Wednesday night from my hotel room in the Sants neighborhood of Barcelona, as I read through Team of Rivals (don’t worry this post is not about Team of Rivals), I watched as a 4 hour street battle unfolded below me. Fires lit up the main streets as about 1000 leftist okupas (occupiers) battled the mossa (Catalan state police) with stones, destroyed cars, businesses, and public property. The mossa countered with tear gas, arrests, and an endless assault of police vans. So what was at the root of this extremely violent street battle? The okupas had been occupying and living in an empty government owned building for over a decade, but now the government wanted to redevelop the building for public use. The government had been negotiating for years for the okupas to move out, but these negotiations had stalled, and finally the Barcelona city government ordered a forced removal. Essentially the okupas were fighting for the right to live in an abandoned building which is owned by someone else, for free. Reading through the brave lives of the men who fought against one of the greatest moral outrages of humanity, I asked myself why were 1000 young people fighting police for the right to live where they wanted to without paying anything? What has happened to the great optimism and idea of progress initiated by modernism that ended slavery and culminated in the great movements of the 60s that liberated peoples and nations from oppression? Has the idea of human rights begun to eat itself, ever demanding more and more individual (dare we say selfish) personal rights at the expense of community?
Zygmunt Bauman seems to think so. In his work Liquid Modernity, he laments the hyper-individualization and fragmentation of society that has occurred from the rise of deregulated capitalism, the marketing of individual choice and identity as the hallmark of humanity, and the search for individual freedom at all costs such as allowing for the “melting of the fetters and manacles rightly or wrongly suspected of limiting the individual freedom to choose and to act (loc 354).” Yet, this melting of all limiting factors into ultimate liquidity, and ultimate human freedom allows for elements in society such as “the system and free agents to remain radically disengaged, to bypass each other instead of meeting (loc 354).” Endless freedom thus finds itself ultimately empty, as it unhinges itself from obligation and community, to thus search out endless experience, yet never arriving, seeking endlessly because (Bauman quotes Weber here) of “the impossibility of ever being gratified.” Obligations and limits are of course what keep communities together and functional, and our current liquid situation often laments the shallowness and fragmentation of anything resembling true community.
And as such, the okupas demand and fight violently for their right for free housing by damaging the property of others in whom they share public space with. Bono sang of this as the condition of the postmodern world, “what you thought was freedom was just greed.” Moreover, the macro no longer matters, only the fragmenting of meaning and communities into the micro of life policies and the enabling condition of freedom, “but enabling them to do what? Loc 163).”
Nowhere is this liquid state more apparent than in the modern sexual liberation movement, as it both grips our world politically and in our social construct of how we understand sex. From a Christian standpoint it is not hard to see that our world’s claim for sexual progress thus unfettering sex from the old limits and obligations, puts ultimate sexual gratification and freedom as a human right at odds with essential human flourishing, what Giddens and Bauman refer to as “plastic sex.” Divorce, abortion, STDS, promiscuity, and now the question of the very nature of marriage are the complicated issues that pit themselves against traditional Christian concepts of human flourishing found in the family and the community. The question seems to arise that it must be a human right to marry whomever you want and be able to have the wedding photographer of your choice. But, is that a human right? Is that a right that conflicts with the flourishing of community? Everything is now permissible, nothing is taboo, and the church is just as implicated as anyone else. The stress on the church is of course almost crushing, as we are forced to respond Biblically and theologically, but also pastorally to our times.
Here is as good a point to enter into dialog with Dave Thompson’s Over Coffee, a short but insightful bridging of gaps (and attempt to avoid the fragmented avoidance of liquidity) on the issue of homosexuality within the church. The current debate in both its theological and political modes is to the extremes of both sides loudly condemning the other, with very little concern for pastoral sensibilities. (Although I am convinced that many conservative/traditional churches and pastors are much more pastoral and caring than our media narratives allow for). Still, it is ironic that traditionalists now find themselves under attack throughout society in a kind of reverse culture war! Thompson’s greatest contribution to the dialog is his pastoral concern, one that almost every Christian could improve upon in this debate. Thompson argues not for a change in Biblical interpretation, nor for a redefinition of marriage (which will put him squarely in the cross hairs of the more aggressive progressives) but a pastoral toleration of the realities of a fallen world. As such he does not celebrate homosexuality, nor does he argue for the somewhat disingenuos narratives that sexuality can’t be shifted or changed, or that celibacy is some kind of cruel Christian oppression. Homosexuality is something that still needs redeeming, and will be corrected in the resurrection, but for now, we must honestly admit that some cannot experience true change, but also do not want to live in isolation and loneliness.
To be certain the church needs a plan when it comes to this issue and one that does just not throw in the towel theologically and biblically. It is no surprise that denominations that have altered their theological and biblical norms on sexuality are literally imploding before our very eyes. At the same time, our society has changed, and this will arise sticky questions for the church in how to minister faithfully to the gay married couple with 3 kids who experience and find Jesus. So while I do believe we must eschew the misguided progressive attempts to redefine morality, sex, marriage, and the Bible, perhaps we can consider space for making concerted, well thought through but rare exceptions, while still holding to the gospel ideals of purity, life transformation, self-control, and orthodox theology.
Thompson’s proposal will most certainly come under fire from those on the progressive side for being timid and not celebrating gay identity to its fullest. I myself wonder if the proposal is at all effective in that no one celebrates divorce (his nearest analogy for acceptance) in Christian communities, but tolerate it as a destructive onetime event, that then can be redeemed over time. Yet, will gay partnered Christians then still be seen as second class, awkwardly tolerated? The traditionalist side will certainly make the case for a slippery slope, a kind of Trojan horse gradual change that over time will tilt the balance in our churches away from orthodoxy. And this is not mere rhetorical hyperbole, as I have seen the effects of slight slides over time into full blown theological change that created division.
For certain, the church has often failed homosexual people, and we should not banish people ot the margins. It seems to me loneliness is more a symptom of our society, or our liquid modernity, and a system of the endless progressive search for freedom and movement, which has also ironically created the idea of the locus of human fulfillment in sexual fulfillment and gratification. Now certainly, the church does not want to banish people to isolation. That is unchristian, but we have an obligation to hold to the sexual norms of human flourishing and creativity, that I think run deeper that glossing a few Biblical texts. But, what if in Thompsons’s compromise, we created another compromise? What if the church became true comunitas, instead of superficial community? What if we found the true meaning of completeness, relationship, and intimacy disembedded from our societal linking of sex with ultimate meaning? What if families welcomed gay men and women into their homes as fellow brothers, sisters, parents, sons and daughters? What if we committed to addressing sexual brokeness with the power of grace and love found in Christian comunitas, instead of slipping into our private family lives as a way of avoidance?