Friday, December 01, 2006

Ted Haggard's "Sin"

Ted Haggard's "Sin"-- Jon Pahl
Now that some of the dust has settled from the unfortunate fall of evangelical leader Ted Haggard -- who has confessed to being a "sinner" to his congregation -- we can achieve some longer-range perspective on what it all means.
I agree with Martin Marty that Rev. Haggard, along with his family and all those involved in this scandal, deserves compassion, and one wishes him peace (see "Considering Ted Haggard's Plight," Sightings, November 6). But Haggard's letter to his church reveals a truncated understanding of sin and a failure to recognize how the movement he led as President of the National Association of Evangelicals is in part responsible for his plight.
Like most evangelicals, Haggard is the theological heir of Saint Augustine, finding sin in pride and lust. Unlike Augustine, however, Haggard sees pride and lust as personal attributes. "I alone am responsible," he asserts in his letter. "I created this entire situation," he reiterates. And yet a third time he says, "It was created 100 percent by me."
Augustine has a more sophisticated understanding of the origins of sinful desire. In his Confessions, he reveals how sin arises from within a social nexus. In the famous account in Book 2, he describes stealing a bunch of pears with a gang of his friends. He did this not because he was hungry, but because it was transgressive. He and his friends constructed a foul desire and then he acted on it.
A similar dynamic can be observed among many conservative evangelicals with regard to homosexuality. By targeting gay sex as "sin," the religious right has mobilized "values voters." But by scapegoating homosexuality, they draw attention to it as "temptation." As Haggard puts it: "There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life." It is as if the religious right's culture war has played out in Ted Haggard's soul. As an individual willing to carry the blame as a "sinner," he acted out the scapegoating that has in part organized power for the movement he led.
In its mild form, this scapegoating of homosexuals has been expressed in "Defense of Marriage" laws, one of which passed in the recent elections in Colorado. Haggard was a vocal supporter of these laws. Such tension between his public person and his private behavior must have been excruciating. A more extreme form of this logic has led to movements like that of the Rev. Fred Phelps's "God Hates Fags" campaign. Passion for "purity" against homosexual desire has been used to rally evangelical righteousness, and to round up voters.
Consequently, those who feel homosexual desire and who are also persuaded by the logic of a Phelps will likely bear a degree of self-hatred that leads to isolation and repression. Haggard would appear to be in such a position. "For extended periods of time," Haggard writes, "I would enjoy victory and rejoice in freedom. Then, from time to time, the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach."
But what Haggard does not seem to recognize, as Augustine did, is how his desires were in part the result of what he believed and taught. Augustine demonstrates that a dirty desire is desirable precisely because it is dirty. Similarly, Haggard, I believe, was actually possessed by the social constructions of the very movement he led. He suggests as much when he reveals that "when I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me." But a problem can only dominate one in this way when it is constructed as a problem. If, say, gay sex were considered good within a committed, loving, and publicly recognized relationship, it would not pose a moral threat.
According to Augustine, an individual either participates in God, who is gracious and life-fulfilling love, or one falls into lust, which is prideful assertion of one's desires to dominate. The religious right has had plenty of experience with domination lately. It is more than a little disturbing, then, that Haggard, in his letter, imagines that he will be "healed" when his "sins" are "dealt with harshly," and when, with the "oversight" of leading anti-gay pastors Dr. James Dobson, Jack Hayford, and Tommy Barnett, he is "disciplined." (Dobson has since withdrawn from the counseling team.)
It is unlikely that those in this group will actually confess their collective responsibility for Haggard's sins. To do so, they would have to acknowledge the systemic violence they have accepted and promoted by scapegoating homosexuals. Policies produce practices, and when a taboo is constructed, it invariably becomes a temptation.
Prior to his fall, Haggard had been an admirably clear voice for broadening evangelical activism to include support for environmental causes and attention to poverty as a religious issue. One might now hope that evangelicals and others continue to learn through his example -- by recognizing with Augustine how desire is rooted in a social nexus.

Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and a Fellow in the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.


Anonymous said...

Oh well, this is what is taught at our "Lutheran" seminaries. Interesting that he choses Augustine to make the argument for the "goodness" of same-sex sex. Augustine would be appalled. Also sad that he cannot pray that healing will indeed come to this man.

Peace in the Lord!
Rob Buechler

Anonymous said...

I would like to take another crack at this.

It seems that Jon is making the case that instead of the Church reaching out to Mr. Haggard with forgiveness and offering help in regeneration; the best medicine for what ails Mr. Haggard is to bless his sin. After all, what the orthodox call sins are only social constructs that can be "unsinned" by arrival at concensus.

So Jon would have Mr. Haggard repent of his repentance, and return to the sin of his youth and embrace it as God's good intent for him.

How such a man (Jon) continues to teach at a supposedly Christian seminary is beyond me.

I pray Mr. Haggard will do the exact opposite of what Jon prescribes.

Peace in the Lord!
Rob Buechler

Ryan Schwarz said...

This fellow also seems to say quite clearly that temptation, the impulse to sin, is only the result of the fact that something is deemed a sin. Helloooo Mr. Professor. Old Adam? The Fall? Ring any bells? Not even a vague recollection?

Ryan Schwarz

Anonymous said...

Ryan wrote in part: "Old Adam? The Fall? Ring any bells? Not even a vague recollection?"

Good points. Problem I see in the leadership of the ELCA is that too many don't even believe in original sin, which is ultimately what Ryan is describing as lacking in Jon's argumentation. I know pastor's in my conference who laugh at the very notion of there being anything "real" about original sin.

Odd, since Jon tries to use Augustine yet Augustine very much believes in original sin, and therefore the complete depravity of all impulses and human nature, which therefore needs the redemption of Jesus Christ.

Peace in the Lord!
Rob Buechler

Anonymous said...

I may be asking for it since I apparently don't share the same views as most other writers here, but I would be intrested in the response. As a Christian, I find a lot of the higher theological debates intresting on an intellectual level, since both sides can (and do) eventually retreat to different interpretations of the same scriptures. But that leaves the question essentially unresolved. What I can't get past as a Christian is the basic tenet of not being unkind to a fellow human being and the fact that so much of the opposition to gay and lesbian people seems to fly in the face of that basic rule. Other people's acts, either sinful or not, are not mine to judge. Nor are mine to be judged by them. The highest laws are love thy neighbor, and believe in God. I just don't see how that turns into such a big row over something so unimportant in the big picture. There are so many more important things to worry about, in my humble opinion, that it saddens me to see God's childen squabbling over such unimportant things instead of caring for each other, helping those in need, and working for peace instead of perpetuating conflict.

Signed, I just don't see the problem.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous wrote: "I just don't see how that turns into such a big row over something so unimportant in the big picture. "

Answer: "Do not be decieved. Neither the sexual immoral,nor the adulterer,nor the idolater, nor the male prostitute, nor the homosexual offender, nor the greedy,nor the drunkard...shall have any inheritance in the kingdom of God." This is from Saint Paul 1 Cor. 6:9ff

Sounds like a big issue to me, having eternal consequences.

There is a big difference between making moral/salvific judgments...something we are all called to do as Christians (see Matthew 18 as well as other texts...especially the power of the keys) and judging someone as completely outside God's capacity or desire to save. The former we must do. That latter (consigning someone to hell) we must not.

Peace in the Lord!
Rob Buechler

The good ship ELCA...

The good ship ELCA...
Or the Shellfish blog...