This week has been really disappointing for me. I actually can’t think of a time I’ve been more disappointed in the past 5 years, which seems like an exaggeration, but it isn’t. The situation/fiasco/decisions made by World Vision this past week were mystifying to me, and at the same time, highlighted some of the reasons I no longer consider myself Evangelical (I use this word to mean the Christian denomination and culture).
Within the Evangelical community I read nothing that I wholeheartedly agreed with concerning this topic and most of the liberal commentary bothered me (there could be some out there I have not read). As for people outside but commenting on the Evangelical world, there were a few people whose ideas were very helpful to me: Fr. Shay Kearns for example (read his thoughts here).
I’m currently in the mode of fighting the feeling that Christianity doesn’t have a place for me – and this feeling comes from the popularity of western Evangelicalism, overtaking the importance of other Christianities, which I’ve connected to (you can find some of them here). I wanted to comment on World Vision, not because I don’t think there are enough people talking but because I wanted to offer a perspective that is not conservative or liberal.
This is a commentary on World Vision’s lack of responsibility, the Evangelical response, the constant erasure of the lives of LGBTQ people, and the acknowledgment of Evangelicalism’s participation in the non-profit industrial complex which functions in the same way as the rest of a capitalistic, money-driven society, despite claiming to be “good news.” The non-profit industrial complex is the relationship between a government, a non-profit, owning classes, and foundations, which results in the control, derailment, or management of political or social justice movements (source). (Read more in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded).
I won’t go into the entire World Vision statement (note: this crisis reflected the views of U.S. World Vision, not all subsidiaries hold the same views and requirements, although they are obviously connected). If you want to read it, you can do so here. But I will also note that their hiring practices and financial information have been under scrutiny before.
The organization very publically announced that they would be hiring gay people – oddly highlighting the hiring of married gay people – assumedly because they are located in some states allowing same-sex marriage, and represent people of different denominations with different teachings on sexuality. They made it clear that this was a small way to promote unity within their hiring practices and between Christians and not a political or religious statement. They also stated that people employed by them who are unmarried are still expected to be celibate, no matter their sexuality.
This initial statement bothered me on a number of levels. One, highlighting the hiring of gay people who are married enforces a large problem within Evangelical culture (and I believe, American culture at large): the idolatry of marriage. This idolatry signifies that 1. LGBTQ people are only worth talking about if the conversation is about whether they can wed or not, and 2. single people are less important to discuss than married people and need not be highlighted unless in the context of future marriage. This, and the rules that consenting, adult employees can’t have sex while employed at World Vision, is a larger topic to unpack and better suited for another time.
Secondly, this decision, like a lot of Evangelical teachings on sexuality, dramatized it. Something that should have been an internalized staff memo was instead a national announcement – one that was discussed for a long time at World Vision prior to announcement.
Two days later, World Vision reversed their decision and apologized. You can read about this here. This apology was directed to their donors who pulled their funding and explained their dedication to “Biblical authority,” and the children they support – two things they seemed to ignore with their original statement, despite claiming the importance of those things. The lack of apology, or even consideration, to the LGBTQ community, and a lack of knowledge of their donor base and the general western, Evangelical community are my largest disappointments.
Not only is it a very poor organizational and public relations decision to reverse a decision after making a huge public announcement about it, it’s unethical to not consider the people at the center of the controversy – LGBTQ people – and instead shift the conversation to something we can all agree on – children in poverty.
When (some) conservative Evangelical Christians decided to pull funding and World Vision lost over 3,000 child sponsorships (there is plenty of commentary on how this is problematic so I won’t write more) the outcry shifted from the LGBTQ community to the support of children in poverty as if 1. those things are mutually exclusive, and 2. the now unemployable LGBTQ community is less innocent than children in sponsorships.
For the most part, every blog post I read critiquing this reversal was about children, not about the people who were just told that they couldn’t work to alleviate poverty and also be themselves. Is this because we consider people who are not straight something other than human beings? Is it because there are so many organizations supporting children in poverty that it’s a far-away norm we find easy to talk about? Is it because we feel bad saying people who are gay are evil but we feel ok about saying childhood poverty is evil?
Why was there nothing written about the life-threatening culture LGBTQ people around the world face, which is fostered by this type of discrimination? What about children who live in a country where “homosexuality” is punishable by death? Was the statement that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to work for a Christian organization the best message for the children they feed that are now the center of attention? Are gay children allowed to eat but denied employment when of-age?
Evangelical charitable organizations that do not employ LGBTQ people take this “mistake” into countries where it is illegal and punishable to be gay when they take their aid there. So, while we’re arguing about who is employable over here in western Evangelicalism, we choose to ignore how that is implicated in bodily harm inflicted on gay people in other countries where we administer aid. The same dynamic is true when organizations want to save women from the sex trafficking industry in other countries but don’t believe they should be in church leadership in their own.
Another theme I saw in people’s responses to World Vision was to forgive the corporation and say that we all need to confess sins and be forgiven: that hate is the issue here, not World Vision.
World Vision is one of the largest Christian charitable organizations in the world; the organization is not a friend who lied to you or hurt your feelings. Their public choices have real, physical, emotional, mental, and long-standing effects on human beings. But, instead of apologizing to the people they alienated and isolated, World Vision apologized to rich Christians who uncritically pulled their money and to the non-profit complex in which they reside. For the record, I blame the organization for their choices and continue to wait for an apology. I also blame the non-profit complex in which they work. That’s not being unforgiving, it’s standing up to an unjust system that was originally set up to help people and to the physical manifestation of hate that so many were claiming to blame.
A manifestation of racism is the percentages of black and Latino men in prison that far exceed white men’s percentages, for the same crimes. A manifestation of sexism is that the U.S. has never had a woman for president, and women get blamed for it. And a manifestation of homophobia is not hiring gay people and not apologizing for it.
This immediate reversal shows that, in this case, Evangelicalism participates in a non-profit complex, which is run by a few people with a few beliefs, who can change the course of something with money, and receive an apology for stepping out of line. At the end of this ordeal, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), an organization from which Christian non-profits receive accreditation, made a statement in support of the reversal. They stated, “We expect all ECFA-accredited organizations to hold the same position,” and extended “forgiveness” to World Vision.
As someone involved with various Christian and religious non-profits, this not only scared and infuriated me, but made me wonder (as I have when faced with the bureaucracy in non-Christian non-profits, when required to work within certain constraints by people and corporations with money), if I can even hold to my own beliefs as a Christian when the Christian in power is saying I can’t, that certain people don’t matter, and there better be an apology later.
While I understand the complexities in keeping an organization open and the fear of not feeding children and not continuing arguably important work, I do also believe in a religious and political history that has worked to dismantle unethical systems that seem good on the outside but are really just based on power, money, and control of a theology that only accepts some people (See Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism or Other Lands Have Dreams by Kathy Kelly). And the popular conversation surrounding World Vision doesn’t have to do with dismantling unequal power structures.
I’ve seen that this past week has put a strain on a lot of Christian’s beliefs and I am glad for that. Pulling back the curtain you might have attributed to the work of God is very scary but important.
I want to end affirming what Sarah Bessey said this week - if you are struggling in feeling like Evangelicalism is the only place to be, know that’s not true. It is new as far as our church history goes and if you’re someone who is looking to come out of that tradition but still identifies as a Christian, there is a lot of hope and options for you, you just have to look harder.
If you consider yourself a liberal, or even a moderate - do not let the popular, liberal version Christianity – to love everyone – be watered down to a version that defines “love” in a way that let’s people be comfortable with not really understanding others (which I’ve written about here) or the contexts in which they live.
Even if there are always corporations that claim to help people but really put money and ideology before humans, we can always say something against them. A professor of mine, in sharing that she once met with a nun in order to heal from her experiences with the Catholic church, said the nun apologized for the harm caused and put the onus on the church, as an institution, for that harm. She also rejected the hurtful teachings and corporation of Christianity, as opposed to her faith. You can do that too.