If, like me, you are someone who lives at the intersection of ‘Christianity’ and ‘Facebook’, you probably have come across reports about Eugene Peterson’s views of same-sex marriage. Yesterday it was reported that Peterson, a stalwart in the Evangelical world, had ‘changed his mind’ on the issue, and is now in support of same-sex marriage. Today, this statement was retracted.
As Christian people, the reporting on Peterson’s views is something we need to pay attention to. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not interested in teasing out points of theology here. This post isn’t going to get into what Peterson is reported to have said (each time), or whether we should agree with him on this but not that. What I am more interested in is how the news of Peterson’s flip-flopping was received and promoted in those online forums we Christians love to frequent. It is here where I believe that the Peterson reports are instructive for us.
When the first report came out yesterday, it was immediately shared all throughout cyberspace. It was shared one of two ways. Like me, you may have seen both expressions. . . . multiple times.
Peterson changes his mind – the end is coming!
In one of the forums I belong to, the report on Peterson’s change-of-mind was simply posted with an array of exclamation marks and weepy-emoticons. The implication was clear: This was a blow to the conservative agenda or ‘real Christianity.’ Satan obtained another foothold and the rapture was just around the corner. Well, not quite. But in the battle of theology, it was deemed that one side ‘lost’ a major player, while the other ‘team’ gained one. However, such comments weren’t simply about what side of the theological fence Peterson was on. Peterson’s change of mind seemed to mean that he left the faith all together. How could someone who believed in same-sex marriage accurately reflect the truth of the gospel?
Because of this apparent change of mind, the value of Peterson’s ministry, teaching, and writing became quickly discarded. How do I know this? Well, because people said as much. The report was followed by statements such as ‘well, I guess I need to toss his books!’ and ‘I guess he likes popularity more than truth.’ In comment after comment, grace was no longer extended to Peterson. Those who previously would have championed his works now ripped Peterson apart. So much for specs and logs.
Peterson changes his mind – Take that you evangelicals!
Just as there were those who decried Peterson for a change of mind, there were equally people who applauded Peterson for this growth. Peterson was now being praised for his insight, compassion, and obvious Christ-likeness. It proved evangelicals were wrong about everything; if they would only become more enlightened, they too would change their minds on this matter. Again, specs and logs . . .although I guess this time it is more acceptable as people happen to like these logs and specs.
The internal spiritual attitude driving this response, however, is the same as the previous one. Just as Peterson was being rejected by some for no other reason than what the report claimed, he was conversely also being accepted for no other reason than what the report claimed. Those who posted the article with comments of ‘about time!’ and ‘This is MAJOR news’ did not care about his ministry, his books, or his character. All that mattered was whether ‘Eugene Peterson’ belonged to our camp or theirs. It is as if a particular stance on same-sex marriage (i.e., the one I agree with) is the litmus test for all faithfulness, all goodness, and all compassion. But is this really the way of Jesus?
All of these comments were floating around Facebook and other forums. We, as the Christian community, either loved or hated Eugene Peterson. His change of mind was either the best thing to happen in the likes of the church or the worst. To make it worse, there was no stopping it. Unless, of course, it wasn’t true. And just like that the conversation flipped. Again, this news was taken one of two ways.
Peterson doesn’t change his mind – he is such an idiot!
When it was revealed that Peterson didn’t change his mind, those who previously heralded Peterson’s growth and Christ-likeness now began to unleash a tirade of criticism. Appeals to Peterson’s intolerance, bigotry, or shallowness we continually employed. In just the span of 24 hours Peterson went from being the hero of the church to its villain. His intellect was attacked; his character was defamed; and his works were decried. Those who posted and shared the news with the greatest of fervor now retracted all their support. After all, why extend Christian love to someone who thinks differently than us?
But isn’t this the same as the first group, who rejected Peterson for his apparent change of mind? If a hard-hearted rejection of someone for agreeing with same-sex marriage should be called out as uncharitable and graceless, isn’t the hard-hearted rejection of someone nor not agreeing with same sex marriage the same thing? What does this say about what we truly value in our relationship with our Christian brothers and sisters?
Peterson doesn’t change his mind – we knew he wouldn’t desert us!
So, what happened with those who were so horrified that a popular evangelical author may agree with same-sex marriage? Well, now the comments relating to his lack of theological change described a sense of relief over Peterson’s steadfastness in the faith. Those who attacked him now endorsed him. Peterson was again seen to be a true and righteous man and his works endowed with a sense of spiritual authority. Peterson hadn’t left the evangelical ‘team’; once again he could be embraced and accepted.
Such a response, however, wasn’t based in humility. There was no regret over having misjudged a man, or acting so horribly to suggest the burning of his books. There was no request for forgiveness. No, the new-found heralding of Peterson seemed to be based in pride. It screamed messages like ‘we still have him’ and ‘I knew he agreed with me.’
So what now?
I’m sorry, none of these ways expresses the way of Jesus. Accepting or rejecting Peterson based solely on whether he agrees with our understanding of human sexuality betrays an internal shallowness for which we should all be ashamed. Those of us who critiqued Peterson for his flip-flopping (wherever the flip happened to be), did we not notice how we flip-flopped in our reactions to Peterson? Shouldn’t our own flip-flopping cause us to seek forgiveness and an amendment of life?
After all, why should it have mattered if Eugene Peterson changed his mind, either to agree with same-sex marriage, or to not agree with it? Why would we, as people who live in the Kingdom of God and are called to be expressions of God’s love and grace, change our behavior toward Peterson simply because of what was reported? Furthermore, shouldn’t the fact that our behavior did seem to change sicken us? Shouldn’t we be horrified by the thought that we may just be interested in being right more than we are interested in being in the way of Jesus.
This flip-flopping nightmare is important for us in the church because it highlights that we are all sinners in need of grace. None of us has a claim on moral superiority. None of us can assert more righteousness than the other. We all need to forgive each other, and we all need forgiveness from each other. This whole event shows us how easily we can succumb to the worship of our own perceptions. Instead of looking upon Peterson through the eyes of Jesus, we could not see past our disagreements and controversies, and it tainted the very essence of our Christian unity.
Perhaps next time we can try a new tactic: Let us love one another, for love comes from God.