn in the sand.

See the issue here, is that there are really way more than two "sides" in both of these situations. In the America story, there is Kaepernick and the racial justice advocates who agree with him and have celebrated his cause from the start(5). Then there is the president and his supporters who want to homogenize American diversity and believe that police brutality is a good thing. And then there is the group of Americans who aren't really on board with #blacklivesmatter yet, who don't really like thinking about racial injustice in this country and who mostly wanted to have a Sunday afternoon free from pesky thoughts about systemic oppression; they generally didn't like Kaepernick's protest and would likely be characterized as politically "moderate" or "centrist" they have been coming around to the Kaepernick point of view recently but they have been moving slowly. 

Again within Evangelicalism there are those who believe that God is has no problem with, and in fact loves and delights in the LGBTQ+ community, that LGB sexuality and trans* identities are not sinful and that the Church has a need to repent for millennia of homophobic and transphobic hatred and violence, they want full inclusion for LGBTQ+ folks in the life of the church(6). Then there are the conservative culture-war Evangelical types who believe that there is a dark "homosexual agenda" out to corrupt children, destroy families and generally enmesh American Christianity in dark sexual sin, they want anyone who persistently identifies as LGBTQ+ to be excluded from the life of the church (7). And then there are the many (often younger and more academically oriented) Evangelicals who still think that LGB sexuality is sinful but are genuinely disturbed by the homophobia and transphobia of the Nashville crew, and are very much upset by the clear damage the church has done to actual LGBTQ+ folk. They want very much to find a way to be practically and genuinely loving to LGBTQ+ people but do not (or can not) change their convictions on LGB sexuality or trans* identities(8). They want LGBTQ+ folks to be more included in the life of the church but they are not sure about full inclusion.

Now Kaepernick and a few allies had been engaging in their protest for a year prior to Trump's comments; also the argument over the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks in the life of the church has been going on for quite some time. Arguments and fights would pop up from time to time, discussions would take place, individuals would find that their thoughts, opinions, and positions were shifting. 

And then the Nashville Statement.

And then "that Son of a Bitch".

Leading figures on one side, were suddenly "forcing" the decision. In the America story, Trump's tactic was to send out a clarion call that people who kneel during the national anthem are not "us". He attempted to cut them out of the unity-in-diversity system of America but re-categorizing them as people who don't respect the country (go back to the Chesterton quote if you doubt that this amounts to a denial of their American identity). And so, willing or not, Americans have been drawn into a new conversation. Of course many of the original participants are carrying on with the original debate, but now the entire third group—the group that wanted to be left alone—is now arguing over whether or not Kaepernick's form of protest actually disqualifies someone from being a "real American". And, while Kaepernick's original protest was not particularly popular, it is beginning to look like most of that same group are really upset at the idea that anyone would force him not to engage in it. They didn't like his methods but they are even more opposed to government limitations on free political speech. And that is what led David Graham over at the Atlantic to conclude that Trump has turned Kaepernick's protest into a success.

And over in Evangelical land the same tactic was deployed, this time by the culture-war Evangelicals. The Nashville statement attempted to redefine the terms of the discussion as it existed in the American church. This time the re-categorization attempt was more blatant. Article 10 specifically claimed that to approve of same-sex sexuality or the gender identities of trans folks "constitutes and essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness", and on the off chance that this was insufficiently clear, one of the statement's authors clarified later that it really is saying that they aren't Christian(10). Article 7 declared sinful the celibate-because-of-their-theology LGB Christians like Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet whom many of the signatories had regularly cited and even lauded in the past on the grounds that these folks identify as "homosexual". Further, the statement as a whole lumps transgender identities in with its condemnation of same-sex sexuality, a move which may seem "intuitive" to many who don't participate much in these discussions but which has been really troubling to the academic evangelical crowd who tend to be far less settled in their positions on transgender identities than on their thoughts about gay sex. So, like Trump, they have forced a new conversation onto the existing discourse and, like Trump, they have made it far less comfortable for that third category of people in the more-but-not-necessarily-full camp. People whose position ws more "off to the side" who disagree with the full inclusion folks but who saw the exclusionists as overly harsh and extreme were forced into a conversation wherein they have to take a side(9). And, again, this doesn't seem to be working out as well for the authors of the Nashville statement as they might have hoped.

In an attempt to shrink the Overton window to exclude those they oppose, both Trump and the Nashville statement writers seem to have inadvertently excluded their own visions of their respective communities instead. As it turns out, "American" can very much include those who protest injustice by choosing to #takeaknee during a nationalist liturgy and LGBTQ+ Christians are very much fellow members of the Body of Christ (11).

Some tentative conclusions

The outcome of this polarizing exclusion tactic on the part of (respectively) Trump and the Nashville crowd has been somewhat mixed in the eyes of the original protesters. Racial justice advocates have been understandably worried that this sudden expansion of the conversation will and/or already has erased the issue for which Kaepernick started protesting. It is not at all difficult to find reminders that "this is about black lives and police brutality, not about freedom of speech or opposition to Trump per se" all over the internet. And these concerns are very much justifiable. The original activists need to continue in their work of keeping the central focus central, their reminders and concern should not be dismissed as "hand wringing". So long as they do that work though, this tactical move by Trump is likely to benefit the cause of racial justice. On a fundamental level, American's of the third group are being forced to choose whether Kaepernick's vision of America or Trumps is the more legitimate. And if most of the country sides with them on that question (the one that might occlude the issue of racial justice without their hard work) then it will not be Kaepernick and racial justice advocates, but Trump and the MAGA crowd who will be thought to not understand America.

I would argue that the same dynamic is currently playing out within American evangelicalism though in this case the full inclusion crowd is less worried about having their message occluded. The fact that the exclusion camp chose to deploy a similar line-in-the-sand exclusion tactic has forced those Christians who encounter it to confront the question of whether the exclusionists or full inclusionists have the better understanding unity-in-diversity within the Body of Christ. And the outcome of that question will, I submit, restructure the entire conversation in a way that is likely to prove largely positive for the full inclusion position.
Image result for Martin luther king jr
After all, one of the most well remembered (I hope) parts of Martin Luther King Jr's Letter From a Birmingham Jail is it's excoriation of the "white moderate" where he says:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.
The choice to deploy the tactic of redefinition has served fundamentally to make the "white moderate" and "full exclusion of LGBTQ+ people" positions far less popularly tenable. Now I am firmly on the side of the racial justice advocates and for the full inclusion of gender and sexual minorities within the life of the Church; I also firmly believe that complexity and nuance are vitally important and that often (but not always) there are important truths to be found in the deliberations and considerations of those who are not at the poles of an issue—it is critically important to be able to have the conversation(12). I also believe that the ultimate success of any popular struggle for justice is dependent on its being accepted as a legitimate (even if not yet accepted) position in society. There have been times and places where exclusion-by-redefinition has worked(13); fortunately, in both of these stories, it seems to be backfiring.


(1) I am not an expert in theology of the Trinity so please let me know if I have misunderstood this one.
(2) I should mention here that, in both the US and the Church the overall "conversation" about unity-in-diversity has often included significant arguments over the degree of "homogenization" which should/will be required for inclusion in the unity. In the US this has historically meant conformity to the mores and expressions of the dominant "white" culture whereas in Christianity it generally revolves around particular liturgical and "orthopraxic" questions. Thus I would consider the question of homogenization distinct from, but always entwined with the value of unity-in-diversity.
(3) I recommend Megan DeFranzas Sex Difference in Christian Theology and/or Wes Howard Brooks' Empire Baptized for a good overview of this one.
(4) For good reading on this I recommend most of the work of Mark Charles but particularly his work on the Doctrine of  Discovery and its subsequent impact on the founding structures of the US; as well as Howard Zinn's A People's History of the Unites States.
(5) I recommend the work of DeRay Mckesson for a good primer on the recent conversation here but the overall view may be best encapsulated by Rembert Browne's recent piece Colin Kaepernick Has a Job.
(6) My recommended books on this would be James Brownson's Bible, Gender, Sexuality, Justin Lee's Torn, Matthew Vines' God and the Gay Christian,  Ken Wilson's A Letter to my Congregation, and Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People.
(7) Al Mohler's We Can Not Be Silent is the most representative book I have found for this view, also Mohler was one of the chief signers of the Nashville Statement; the most celebrated scholar for this position is probably Robert Gagnon.
(8) Folks in this position take a number of different positions so I would recommend looking at Scot McKnight's A Fellowship of Differents, Preston Sprinkle's People to be Loved, Wesley Hill's Washed and Waiting, and Melinda Selmys Sexual Authenticity for a representative overview.
(9) Again, these folks are not at "the poles" for a wide variety of reasons, some because they hold to rigorously worked out conclusions which just aren't quite compatible with either pole, others just because neither side "feels quite right" to them.
(10) Denny Burk, the current president of the CBMW has clarified this HERE
(11) Harry Enten over at has a good summary of how this process has worked viz. the civil rights and gay liberation movements.
(12) I think this point holds more strongly in the Christianity Story than in the America story. The non-polar Christians have evidenced a far more "thought out" set of responses than the non-polar Americans in my experience. I haven't found much of value in the public thinking and writing of "white moderate" Americans on this subject (though a few folks have presented their reactions to Kaepernick in more nuanced ways) whereas I have found a lot of value in the writing of non-polar Christians. I would particularly recommend the work of Gabriel Blanchard over at Mudblood Catholic, and would commend the Nashville responses of Preston Sprinkle and Scot McKnight as representative of the non-polar Christian reaction, for a far more "conservative" reaction you might want to read Rod Dreher's piece.
(13) For a resonant account of how this tactic was successfully used by Al Mohler as part of a larger strategy to shift the Southern Baptist Convention to the extremely conservative positions it holds today, check out Dave Gushee's book Still Christian

Thursday, September 14, 2017

What is "Unnatural": My Defense of LGB Relationships Part 5

Note, this post is Part 5 in a series (which starts HERE) on my Christian defense of LGB relationships and sex, however it is my hope that this piece in particular can also stand alone as a response to what I believe is the larger impetus behind much of the Evangelical (and Roman Catholic) church's rejection of LGB sex.

For my series in defense of the identities of transgender folk click HERE 


"It's just unnatural."
It is fascinating to me that this is what much of the discussion over the sex lives of LGB folk so often seems to come down to. In the case of most non academic and theological types the discussion can get there pretty quickly, when it comes to discussions with people who do focus on academic and theological arguments, it can take a little while but if you stick around long enough, work through the "clobber passages", the exegetical discussion, and the examination of hermeneutical principles(1) you will get to this point eventually as well, albeit with a significantly different emphasis.

In the case of the non academic "regular person" the phrase "unnatural" seems to mean basically something that is "weird and makes me uncomfortable". It isn't particularly complicated, a straightforward smattering of socially acquired homophobia or unease with deviations from what the person thinks of as "the norm". That doesn't justify it—it is still deadly to the LGBT folks who regularly suffer hate crimes and discrimination here and around the world—it just accounts for it. However, in the mouth of an academic or theologian, the phrase unnatural or maybe counter to natural law means something very different and actually forms the foundation on which all of the other interpretations of the bible and exegetical conclusions often turn out to have been built. It all goes back to "Natural Law", Thomas Aquinas, and Aristotle.

Some Background

Feel free to read past this is you are familiar with Aristotelian and Thomist theories of Natural Law and sexual ethics.

I wanted to point out the separate ways the term natural is used when talking about LGB (and T) folks in order to say that I am not going to be talking about the non academic or theological use of the term—that use is about feelings and what people are exposed to so the proper response doesn't have a lot to do with formal arguments, it has a lot more to do with experience and actively engaging with people. What I want to focus on in this piece, is the argument that academics, theologians, and philosophers are making when they say that homosexuality is unnatural or that it is contrary to natural law(2).

Natural Law Theory is a way of thinking that dates back to the famous Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas who, in turn, built much of his thinking about this subject on the work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In brief, natural law theory argues that we can know how a person ought to behave based on our knowledge of what humans exist for. In pretty much the same way that a good knife is a knife that cuts well, and a good light bulb is one that provides illumination, a good human is one who humans well. The theory that Aristotle put forward starts by asking why we do things generally and then rather elegantly moves to the observation that if we keep asking "but why do you do that?" we end up working our way to the answer "in order to flourish (3)". From there Aristotle wants to ask what flourishing looks like for a human person and his conclusion is that flourishing for humans means something like "doing human-specific things as well as possible".

For Aristotle, the method you should use to figure out the particular flourishing of a being is to examine what characteristics or powers are unique to that being. So living things live (in contrast to inorganic things) and so to flourish as a living thing is to live; further, animals are distinct from plants in that they can move on their own, so moving well is part of flourishing for animals; skipping a bunch of stages here, humans are the reasoning animals, so for humans flourishing means reasoning well. With that said, reasoning for Aristotle could (if we are generous) include what we think of as emotion and relationship (4). Ultimately then, for Aristotle Natural Law would say that a person ought to do those things which are particular to them as well as they can without violating the doing of things that are particular to their other, broader, identities (human, mammal, animal, living-thing, existing-thing).

But when most Western Christian people talk about Natural Law they are generally talking about the version of the theory that St. Thomas Aquinas adapted from Aristotle, or at least they think they are. St. Thomas was willing to look to more sources that merely reason and his environment when it came to determining what a thing (or person) is for. For Aquinas the Bible, and Church tradition also get a voice (5). So when Aquinas thought about human sexuality, he thought about it in terms of its purpose—at least he sort of did. If we back out a little, Aquinas (following Aristotle and the general attitude of the church in his day) understood sex and sexual arousal to be an unfortunate development. Aristotle criticized sexual attraction and sexual intercourse for interfering with clear thinking. Aquinas focuses mostly on this same aspect of it when he categorizes sex as an activity (and a drive) which can be put to some good uses, and is not therefore wholly bad, but ultimately comes up short in comparison to total celibacy. Sex for him isn't quite evil but is a compromised sort of good, specifically it is something which can only be made good when it is put to the right uses within the right context. (6)

It is worth taking a minute to notice that this view is in pretty stark contrast to the way most western Protestants (conservative or otherwise) tend to have taught about sex. In western Protestantism, sex is generally thought to be fundamentally good, but subject to being used wrongly. The results are similar (both groups conclude that sex should only take place within marriage) but the orientations towards it are mirror images. Where Aquinas sees sex as a redeemable thing which is otherwise unfortunate, western Protestants have historically seen sex an inherently good thing which can be corrupted by wrong use. It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about contemporary Evangelical use of Natural Law theory.
This image is brought to you as a reminder that LGB folks
can and do raise children

For Aquinas then, sex can be redeemed by putting it to two specifically good uses, both of which he thought supported the purposes of marriage. So of course, we need to look at what Aquinas thought was the purpose of marriage. In broad terms, Aquinas thought that marriage could be good if it served the purposes of providing a context for fully rearing children, and of providing other-serving-fidelity between the spouses (7). Correspondingly, sexual intercourse becomes a good, in Aquinas' thinking, when it serves the purpose of raising healthy children and of uniting spouses in intimate fidelity. The procreation mandate is "according to natural law" in Aquinas's view because it is good for humanity to extend as a macro level application of the fact that it is good for people to keep living (8). The intimate fidelity mandate is a little harder to for Aquinas to pin to any distinct natural law reasoning and Aquinas sort of punts to some circularity (sex is only good within marital fidelity and marital fidelity is good because it provides a context wherein sex can be good) but seems to be derived from the observation that sex does, in fact, help/cause partners to form a bond with one another. From there Aquinas argues that sex should be oriented towards bringing the spouses together as a couple and toward providing pleasure for one another. He sums this up with the word fides but to make sure it stays clear, I will use fidelity/intimacy.

In summary, Aquinas taught that in order for a given sex act to not be sinful it had to be oriented towards raising healthy children and towards increasing the fidelity/intimacy of the married couple.

Evangelical Culture-War Modifications to Natural Law Theory

Insofar as contemporary biblical scholars and theologians are referencing the sexual ethics of natural law they are referencing this. It is a rigorously Roman Catholic view of sexual ethics, closed to non-procreative sex acts, to all birth control, and to any sexual intercourse or expression outside of marriage(9). It is, quite notably, not a particularly western Protestant view of sexual ethics(10). In fact, most western Protestants (and most notably Evangelicals) have been accepting of birth control and of marriages wherein the couple chooses not to have children for between 50 and 90 years depending on the denomination. This move was facilitated theologically by two distinct steps: First, during the Protestant reformation, the reformers shifted from a view of sex as basically-bad-but-able-to-be-redeemed-by-marriage to the view that sex is basically-good-but-is-corrupted-when-it-happens-outside-of-marriage. This didn't change their view of birth control as such but it did position them to make the second shift during the middle of the 20th century (and if that seems recent, keep in mind that birth control wasn't really available in the US until 1938 and the pill didn't show up until 1960; in that context western Protestants were early adopters, not holdouts) when they justified the use of birth control on the theological grounds that sex was a good thing within marriage and served the fidelity/intimacy purpose.

This is actually a really big deal because Western Protestants on the whole have not held to Natural Law theory when it comes to sexual ethics (they have used other ethical models—predominantly variations on utilitarianism, Kantian deontological ethics, and divine command theory—to think about sexuality). It is hard to read their recent attempts to recover Natural Law Theory as anything but an after-the-fact desire to shore up their disapproval of same-sex marriage. Fundamentally, traditional Natural Law Theory sees sex as something which has to be justified whereas Protestants traditionally see sex as something to be celebrated.

This is Al Mohler
There is actually pretty solid evidence for this after-the-fact response by Evangelicals (11).  Up until the prospect of same-sex marriage became a significant likelihood within the US, the legitimacy of birth control was all but assumed by most public Evangelical (and Western Protestant) theologians and ethicists (12). There were concerns and debates over birth control but they were centered around the question of abortion and generally started from the assumption (or explicit argument) that all birth control forms which work by preventing conception are perfectly legitimate within a Christian marriage. But it was only when the US started what turned out to be final push towards legalizing same sex marriage that, Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and self-appointed spokesperson for conservative Evangelical sexual ethics, published an article (which he later recapitulated in his culture-war book against LGBT Christians) questioning Christian acceptance of birth control and explicitly arguing that
In reality, the Pill allowed a near-total abandonment of Christian sexual morality in the larger culture. Once the sex act was severed from the likelihood of childbearing, the traditional structure of sexual morality collapsed.
or as he put it in his 2015 book/culture-war-manifesto We Cannot Be Silent (13)
 In more recent years, many evangelicals have begun to reconsider the morality of birth control and contraception and, on the positives side, have come to affirm the unconditional goodness of the gift of children. Even when evangelicals do not accept the Catholic admonition that each and every act of marital sex must be equally open to the gift of children, at the very least, evangelicals must affirm that every marriage must be open to the gift of children and that , should pregnancy occur, it is to be seen as an unconditional gift rather than as an imposition. (emphasis in the original) 
He did not (and does not) try to shift fully to the Thomist Natural Law view that each and every sex act must be open to procreation but tries to carve out a position wherein the marriage itself is "open to procreation" in principle. I would submit that he has to land there because the broader protestant understanding of sex (that it is a good thing to be celebrated within marriage) doesn't really leave space for the full Natural Law approach—in fact I suspect that it would be something of a catastrophe for Southern Baptists if the people studying in their seminaries all read Thomas Aquinas. Mohler seems to be trying to tie Evangelical theologies of sex back to Natural Law without erasing the distinctions between Roman Catholic and Evangelical views of the subject. The problem is that this isn't a particularly coherent approach; Mohler and his fellow conservative evangelicals want to use a Thomist purpose based Natural Law approach to ethics without actually accepting all of the logical implications of that view. Instead they dismiss the full Thomist implications of Natural Law theory as "too Catholic" without providing an explanation of how they still support their modified position. Complex and detailed systems like Aquinas' Natural Law Theory can't be modified on a whim; any modifications have to be justified in a way that demonstrates how the overall modification still fits with (doesn't contradict) the theory as a whole. Conservative Evangelicals have not provided the necessary careful justification of their modifications and until they do, this appropriation of Natural Law should be treated as incoherent (14). As it stands, people in the Mohler position have to somehow argue either that procreation is the purpose of marriage but not of sex, or that marriage must be judged by how well it fulfills the purposes they assign it but that sex should not be held to this standard—either argument would seem to be a really big theological/philosophical lift and I don't see how they would/will manage.

Bubblegum Rejoinder

In any case, my response to both of these positions (the Roman Catholic Thomist argument and the conservative Evangelical culture-war modification) is that they are wrong in shifting from the claim that "procreation is a purpose of marriage/sex" to the conclusion "procreation is an irreducible purpose of marriage/sex". In the first case, a defensible claim is being made. But that first statement simply isn't the same thing as the second. As someone who is reasonably fond of Natural Law theory on the whole, I don't have any problem with an ethical methodology which works to figure out what things are for and uses those conclusions to work on thinking about how those things should and shouldn't be employed, so I don't have a particular problem with saying that marriage/sex exists for the purpose of child rearing/procreation among other things. You see, both groups recognize that while procreation/child rearing is a purpose of marriage/sex, it is not the only purpose. Intimacy/fidelity (in the Roman Catholic version) or intimacy and mutual delight (in the Evangelical culture-war modification) are also recognized as a vital purpose of marriage/sex. That being the case, a given sex act, or a full marriage which serves to create or enhance intimacy/fidelity between spouses is fulfilling one of its purposes. Put another way, while it is true that procreation/child rearing is a purpose of sex/marriage, it is also true that intimacy, fidelity, and mutual delight is a purpose of sex/marriage. What is happening is that these theories are sneaking in an assumed premise, that things which have more than one purpose but do not fulfill all of them are sinful  Or in other words, we need to apply this argument to the act of chewing in order to know whether or not bubblegum is sinful.

Now, we know that chewing exists for two purposes: chewing (more broadly mastication) exists as one stage in the digestion process, and chewing exists to bring out the taste and pleasure of food. So one purpose of chewing is the nourishment of the body. The second purpose of chewing is enjoyment of the good world God has made. Most examples of chewing that we voluntarily engage in are able to fulfill both of these purposes. We eat things that taste good. However there are some things we choose to chew which serve only the first purpose, they may even contravene the second purpose (kale for instance, nourishes the body but tastes bad). Other things we choose to chew fulfill the second purpose but not the first. This is where bubblegum comes in. Bubblegum does not serve to nourish the body at all (in fact our mothers will collectively remind us that moving it to further stages of digestion is a bad idea); it does, however, serve to provide taste and pleasure. If the Roman Catholic and Evangelical culture-war modification assumed premise—that it is sinful for a thing to fulfill only one of multiple purposes—is correct, then it must be sinful to chew bubblegum. And as this is ridiculous in the case of chewing bubblegum, it is also ridiculous in the case of sex and marriage.

If same-sex sex/marriage is able to fulfill the purpose of fidelity/intimacy and mutual delight, then same-sex sex/marriage is able to fulfill the purpose of marriage by the standards of Natural Law theory if they are consistently applied, the Christian who wants to object to them will have to find other grounds.

The Academic Evangelical Use of Natural

There is still another use of the term Natural in connection to arguments over LGB sex and relationships which I have seen employed by evangelical academics who are more theologically moderate than their conservative culture-war modification counterparts. While they use the phrase Natural Law and the term natural they don't seem to be referencing Aquinas or Aristotle but what they take to be Paul's understanding of natural.

The clearest example I have encountered of this was by Scot McKnight in his book A Fellowship of Differents (15). The argument is that, in Romans 1, Paul's use of natural (the Greek word in question is phusis φύσις) represents the idea of a created design which was intended to be perpetuated and not deviated from so that any deviation from said design would have been wrong. When people take this approach they often do not directly reference Natural Law Theory and usually stay away from directly associating questions of procreation with the concept of natural. Instead the focus is on the Genesis account of creation (a concern I have addressed HERE) and on what is usually referred to euphemistically as the "physical complementarity" (McKnight uses the phrase "anatomical design" which could suggest an oblique reference to Natural Law "purpose" thinking) of male and female bodies i.e. the fact that a penis can be inserted into a vagina. In effect this approach seems to want to understand the word natural (phusis) to mean something like "the way it was made" or "the way it was designed".

There are two distinct problems with this view, and either would be fatal to the position. The first problem is that such a definition of natural is wildly anachronistic. It is the way a modern, post enlightenment person might use the word natural but it is not at all the way 1st century Greeks and Romans would have used the term phusis. C.S. Lewis has actually provided a careful etymological and philological analysis of the history and meaning of the term. He explains that in the first century, the most common usage of the term phusis was to talk about things developing in an un-interfered-with way. If something developed on its own, without being messed with by an outside influence, that meant it developed according to its phusis, its nature. We actually still use the term nature  this way when we say that a particular food is natural. We mean that the food in question wasn't altered by humans.

The second problem with the "moderate" evangelical usage of natural is that it doesn't reflect the way Paul actually uses the term in Romans 1. Paul is clearly using unnatural to denote "interfered with" and not "contrary to anatomical design" in Romans 1 since he is specifically talking about behaviors people engage in as the result of a cause, namely denying God. In fact, the example he gives as unnatural in verse 26 is a first example of the full list which follows in verses 28-30 (16). The first example and the rest of the list are connected by the phrase "and just as" in verse 28 which indicates that Paul is going to give further examples of the effects of denying God. All of these actions are characterized with a word which Paul treats as synonymous with his verse 26 use of unnatural: unjust/unrighteous (adokimon/ἀδόκιμον). This is the un-doing of the righteousness/justice (dikaosune) (17) which Jesus calls us to in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:10). It is the impact of people warping or interfering with the way of being they would by nature have otherwise inhabited. Thus, what Paul is clearly not talking about is a person who, of themselves and their own healthy development, developed into a person who is attracted to those of their own sex. He is instead working off of the contemporary dominant understanding of most homosexual activity which was understood to be an outcome of hyper-sexuality and unbridled lust (18). McKnight's interpretation of natural as "different from some original design" or "nonconforming to anatomical design" just isn't based in 1st century usage of the term; nor is it compatible with Paul's actual usage of the term in the passage in question.


So I think it is pretty clear that while the term unnatural has had (and I am sure will continue to have) a significant impact on the way Christians think and write about homosexuality. Despite the fact that, as I have tried to show, the word does not in fact condemn or in any way count against the real attractions and relationships of LGB people who marry and are intimate in as loving and beloved-honoring ways as their heterosexual counterparts, its use against them and their relationships has led to incredible harm and pain. To tell a person that they themselves, or that their most intimate one-flesh, unions are not only unnatural but are especially sinful because of it, is to dehumanize and devalue them. The unconscionable outcome of this thinking has been all too predictable. From the Church's historic persecution and sometimes torture of people who engaged in LG sex, to the dire mental health impact on LGB youth who are raised in non-inclusive communities, the designation unnatural together with its Old Testament derived counterpart abomination (19) has enabled and even encouraged a homophobia and dehumanization of the LGB community for which the Church must repent.
He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for
one of the least of these, you did not do for me.


(1) I don't mean to be flippant, I think those discussions are important.
(2) To those of my readers who are part of the LGBTQ community and have had this term leveled at you and used to degrade, deride, and dehumanize you, I want to say that I am sorry and that I hope my exploration and attempted rebuttal of the use of this term in connection to your lives and relationships can be helpful in a way that justifies the pain of this conversation and term.
(3) Aristotle's term was eudaimonia or "good-soul-ed-ness".
(4) Aristotle did have a significant hyper-cognitive bias but that need not interfere here.
(5) Though he did really like to take it back to merely observing nature and reasoning whenever he could.
(6) I am working, largely from the Summa Theologica Questions 49153, and 154
(7) Aquinas' third justification for marriage was that, at as a sacrament it has an intrinsic good, but he conceded that non-church marriage could still be good if they fulfilled the other two requirements, so I will focus exclusively on those.
(8) This is the reasoning by which Aquinas is able to shift from sex having to always be procreative to sex having to always be "open to procreation". The procreative purpose of sex (or at least of marriage since Aquinas doesn't do much to distinguish "marriage" from "the context of legitimized sex) does not end at conception but continues on to include the full healthy rearing of a child.
(9) Aquinas does work out a way to excuse nocturnal emissions (it isn't sin if you didn't mean to do it, so don't worry about it unless you went to bed fantasizing about something arousing—then it would be sin)
(10) Anglicans were the first major Christian group to give the official OK to birth control in 1930
(11) I shift my focus here from Western Protestants to American Evangelicals largely because it is Evangelicalism which has presented to most strident opposition to LGB relationships from within the larger Western Protestant community. Mainline and other Protestants have taken a somewhat different approach, in some cases standing in partial or full support of LGB relationships.
(12) For a good overview of pre-culture war Evangelical sexual ethics I would recommend Stanley Grenz' Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective.
(13) Mohler Published the book in October of 2015; the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June of 2016.
(14) If anyone is aware of such a justification please link to it in comments and I will look forward to interacting with it and updating this post.
(15) I have responded to McKnight's argument directly over at the Third Way Newsletter so a portion of this post will recapitulate the arguments I made there.
(16) It is worth noting that this puts "disobedient to parents" (verse 30) on the same moral footing as the activity Paul discusses in verse 26.
(17) For my thoughts on this incredibly rich word, you can read THIS PIECE
(18) I have covered this in PART 2 of this series but Sarah Ruden also does an excellent job demonstrating it in her book Paul Among the People.
(19) Part 3 of this series contains my analysis of the OT texts and one of the many ways in which they have been misunderstood and misapplied.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Book Review: Still Christian

I love it when I get to review books which I can recommend without hesitation or caveats and am glad to say that David Gushee's Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism is one of them. This is a book which should be of interest to quite a few different people for different, if compatible, reasons. Before I get to that though, let me start by describing the book a little. Still Christian is in the format of a memoir, Gushee isn't trying to persuade his audience(s) to do much of anything other than maybe to be more aware of what Evangelicalism is, and how it has come to be what that. It is a fairly short memoir because it focuses with pretty laser-like intensity of the single story of the role of Evangelicalism within Gushee's life. Thus it isn't the sort of full-orbed analysis of Evangelicalism as a historical, social, theological phenomenon of the sort that we are all probably waiting for Mark Noll to write. Instead, this book is important because it will provide you with a narrative (and if you spent any part of the 80's, 90's, 00's or 10's as an Evangelical it will likely be a decidedly relate-able narrative) through which many of the beauties, thorns, and ultimately rot of evangelicalism can be more easily recognized.

In terms of style and readability, Gushee has a warm and winsome style and the book is tremendously easy to read. I blew through it in less than 48 hours (probably 4-5 hours of reading time over two evenings).

So who will benefit from and enjoy reading this book and why?


For those of us who grew up or spent significant time as evangelicals this book is incredibly easy to relate to and will almost certainly give you that "you are not alone" encouragement—particularly given Gushee's status as a Christian Ethicist and president of the Society of Christian Ethics and of the American Academy of Religion. Of course much of that has to do with shared experiences (his comfort with Evangelicalism was shaken by the "Women in Ministry" debate and by the Evangelical right's celebration of torture and his final break occurred over his affirmation of the full inclusion of LGBT folks), but it has a lot more to do with his carefully recorded process as he worked and lived through those experiences. Throughout the book he is unwaveringly gracious towards those with whom he has disagreed. Where people come across negatively he nearly always has something positive to say about them as well and even though Al Mohler does not come off especially well, he refuses to engage in any personal denouncement of him. Neo-Calvinism receives his single full-throated denouncement in chapter 7 Finding a Home and Leaving It  where, when discussing the various perspectives operating at Evangelical colleges (and specifically Union where he taught) he says:
This is my best chance to say that I believe the resurgence of a doctrinaire Calvinism in contemporary evangelicalism is among the most odious developments of the last generation. I abhor its version of God and most of its version of Christian ethics, and I believe it could only have emerged among relatively privileged, hyper-cognitive, compassion-challenged white men, as it has. But I digress
That passage stands out because it is such a total break with the otherwise irenic tone he takes throughout the book. I am not condemning him for including it, but thought the fact was worth pointing out.

I think what gave me hope in reading this was not just that I could identify so much with Gushee's experience, but that he seems to have managed to get through it with so little bitterness and so few scars.


I am frankly not quite certain whether evangelicals will enjoy reading this, I do know that those evangelicals who seek to be well informed will appreciate reading this. This is a memoir by someone who was one of you, who experienced the "tent" of Evangelicalism shrinking around him (though his ultimate exit did involve movement to a place you had told him you would not go), and who will describe to you, winsomely and charitably, what it was about you that has caused him to feel relief on leaving. Surely this is something Evangelicals want to know.

Successful organizations need to conduct exit interviews. When someone leaves them, if they do not take the time to find out why, they are almost certainly doomed to eventual collapse. This is a charitable and kind voice (though he doesn't pull punches either) who will tell you what is going on and will challenge you to think about your culture as well as your practices. I don't think the goal of this is to convince anyone to leave or stay within evangelicalism, but it is a vital perspective for anyone who wants to understand evangelicalism as it is today.

non-Evangelical Christians:

If you are not and have never been an Evangelical, you are likely nevertheless well aware of them. As one friend of mine put it: "The thing about Evangelicals is that they do things". For better or worse, Evangelicals have come to "represent" much of Christianity, or at least Protestantism, to the western world. While there are many great resources out there to help you understand the genesis and theology of evangelicalism (I have mentioned Mark Noll haven't I?) this book will be your best tool to date in understanding the experience of Evangelicalism from the inside. It is rare to get a reflections from someone who was so recently a member of a "tribe", is now excluded from that tribe, and is nonetheless, compassionate, gracious, and fair towards them. 


Remember how 81% of Evangelicals (who voted) voted for Trump? If you think that understanding that dynamic is important to navigating the world. Or more broadly if you realize that political Evangelicalism is still a major power player in US politics and in globalizing culture, then you probably already know that it is important to have an accurate understanding of this group of people. This book will provide some stunning insights into what is really going on with that. It is, for you, serendipitous that Gushee is a professional ethicist as his perspective is one you will find particularly enlightening.

A Final Addendum on Fortuitous Timing

I can't think of it as anything but God-given grace that this book was released the same week as the Nashville Statement. Still Christian provides a lens on what is going on with the so called Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the rest. It is no coincidence in my mind that Al Mohler figures prominently in both works (his is the seventh signature on the Nashville Statement). In Chapter 6 Finding a Voice While Not Losing a Soul Gushee recounts his experience with Mohler at Southern Seminary:
Al Mohler, only thirty-three years old when he was named president, turned out to be a relentless implementer of the conservative agenda for Southern Seminary. He was committed to purging any faculty who strayed from conformity to the seminary's doctrinal statement, elevating faculty voices that would take visible conservative stands on key culture-war issues, and moving the school to a traditionalist position on the top question of the moment—namely, whether the Bible permitted women to be ordained or to serve as pastors in local churches.
...a new policy came down from the administration, one that would change everything at Southern. At an epic, miserable faculty meeting, the president [Mohler] declared that those who believed that women should serve as pastors would no longer be hired, promoted, or tenured at Southern Seminary. While some details of this policy remained to be addressed, the implications were clear enough. A school that had, over the years, worked its way around to a largely egalitarian understanding of gender roles was now, by decree, overnight, a place that required faculty both to believe and to teach that Holy Scripture clearly bars women from the highest office of church leadership. Dissenting tenured faculty members might survive but probably ought to leave, untenured faculty members who held the now-erroneous belief had no future at the school, and no new faculty members would be hired who were egalitarian. 
This meant the end for pretty much all female faculty members. I vividly remember one of my younger female colleagues getting up from the meeting in which the policy was announced, running from the room, and throwing up in the hall. It's not every day that you are professionally executed by public decree. It just might make you physically ill. 
If that doesn't frame the context for the recently released Nashville Statement I don't know what does.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Being a Pacifist and False Moral Equivalence

So I am a pacifist. Let's get that out up front. I am an Anabaptist, and my reasons for being a pacifist can be characterized as religious: I do not believe that violent coercion is commensurate with the Way of Jesus, and I certainly do not believe that killing a person can be part of the Way of Jesus. I believe that violence is wrong.

With that fact in mind, I want to clarify some things about moral equivalence. This last weekend, when a bunch of alt-right, Nazi, White Supremacist, White Nationalist groups gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a confederate monument and to terrorize the town with their hate and in the process murdered Heather Heyer and engaged in many acts of terror, intimidation, and violence, a number of groups met them to engage in counter protest. Among these groups were Black Lives Matter, SURJ, clergy from around the nation, and antifa (anti-facists). Some of these counter protest groups chose to engage in beautiful, courageous, and non-violent means while others fought back violently against those who attacked them.

It took the President three days to call out White Supremacists, White Nationalists, racists, and Nazis as evil. Today he made the case that the racists and the anti-racists are morally equivalent (he avoided that phrase and instead said that both sides "bear responsibility"). As a pacifist I think it is really important to make the following as clear as I can manage:

While I believe that violence is never the right choice, that fact in no way creates a moral equivalence between those who would use violence to spread their hate and to oppress their fellow humans, and those who resort to violence in defense of the innocent and oppressed. Not to understand this represents moral blindness of the highest order.
In the second world war, the Nazis used violence to commit their atrocities and to wage war, the allies chose violence in response. This does not make the allies morally equivalent to the Nazis. The sword is often an option for those who are oppressed; when the oppressed chose to wield the sword they are not becoming the moral equivalent of their oppressors. As a pacifist I lament all violence, I pray that I would have the strength to resist committing violence if it ever seemed like the only option. I am inspired and in awe of those who manage to lay down their lives in defense of others, whether they lose their lives while committing violence or while refusing it—placing themselves between danger and the oppressed—the courage to risk and lose ones own life in defense of others is more courage than I can claim to have and it is, in itself, a great nobility.

There is a basic moral tenet that the morality of an act depends on both its why and its what. It is in recognition of this that manslaughter and murder are different things. It is in recognition of this that a surgeon is not charged with assault. Violence chosen for noble reasons is not the moral equivalent of violence chosen for heinous reasons and not to see that betrays the moral ignorance of the man who cannot tell the difference between a surgeon and a sadist.

If the White Nationalist, White Supremacist Nazis in Charlottesville get to share guilt with people who believe that violence is warranted in resisting them then honoring Dietrich Bonhoeffer is as morally reprehensible as honoring John Wilkes Booth.

And if the President of the United States is so morally blind that he would seek to share responsibility between those who fly the Nazi flag and those who resist it, well that is probably the best evidence I have heard that he is morally incompetent to lead a country.
Clergy standing against Nazi Militia in the US