Power, Privilege & Peterson

Without question, the thing that dominated the Christian corner of the internet this week was the controversial interview with retired pastor and best-selling author Eugene Peterson. In the now infamous exchange, Peterson was asked what his views were of same-sex relationships and would he perform a same-sex wedding. His answers, while explicitly clear strongly suggested that he had shifted his view from a more “traditional” view to an affirming position. (Click through the interview to read it yourself). The response was immediate. On one hand, many Christians praised this shift in Peterson’s thinking, especially those of us who identify as LGBTQ+ believers. On the other hand, the more conservative evangelical community responded with shock, anger, and in many cases, outright rejection (i.e the immediate withdrawal of all of Peterson’s books from Lifeway Book’s stores).

By the next day, Peterson had retracted his statement (or clarified it, depending on how one interprets the events), saying “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.” He went on to say that, “on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage.” Needless to say, those who had previous celebrated were, in turn, shocked and angry. Peterson’s books returned to Lifeway’s listings and the retraction news was quickly shared to correct the previous claims. Many claim that Peterson retracted under pressure, with threats from his publisher and other Christians silencing his true beliefs. Jonathan Merritt, the journalist who published the inciting interview, brought further clarity that suggests there might be some merit to these claims. Though I suspect the truth will never fully be known, I will take Peterson at his word while holding it in the tension of uncertainty that circumstances have added.

A lot has been written already about this fallout, what went wrong, what we can learn from it, etc. and far more articulate than I could ever expect to offer. However, there is one aspect that I wanted to talk about. In this debate, there has been a lot of talk about “sides”- right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, progressive vs. traditional- and in that talk, there is often an unspoken assumption that these sides represented equal opposites to each other. For example, some have argued that “both sides” have acted equally contemptuously to Peterson and to each other throughout this debate. Without question, there are examples of poor treatment from both “sides” of the issue but I am baffled by the claims that such actions were equally reflected by both groups. While I am open to being corrected, I have not seen nearly an equivalent reaction from the “progressives” as I saw from the “traditionalists”.

To be clear, I am not claiming that one group is inherently worse than the other. Rather, what I think is missing from this conversation is that LGBTQ+ Christians do not stand on equal footing, nor do we have equal voice or social privilege (especially in Christian culture) as those who hold to “traditional” positions. Case in point, Lifeway’s pulling of Peterson’s book is powerful move that has no potential equivalent from the affirming said. This imbalance of power and privilege is standard across the board. To that end, any claims that “bullying” was equally present from both “sides” is patently false because it is, in fact, impossible. This doesn’t excuse bad behaviour from the weaker party but the disparity of power should change the way we view and engage in this conversation, especially for those who are speaking from that more protected space.

Eugene Peterson is a beloved pastor, theologian, thinker, and writer who is deeply respected by countless Christians worldwide. And so it is no surprise that his words (both in the initial interview and the later retraction) should impact so many. Further, it is completely understandable that many of come to his defense. While I think Peterson needs to better own the mistakes he made in how this controversy played out, I agree that he doesn’t deserve to be treated poorly.

That said, he is something of a microcosm of the very power and privilege I cited above. And so, as a queer Christian who suffers regularly at the hands of Christians (including dear friends and even family, not just faceless extremists online), I am grieved that so much energy is put in caring for this one man over this issue, when when a comparatively tiny fraction of the same concern has been shown to those who are most vulnerable. I simply find myself wishing that as many Christians were as demonstrably concerned about how much pain the church causes LGBTQ+ folks as they are about how Peterson is being treated. And I also find myself wondering why that is so hard for people to understand.

(Endnote: I also want to note that I think these dynamics are critical regardless of your position on LGBTQ+ and faith. To that end, I am asking people to respect the same rule I have around this topic elsewhere: When discussing LGBTQ+ topics on my blog, Facebook, etc., I am seeking to create a safe place for fellow LGBTQ+ folks to find friendship, support, understanding, etc. To that end, I am not interested in having non-affirming beliefs, debates, links, etc. shared here. You are free to do so on your own social media platforms. Any such comments here will be removed.)

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