world (di)vision and american exceptionalism
With over a billion dollars a year in annual revenue, World Vision easily ranks as one of the most powerful, well respected charities in the world. Forbes magazine lists it as #10 on their 50 top U.S. charities list. Recent statistics report the organization receiving almost 90 million dollars a year in private donations. Google’s director of corporate giving and another of the firm’s senior executives currently sit on World Vision’s board of directors.
In short, this is a powerful, well-respected organization making powerful, authentic strides to positively change countless lives across the globe.
World Vision is also an unabashedly faith-based charity, one which holds its employees to wholly Christian standards – all staff must agree to World Vision’s Statement of Faith or the Apostle’s Creed, one of the most ancient, generous, ecumenical Christian confessions ever assembled.
Earlier this week, World Vision USA announced that it would be making a shift in its hiring guidelines – what president Richard Stearns called a “very narrow policy change” – in order to no longer forbid employment to confessing Christians who are married to other Christians of the same gender.
In an exclusive interview with Christianity Today announcing this change, Stearns chose his words and presented his case so carefully that he’s worth recounting in detail here:
“Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues. It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.
What do we do about someone who applies for a job at World Vision who is in a legal same-sex marriage that may have been sanctioned and performed by their church? Do we deny them employment? Under our old conduct policy, that would have been a violation. The new policy will not exclude someone from employment if they are in a legal same-sex marriage.”
Added Stearns very specifically, almost prophesying what was to come:
“This is also not about compromising the authority of Scripture. People can say, ‘Scripture is very clear on this issue,’ and my answer is, ‘Well ask all the theologians and denominations that disagree with that statement.’ The church is divided on this issue. And we are not the local church. We are an operational organization uniting Christians around a common mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ.
It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there. This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.
We’re not caving to some kind of pressure. We’re not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us. This is not us compromising…this is simply a decision about whether or not you are eligible for employment at World Vision U.S. based on this single issue, and nothing more.”
I was visiting some friends at Wheaton College on the night of the announcement. There, at a small gathering, I was discussing the news with an old friend, one who is not affirming of gay and lesbian relationships.
“Did you hear about World Vision?” I asked. “They changed their hiring policy so that now married gay Christians can work for them.”
Her reaction: “that’s awesome.”
And then we went on talking. About the gays and Wheaton and Beyonce and faith and feminism and Frozen.
Because despite our theological disagreement (on the morality of Christ-centered same sex relationships), we were easily able to make enough room for our two different opinions through mutual respect and genuine dialogue. Yes, we may disagree on this issue, but on some level we were able to let it go in order to put first and foremost our shared commitment to represent Christ well and to work together to feed starving children.
Unfortunately, not all evangelicals reacted so…charitably to the news.
After Stearns’ initial announcement, the gatekeepers went quickly to work. Hundreds of horrified and upset Christians took to social media, furious that World Vision USA would now potentially be hiring gay Christians. The “grief” and outrage immediately expressed by powerful pastors and members of individual churches was catastrophically vitriolic. Within hours, it seemed to fill every corner of the (Christian) Internet (Ben Corey has documented several such reactions on his blog).
One Christian news outlet, speaking of the change, told their readers: “This is a betrayal of the gospel, a betrayal of the Lord, a betrayal of the family, and a betrayal of the countless thousands of Christians who have put their trust in World Vision as a legitimate Christian organization.”
Many, many such pronouncements were quickly made, condemning the organization and threatening to pull moral and financial support from sponsored children. You’ve made a most grievous betrayal, it seemed people were saying, and now we’ll take our money elsewhere.
Turns out they weren’t bluffing.
Within 24 hours, the damage was done. The amount of donations canceled rose to a savage high, and some 2,000 children became officially sponsorless, held hostage by combatants of a culture war they’d never heard of.
I’m sure this week must have felt like a unified attack to many of the employees of World Vision USA.
This is probably why, less than two days later, World Vision USA announced they would actually be making a reversal in their change of policy, and no longer be open to hiring confessing Christians who are in same sex marriages.
When I first heard the news, I thought I was reading an Onion article.
Apparently, despite the board being “overwhelmingly in favor” of the initial change, now things were going back to normal. Despite Stearns’ careful, compassionate words just days earlier, now his nuanced speech shifted into echoing, zombielike, the same talking points that his opponents had hurled at him just the day before:
“there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs…the authority of Scripture in our organization’s work [and staff 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…forgive us for that mistake.”
This hardly sounds like the man who gave the initial announcement, the man who preached just last year: “as far as I know, no one ever died of gay marriage.”
So what happened?
No, this wasn’t an Invasion of the Body Snatchers. For those of us who believe that it is not God’s best for us to so callously discriminate against our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s easy to see what’s happened here. It’s easy for us to see that once again, the loudest, most bullying voices in evangelical culture got their way. The same tired old white, male, North American voices, perhaps feeling they were losing their tenuous grasp on a matter of grave moral significance, once again rose up and worked hard to get this decision reversed.
Like when John Piper reacts to this shift by declaring this a “tragic” turn of events that deeply “trivializes the cross.”
Or when Franklin Graham disgraces his family name by going on television and invoking the name of the dead founder of World Vision to lament “it’s obvious World Vision does not believe the Bible. I’m sickened over it….I’m just heartbroken and I’m sickened that World Vision has taken this ungodly position.”
Or when Al Mohler writes that “the shift announced yesterday by World Vision points to disaster. We can only pray that there is yet time for World Vision to rethink this matter, correct their course, stand without compromise on the authority of Scripture, and point the way for evangelical Christians to follow once again.”
When Denny Burk pens an inflammatory article called “The Collapse of Christianity at World Vision” and declares “it is impossible to be a ‘follower of Christ’ while endorsing or participating in a same-sex marriage.”
And when other wealthy white men are heralded for calling the decision “unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish,” dramatically maintaining that “at stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
When all of these hateful words first reverberated across the Internet and filled my ears, I could think but two things:
1) did any of these indignant men who helped rally supporters into pulling thousands of child sponsorships from World Vision even read the especially nuanced words Stearns took such care to share in his original interview?
2) if World Vision was really going to collapse because of this shift, if they’d really compromised and lost on this utterly crucial issue and given up their biblical, Christian identity because of this new hiring policy…then this is really quite awkward for the hundreds upon hundreds of World Vision employees who work for World Vision United Kingdom, World Vision Australia, World Vision Canada, and other international self-determining offices of the organization – headquarters that for years have refused to discriminate in their employment practices on the basis of sexual orientation.
Heck, World Vision UK even released a statement in response to World Vision USA’s reversal, intending to clarify their own position on the matter: “World Vision UK does not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation. Individuals are hired and their performance monitored on job-specific criteria only.”
Why then, I wonder, have we seen such horrible outrage regarding World Vision USA’s policy change, while not one of the angry, powerful men I referenced above has expressed any sort of similar fervor or “harrowing disappointment” for the international branches of World Vision, despite their undertaking this exact same “path of destruction”?
Because this is America. And we are God’s special nation. And we can’t have that here.
The problem with this attitude, theologically speaking, is the Lucifer-esque arrogance that comes with assuming that the US is somehow the holiest, most spiritual nation to ever exist, a country divinely founded and blessed by God from across the arc of history to become the primary home of Orthodox Christianity™ from now until the incipient end of the world.
It’s an inherently idolatrous (read: sinful, flawed, ungodly) way of looking at the world.
What this vision reflects is a spiritualized version of a political theory called American exceptionalism – the insidious belief that the United States and its citizens are inherently set apart from (and superior to) everyone else. This philosophy doesn’t square up very well with Christianity, a religion which insists that all people (regardless of nationality) bear God’s image equally, and are fundamentally valued the same in God’s eyes.
Strange as it may seem, confusing worship of Jesus Christ with worship of Caesar is surprisingly common in many contemporary circles. This is why some politicians use the biblical notion of a “city on a hill” to describe not the Church or New Jerusalem but the United States of America. It’s why we have popular products like the unabashedly idolatrous American Patriot’s Bible. It’s why many Christians are so desperate to read “America” back into the “end-times prophesies” hidden within the Hebrew Bible. And it’s why fundamentalists can cry wolf and bemoan World Vision USA’s nondiscriminatory hiring policy and in the same breath completely ignore the fact that World Vision has been hiring gay Christians in same sex marriages for years, all over the globe.
I’m convinced that this is the source of much of the division we’ve seen this week – nothing more than the natural side effects of a theology that insists the purest, most Christian interpretations of the Bible can only be perpetuated by powerful white men in America.
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If you’ve felt betrayed by the World Vision USA reversal this week but still want to help the organization as a whole make up the almost 5,000 child sponsorships they lost this week, consider donating to World Vision UK.
When it comes down to it, I don’t have any of the answers. All I can do right now is grieve, mourn the events of the past few days, pray and process them with those I love. And I can try to call out injustice that opposes God’s reconciliatory Gospel mission, including American (or is it white?) supremacy, wherever I see it.
Other articles that look at this issue from an invaluable perspective:
- David Henson: “I Don’t Blame World Vision. I Blame Homophobia and Hate“
- Rachel Johnson: “How to Respond When World Vision Breaks Your Heart“
- Ben Moberg (Registered Runaway): “When Evangelicals Turn Against Children to Spite Me” and especially “When World Vision Drops Me“
- Rachel Held Evans: “On the World Vision Reaction: Some Bad News, Some Good News, and Some Ideas“
- Dianna Anderson: “I Am Not Responsible For Your Hate: World Vision, Evangelicals, and Emotional Blackmail“