Home Articles posted by Ashleigh Bailey

Oprah Chai

I am looking across the room at an “Oprah Chai” ad, and I must admit I am extremely curious to know what “Oprah Chai” tastes like.  I like chai, and I find it a tad amusingly ridiculous that Starbucks currently has an “Oprah” drink, whatever that is even supposed to mean.  But I stubbornly refuse to try it.

I stubbornly refuse to try it because these stupid promotional charity things are utter bullshit.  How rich is Oprah?  How rich is Starbucks?  If either of them want to do some extra good in the world, they can take it out of their own pocket, not mine.  And it is obviously coming from my pocket, as the donation per cup is only $0.25—and what do you know?  The drink itself costs $0.20-$0.40 more than a normal chai!  Ok, maybe there is something truly special about it which makes it a cent pricier to produce…  But seriously, what kind of idiots do they take us to be?

I’m sick of “buy X and we’ll donate Y” campaigns.  Donate a flat % of your sales or a flat % of your profits or give to random causes irregularly if you please.  And sure, you can even brag about it a bit.  It’s sort of cheap if your supply chains aren’t completely ethically sourced, but I suppose an ounce of good is better than none at all.  But don’t pretend your ability to give rides on whether I’m willing to buy something special for your mission of the day.  Buying things enriches other people—and to some extent, helps our economy generally—but it is not a good way to support a cause.  If you want to help people, donate the $3 or $5 or $20 you were going to spend on something you didn’t need but wanted to buy to feel like a better person.

If there’s no easy way around it, I’m not going to stand firm in some boycott against these charity products, but I think there is something useful about avoiding them when we can.  It helps keep us from the delusion that consumerism is somehow charitable, and it helps also squash the desires of corporate executives, who would love all the PR and good feelings that come from tossing pennies at problems and thinking that we’re “all in this together” or something.  No, you and your customers couldn’t be more different in their economic situations and ability to make a difference.  While it’s true that working together ordinary people can still do great things, it is a disgusting for corporate America to solicit donations from their customers via these products.    Quit acting like you need our help to get something done.  Make your own change without me, and I’ll make mine without you. And if you really want to rock the world, start with your salary.  Maybe when the situation is a little more equitable we can finally be true partners in fixing our world’s problems.

The Mainline Boogieman

One of the hardest things about not identifying as evangelical anymore is getting over the “mainline boogieman.”  I have a lot more experience with mainline Christianity than many former evangelicals.  I went to a PCUSA church for several years in elementary school and since I graduated from college, my mom returned to a PCUSA congregation.  I realize this is not the strongest connection, but for an evangelical it’s not bad.  Still, mainline Christianity feels foreign.  I feel like an outsider at best, and some days I think I’m still heresy-hunting.

Having been a part of churches and schools of many denominations, I have always been an advocate for ecumenism.  I remember realizing for the first time while attending a fundamentalist Baptist middle school that there were some conservative Protestants who did not believe Catholics were “real Christians.”  This was bizarre and offensive to me, as I had previously attended a Catholic school and had Catholic friends.  In college, I think a lot of my evangelical friends were proud that they understood “some” Catholics could be Christian.  (Maybe even most?  How progressive!)  Mainliners, on the other hand, were often completely written off.

While I was in InterVarsity, we had a pastor from an SBC/Acts 29 church speak nearly every semester, but it was extremely rare to have a mainline pastor.  There were rumors that the [mainline] churches on Franklin St. were all mean to us and wouldn’t let us use their facilities, save the Episcopal Church, where we did hold a 24/7 prayer event one year.  We did all know evangelicals who attended more moderate mainline churches, but they were seen as the faithful minority within denominations which were dying both spiritually and numerically.  Perhaps the most telling evidence of this was that there were two separate campus ministers’ associations.  I’ve heard that prior to conservative SBCers’ taking control of the Baptist campus ministry, it was the one organization which maintained membership in both groups.  Everyone else picked sides.  I’m sure some of it was due to the time commitment, but I could never quite wrap my mind around how dangerous it would be to build friendships and a cooperative spirit with those who were a bit more liberal.  It made me frustrated and sad.

And yet…

Even though I’ve never thought it was appropriate to write-off mainliners’ Christianity, I feel nervous to be left with mainline Protestantism as an ex-evangelical.  And I think that has less to do with the mainline church itself and more to do with evangelicals’ portray of it as barely Christian.  To be sure, there are some extreme liberal edges to the mainline church, but from how some evangelicals talk, you’d think a typical Sunday school class at a mainline church involves an orgy or that a typical mainline service includes prayers to Krishna or that a typical mainline pastor is an actually a closet atheist.  In reality, some (and truly not all…) mainline churches might be a bit more accepting of gay people or a bit more lenient toward sex before marriage, might be a little more inclusive in their understanding of salvation and a bit more open about the role of doubt in spirituality.  Yes, this is different from what you might be used to, but for goodness sakes, the level of demonization perpetuated by evangelicals is just ridiculous.

Still, I’ve been conditioned to expect the outlandish.  And I have trouble giving up that expectation because WHAT IF.  WHAT IF they’re right?  WHAT IF those other people aren’t Christians at all?  Then what?  How do I be Christian if I can’t live with the evangelical version of Christianity but mainline “Christianity” does not deserve the label?  I don’t truly believe this is the case.  I think mainline Christianity is diverse has members both more conservative and more liberal than I am.  But that doesn’t extinguish the fears evangelicalism breeds in its young.

Some days I’m not afraid at all about theology, but some of those days I’m still afraid about fitting in.  I know many mainliners have attended a few churches in the same denomination their entire lives. They often identify more as “Lutheran” or “Methodist,” whereas many evangelicals identify as “evangelical” first and foremost.  More like the latter, I do not have lifelong denominational ties, and if I end up anything in particular, it will be by choice, not birth.  I’m not sure, but I think a lot of former evangelicals are in the same boat, and it makes it harder to find a new home.  I wonder to myself, is this why I know more evangelicals who ceased to be Christian than who decided to be mainline Christians?  I don’t know.

Regardless, I think mainline churches (and Catholic and Orthodox churches, for that matter) have a unique opportunity as younger people leave evangelicalism in droves.  This is their chance to say, “You can still be Christian.  We have been doing faith differently for a long time now.  You can still have a spiritual home.  It doesn’t have to be with us, but let us help you on your journey however we can.”  I hope that slowly but surely an intentional outreach would lay the “mainline boogieman” to rest and allow ex-evangelicals to see Christianity as more than the all-or-nothing faith of fundamentalism.

Power in American Evangelicalism (i.e., why I’ve given up)

Published on April 6, 2014, by in Life.

Earlier this week when Jeremiah and I were talking again about World Vision, I told him I felt guilty for not being more upset on behalf of the children overseas who will suffer because of evangelicals’ obsession with homosexuality.  It seems everyone has been eager to discuss the final count and discuss how evil their former sponsors are.  But I feel numb. Jeremiah told me this probably just goes to show how cynical I already was towards evangelicalism—that even this is not a surprise to me—and I think he is right.

What has phased me, though, is further—and I think irrefutable—evidence of the sort of twisted power dynamics which pollute evangelical culture and its institutions.  In a nutshell, you gain power in evangelicalism through (1) saying the right things/otherwise keeping up appearances, (2) shady (often dictatorial) politics, and (3) using money and networking to your advantage.  All in all, it seems like a pretty corrupt, disgusting system if you ask me.

I’ve been making these sorts of observations for years:

  • Conservatives took over the SBC by force: taking over boards, systematically disenfranchises moderate churches, etc. (#2 & #3).
  • Evangelical colleges and seminaries keep rewriting doctrinal statements to push out certain faculty, typically in response to pressure from donors (#1, #2, & #3)
  • Emotionally abusive spouses and parents are totally under the radar at most churches, as long as they seem like “a really nice guy [or lady] that loves the Lord!” at church, and may even take on leadership roles (small group leading, being a deacon or elder, pastoring, missionary, etc.) while their families suffer (#1).
  • You can plagiarize a book as long as you say you’re sorry (#1)—and no, we’re not just talking about Mark Driscoll here.  I know of another, which was fixed before publication.  I cried when I found out.  I was so angered by this Christian leader’s dishonesty and the fact that he would inevitably get away with it because his books sell well (#3).
  • The teens and young adults encouraged to pursue ministry are the ones who have all the right answers—including appearing “teachable” (#1).  Straying from your mentors’ views or instructions may cause you to lose your position, and therefore also those who would “endorse” you for ministry in the future.  This continues to apply once you are in an “entry level” ministry position.  Your career is potentially at stake, so you basically can’t make decisions for yourself unless you’re already top dog (#2).
  • Evangelicals love to point out other people’s sins.  But if you are the person pointing out the wrong person’s sin or the wrong sort of sin, or maybe even just if you are the wrong person to point it out, you will be silenced, sometimes forcefully (#2).  So you better keep your mouth shut and play along (#1).  (This applies to so many things, but I’ve especially seen it when people try to address concerns wish racism, sexism, abuse, etc.)
  • World Vision said that government dollars did not dictate their decisions in any way… but clearly, evangelical dollars do (#2 & #3).

I’m sure there are other—some probably better—examples of these sorts of problems, and without more objective research I may not be able to convince you of any of this.  And that’s fine.  I don’t need to convince you; I’m only reporting on what I’ve seen.  But if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.

For years I wanted to think this was just the dark side of evangelicalism.  I still believe there are individual evangelicals, individual evangelical churches and organizations, etc. which are not dominated by these disturbing trends.  But I have recently stopped hoping that evangelicalism could be changed for the better in almost any realm for any extended period of time.  There will be pockets of progress, but I believe these lights will always be extinguished by the thorough corruption of the organizations and institutions which hold the power to shape evangelicalism—the major denominations, many non-profits, the “voices” that get airtime, etc.  Even organizations which I believe do net good like World Vision are clearly subject to these forces.  They cannot make their own decisions.  They are owned by those who will stop at nothing to get their way.

That is why I have lost hope for evangelicalism.  Not for individual evangelicals but for evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism cannot be saved.  I cannot change it.  Even we—working together—cannot change it.  And the reason we cannot is that the way to power in this culture is a path we would never feel comfortable taking.  And those who have already taken it will stop at nothing to maintain their dominance.  There is no room for anyone who thinks differently.  Machiavellian thinking permits any sort of violent power grab that is “for truth.”    And the money and networks that control things now are not going to make room for anyone else at the table.  If your book makes money, it will be published, even if your theology is crap or your own personal ethics would disgust any atheist.  You can decide any policy if you ask donors to hold a board at gunpoint.  You can have an army at your command if you are one of a few charismatic leaders:  Just upload an impassioned YouTube sermon or an angry tweet.  This movement is not changing because these people will not let it.  It is absolutely fruitless to try.

Some friends have seemed a bit disturbed by the fact that I’m “done” with evangelicalism.  These sorts of declarations make people anxious.  Hell, they make me anxious.  But many of these same friends are absolutely on the same page as I am with regards to the SBC/CBF split, and I think that means we both recognize that some things are impossible to save.  And I think evangelicalism has reached that point.  It does not mean that evangelicalism didn’t once have the potential to go in a different direction or that it is fair for “them” to get a name you liked or the organizations you were a part of.  But you know what?  At some point, it is not worth fighting.

If you still have hope, stay in the fight.  By all means, make evangelicalism better.  You have my full support.  But I am weary.  I feel pushed to the margins of evangelicalism and do not know that I will ever again have a voice for change.  In the meantime, I feel the need to remove myself from an environment which has—for a few years now—felt toxic to my faith.  I need to experience God somewhere else, because I do not see much of him here.  I need a place where I feel comfortable raising my son.  I need a place where people are interested in learning and growing and questioning and do not think they are the only ones who know God or that they will ever know him so perfectly that they could not need to reexamine an issue.  I need a community that welcomes me, not one which declares me to be outside the bounds of their club, if not outside the bounds of orthodoxy.

I understand religious identity is very personal and often takes a great deal of thinking to change, and this is ok.  If you are staying, I wish you well and hope we will remain allies, even as we work in different “neighborhoods” of Christianity.  And if you’re coming with me, I’m glad.  I could use a few friends on this journey!  I would love to hear more about where you’re at right now, if you’re willing to share.


Last Wednesday, when I heard that World Vision had reversed its decision on gay employees, I was extremely angry for an hour.  After that, it felt more like someone had died.  I spent dinner feeling distracted and confused.  When Jeremiah went out to do school work at a coffee shop, I sat in our black leather recliner, ate gelato, mindlessly surfing the web and feeling simultaneously heartbroken and numb.  Finally, after the coffee shop closed, Jeremiah was back trying to do more work while I loaded the dishwasher.  As I finished up and thought I was on my way to bed, we returned to our piecemeal dinner conversation (the only sort of conversation you have with a toddler competing for your attention).  Soon what was supposed to be another fives minutes dissecting what had happened and feeling frustrated together turned into at least a half hour—I honestly lost track—of impassioned sharing and unavoidable tears.

There was something especially powerful about having shared something of my personal struggles with InterVarsity on our blog just a few days before.  I had only so recently gathered the courage to openly express some of the pain and confusion I already felt regarding my place in evangelicalism.  When World Vision first announced their new policy, it felt almost providential in timing.  I don’t really believe God influences the decisions of billion dollar charities so that they might coincide with my personal reflections, but that doesn’t change my perception of some special ray of hope meant for me.  As I told Jeremiah, I had been encouraged that “maybe the world isn’t such a terrible place after all.”  And since World Vision even took the specific position on homosexuality that I tried to take a little over a year ago—that ecumenical organizations should let this be something up churches and individuals to figure out for themselves—I felt like all of a sudden I had a friend on my team.

All of this personal significance did not vanish when their decision was reversed but merely took on new meaning.  I was right the first time.  I was alone in my crazy desire to be ecumenical, and the world—at least the evangelical world—was as shitty a place as it had been feeling recently.  Finally, after Jeremiah and I went back and forth, expressing our thoughts and feelings about the happenings of the last couple days, I felt safe enough to express what seemed like a rather scary thought: I didn’t think I could do “this” anymore.  I didn’t think I could hold out hope for evangelicalism any longer.  I thought I might be done.  The truth was, I told him, “Evangelicalism is killing my faith.”

I’ve never been a “good” evangelical.  I was not really exposed to evangelical culture until junior high when some family friends introduced us to the Newsboys, Point of Grace, Adventures in Oddessey, and Brio magazine.  At that point in my life, I had attended Catholic, public, and fundamentalist Baptist schools (as well as a year of homeschooling) and had spent most of my time in Missouri Synod Lutheran and PC(USA) churches.  The language of my KJV-only, skirt-wearing, alcohol-condemning middle school was foreign to me.  I hadn’t grown up in churches which emphasized conversion, I knew a different set of hymns, and I wasn’t used to all of this talk of “witnessing” or daily devotions.  However, my parents discovered theological disagreements with fellow Presbyterian congregants, and then we moved.  My adolescence ended up revolving around churches and schools somewhere in the middle between the PC(USA) and General Association of Regular Baptists.  I embraced that culture for about half of high school, and then I tired of it.

By the time I went to college, I had become an egalitarian, had grown impatient with the way rich people ran our non-denominational mega-church, and was sick  of evangelical anti-intellectualism.  I started calling myself an “evangelical who doesn’t like other evangelicals.”  I agreed with most major theological points, but I had a few significant disagreements on certain issues, as well as a lot of frustration with the subculture.  In college, I was not told I had to love cheesey Christian bookstores or give up my feminism, but I was strongly encouraged not to give up on evangelicalism, especially when I began to also explore other social justice issues and grew increasingly impatient with white evangelicals.   I set aside my differences and was incredibly involved with InterVarsity during college, where I met a few students with whom I shared much common ground but a lot more with whom I didn’t.  Still, I knew there were evangelicals who cared about the things I cared about—that’s why InterVarsity encouraged students to read and think, why we did urban ministry, why organizations like Christians for Biblical Equality and Evangelicals for Social Action existed.

When I went to Fuller Seminary, Richard Mouw (then President) encouraged students to see the word as redeemable, and at Fuller I saw what I still consider to be the best of evangelicalism.  It is ethnically diverse, fully supportive of women, ecumenical, and decidedly not inerrantist.  It is perhaps the best embodiment of the “postconservative” movement.  And like many postconservatives, it still identifies as evangelical.  So I could, too, right?  Maybe I was no longer a foundationalist or a Platonic dualist.  Maybe I was an annihilationist, an inclusivist, an evolutionist… but plenty of people were at Fuller, as were other postconservative evangelical scholars, so it would be premature and unnecessary to reject the evangelical label.

Several things have transpired since then which have caused me to wrestle with that label anyway, and I hope to explore several of them here during the coming days and weeks.

For now, it will suffice to say that I’m done.  I am fluctuating between feeling giddily free, in mourning, relieved, and scared, but I don’t think there is realistically any going back at this point.  I am done with calling myself an evangelical, not due to a single event or how anyone else is responding to it, but rather because I have finally been pushed over the edge.  This was not a sudden death.  Rather, I think my evangelical identity has been on life support for some time.  The World Vision fiasco finally made me brave enough to pull the plug and face this loss.


Two days ago I felt hopeful for evangelicalism for the first time in over a year.  Today, I was truly incredulous to hear that World Vision had reversed its decision to hire married gay Christians.

What I find particularly frustrating is the fact that in their original announcement, CEO Richards Stearns said that government money would never be the deciding factor in these sorts of decisions:

“If the U.S. government ever requires us to give up our religious hiring rights in exchange for grants, we would walk away from U.S. grants. World Vision’s ministry is not for sale.” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/world-vision-why-hiring-gay-christians-same-sex-marriage.html?paging=off)

But World Vision apparently is for sale to the right buyer.  And when conservatives started to pull their money, World Vision backpedaled.

Now they’re asking for “forgiveness” and implying their original decision was sinful:

“Yes, we will certainly defer on many issues that are not so central to our understanding of the Christian faith,” he said. “But on the authority of Scripture in our organization’s work [and employee conduct] … and on marriage as an institution ordained by God between a man and a woman—those are age-old and fundamental Christian beliefs. We cannot defer on things that are that central to the faith.” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/world-vision-reverses-decision-gay-same-sex-marriage.html)

Central to the faith?  Overnight you changed your mind from thinking this was a nonessential issue on which Christians disagree to something “central to the faith”?

And here’s an apology to conservatives.  What about an apology to all of the progressive Christians who felt happy to be included two days ago and now feel cast out?  What about all of the gay Christians who are once again having to go through a painful rejection?  Any word to them?  Any sorrow about their pain?

I don’t think those who oppose this reversal should withdraw their support from World Vision, but I’m incredibly disappointed.

Gay Marriage and Consistent Ecumenism

When I was in college, I had a chat with the Blue Ridge Regional Director for InterVarsity—a man I like and respect a great deal—about the differences between InterVarsity’s stance on racial issues and stance on women.  InterVarsity likes to present itself as being pro-social-justice, so at points during my time on InterVarsity leadership, I felt disappointed by InterVarsity’s wishy-washiness over women in ministry.

InterVarsity does a lot for women.  At the 2006 Urbana I attended, participants all received a copy of the TNIV so that everyone would be able to use the same version of the Bible in discussions at the conference—a version which just happened to be controversially “gender-neutral”/”gender accurate” (depending on who you talk to) in its language.  Christians for Biblical Equality hosted seminars.  Women were featured as plenary speakers and worship leaders.  And in local chapters, female students and staff lead ministry without gender-based restrictions, all over the country.  I know the effect one many (though certainly not all) students is to normalize women’s presence in ministry.  But it still did not feel like enough.  I wholeheartedly supported InterVarsity’s enthusiasm about multiethnicity, fighting poverty, and opposing injustices like modern-day slavery.  But I still wondered, why are my issues not important?

The argument I heard from our regional director, however, was that InterVarsity was a parachurch ministry, not a church.  It wanted to leave controversial issues like gender roles to churches to decide.  While the regional director himself was very involved in supporting the cause of women in his local church, he did not think it was InterVarsity’s place to take a stand on this issue.  And yet InterVarsity has been taking a progressively louder and firmer stand on against gay marriage over the past several years.  I thought we left those sorts of things up to churches to decide?

That’s why I’m very proud of World Vision today.  In order to maintain an open door towards those from more progressive Christian denominations which are celebrating gay unions (many now legal in their respective states), World Vision is ending discrimination toward individuals in same-sex marriages.  Nobody is saying anybody has to accept more liberal views of gay marriage—but World Vision is also no longer stating via their policies that one cannot be Christian and hold such views.  There is nothing illegitimate about a non-profit taking stances on more “minor” issues, of course—but as a self-identified ecumenical organization, they have decided including members of churches like the PCUSA, ELCA, and the Episcopal Church is important.  Just as they don’t take a stand on baptism, women in ministry, or a host of other theological issues, they are leaving this matter up to individuals in their local churches and denominations.

And you know what?  I could complain about World Vision’s lack of a formal stance in favor of women in ministry, much as I did InterVarsity’s.  But I really don’t find myself caring.  Because this is consistent.  And there is something very admirable about that.  I would like to challenge other organizations—including InterVarsity—to reconsider their stance.  Are you a smaller interest-based organization (like Christians for Biblical Equality, for ex.)?  Or are you trying to include Christians in all their diversity?  If you want to be ecumenical, why is gay marriage the one thing you can’t get over?  I hope others will soon be following World Vision’s lead.

My Complicated (and Painful) Relationship with InterVarsity

When I arrived at Fuller, I looked back on my time in InterVarsity with nostalgia.  Now, nearly six years later, I look back with pain.

Pain because even though I was supported in exploring my beliefs, there were some instances in which I still experienced anti-intellectualism which shamed me for my natural approach to God.  Pain because while moderates were welcomed, my theology has continued to subtly change in ways that now make me question certain approaches to ministry.  Pain because as a leader I actively participated in the marginalization of LGBT Christians because I was afraid to admit my own theological uncertainties and risk losing my leadership position—a choice I now see as cowardly and selfish.  Pain because I cared so much about pleasing others that I “heard from God” in ways that I now don’t believe were authentic—making it harder to know how to listen to God (vs. myself, peers, or authority figures) today.

Perhaps most of all, pain because despite certain ways in which I had changed, I still saw my time in InterVarsity as overwhelmingly positive and thought I could contribute positively to staff.  But broad theological agreement was not enough to be welcomed back.  Suddenly I, who had been practically groomed to join staff while a student, was shut out because I felt uncomfortable with contact evangelism and because I would much rather support a gay student in joining an open & affirming church than see them abandon their faith.  (And yes, the former was as important as the latter—in the case of the region overseeing Texas, it was determined I was not a good fit before we even got to talk about sexuality.)

I know InterVarsity was so great for me in so many ways and so wonderful for so many friends.  Yet now, having been rejected, I don’t feel I can logically give money to support its work—despite all it does to help evangelicals think about issues like women in ministry, ethnic reconciliation, and social justice.  It is now awkward to talk with IV alumni who remember me as “majoring” in InterVarsity and complicated to explain why my feelings toward it are now so complex.  Worst of all, I had made InterVarsity out in my mind to be the corner of evangelicalism  in which I fit.  For the past year, I have felt without a place to call home.  Just a few months after writing, “Why I’m Still Evangelical” for a progressive Christian blog, I was forced to ask, “What is the point?”  If now Fuller is the only circle of evangelicalism to which I still feel connected, does that even count?  If I no longer have any evangelical contexts in which I would be eligible for ministry, how is it a useful label for me?

Transition is hard.  Redefinition is hard.  I still haven’t figured out where I fit.  I haven’t figured out if I have any reason left to pursue ministry of any sort or if I was misguided to begin with.  I haven’t figured out what to think of seminary “ruining” me for usefulness in the context that formed me.  I haven’t figured out how to grieve.  I’m trying to at least share a piece of my story here— in hopes that it is healing for me or helpful for someone else.

Who should tithe? (If we tithe…)

I’m currently reading another Christian Smith/Michael Emerson book called Passing the Plate, which examines Christian giving from a sociological perspective.  Toward the beginning of the book, they explain that they are talking about “tithing” a lot because a 10% tithe is what most churches and denominations say they believe is appropriate.  I initially read this very skeptically.  Tithing for Jews was about the tribes with land supporting the priests who didn’t have any, as well as others who would otherwise be impoverished.  While people must donate for any non-profit to survive, tithing per se did not necessarily seem to be something which translated seamlessly into a modern Christian context.  And even if it did in large part, I felt sure most of the mainline denominations more in touch with social justice would not advocate that everyone tithe.  The appendix of the book, however, proved me very wrong.  It contains statements about giving from various churches, and I learned that many denominations which I thought recognized the importance of social justice still expect tithing of all Christians.

For the moment we can set aside the question of whether we should be talking about “tithing” per se to begin with and accept that many people use the tithe language and 10% as a standard anyway.  And if we accept tithing, I would strongly argue that tithing is not for everyone.  More than that, I would argue that we need to be extremely clear in articulating (in sermons, Sunday school, books, conversations, etc.) that tithing is not for everyone.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on who should be tithing.  I don’t know what people honestly expect.  Do they think that ALL people should be giving 10%?  I do know that the Republicans in North Carolina just changed the state income tax to be a flat rate which will raise the tax on the poor and middle class and lower the tax on the wealthy.  I don’t know if there are some in the church that would say a regressive system of giving is ideal for the church, but I certainly think that sounds upside down from Jesus’s ethics.

Growing up, I knew people who pressured their children into tithing their allowances.  These grew up into teenagers and college students who tithed their part-time earnings and then (ideally) into tithing adults.  I have some issues with the particular ways in which children are often given little choice about their religious practices, but beyond that issue, I think this is a narrative coming from an extremely privileged perspective.  It assumes that these kids can tithe from their jobs at Chick-fil-a because they have parents to support them through college  and that they will get a well-paid full-time job after college.  It is an ideal that isn’t working out for many in our economy, even those who come from wealthier families.

Now I recognize that most 16-year-olds aren’t saving for college in a disciplined fashion, and many college students have no sense of what they might need to have savings for after graduation.  However, I don’t think that changes the fact that in principle it seems wrong to encourage kids with nothing to their name to give so much of their meager earnings away.  From my perspective, those who are still finishing their education and do not have a full-time job are not people we need to be encouraging to tithe.  We should be encouraging them to save.  This doesn’t mean we can’t teach about generosity or social justice.  However, there are many ways they can contribute positively to the world around them without tithing—volunteering, picking a major that will allow them to help people, etc.  The same goes for retired people without any income besides social security or whose entire income is eaten up by living expenses such as medical care.  This doesn’t mean they can’t ever give anything monetarily, either.  I just question a high giving threshold like tithing being applied to those who don’t really have anything and who are likely to encounter financial difficulties in the near future and thus potentially become a burden on others.  If the Apostle Paul tells us to take care of own own families, is there a good reason for us to hinder those who are already dependent on us from better caring for themselves?

Moving even further from this “ideal” narrative of tithing are those who find themselves without an income or with very little income.  One of these groups is students living off of student loans, perhaps with meager work study earnings, or perhaps without.  Student loan money is meant to go towards tuition, fees, books, and living expenses for students.  I have never heard anyone in a position of authority at a church assuring students that while they are accumulating students loans that they shouldn’t be tithing.  I think this is something we need to be saying—if your current expenses are being covered by loans you should absolutely not be tithing from your part-time job, much less your loans themselves.  Similarly, if we are compassionate, those working to pay off high-interest debt from credit cards should not be tithing, in my opinion.  I know many evangelicals who aren’t nuts about credit cards (often after listening to Dave Ramsey).  If we’re going to treat credits card debt as the exploitation it is, we need to allow people to pay off their debts as quickly as possible, without pressure to tithe.  Hopefully for most people that is only a few months.  Even debts with little or no interest should potentially be taken into consideration.  I don’t want to take money from a cancer patient who is going to be paying medical bills for years, and I want them to know I don’t expect that of them.

And those who are unemployed or who rely on public assistance to get by?  We have absolutely no business asking them to tithe.  These are the people we should be helping.  I think many of them give with good hearts, but it is exploitative, in my mind, for us to talk about tithing without making this exemption very clear.  I have heard many pastors say, “If you are not a member here, don’t feel obligated to give.”  I have never in my life heard a pastor say, “If you are looking for work, don’t give right now–we want you to wait until you have a job, which will hopefully be in the next month, but we know could be much longer.  God forbid we eat away at what little savings you may have during this vulnerable time for you!”  I’ve never heard anyone teach in church, “Please don’t feel like you need to give if you are on food stamps or Medicaid!”   “Please don’t give if you participate in WIC!”  For Pete’s sake, these are the people we should be assisting with the money we’re gathering.  What sense does it make to take from them?

This is still only looking at a Western context.  What about those living on under $1 a day?  Do we really think God wants them to give 10% of that?  That is ludicrous and disgusting.

I think God only smiles on those who wish to give despite having little.  But I think he scowls at us who continue to make these people feel this is what they’re supposed to be doing.  It’s time to move beyond, “If you’re not a member.”  It’s time to add nuance to our discussions of tithing by letting others know that we will not unjustly ask them to give at a level incompatible with financial position.  And hopefully this only increases the sense of responsibility felt by those who are in a better position to give.

Avon & Evangelism

A group of Internet buddies and I happened upon the topic of multi-level marketing this past week, most of us agreeing that we hate being invited to the so-called parties at which consumer products are sold through social pressure.  I’ve only been invited to a couple (thank God!), and we have a “family policy” against buying from such companies, regardless of how much anyone else might genuinely like their products.  This is not only because they are annoying but also because we think any business endeavor that uses a pyramid scheme is disgusting and exploitative.

Anyway, it came up in this conversation how different it feels to support any other business—even the business of a friend—vs. attending one of these parties.  Buying something in any other context may be influenced by advertising, salespeople, or a host of other factors, but at least it feels somewhat like a choice.  But when a friend is selling and you are surrounded by other party-goers who are buying things… it can be hard to say no, regardless of what you would otherwise do.  Even if you end up reasonably happy with your purchase, there is an uncomfortable social pressure there which changes the dynamic of your shopping experience.

This whole discussion reminded me of something else people like to sell: Jesus.

About a year ago I started looking into the possibility of joining InterVarsity staff.  I had first applied and interviewed during my senior year of college, but I ended up walking away in order to attend seminary instead.  When we first moved back to NC, I thought it would be worth looking into again, but I couldn’t make the four-year commitment to one particular school that they wanted.  But finally last year we were looking at moving to one place for five years for Jeremiah to do a PhD.  InterVarsity was an option again, although I would have to apply in multiple regions, since we didn’t know where we’d end up until April.

However, I had changed.  I knew that I didn’t fit as seamlessly into evangelical culture anymore, and I wanted to get a feel for the regions to which I’d be applying.  I had some discussions with hiring directors in a few states, by email and over the phone, and in two of the regions, I was ultimately not well-suited because InterVarsity’s position on homosexuality in the church has solidified.  There was no longer even the wiggle room to say that my focus would be on caring for students pastorally and if that meant their being in an opening-and-affirming church rather than losing their faith, so be it.

What fascinated me, though, was that in one region, we never even got to talk about homosexuality because apparently my views on evangelism were too controversial.  I was not a good fit for IV staff, I was told, because I didn’t want to do “contact evangelism.”  And when I was talking about multi-level marketing companies this past week, I remembered that conversation.

What I said then—and I think sounds a lot like our “selling parties” discussion—is that just because you are doing evangelism one-on-one doesn’t make it “personal” in a meaningful way and quite likely will actually increase the degree of pressure the person being evangelized feels.  It doesn’t actually matter whether that person thinks they’re happy and comfortable and even decides to convert.  There is a high risk of exploiting that person’s emotions and manipulating them (we’ll hope inadvertently) into changing their beliefs.  And so to a great extent, I think at least the call-to-conversion part of evangelism is better done via institutions than people.  Better done by a minister than a friend.  It’s easy to blow off a sermon you didn’t like or a religious teacher you disagree with.  It is easier to keep your brain working when everything isn’t all tied up in your friendship as well.

The IV staff on the other end of the phone call was surprised to hear this, thinking that there was more potential for emotional manipulation in a church service type setting.  I do see his point about the potential for people to ride an emotional high from a larger group experience, particularly when the mood is set by certain music and lighting.  There is the potential there for people’s vulnerable enthusiasm to be exploited, and that’s why I disagree with the tactics of 19th century revivalism and its descendants.  But still, at the end of the day, I think it’s easier to weigh your own opinions and make your own decisions when someone you don’t know as well is addressing a crowd rather than someone who knows you encouraging you, individually, to move your life in a certain direction.

And as heretical as some would say it is, that’s where I’m at these days with regards to evangelism.  It should be true to the root in the Greek word for “good news”—something truly good and something people are free to take or leave on the basis of their assessment of its goodness.  I think we need to put less “effort” into evangelism and work at being kind and compassionate people who can articulately explain their theology to those who are curious.  So if anyone is going to be told “Now is the time for you to follow Jesus!” they’re going to be hearing that directly from God, not from me.

Unemployment “Benefits”

Because long-term unemployment insurance payments from the government ceased a few days ago, it seems fitting to add my two cents on the topic of unemployment benefits.

In the title of this post, I put “benefits” in quotation marks, because I think the attitude of many employed people toward unemployed people is one of judgment and distrust.  There is a perception that unemployed people are lazy and living on the government dime.  I think it is important that we clarify a couple of things here:

First, you cannot get rich off of unemployment.  It is based on your previous income, but there are caps in each state, between about $250-$600 a week, with $350-$450 being typical in most states.  $400 a week is less than $21,000 a year—I rest my case.

Secondly, there are still three people looking for work for every one job opening in this country.  That means it is inevitable that some people will be unemployed, even when they are great, hard-working people.

Thirdly, being unemployed is something that makes you feel ashamed and depressed.  It’s not something people do for fun.  To say people would rather receive an unemployment check than work is like saying people would rather be sick in the hospital and have their food brought to them by nurses than to cook a tasty meal at home.  It’s true that one involves more work, but it’s also infinitely more pleasant.

Lastly, not all unemployed people are even eligible for benefits, so the next time you meet someone who can’t find a job, don’t assume to know their financial situation.  Unemployment checks mean a reduced income, but for those ineligible for unemployment, there is no income.

I was one of those people who wasn’t eligible for unemployment, since I was unemployed directly after graduate school.  If I had been eligible for a low weekly amount of, say, $300 for 43 weeks (which used to be the length of benefits in North Carolina, before the law was changed this year), my family would have had an extra $13,000 to put towards health insurance, bills, and the like.

And when it comes to long-term unemployment checks, I am all for extending benefits to those who have been struggling for several months already.  Once you are unemployed, it is harder and harder to find work as time goes on, because your resume looks more and more suspiciously empty.  Long-term unemployment feels desperately lonely, hopeless, and unending.  Offering people in this position a small bit of compassion would help them afford basic life expenses, helping them avoid large amounts of credit card debt while still taking care of their families.

If you’re one suspicious of unemployed people and their motives, think of the essential parts of your budget and ask how you’d pay the bills in their shoes.  I would venture to guess that most people would appreciate assistance during an extremely difficult time, which is why I support these benefits myself: because I know what it is like to not have them, and I would never wish that on anyone.

© Jeremiah and Ashleigh Bailey 2012