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.