By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit
One year ago, Dr. David Gushee’s life changed—and so did thousands of lives he began to touch all around the world with the publication of his startling book Changing Our Mind. In the past 12 months, he has circled the planet, including a speaking tour in New Zealand.
His book has had a global impact, helping evangelical individuals, families and congregations to see more clearly how they can welcome their LGBT loved ones.
“I’ve been invited to speak all over the United States—East Coast to West Coast and many places in between including the South and the Midwest. In New Zealand, I spoke on both islands. I am talking with people by email from Australia, Germany, Holland. There’s interest in Brazil in producing a Portuguese edition.”
Along with heart-felt thanks from many readers—Gushee drew furious challenges from evangelical writers who staunchly oppose inclusion of LGBT men and women.
Internationally, Gushee’s scholarly colleagues appear to be impressed with his work. For years, he was known as America’s leading evangelical ethicist, a phrase now challenged by some guardians of that sphere of Christianity. At Mercer University in Georgia, he continues as the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life. Now, his peers have nominated him as vice president of the American Academy of Religion, a stepping-stone position to becoming president—and, at the same time, as president of the Society of Christian Ethics.
“If I am elected to both, I would be presidents of those organizations one year after the other,” Gushee says. “It’s quite unexpected and a very happy development.”
Despite the wounding words from some former evangelical colleagues, Gushee says he does not regret his decision a year ago to publish Changing Our Mind—in effect, publicly declaring that his previous teaching on homosexuality was misguided.
Gushee had changed his mind. He invited all Christians to consider changing their minds with him.
“I feel that God has been leading me,” he says. “That’s the only language I can use. I feel God led me step by step into a whole new life experience in which I exercised my gifts in a way that had an impact I could not have imagined. Most meaningful to me have been the growing relationships with LGBT people both locally in the U.S. and around the world.
“I’ve found that there’s a large community of hurting people who are grateful that there is someone who gets what it’s been like and is stepping forward as an ally.”
THE IRONY: EVANGELICALS CAN CHANGE
Americans who thought that evangelicals would be the last anti-gay crowd standing on the continent aren’t aware of how evangelical, non-denominational and Pentecostal churches are organized. First, each believer looks to his or her relationship with God, largely through the pages of the Bible and prayer. Then, in discernment with other believers, congregations move forward.
In the current tidal wave of change in American attitudes toward LGBT men and women, Catholic lay people as a collective group already have shifted their viewpoint and so have United Methodists and other mainline Protestants. But, traditionally organized denominations require many years of debate, coupled with global consultation on their codes of church law. The Catholic and United Methodist denominations, as two prominent examples, simply cannot change their policies overnight—and perhaps not even after years of bruising debate on these issues.
However—if the Spirit is perceived to be moving, and if the biblical understanding is changing, thousands of evangelical churches across the U.S. can turn on a dime.
“It’s the Protestant principle that every person is supposed to read the Bible for himself or herself—and is supposed to work things out with God,” Gushee says. “I’m from a Baptist tradition and I can tell you: There’s a lot of local autonomy in these kinds of congregations. These churches are able to pioneer—one by one—whatever they feel called by God to do. Every believer is on a journey with God and so is every congregation.
“Many of the nondenominational churches also are Baptist by design. They have local control. There’s nobody above them. There’s no hierarchy. That’s where a lot of the energy has always been in evangelicalism and when change begins to happen—it can happen very rapidly. In this case, I see the change happening more quickly in younger institutions—meaning congregations where younger people are allowed to lead their churches in new directions.
“The young are leading the way on this. More and more people feel invested in this change as they realize how many families have a stake in this issue. More and more of us realize that we know people, we care for people, who are directly affected by what we say and do now. And among young adults? More and more people feel dissatisfied with congregations and other institutions that seem to be dragging their feet.”
FROM A STREAM TO A TORENT TO …
“A year ago, I joined a fast-moving stream that now is building into a torrent,” Gushee says. “The debate in churches is accelerating and the Supreme Court decision this past summer has forced pretty much everybody to decide where they stand. So churches or denominations or universities who have been trying to keep out of this issue are finding that they cannot do that anymore.
“I get constant requests from people who want advice: church leaders, individuals and others. I speak in various congregations that are looking for particular kinds of help: How do we get the conversation going? Or how do we get from point B to point C on this? Thousands of congregations all across the United States and around the world are having this conversation right now.”
That’s not to say that evangelical America is on the verge of a sea change. No one, and certainly not Gushee, is claiming that the majority of evangelical churches are about to embrace LGBT Christians.
“I think we are in for probably another 10 to 20 years of arguing about this, mainly in churches,” Gushee says. “The narrative is set: The inclusion of LGBT people is the latest chapter in the story of Americans learning how to treat everybody as an equal citizen. But, sadly, the last place in America where this debate is going to be waged is in our churches.”
SLINGS AND ARROWS
Gushee has felt the backlash. He has lost friends and regrets that, he says.
“Honestly, it’s been disillusioning. I had always known that, if you were on the receiving end of Christianity’s worst, then Christianity didn’t always look like a good thing. I understood that theoretically,” he says. “But now? After hanging out with LGBT Christians, I understand this dark side of Christianity in a real way.
“For me, Christianity has provided lots of good things. From an early age, I’ve experienced the goodness of Christianity. But now I realize that Christians have done great harm to LGBT people. I mean, there are young people who commit suicide every year because of the heinous things Christianity has done to LGBT people. That’s the shadow side of Christianity and I’ve learned more about it over this past year than in all the previous years in my life. I’m seeing the darkness under the rocks of Christianity and that’s painful.”
So, by the spring of 2016, Gushee will publish a third edition of Changing Our Mind, which will include a new section at the end of the book responding to his critics.
“There’s a wide range to the attacks I’ve received,” he says. “There are some responses that aren’t helpful and aren’t worth responding to. But there are some critics who have tried to diagnose where they think I went wrong or to pinpoint where they think I’ve jumped the tracks. I do want to engage with the substantive arguments. I might write this as a Q&A format. Many readers do want to see how I respond to some of the more substantial arguments. I would like to make that a third and final edition of the book.”
Ultimately, though, actually changing one’s mind on this issue isn’t a matter of intellectual debate.
“I’m convinced that such arguments really are secondary to meaningful personal relationships,” he says. “As I say in the book, it wasn’t an argument that led me to change my mind. That’s why some of my critics and I will never see eye to eye—because we’re not even thinking on the same level or approaching the same realities.”
POLITICAL FUEL MAY BE FADING
Gushee is thankful that most Republican presidential candidates now are distancing themselves from overtly bashing LGBT men and women.
“There are still some surviving GOP presidential candidates who by conscience clearly would like to do some more LGBT bashing. Now, what we’re hearing is less bashing and more of an argument about ‘fighting for religious liberty,’ ” Gushee says. “I do know that, if Donald Trump gets the nomination, he’s not going to play the anti-LGBT card. That’s just not who he is.
“At this point, it would be suicidal for the GOP to push an anti-LGBT issue this time around. There just isn’t much oxygen left for this issue in the Republican Party.”
And that lower level of political rhetoric about LGBT Americans, Gushee says, is likely to mean that less fuel is poured into the religious debate on these issues.
A CLEAR VOCATION
“This work feels like the fulfillment of all I’ve been trained to do,” Gushee says. “I was trained to be an advocate for the marginalized.”
For decades, Gushee also has been widely recognized as a Holocaust scholar specializing in the study of “righteous gentiles,” non-Jewish men and women who risked their lives to help those fleeing the Holocaust. His book, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, still is widely read and used in classes.
“There has been a cost for publishing Changing Our Mind and standing up the way I have,” Gushee says. “I’ve lost friends and that loss has been the hardest. I can ignore the vicious things written by Internet trolls, but the fast and furious wave of criticism has been wounding. If I spent too much time focusing on that, I could get depressed pretty easily.
“But I understand this to be the cost of exercising my vocation. Everyone I’ve ever admired throughout my life did what they thought was right. They experienced conflict. Some of them paid a ferocious cost. At the time I published Changing Our Mind, I was thinking: It’s only now that I realize that the major theme of my entire body of work since 1994, when I wrote my first book, has been pointing me in this direction.
“My work on righteous gentiles caused me to keep paying attention to groups who everyone feels free to treat with contempt. Then the question becomes: Who will stand with this group on the margins? Who will risk giving them attention? My whole body of work has been pointing me in the direction of standing in solidarity with LGBT people.”
Care to read more?
Gushee is coming to Michigan in early October:
- Click here for a PDF flier about Gushee delivering the Perry Gresham Lecture in Troy, Michigan, October 2-4.
- Click here to open a PDF about his October 11 appearance in Ann Arbor.