Makes sense that I wouldn’t be able to delve into what Imperialist Christian Standards means before some Christian spokesperson/media figure jumps the shark on Imperialist Christian Standards. So, shall we give a hand to Chris Broussard for giving such a fine example on ESPN shortly after NBA player Jason Collins became the first active male professional sports player to out himself?
Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly, like premarital sex between heterosexuals. If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits. It says that, you know, that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, whatever it maybe, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. So I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don’t think the bible would characterize them as a Christian.
There are many troubling aspects of this quote. But it definitely falls under the gaze of ICS. For Imperialist Christian Standards is about not just the wrong standards, but also how whatever truths may be revealed and relevant and fitting to one person or group of persons is then automatically and institutionally impressed upon others within scope – as if they also need to know and experience God in the same way, manner, and place the first person does*. They don’t, of course.
To use this example, let us first consider for a moment the conservative Christian premise that homosexuality is a sin. Not that this is true nor that we agree with it, but let’s start with this as a premise to facilitate this discussion. And by “homosexuality as a sin” we must rule out the ideas that having an attraction is a sin, or that wanting to have sex with those of the same sex is a sin. Some will argue these notions, but many conservative Christians will rightly rule them as being double-minded and utterly ridiculous. Temptation is not a sin, they point out – giving in is. So, here, we would recognize the idea of the Christian discipline of abstinence. This is the idea of voluntarily giving up sex because the only “pure” sex is done within the confines of the heterosexual marriage bed. (Again, this is the argument, not to conflate my views with theirs.)
Under this understanding, then, Jason Collins is sinning by desiring to raise a family with another man rather than disciplining himself for a life of sexual celibacy. Does this then give Broussard the right to say that Collins cannot be a Christian?
No, it does not. For this understanding is an understanding within some frameworks of Christian understanding, but not all.
Christianity is a two thousand year old religion with various expressions that are in no way standard. As much as some try to limit what being a “true” Christian is (and this includes old order Catholicism, the neo-Reformed – think of preacher/teacher John Piper bidding “farewell” to slightly controversial preacher/teacher Rob Bell – and even many of my friends on the Christian Left who put quotation marks around the word Christian when speaking of those they believe are not practicing Jesus’ message of love and acceptance), it is a No True Scotsman fallacy of the highest order. The label Christian is an identity marker with no centralized authority. Claiming the Bible for that central authority, as Broussard did, simply doesn’t work when United Methodists and Independent Fundamentalists – let alone Russian Orthodox or Ethiopian Coptics – can vary so widely and diffusely on basic interpretation about topics like hell, the Kingdom of God, understanding the Old Testament history letters. And this doesn’t count various types and methods of interpretation within these denominations and even churches.
Even if we were to use some of the centralizing ancient creeds, not only do we have to admit that they were also of a place and a time and not inclusive of even the main Christian voices of the time, they just do not address sexuality.
Now, if Christianity – as I believe and as many Christians argue – truly is about relationship with a holy and loving God, then we cannot enforce or understand it by rules. Guidelines may help, but only if and when they are mutually understood and relevant to the place and status the parties share. Touching may be good and pleasant for some relationships, depending on where they stand, but disastrous and even abusive in others. And the types of touching also obviously change depending on factors like closeness, intimacy, fear, respect, trust, sexual compatibility, history. So the sexual ethos I may have, the weariness I have to alcohol because of past experiences, the type of language I can tolerate may be vastly different from how you can deal with it.
As a result, I may be able to offer advice for your relationship, but it would be awfully imperialistic of me to tell you how to live in your relationship based on how I live mine. That would be the British Empire coming in and redistricting national lines based on what and how it amasses land and can control the region. That would be forcing my economic system upon your land. That would be changing your own dynamics of how you deal with understanding your own relationships with yourself, others and God – in effect, saying that you are not human and not fully able to make decisions about what does and doesn’t work for you.
One more thing about these Imperialist Christian Standards that this example typifies: They are unfairly applied. Would Broussard have accused other male players of not being a Christian for the much more standard practice of premarital sex? He says any other sin done as a “lifestyle” would be open to rebuke, but has he ever applied such standards to other practices he would label sin. When a player dances in the end-zone repeatedly, does he cast him out of the Church for pride? Has he excommunicated athletes or owners for greed? Has he told Tim Tebow or Kurt Warner or Joe Gibbs that they should be comfortable with the money they have already received and not ask for more or tell them they need to sell all of their possessions and give them to the poor? Does every straight athlete who is found to have had a sexual rendezvous (whether married or not) declared to be not Christian? What about drinking and driving? What about the very common practice of coach abuse? Are these sins addressed to the severity of kicking out of the faith?
Are they addressed at all?
The only other sin I see getting such publicity are extra-marital affairs (and usually those committed by preeminent Black athletes like Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods). Even rape isn’t condemned as loudly in most sports. Which causes me to question not just the emphasis of placement, but whether or not we should refrain from condemning sinners in public when their objectionable acts – unlike drunk driving, rape, greed, coach abuse – do not harm others. Maybe that should be our rubric: Does it harm others? If not, that may be a good discipline to have, but it doesn’t have to be another’s in order for her or him to qualify as Christian.
In other words, the types of fruit you bear do not have to resemble the types of fruit I bear.
*This is traditionally understood as legalism – the rules established for one’s own benefit being suitable for all.