David P. Gushee: An Appreciation
I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions, but I did set new priorities this year. One of them is to spend 2012 expressing more appreciation for friends I often take for granted. There are several reasons I haven’t always been appreciative of my friend, Dr. David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. I won’t go into all of those reasons here in public. Some were motivated by envy of his success as my career stalled, his publication productivity which far outstripped mine, and by jealousy in a period several years ago when he seemed to have more influence with a mutual mentor than I did. Those are not pretty sides of my personality and confronting those feelings is not easy. Other reasons for my lack of appreciation, and for a period of strain between Dave and myself are less ignoble, but involve some miscommunications and some honest differences of conviction on matters we both care about strongly. On some issues in Christian ethics Dave is more conservative than I am and it was here that his growing influence bothered me the most. We didn’t just differ, we differed strongly, and we both believed (and still believe) the differences matter in both the life of the Christian churches and in the life of the nation. Our division wasn’t as sharp as Barth vs. Brunner on “general revelation” and, thankfully, didn’t result in decades of estrangement like theirs did–but it was a matter of degree rather than kind.
When we put aside the differences in personality, success, and the like, there remain some areas where we are friends who differ on principle:
- I, a former soldier, am a convinced Christian pacifist (of a basically Anabaptist shape) whereas Dave is from the Just War tradition, although of the stricter sort that does not easily approve of wars or weapons–and he knows that ALL Christians are called to be peacemakers.
- Although I believe that abortion is always a tragedy, I do not believe it is always immoral. Though uncomfortable with the “pro-choice” label, I basically agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that this is a private decision between a pregnant woman, her doctor, family, and religious tradition–within the first trimester of pregnancy, neither federal or state governments have a right to ban abortions. I do want to reduce the need for abortions by reducing unwanted pregnancies, making adoption easier, and by increasing the choices for women in difficult pregnancies, but I want abortion to remain a legal option for all women. Dave is “pro-life.” While agreeing with me on steps to reduce unwanted pregnancies, make adoption easier, etc., he also thinks abortion should be outlawed. At a time when Dave’s view is gaining ground in state legislatures across the nation, this tension is both real and very strong.
- Although I once was “welcoming but NOT affirming” of LGBT folk in church and society, I became converted to a strong believer that the traditional church teaching of exclusion was dead wrong. For about 15 years, I have counted myself an LGBT ally, advocating same-sex marriage (in society and church), the ordination of LGBT folks without any standards of sexual behavior (or inquiry) that would not be made of their heterosexual counterparts, and full equality of LGBT folk in all aspects of society. Dave stands up for the civil rights of LGBT folk in employment, housing, adoption rights, but whereas he knows that sexual orientation and gender identity are not chosen, Dave holds to the church tradition that same sex coital behavior is sinful. He opposes the ordination of non-celibate LGBT folk and opposes same sex marriages in both church and society.
- We are both very concerned about the huge divorce rate in U.S. society, but Dave thinks this can be helped by laws–such as the proposals for “covenant marriages” in which divorces would be legally more difficult and he thinks that church and society should return to a time when divorced persons felt social disapproval. He believes that churches should stop performing 2nd marriages except under very limited criteria. I think this is a counterproductive approach.
- Dave believes in the “sanctity” of human life. I am wary of such labels for anyone or anything but God. They strike me as idolatrous. I want to value all life, especially human life (made in the image of God), but I worry about “sacred” or “sanctity” language.
These are real differences and they remain differences that matter to both of us–but I do not want anyone to think that they prevent us from being friends or me from appreciating Dave’s leadership in many areas. Especially since 9/11, when many U.S. Christian leaders failed the greatest moral test of our time, Dave stood up and stood strong. He opposed the war on Afghanistan on just war grounds (“Last resort” had not been reached, especially since Taliban leaders were offering to extradite Osama bin Laden for trial in a neutral country) and even more strongly opposed the war in Iraq. Dave stood against the rising Islamophobia in America after 9/11 and called for greater Christian-Muslim dialogue. He did this while on faculty at very conservative Christian college in Tennessee and he spoke out not only in his classroom, but in a column in the local paper –in a deeply “red” county. Since Dave is especially known for his work in Jewish-Christian dialogue, having first come to fame as a scholar of the Holocaust, and since he deeply identifies with both diaspora Jews and Jews in Israel, Dave’s stand against Islamaphobia took even more courage than for other white evangelical leaders in the U.S. South.
But it was on the issue of torture that Dave’s post-9/11 leadership was strongest. From the moment the pictures taken at Abu-Ghraib revealed U.S. torture of Iraqi prisoners of war, Dave Gushee worked to create a moral opposition in the churches. (This was well before the public knew that the techniques used at Abu Ghraib had been authorized at the highest levels of the Bush admin. and were first perfected on detainees at Guantanemo Bay, Cuba.) Not only did Dave quickly join the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), a network founded by Princeton Seminary’s George Hunsinger, but he founded a partner organization that would work especially with evangelical churches, Evangelicals for Human Rights (EHR). (This has been subsumed into another group I’ll mention below.) At the very time much of the world was learning to associate American Christians, especially white evangelical Christians in the U.S., as “pro-torture,” Dave Gushee created and led an organization to abolish it in law and practice–and centered this opposition in specifically evangelical circles.
Along with Glen H. Stassen, Dave took on the evangelical heresy of “Christian Zionism” as a major obstacle to a just peace between Israel and Palestine.
Dave continued to work for nuclear disarmament and to rally evangelicals behind efforts to slow and reverse human-caused climate change–even as numerous evangelical leaders embraced the “it’s all a hoax” meme.
In 2010, Dave decided that EHR had run its course and combined these various efforts into a new organization: The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. NEPCG works for greater Muslim-Christian dialogue, prison reform (including abolition of the death penalty), the abolition of nuclear weapons, ending torture forever, getting Red Cross access to detainees in the “war on terror,” promotion of “Creation Care,” including the Evangelical Climate Initiative, “third way” reduction of abortions, and much else. NEPCG’s very first action upon founding was to call for the U.S. and other rich nations to forgive ALL of Haiti’s debt following the devastating Haiti earthquake of 2010.
At a time when far too many U.S. evangelical voices (especially in white and Southern evangelical circles) appear to hate the poor, treat women as inferior, demonize GLBT folk, hate the environment, appear to hate Muslisms, demonize immigrants, call for UNREGULATED, ANYTHING-GOES forms of capitalism, and appear to love war, torture, and nuclear weapons, Dave Gushee not only breaks such stereotypes, but has been at the forefront of efforts to form countervailing movements. Dave hearkens back to the evangelical heritage of the 19th C., when American evangelicals led in efforts to abolish slavery, end child labor laws, work to get women the right to vote, stand with unions, and work for peace. If there is any hope that 21st C. U.S. evangelicals can reclaim that earlier heritage and wrest the term “evangelical” away from the theocrats of the Religious Right, it will be through the efforts of those like my friend, Dave Gushee–our differences notwithstanding.