Conviction Comes with a Cost
Most everyone who leaves evangelical culture knows the cost of doing so: the social alienation, the accusations, the demonizing, etc. What hurts most is that the people who hurt you are often those who were once close to you. You find out that their allegiance is to their theology before it is to their humane treatment of other people.
Rachel Held Evans chronicles a bit of her own experience with this phenomenon in a powerful piece a few days ago entitled The Cost. I love her work, and I sympathize with her on almost all counts. I know what it’s like to be the subject of gossip and backstabbing. I’ve lost an enormous amount just for deviating from the evangelical norm.
Where I depart from her is in her final paragraphs. After talking about the cost of her own convictions, she states, “the truth is, their convictions come with a cost too.”
Well, yes. Any sort of conviction comes with a social cost among people who don’t accept that conviction. Strongly-held convictions like racism, sexism, etc., all come with a great social cost, no matter how pleasant you are about the way in which you hold them. Now consider some of the destructive convictions in evangelicalism: homophobia, unwarranted suspicion of scientists, the demonizing of progressive theology, and so forth. Why should progressive Christians like Rachel Held Evans and I suppose that we are being hypocritical if we see our own suffering as more worthwhile than that of evangelicals?
Not Every “Cost” is Equal
We should be understanding, but not to a fault. Evangelicals have good intentions, at least generally speaking. They want to do God’s will, and they’re often trying really, really hard to do it… and wrecking everything in their path as a result. So we can say we understand where they’re coming from, because most of us were there once, too. And we can say we understand that it is painful to hear people disaparage your views. Where I draw the line is in trying to equate that sort of pain with the pain that comes from leaving evangelical culture.
I will continue to use the word “fundamentalist” to describe blind adherence. I will call people “bigots” when they dehumanize others through their commitments to Scripture, even if they do so with a polite tone of voice. I remember being on the receiving end of these terms when I was still an evangelical, and as much as I resisted it at the time, I know that the experience was a necessary part of my deconversion. It showed me that what I was doing and saying was not just the incorrect answer but that I was morally in the wrong.
I remarked in my last post that I have sometimes dismissed others unfairly, and I’m sorry that I have done that. Like Rachel, I have assumed things about people’s experiences, and that is hurtful, too. But the balance I strive toward is to demonstrate graciously but sternly the horrendous wrongdoing I see present in evangelical culture. I don’t feel sorry for using what some might think of as harsh words or for telling people my honest opinion of a view for which I have no respect.
Actions Have Consequences
So maybe evangelicalism comes with a cost, but it is the cost of existing against reality and goodness. The pain is supposed to be there to tell you you’re going the wrong way. When your belief system requires you to make horrendous assumptions about others — that scientists are all conspiring against you, that gay people aren’t really gay — your insulting actions have consequences. It’s like burning your hand when you touch a hot stove.
By contrast, the cost we face when we leave evangelicalism is the cost of others trying to force you into an arbitrary belief system that you can’t possibly accept, even if you tried (and believe me, I tried). The pain we face from the alienation and shaming is unnecessary and wrong. People try to justify it however they can, but they are denying reality. Recently, I had someone tell me semi-privately (comments of another person’s article) that the suffering I face is a result of my sin. No, I know why I’m suffering: people chose to do terrible things. It’s not God’s judgment.
Conflict with Integrity
Now of course, we should be as gracious as we can, even with those who hurt us. The goal is not to conquer the evangelicals; the goal is still to love. Sometimes, that love requires us to take a harsh stance. But just as they cannot force us to believe as they do, nor can we force them to believe as we do. We must exist and conduct ourselves such that people are free to choose what they believe, and we must have faith that our beliefs are sufficiently compelling to draw people of their own accord. We must not engage in the same sort of social manipulation tactics (“evangelism” they call it) to pressure people into joining our club.
If we as progressive Christians engage in this conflict with integrity, never assuming things about our opponents and never forcing them into our ways, then we can indeed say that the cost of evangelical conviction is of little moral value by comparison to our own. It is there because it is supposed to be there, and I do not feel as though there is a “log in my eye” when I chastise other believers for their actions.
With all this said, let me reiterate that I am a big fan of Rachel Held Evans, and I have nothing against her project. This is a minor — but important — piece of constructive criticism.