A recent post from Zach Hoag on LGBT persons and the blessings they bring to the church troubled me and reminded me of why I think third way is the worst way. Namely, its appearance as well reasoned and the hidden violences that animate this position.

The “draw” of the third way comes primarily through its mode of narrating the world: It is a frail and broken world where people are unkind to one another, hurt one another, and increasingly polarized. It is a world where people’s ideologies position them into one of two camps. Either for “this thing” or against it. Each side wants to say there is no middle ground, no nuance–that it is black and white. But, the third wayer reveals to us, this is a false image! Yes, the world is frail and broken, yes we hurt each other and increasingly polarized, but it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s another way. A way that is more peaceable, more just, more Christ-like. A … THIRD WAY.

This dramatization isn’t meant to belittle third way beliefs (ok, maybe it is just a little bit), but rather to make explicit how third wayers narrate the world. Their story of how the world operates is already invested in a certain kind of dramatization of what’s wrong with the world. Thus, this narration positions the third wayer’s place in the world as the ones who know how to fix it by finding some well reasoned balance in between the “two sides” of the fight. In their narration, the left and the right are just like each other, screaming just as loudly as the other, drawing lines in the sand just like the other, and increasing the fragmentation of Christianity and society by maintaining such strong positions while they are the bearers of a more peaceful way. The third way.

What’s mainly missing from third way positions, though, and why I find them disingenuous is their failure to take power into serious consideration and the dismissal or elision of critique as attempts to pin them down into taking a side when they don’t want to take one. For example, I read a tweet from a Christian the other day who was talking about why they denounced both Israel and Hamas for violence because third way is the best way and is the side of the innocents. The inability to distinguish Israel’s hi-tech military operations from Hamas’ desperate attempts to force an end to the military’s unlawful occupation of Palestinian territory reveals that the third way actually isn’t nuanced. collapsing Israel’s military and settler colonial violence with Hamas’ violence is to reveal the extent to which one is not able to analyze situations and ask, “What makes this violent?” and “Who decides what violence is?”. I’m basically a pacifist, but I also believe that forceful resistance often looks like violence because of how resistors are framed by those holding more power and because attempting to confront a violent system requires a force that is disruptive. That third wayers are unable to recognize any kind of difference in violence, how violence operates as a condition of the military occupation in the everyday life of Palestinians vs. some low-tech missiles that are decidedly ineffective and are a response to a much larger, insidious, and US backed mundane and brutal violence of colonialism suggests that what’s wrong does not require more nuance, but a matter of positionality and how one positions one’s self in relation to others and to the world.

I want to be clear that I am not arguing that Israel’s war on Palestine is the same kind of violence that the Church has visited on LGBT persons, but I am trying to point out how issues of power asymmetry frequently go ignored, unthought, or underthought by third wayers. Thus, I think it is this way of positioning one’s self as the bearer of the best way while ignoring issues of power and violence that is the problem many had with Hoag’s 3rd and final point where he claims that one of the blessings LGBT folks bring to the church is their deep (and elsewhere he clarifies it as almost miraculous) joy, even through all of the suffering they’ve experienced. Hoag later expounded that he was talking about a couple of specific gay people he knows and some stories he has heard as the basis for these comments. I don’t think the problem most people had with his point is sharing about LGBT people whose resilience and labor has created spaces where they are included in faith communities, but rather the third way narration of suffering and how LGBT suffering and joy here is utilized as a way to make the third way look good. That is, these stories of LGBT suffering and joy are being used to reinforce the position of the third way as the best way. In someways, this narration feels like when conservative Christians point to celibate gay and lesbian persons as proof that their beliefs are the best for lesbians and gays. Although Hoag is clear that he doesn’t desire to celebrate suffering as redemptive, it is difficult for it to be anything but that in light of how he positions it as a good that emerged from embracing the third way when he writes that, “as more open LGBT people find acceptance and inclusion in communities of all kinds (because there is a third way) the church is witnessing the tenacious, effusive joy that only the Lord can give to his people who have suffered.” I am sure some LGBT Christians support a third way, but that doesn’t make the third way less violent than other ways. It primarily reveals the various ways LGBT person navigate and negotiate violence within in faith communities, the different desires LGBT folks have for their lives and faith communities, and the different visions of liberation that are held. When one recognizes these multiplicities in LGBT Christians and in the world in general, it seems unnuanced to claim the third way as the best. Without assessing the conditions of violence and how power is structured, it is difficult to find one’s way at all. Instead of attending to the conditions and structures and their effects on LGBT person’s choices in how they participate in faith communities, the third way wants to repeat Christianity’s universalism in a nicer, more relevant way.

Also, why is it always only two sides and a third way? Why can’t their be 13 sides and a 14th way? Or just 36 sides and no ways? Or only 5 ways and no sides? Why the flattening of positions that lie to the left and the right of where one is? And this is what I mean by the lack of discernment of power, violence, and critique on the part of third wayers. But I think this lack of discernment is prevalent in many circles. We need to be able to attend to material conditions and experiences of vulnerability while also keeping in mind that the most visible violence isn’t the only violence, that mundane and structural violence often goes unspoken. Rather than simply celebrating surface level inclusions, it’s quite important to look at whether power is being redistributed in a way that makes the conditions of possibility for communities and society more just rather than furthering a more inclusive or kinder asymmetry.

17 thoughts

  1. Thanks for this. It has taken me some time to get up to speed with the ‘third way’ critique, partially because I didn’t realize it was an established political method.
    But this seems to be the historical Christian movement, at least as it came out of my context, the Mennonite/Anabaptist experience. As is well known, in the Reformation we were killed by both Protestants AND Catholics. We were positioned as a sort of third way, but this was more by abjection. In this way I think there may be some resonance with gender/sex expressions that were rejected by whatever binary (but correct me if I am wrong).
    Of course it did not take Anabaptist/Mennonites long to establish their discursive and social power and so the ‘third-way’ approach took on a whole other form. And so my sense is that much Christian (emergent?) thirdwayism is a sort of bastard child of bad neo-Anabaptism. I don’t know.

    1. Hey David, apparently there are several origins of third way stuff. I was talking with folks about Walter Wink’s take on it, which is about people who are in marginalized or conflictual circumstances themselves taking the third way as opposed to submitting to injustice or violent retaliation. I think it’s also problematic, but I think at the level of interpersonal relationships make more sense than as something to be applied broadly as the remedy to social ills.

    2. Hi Amaryah! I’m visiting from the slacktiverse. I have to say, really loved your post. This golden mean type fallacy is a pet peeve of mine. It’s much too facile to say that there are two sides to an issue: both sides are loud and therefore the truth must be somewhere in between. Few people seem to think that through. I suppose it is a natural enough reaction, but the third way stuff annoys me. Just because there are two views on something, doesn’t mean there aren’t cases where one view is clearly the correct one. Anyway, thanks for the great post.

  2. I didn’t read the byline when I first read this article. I thought, “I bet Amaryah would like this.” Of course you would!

    Sometimes the third way is just hatred that is disguised. It can arrogantly belittle the other “ways.” I don’t like the way it further divides people up into categories based on their beliefs, which are necessarily nuanced. But sometimes the dominant ideas monopolize the intellectual space and it is refreshing to hear another perspective.

    1. Hey Jonny. That’s pretty funny.

      Yeah I think it’s important to have a variety of perspectives in certain contexts, but my problem with third way stuff is they seem to posit taking a position on one of these “sides” as being unnuanced. Actually, there’s a lot of nuance there though folks may not exhibit and understanding of the nuance of the position those who they disagree with hold. So, I think making a lack of nuance the problem is an excuse that third waters often rely on.

      Saying that there aren’t enough varying positions presented is one thing. Arguing that there are two dominant positions and that the real answer lies somewhere in between the two seems robe what third waters do, and I just think that is silly.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this post all day, and I still haven’t wrapped my head around the topic. On one hand, “third way” theology can certainly be used as an excuse for inaction or surface level kindness that never actually stands for anything – thus encouraging systems of violence by means of passivity. I am guilty of this at times. On the other hand, passionate people often militantly stand against and belittle well-meaning people who happen to have a different perspective. Far too often I am guilty of that as well.

    There are times, I think, when it takes incredible bravery to stand in the gap and say “I don’t know! And if we’re all being honest, none of us really do. Let’s seek truth together, but in the process, maybe we can show each other some grace.” In that manner, a “third way” approach does not necessitate passivity or weak mindedness. Rather, it can be courageously peace making (and overwhelmingly unpopular and lonely). Of course, it takes equal bravery to stand for truth once it is found. WIT is my favorite theology blog, but I guess I wish this piece did more to encourage humble understanding of the other.

    1. Hi Caleb. Thanks for your comment.

      I wasn’t trying to discourage understanding of others. I was saying third way perspectives tend to encourage a rather flat perspective of positions they disagree with and then use that flattening to present themselves as more enlightened.

      There are certainly moments when we don’t know what to do and are confused about our beliefs. Trying to figure out one’s beliefs is different to me than a perpetual narrative where one is always above and outside of the world’s messiness and narrating why “both sides” have it wrong because your perspective is much more peaceable and omniscient.

      My point is that it is a different kind of violence to narrate the world in this way rather than figuring out how to deal with not knowing. Like, third way seems to make a virtue out of not being on “sides” and I think that thinking you are not in a side while you are promoting a narrative of yourself as having the best way reeks of the same problematic Christian narratives we’ve had for a long time.

  4. Thank you for this. I have read much of this 3rd Way talk and your critique is very powerful. I am also skeptical because it seems to me the ‘3rd Way’ does not entail NOT taking sides – it entails taking the side of power but in what is positioned as a more humane way. LGBTI people are not given full affirmation, they are given conditional acceptance. How can this possibly be a sustainable position? If it is not, what is the endgame? That eventually things will just work themselves out? The skeptic in me cannot help but see this as an institutional response seeking to eat your cake and have it to. By seeking a 3rd Way you can avoid offending your base while hopefully not alienating your future and selling it as a more theologically sound approach.

  5. Thanks for a thoughtful post. Agree that the lack of a proper power analysis is the major weakness of “third way” approaches. This leads to the inability to identify who is being oppressed and the resulting inability to show active solidarity with the oppressed. Even worse is when an incorrect power analysis inverts reality and claims that the opressed are really the opressor – Palestine/Israel and LGBT/Church being sad current examples.

    God Bless

  6. From the perspective you take on Hoag’s “third way,” I agree.

    But I always understood Christ’s 3rd way (at least according to Wink) not as a third identity, ideology or camp between or outside of to two conflicting camps (like the political method, Hoag’s “third way” or even the history of anabaptism) but rather as a creative 3rd action to take when both violence and submission are consciously ruled out, especially when there is a “power asymmetry.” More as if the subject actually identified with any one of the two (or 36) camps but has a decision to make about what action to take from within that camp when facing someone from the other camp.

    Maybe Wink would envision it like this: a self-professed pro-LGBT subject (obviously taking a side) interacts with a self-professed anti-LGBT subject in a manner that is not necessarily trying to “violently” dominate the other nor feebly submitting but rather standing ground and creatively exposing any injustices in their system that may be stripping them of their subjectivity or humanity (given a power asymmetry in favor of the anti-LGBT).

    Hopefully this adds to the conversation and doesn’t hurt it in any way.

    1. Hey. You are right. This is how Wink theorizes third way. I think it makes more sense here as an interpersonal framework, though I still don’t like it because it feels a bit totalizing in it’s scope (so that anything you do that isn’t violence or submission in Wink’s purview would fall into his frame). Also I don’t think it makes sense to apply this same discernment process at the institutional level.

      I appreciate you bringing some more insight in third way stuff though. My partner also talked about Wink when they read my post. I haven’t read him though.

  7. A couple of thoughts.

    First, Hoag’s initial post had very little mention of a third way (one by my estimation), and what he didn’t say wasn’t very descriptive – which means most of this pontificating about the third way as relates Hoag’s piece is speculative at best.

    Secondly, the use of “violence” throughout this piece is nonsensical. How is “forceful resistance” not violent but a third way view is violent? If the rest of the world is blind all the instantiations of violence that you perceive, it may be because you have redefined violence beyond any usefulness.

    Lastly, as someone who is part of the third way discussion in the UMC, I will say that generalization is very difficult, in part because this is very much a new and diffuse conversation. The folks I associate with (notably the others involved in viamediamethodists.wordpress.com) range from leaning progressive and pro-inclusion to leaning traditionalist. As to why it’s “always” third way and not 37th way, this is because the church – unfortunately – follows the broader culture as defining everything on an artificial left/right right continuum. What that looks like in my church is that many of the power brokers associate themselves with progressive or conservative caucuses, which then “lead” the conversation by condemnation and activism, and we get nowhere. My interest in a third way for my particular church is to see a better, more fruitful conversation happen.

    If the third way folks are “blind” to the power and “violence” issues you raise, it may be because this is just another way of making the conversation a zero-sum game. Any binary – powerful/powerless, oppressor/oppressed – is just going to lead to more of the same unhelpful condemnation we’ve been doing. Additionally, it may also be that not everyone – far from being blind to the insights of 20th century deconstruction – is convinced that the root of all discourse is power. It seems strange to be a follower of Jesus and be all that interested in powerlessness, actually – because we worship a crucified peasant.

    For more on the UMC third way:




    1. Hi Drew,

      You’re right, this particular post doesn’t talk about the third way. I was also drawing on this post (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/zhoag/2014/06/04/yes-albert-and-tony-there-is-a-third-way/), which I didn’t mention in my post, as well as his affination for describing himself in that way. Which is why I say the post reminded me why I think the framework and logic that undergirds third way theologies is problematic.

      I understand forceful resistance to be anything that confronts and violates the order of an unjust system. Thus, to Israeli State and Military, any Palestinian resistance is only legible as violence because it disrupts the order of the state. Which is why the military doesn’t distinguish between who it’s bombing. Palestinians engaging in the tradition of non-violence direct action and Palestinians who’ve launched rockets are being bombed indiscriminately because their resistance is only understood as violating the rule of law. So, I argue that third way view is violent because it tends to play right back into the rule of law and order, trying so hard to locate the middle as the place folks ought to be when the middle, as MLK Jr. noted, is often the biggest obstacle to justice and peace.

      I understand Methodist third wayers very well as I was trained at a Methodist seminary where this was a popular stance, have many friends who are Methodist clergy or on their way to being clergy, and am currently attending a UMC church that is not reconciling on paper. My partner was also on Methodist ordination track before she had to decide to live with integrity wrt her relationship with me or lie to get through ordination. I’m not talking about particular ways third wayers are trying to organize in this piece. I’m talking about a logic and narrative that enables “third way” to emerge in the first place, which, as I read it, is a problematic carryover of Western modernity’s desire for balance and reason. I understand it’s difficult to be in church politics when contentious debates are raging. I also don’t think unity is always the solution to things like this, and that trying to maintain an appearance of unity at the expense of the most vulnerable folks in an institution is probably harming them more than it harms folks who simply can’t stomach the idea of two men kissing.

      I don’t know where I called for a zero sum game. I was pretty clear in the final paragraph that it’s not just an issue third way folks have of being undiscerning about how we position ourselves. I like binaries because I think they can be incisive. Not always, but in the right hands. I’m fine if you didn’t think I succeeded in producing more clarity. I think figuring out how power is working is important to me because the church is really good at hiding it, and it seems like one of the main ways injustice is reproduced in the church is through unexamined flows of power. Also, I’m a fan of Foucault’s idea of power, so I don’t think power is something we have but is a field we inhabit and exercise in different depending on where we are located in its flow. I also don’t think it’s weird to be interested in following Jesus and be interested in power because precisely the work he does is expose how power is at work: the power of the state, the power of the holy spirit, the power of communities of faith, the power of caring for one another in ways that violate the rule of law, etc. I understand Jesus to be very interested in power precisely because he didn’t think of himself or other people as powerless simply because they were oppressed, but instead exercises his power (and calls others to be courageous in doing the same) in various ways that violate how the power of the state functions.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      1. I would argue that certain forms of third way theology are precisely a rejection of modernity’s left/right dichotomy. Karl Barth comes to mind, whose theology fit neither with the dominant liberal Protestant or fundamentalism of his time. In seminary I was very influenced by Lindbeck, whose postliberal theology was explicitly a third way outside what the usual theological discourse what was hopelessly tied to the underpinnings of modernity (his “cultural-linguistic” approach is decidedly not.

        I am unconvinced that your seminary experience was indicative of the kind of third way I and others have been working towards.

        I don’t know that King is as much of an enemy of the third way as some have tried to make him; after all, he rejected the twin poles of quietism and violent revolution and found a third way.

        I’m still not clear on what you take to be violence. Is it the case that the Palestinians cannot commit violence because they are not in a position of power? Are forceful and non-violent resistance the same (for one can use force and not cause physical harm…)?

        Thanks for the exchange.

  8. I appreciate this piece much more than Hoags. There he seemed to be on a rant that lacked the kind of constructive move you make here.

    For a while I was using the language of middle church to descrbe a kind of third way approach. However, I;ve come to drop it for the very reasons you name. I also think that this kind of third way (as in Via Media) reifies a binary look at the way things are. In essence we continue to work in the same structure- the real and ideal, the left and the right, the just and the unjust, the righteous and the fallen.

    What if, however, a third way was not a middle way at all- a kind of compromise between the binaries? Seems to me that the examples of Jesus are not about the binaries at all, but rather about shattering them all together. I am thinking specifically of the religious leaders presenting Jesus with the coin as asking about taxes. Jesus’ response (give to Caesar what is Caesars’) refuses the binary set in the question itself.

    A friend of mine reminded me earlier of MLK’s “double victory” where not only are the structures changed but so are hearts and minds. In this frame, the injustices are not only addressed but the actions of individuals are transformed. Here again, the binary of justice(or righteousness) and grace are shatterd. It isn’t a middle way at all, but rather a merging of the two- where grace defines what is sought in justice.

    So what if a third way is about looking from another vantage point all together, and not shooting the middle?


  9. Thanks for this article. I have been uncomfortable with 3rd way thinking for some time but could not articulate the burning issue. Thanks for helping me clarify some of my hunches. Your comments on power, nuance, and “balance” are helpful. But it was the beginning of your last paragraph that really grabbed me:

    “Also, why is it always only two sides and a third way? Why can’t their be 13 sides and a 14th way? Or just 36 sides and no ways? Or only 5 ways and no sides?”

    One problem, as you articulate here, is with the model itself.

    3rd way thinking assumes a two dimensional model with a line which has, logically, two ends. Each end represents one of two “sides.” (This model starts to break down for me already: any issue is more complex than “two sides.”) 3rd way thinking then assumes we will end up or strive for one point in the middle along a continuum. Why only a 3rd way and not a 4th, 5th, 6th, and 108th way as well? But more, life is more complex than plotting issues along a single line.. A two dimensional plane is simplistic, static, and restrictive. Hard to see the forest on this one branch.

    Perhaps what we need is a three dimensional model. We need a landscape, a topographical model. Think Google Earth. Issues such as sexuality, biblical interpretation, peace in Gaza, (on a more mundane level) my love for good food, wine, and humour can hardly be placed on a continuum. A landscape is required with height, depth, length, and breadth. Now we have a large space (a terrain) with thousands of “ways” which cannot see all at once (even if we have a birds eye view). We are now free to claim some ground and also seek out many other ways.There is plenty of space here for dialogue, listening, nuance, evolution, and revolution.

    At some point this model breaks down as well, but it may serve as a better model than a two dimensional single line with two ends. Third way thinking has us on one lonely branch. We need to see the tree and the forest as well.

    1. Hey thanks for this. Thinking spatially seems very important in being able to recognize nuances of power and it’s distribution, not just along a line but throughout spaces we inhabit.

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