It has been interesting observing from afar my friends and colleagues at IRD during and following the recent United Methodist General Conference. I’m heartened by the acceptance of the Traditional Plan and—as both a parent and an ethicist—I have personal and vocational interest in the multiple questions surrounding human sexuality, gender identity, and the response of the Christian faithful to LGBT+ issues. However, beyond the occasional foray into such debates, I don’t spend much of my professional life engaging in this particular discussion. My fight is elsewhere, quite literally—my primary research area is the ethics of warfighting.
Nevertheless, I long ago ceased to be surprised by the similarities between the public engagement of these two topics. For starters, whether the discussion concerns killing in war or the moral validation of same-sex marriage, far too often those on one side of the debate—almost always the progressives—malign those on the other as unloving, hateful, and deficient in their gospel witness.
In discussions of war, a typical Christian pacifist trope is to insist that just war advocates value justice—or some other more atavistic ideal—over love. So, insisting for instance that the practice of enemy love is self-evidently incompatible with killing those enemies, certain Christians act as if the relationship between love and justice is zero-sum: to the degree that I pursue justice, I lay aside love in equal measure.
Something similar has been on display following the General Conference vote in support of the Traditional Plan. For many, the traditional Methodist understanding that endorsing the moral validity of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” is cruel and hateful. The traditionalists’ refusal to expand marriage beyond one man and one woman or to ordain to ministry self-avowed practicing homosexuals is seen by the opposition as a stand against love.
A pastor writing for the Religious News Service puts it this way:
I have many in my congregation who feel the Traditional Plan was the right one. My counter to them is that the tone of the decision, and the ferocious judgmentalism in the tactics and speeches of many of those who made it, should appall conservatives, centrists, progressives, anyone with a pulse. God did not create us to be mean. When we’re mean, even if it feels like righteous indignation, it harms others. It is toxic to the one being mean. God, mercifully, relieves us of the burden of ever judging anybody.
First, a caveat. I was not at the General Conference and, because they are human beings, it’s entirely possible that some who have defended the Traditional Plan did, indeed, do so in unnecessarily cruel, demeaning, and unloving ways. I’ve seen such behavior elsewhere. This should always be condemned because no matter the righteousness of one’s cause, cruelty and a lack of charity are never warranted. Gesturing again to my own field, St. Augustine insisted that the real evil in war is not the killing, which is sometimes morally warranted. Rather, it is such things as the “love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity” and the lust to dominate over others. Against this, Augustine believed that warfighters should be motivated by charity and love of neighbor—including the enemy-neighbor. Not only did he believe love should be their motivation, he believed it could be their motivation.
It’s striking that nowhere in the pastor’s piece quoted above is there even the hint of an allowance that those who support the Traditional Plan might do so in a loving manner and with charitable motives. Regarding the “tone” of the Traditionalists, many people I know and trust were in attendance at the General Conference and assure me, against the pastor’s claims to the contrary, that those arguing for the Traditional Plan did so with care, probity, and generosity—even refusing to clap when key votes were won.
Contrast this, they say, with progressives who compared conservatives to the hateful bigots of the Westboro Baptist Church. Such silly vitriol comports with the numerous statements following the end of the Conference that ‘love lost’ or that ‘love will win in the end.’ One commentator urges readers to seek out their gay friends and to “reassure [them] that you love them regardless of the vote. And say the words – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer children of God are beloved and always have been.” This last statement echoes a popular song written in response to the church trials surrounding these issues. “No matter what the church says,” the songwriter exhorts, “you are a child of God!”
Such responses continue the progressive strategy of characterizing their position as loving and the opposition as dogmatic, condemnatory, and full of hate. One suspects, of course, that Mother Theresa could have spoken up for the Traditional Plan with her usual winsome—if bracingly unyielding—grace and the opposition would still have disparaged her as a bigot. This is just the point.
The pastor above believes that “God, mercifully, relieves us of the burden of judging anybody” and, to go ahead and judge anyway is, simply, “mean”. Such nonsense can only be spoken when our understanding of love has been formed outside a biblical matrix. Love, for far too many, appears to be nothing more than affectionate feelings, rather than a steady wish for the loved one’s ultimate good. C.S. Lewis suggested that too many Christians mistake love for mere kindness. “Kindness,” says Lewis, “is the desire to see others…happy. Not happy I this way or in that, but just happy.” Such a gassy kind of happiness “cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering.”
The biblical witness of love, of course, is quite different. It wills the good of the neighbor; so much so that it is willing to cause suffering and unhappiness if such is necessary to bring about this good. God’s love, Lewis reminds us, “is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of…sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.”
It is past time that we stop simply yielding the high moral ground to the progressives. In matters of war, Christian realists have long emphasized that the charitable dimension of just war morality might require that we punish our enemies with a “kindly severity” in order to strip them of lawlessness and to return to them to fellowship, confident in the knowledge that nothing is more hopeless than the happiness of sinners. All the while, the charitable attitudinal characteristics required above obtain. Just so, regarding the Traditional Plan, supporters need to emphasis—loudly and often—the love that grounds their argument.
Those Christians who will feel hurt by the Traditional Plan need to have their hurt taken seriously—and they need to know it is taken seriously. But this does not mean that the hurt is unloving. They might not believe us, but we must do our best to explain that our stance—however hard it might seem—is what we believe is in their own best interests and the best possible means to secure their ultimate and genuine happiness.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that both sides of such debates must contend for love, as each is given to see what love requires. But, in doing so, we must commit to contending for love without making a travesty of charity.
Marc LiVecche is the executive editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is also the Scholar for Christian Ethics, War, and Peace at IRD. From August 2018-2020, he is the McDonald Visiting Scholar, in resident at the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Christ Church, Oxford.