Where There Is No Enemy, We Create One

Where There Is No Enemy, We Create One

A study published by LifeWay Research said between 2007 and 2014 the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the United States increased from 16 to 23 percent.

In the past this “religiously unaffiliated” group was a demilitarized zone between the religiously affiliated and the unreligious. Their increasing numbers may be representative of any number of phenomena. Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, suggests many of the religious affiliated no longer want to be identified with the increasingly polarized religious landscape. I mean, who could blame them. Do you want to be identified with Evangelicals supporting Donald Trump?

More and more people are creating as much distance as possible between themselves and the institution they see polarizing American society. Those Millennials you thought might return to church when they had kids – well they are not likely to do so without some changes.

E. O. Wilson is a Pulitzer Prize winning sociobiologist at Harvard University. Wilson identified the tribe as the critical unit of social necessity for the human species. Wilson identified nine eusocial species that have what Wilson calls a “tribal gene.” They will sacrifice themselves for the sake of the tribe. But Wilson says there is a fundamental problem. Humans are the only one of the eusocial species that has evolved to believe we need an enemy for the tribe to survive. Where there is no enemy we create one. If we do not reverse that trend, Wilson believes it could spell the end of the species and the planet.

This need to create enemies where none exist is one of the great crises of modern religion. We shake our heads as Shiites and Sunnis wipe each other out with abandon, but turn a blind eye to Christians who figuratively do the same. We claim our exclusionary stance is based on scripture, but on closer examination it appears more often based on isolationism.

A good-hearted Evangelical recently asked how I could be opposed to pedophilia but supportive of LGBT relationships. I have been asked that question on several occasions.  While this thoughtful and gracious person’s question was more nuanced than others, I still had the same response.  Pedophiles harm innocent children, always, while LGBT people do not.  LGBT can indeed misuse sex in the same way straight people can misuse sex, but it is not an inherent part of being in a gay relationship any more than it is an inherent part of being in a straight relationship.

Many critics of marriage equality have not had contact with people in healthy LGBT relationships.  If you have no contact with LGBT individuals it is easy to develop straw people, predators who are a threat to American society. You create reasons to hate the people you believe the apostle Paul writes against in the first chapter of his letter to the church at Rome. “That’s a pretty nasty group he identifies” you say, “and it includes homosexuals. So they must be predators or something pretty awful.” The raw facts, of course, are LGBT folks are pretty normal. Spend some time with us. It will become obvious.

I preached at my church last Sunday (highlandschurchdenver.org.) Highlands is six years old with about 850 attendees. When you look over the audience, some 40 percent of whom are LGBT, you are struck by absolutely nothing except their eagerness to hear the Gospel. Highlands is an ordinary group of moms, dads, executives, school principals, teachers, psychotherapists and others who laugh at the same jokes you do, cry at the same movies you watch, and want to be a part of the ministry of reconciling the creation to the creator, just as you do.

I do not want to have any more debates with Evangelicals about LGBT issues. I just want them to come to my church every Sunday for a year and see if they hold the same theology at the end of that year that they held at the beginning. Proximity enhances understanding.

Unfortunately that is not likely to happen, as the Evangelical subculture is becoming more and more of an isolated ghetto. As it withdraws from culture its influence is diminished. For instance, the Evangelical world is behind many of the laws recently introduced to deny basic rights to transgender people. But only a handful of those laws stand a chance of being passed. The broader culture has moved on. Yet angry Evangelicals remain locked in their ideological fortresses determined to create enemies where they simply do not exist.

No wonder more and more Americans are religiously unaffiliated. We do not need fear and isolationism.  We do not need tribes creating enemies where none exist. We do need tribes of trust who realize we are in this together. We need communities of faith in which the religiously unaffiliated feel at home. We need hope.

6 thoughts on “Where There Is No Enemy, We Create One

  1. Once again, thank you Paula.

    I have to say I’ve heard the ‘homosexuality leads to pedophilia’ argument from church leaders and it’s rubbish. It’s equivalent to saying ‘heterosexuality leads to rape’. There just isn’t any correlation.

    I am so glad you are preaching. I am so glad you’ve found a home church. I’m trying to figure out how I can get out there. I’m on a ‘Research and Learning’ tour currently as part of my MDiv – going to churches and learning from people who are doing what I want to do, which is to plant a church that is welcoming to all people. I am so inspired by you, by the wisdom you have in this area and by your steadfast conviction. Yours is such an important voice in today’s church and I thank you profusely for using it. You encourage me to use mine, to keep going for what God has placed in my heart. Thank you.


  2. Thanks for your post, Paula. This is a general topic you and I have discussed many times before. Although I always chuckle at studies designed to tell us what’s going on, while in the process of the writing/publishing/releasing the information, so much time has passed that the study is more informative as historical narrative than anything else.

    I started my exit from religion and the church (as a primary proponent of religion) in the early 2000’s. At the time, ALL of our friends looked at us like “what’s wrong with them, they certainly must be falling away from the Lord, and on and on”. Actually, Amos 5 gives a pretty clear mandate about religion. And guess what, it didn’t take long to realize it was much easier to answer the question vaguely so as to avoid a meaningless and aggravating discussion. Kind of like you not wanting to debate the LGBT issue anymore with evangelicals.

    I also am not blind to the obvious parallel happening between the church and politics in this regard: Many of us no longer trust the establishment, believe its interpretation of this world we live in, and we question the interpretation that has been traditionally accepted for both the Bible and the Constitution, although both have different contexts. But in the manner in which they guide our American lives, I would argue that there is a strong parallel movement that has been happening for some time away from the traditional interpretation of each, but this leads to an entirely different subject.. So, to define this as purely an Evangelical phenomenon would miss the greater point. As this early election cycle is showing us, Evangelicals are not necessarily some monolithic group as was previously thought by marketers and pollsters. Our country, if not the world, is in a tremendous “swing” right now and it didn’t start in 2007 but rather some years earlier.

    We are all wanting to find a new stable place on which to stand to live life and to understand who we are. When frustration increases, so does the tension and groups of people who feel disenfranchised will either walk away or they will eventually stand up. Years of walking away didn’t help, so now there is a standing up….a movement away from and towards something new. I lived through this in the 60’s and early 70’s. I think we called it a revolution then which was lived out on the streets, on college campuses, in the art and music, AND in the church. In college my church met at the University of Minnesota, and we all sat on the floor to listen to Reverend O’Neal preach and teach like we hadn’t heard before. It ignited us to follow Jesus, not tradition! Today it is being lived out in media; social media, mass media, and all forms. It’s a tool which drastically changes the dynamic of the revolution. But, thank God it is happening again today in the lives of millions of Christians, Boomers and Echo Boomers/Millennials who have done it rather quietly by simply choosing to “do life together with people they know and love”. Yikes, sounds like a real church to me….without requiring salaried leadership, building expenses and debt, and yet God can actually work through this in spite of the dressing we have wanted to put on this for years. People who make their living in religion, you might want to rethink your mission slightly, just like people in the music business have had to do since 1999! (Just to avoid attacks, let me say that I believe there are churches that are doing a great work, like Highlands, and so my accusation is generalized for the purpose of making these comments in a broader context.)

    So, whether standing on an “issue” that brings acceptance and a greater comfort to the celebrating and growing in our walk with God (much like you have found) or just for the “rest of us” who similarly have a passion for living life and knowing God but have searched in a new place for that same acceptance and greater comfort…we are in this together. When you look at it in this regard, there is a greater unity that automatically and authentically translates into our hearts and lives. Yes, some have to create an enemy in this, but I might argue that it is only those who have not yet fully moved on from the “old” to the “new” that have a greater need to identify an enemy. When I am comfortable in my skin, comfortable in who I am in front of my Creator both subjectively and objectively as shown in the scriptures and through its proper interpretation, who can be my enemy? It takes a while to get there (do we ever get there?), thus the observation made by Mr. Wilson that in practicality and observation is true, but does not need to be what we accept.

    Finally, I love your phrase: “Proximity enhances understanding”. Oh so very true! I blogged on this several months ago…that we tend to formulate opinions from an arms length. Get to know someone different than you and you may discover they are not the stereotype that you have believed! And yes, when in Denver, I will definitely want to visit Highlands! Thanks, Paula.

    P.S. I miss our long, late-night conversations that we had the privilege of engaging in for a period of time. I will always cherish them in my memories.



  3. That congregational melting pot you describe should be a stew for a year including all manners of people who have trouble appreciating and mingling with others “different” than their own group, with a clause that allows the stew to meld for another year, if desired. I think that we would find that within each group that tends to isolate and throw stones at others, we might find folks with whom we’d like to have coffee and others we would not in similar portions. That first chapter of Romans is used to keep our distance from others “different” than we are too freely.


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