MARCH 1, 2004
The Hard Middle
Martin E. Marty
"Sensible Center Is Lost in Gay Marriage Debate" headlines a column by Cokie and Steven Roberts, who have the misfortune of not having been born or having developed as ideologues. Their approach is rare in these days when politically the fire-power and firing come from hard-liners on both extremes, and will grow more rare as this year of political destruction continues. So it goes in the religiously fired-up secular world.
In the ecclesiastical world, all U.S. church bodies except the Unitarian-Universalist and United Church of Christ, who have "moved on" from the issue, find moderators, presbyters, bishops, presidents, and lay leaders quaking as they foresee disastrous splits when their bodies take a vote on "gay marriage" or on ordaining homosexuals who are in committed relationships.
On that front, in my (ELCA) tribe, Luther Seminary professor Marc Kolden asks "Can we agree to disagree?" in the Lutheran Forum (Winter edition; request at email@example.com). Agree to disagree on essentials like the Trinity or the Incarnation, or on dealing with poverty and injustice and homelessness? No, in our epoch the armament in churchly "culture wars" is in the hands of warriors over sexual themes.
Kolden would be typed as a conservative and finally opposes ordination of gays and blessing of same-sex unions. One does not have to follow his theological reasoning or his practical suggestions ("Denominations: don't vote on such things!") to find reasons to take him seriously when he asks "Can we agree to disagree?" He uses Dietrich Bonhoeffer's distinction between ultimate and penultimate matters. Thus, "The Church may allow or accept divorce as the best solution or at least the lesser evil for a bad marriage, but it doesn't endorse or promote divorce." Etc. "So also with same-sex unions: the Church may acknowledge them and include persons in such unions in its membership, but should not endorse or bless them."
Cokie and Steven Roberts and Marc Kolden appear linked here not because one agrees with their proposals but because of their positioning. Often we hear "moderates" and "reconcilers" and "peacemakers" dismissed as wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed cowards or dreamers. The more Sightings notes political and churchly battles on these and other things we find it fair to ask: where is the real courage being shown during these unsettled times?
Line up with the ideologues on either side of any issue in the culture wars and you will be fortified by the support of those who also have everything simply thought out in a complex world. What looks like courage can then be bluster. But step into the middle, try to hear both sides, propose ways finally unsatisfactory to both sides whose minds are made up and whose fists are shaped, and you will find yourself pelted and fired at from both extremes.
What state and church need these years are the voices of people on whom flak from the gunners on both sides now falls. Pity them for trying to find what the late Cardinal Bernardin called a "Common Ground Initiative" and for which he was almost obscenely attacked.
So, gentle Robertses and Koldens, keep speaking up quietly -- but wear a helmet!