Saturday, March 25, 2006

An "His Barking Dog" Primer for Fellow Conservatives (Part 2) - How Do We Understand the Left Anyhow?

In a previous blog, His Barking Dog identified and discussed three windows or "templates" for understanding the actions of the leadership of the ABCUSA. They were:
* The Template of Justice
* The Template of Inadequate Generalization OR Seeing Only as Far as the Horizon
* The Template of "The Myth of the Center"
In this blog, we turn to several other windows into the mindset of our friends on the left.

The Template of Avoiding the "Tyranny of the Majority" - In the United States one of the most divisive issues centers around questions of appropriate mention of Christianity in the public sphere. During the most recent Christmas season, numbers of conservative Christians engaged in active boycott of retail stores unwilling to use the word "Christmas" in their advertising. Yet, while the ACLU and many in the media complain about Christian images in the public arena, the same rules do not always apply to minority religious groups such as Islam or the "religion" of atheism. At the root of the concern there appears to be more going on than Christian-bashing. Americans often have a reflexive reaction to what they perceive to be a tyranny of the majority.

In the ABC, we consciously solicit and cater to identified minority groups, particularly those who have been the victims of hatred, violence, or bigoted mischaracterization. Whether the affinity is founded on race or ethnicity, American Baptists will find a way to "look out for them." The response of Valley Forge leaders to AWAB closely follows this approach to other groups in our midst. In my experience with national leadership, to a person, they speak of AWAB in the same protective and paternalistic manner which they often extend to our various caucuses. Even if some of them do not fully endorse the "gay agenda," their concern to protect the unprotected will compel them to extend themselves quite far in the direction of the AWAB movement.

Conservatives need to appreciate the natural desire progressives have to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Their fears about gay ordination mask a deep concern that conservatives want to ignore ministry to sexually broken persons, to stigmatize them with a modern scarlet letter, and to objectify them in prejudicial and bigoted ways. They view themselves as the upholders of justice and fair play towards all marginalized peoples; it is a Gospel mandate.

The Template of an Anti-Fundamentalist Bias -The Northern Baptist movement, although incorporated almost two decades earlier, was shaped in the formative decade of the 1920s when the challenge of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy was in full bloom. That, and the bitter lessons of the CBA schism in the 1940s, left the denomination with a strong anti-fundamentalist bias. Decades of Colgate Rochester and Andover Newton trained leadership only reinforced the hegemony of the left over national leadership.

In such an environment, anything resembling a call for "biblical authority" will be stigmatized as crypto fundamentalism at best, and outright fundamentalism at worst. Along with this comes an aversion to those who attend evangelical seminaries. I vividly remember a 4:00 p.m. afternoon session with the General Secretary at the Green Lake Seminarians' Conference of 1976. The then General Secretary informed me, without any trace of malice or hostility in his voice, that I would never amount to anything in the ABC due to my attendance at a non-ABC seminary (he was correct, by the way).

Ironically, while many conservatives are quite well read in the literature of the left, it is rare to find a progressive who has even a passing understanding (let alone sympathy) with the intelligent evangelical writers (Kate Harvey being one very notable exception). Within the PSW, a major point of tension between those promoting withdrawal and those staunchly advocating for continued fellowship with the ABCUSA relates to this difference in language and mindset. The "loyal" American Baptists are as often fighting the old fundamentalist-modernist wars as they are upholding "Baptist principles." Their misplaced (I believe) fear of fundamentalism animates much of the debate.

Conservatives on the right need to understand the legitimate (and sometimes ill founded) fears of our sisters and brothers on the left. They honestly believe that if we gain an inch we will fight for a mile and the result will be a denomination of racist, ignorant, authoritarian, fundamentalists.

The Template of "Bureaucratization and Lift" OR "Where you stand has a lot to do with where you sit" - A quarter of a century ago church growth theorist C. Peter Wagner used to speak of the phenomenon of "redemption and lift." By this he referred to the tendency for new Christians to have large numbers of non-Christian friends. But, as they matured in their faith and became more committed to their church, their circle of unchurched friends shrunk proportionately. In an ironic twist, a process of "bureaucratization and lift" often functions in the selection, training, and promotion of national leaders in a denomination.

Beginning as a working pastor, finding a place on a regional staff, becoming an executive minister, taking on a national leadership role all come with a process of bureaucratization. Recently, a pastor formerly known as a bit of a fire brand became a domesticated bureaucrat by means of moving from the pastorate to the role as an executive minister.

One can hardly expect regional executives, paid by their regions but accountable to national ABC leadership, to be anything other than conflicted. And, the longer they sit in their seats of power, the less likely it is that they will be able to resist the process of bureaucratization. No aspersion is intended toward the ministry of management or the administrative role (I "are" one). My point simply concerns the fact that people in bureaucratic positions cannot help but be preoccupied with issues of institutional survival. In this context, trying to "keep peace in the family" will almost always trump issues of right, wrong, or truth.

Conservatives should be sensitive to the genuine difficulty judicatory and national leaders have seeing the big picture. Legitimate concerns for institutional survival motivate some of the hyper-protective and seemingly paranoid behavior exhibited by some of our regional and national leaders.

The Template of Identity and the Meaning of "Baptist" - In my experience, our national leadership and most progressive Baptists share a primary identity as "Baptists." Being a Baptist, explicating the meaning of being Baptist, and proclaiming one's identity as a Baptist assumes pride of place in the self understanding of most of those on the left. Ecumenical outreach principally relates to efforts to cooperate with and include mainline Christians in joint efforts, often focused on justice issues. Affiliation with the six other mainline denominations often comes across as a point of pride. Work with evangelical denominations does not often appear on their radar screen, nor does it excite them very much.

Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to see their Baptist identity differently. While equally committed to the commonly established Baptist distinctives, they often prefer the designation "evangelical" to "Baptist" as a primary designator. Ecumenical efforts often focus on co-religionists within the orbit of evangelicalism (including Pentecostals, Nazarenes, conservative Presbyterians, Free Methodists, Independents, etc.) . They would, for example, almost never speak of themselves as part of the "mainline" movement, even viewing with shame the connections we do have to the UCC, Disciples of Christ, UMC, etc. The NCC and WCC are typically perceived as unholy alliances with groups that have surrendered a commitment to Christ and his Gospel.

The result of such differences in language mirror shifts of mindset that can be seen in the mutual animosity and sense of threat each faction perceives in the other. The language of the left comes across as off-putting, particularly with its preoccupation with matters of absolute notions of "Baptist" autonomy. The vocabulary and grammar of the right appears rigid, legalistic, and even fundamentalistic to those on the left.

Conservatives would do well to apprehend the significant differences in perspective and point of view. The same words (e.g., NCC, WCC, "ecumenical," "evangelical") often carry radically different connotative meanings within our broader ABC family. Among those on the left, for example, use of the term "evangelical" is often taken to mean "racist." This was one of the problems with the name of the American Baptist Evangelicals. It was off-putting to many in the African-American community despite large areas of theological agreement. When national leadership speaks of "diversity," on the other hand, it often strikes the ears of conservatives as a cipher for throwing out the Bible in favor of the Zeitgeist popular in today's secular society. Those on the left react as negatively to the PSW annual meeting which featured a Willow Creek pastor as those on the right do to the inclusion of Harvey Cox in the upcoming regional meeting in Massachusetts.

Again, what can be gleaned from the differences separating us? I continue to maintain that we must be civil, amiable, and Christian in our dealings with those with whom we disagree. However, in the ABC we simply cannot continue doing mission together any longer. Our goals, values, and central concerns do not permit us to work conjointly.

[His Barking Dog only yips and yaps at the signs of danger he thinks he hears beyond his door. With defending his Master as his mission, please do not confuse this mangy old dog with anyone official, authorized, or titled in the PSW]

No comments: