Jonah reveals one of the secrets of the prophet game: they secretly don’t want to succeed. Prophets pronounce God’s judgment and proclaim an opportunity to repent, but they hope no one listens. I had an evangelical – a person for whom sharing the Gospel is the central call of his faith – tell me that he no longer tells anyone about Jesus. I always suspected in our conversations that he was secretly hoping for the day he could sit in heaven and laugh at all the people going to hell, but I didn’t think he would confirm it. But reading Jonah, I was convicted, so I had to begin our conversation on Sunday with a confession of my own. When I see Christians finally embracing progressive causes, I’m not as excited as you might think.
There are a few reason for this. First, there’s petty jealousy. Speaking out on these unpopular positions is my niche and I’m threatened when it goes mainstream. I’m the oldest hipster in the world. But there is also some real pain.
In many ways, I feel like evangelicals – and the Southern Baptist Convention, in particular – stole my church and stole my faith. The church I went to as a youth was conservative in their positions, but made room for questioning. Our youth minister encouraged us to think deeply about our faith. When I went to college, I did as he encouraged and looked for a SBC church, so that I wouldn’t lose my faith. But they did not appreciate questions. I was literally told not to ask them. Because fundamentalist churches are so dogmatic, I thought that I could no longer be a Christian, so I walked away.
When I started attending Church in the Cliff after twenty years away, I found that I could have a progressive, thoughtful faith. I could once again call myself a Christian with integrity. It inspired me to go to seminary, something I considered as a kid, and become a minister. When I began to bear witness to the God that calls me to seek justice and peace, there were those who told me I couldn’t possibly be a Christian and certainly not a minister. There are still plenty of those. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it hurts. For those who have been outed and shunned, I’m sure it hurts far more.
This is my confession: when I see someone repent and embrace more progressive views, I’m jealous of the accolades they receive for catching up to where others have been for decades, often at great sacrifice. I’m skeptical of their motives. I want to know exactly what they mean in their newfound position. Most of all, I want them to do something to demonstrate their repentance. As one person said on Sunday, “We’re glad you’re with us. Here’s your shovel.”
Aside from nursing our own hurt, we have good reason to be skeptical when a person or organization makes a change. Russell Moore, the head of the SBC’s public policy arm, has encouraged Southern Baptists to be more welcoming of queer people. That’s good, but he’s only talking about changing the rhetoric. After all, Russell Moore also signed the Nashville Statement, which affirms that God can un-gay somebody. It’s a soft-sell to get people in the door, then spring conversion therapy on them later.
Many mainline churches have lesser, though critical, hedges in their positions. They might affirm queer people, but they won’t perform same-sex weddings or ordain queer people. They might not include queer people or women in leadership positions. They might ordain people, but not have jobs for them or no quality positions, sticking them in dying churches or encouraging them to plant a church. It’s hard to give credit.
But I think the thing that makes us most skeptical when we see a change of heart is that the conversation is always about moving a boundary. The conversation about inclusion is always one of baby steps and those steps come about in ways that make those in the center comfortable. The line is moved only a few inches to include a minimal amount of people in the now slightly expanded circle. We’ll accept gay people in our church, but not in leadership. We’ll accept gay people in leadership, but they have to either be celibate or in a committed, monogamous relationship. We’ll accept this, but not that. Each step is lauded as a magnanimous gesture on the part of those who are centered. It remains a conversation about those who are centered and not a conversation with those who are marginalized. This all suggests that the purpose of moving the line is not to include people, but to retain control of the line.
One of the beauties of the Hebrew scriptural tradition is that it includes counter-narratives. It embraces its own critique. Jonah is the antidote to Nahum’s violent nationalism, a satire of the prophetic tradition. The clear moral of the story is that we should rejoice when people see the light. It’s not all about judgment, but the possibility of redemption. But Jonah is drawn in the same stark terms as Nahum. Rather than a story of absolute good and absolute evil, it is a story of mass conversion and redemption. We know that change does not happen so easily and so completely.
It is precisely because people find their way into repentance slowly and in fits and starts that we have to meet them where they are. That requires us to be clear about where they are, about what their repentance means. It requires us to be clear about where we are, too. If they are ready for their shovel, we need to be ready to give it to them, to help them find the work that they can do and need to do. We have to remember that there are those who will not repent, those who are actively resisting change, those who want to go back, so we need all the help we can get. In the end, it’s not about getting credit, but about creating justice. So if I’m handing out shovels, I might need to find some sackcloth and ashes for myself so that I can rejoice and welcome all of those along the way.