The Yes-No Question
The upcoming Scottish referendum is causing real heart-ache for many of the residents of Scotland. They are under pressure to make a decision which may be life-changing, not only for them but also their descendents in generations to come. As a former resident of Scotland for seven and a half years and now living within twelve miles of the boundary (frontier?), I am obviously going to have feelings on the matter. I can in fact see both sides of the argument, even if for personal reasons, I hope the union of the countries is not broken. It is clear that the debate has engaged many passions and divided families. The reason for the family divisions is quite simply that some members of the family think more of the emotional side of the arguments and others think more of the practical. Which side can claim to have the best arguments in both these areas is not for me to say, but there is clearly a complex interaction between the arguments being presented and the personalities of the voters.
In the opinion polls there is one group that stands out which are the ‘don’t knows’. I am in fact surprised that there are not in fact far more of them that the 15- 18% recorded. If the arguments are as finely balanced as they appear to be, then it would seem likely that a lot of people would not want to be committed until they enter the voting booth. Many, I would suspect, might actually want to vote ‘don’t know’ as they can see both sides of the argument. This blog post is perhaps a plea for people who are in the ‘don’t know’ category, not just in the Scottish referendum but in other areas of life.
The nature of politics means that the ‘don’t know’ category has no power beyond that of not voting at all. In Synods and other church bodies, there is the slightly stronger power of abstention but this is still seen as a weak gesture. In practice then a voter has to commit to a Yes or a No. Often that will be taken one way or another for the most small reason. The genuine ‘don’t know’ voter will vote yes or no for such reasons as wanting to please a partner, or because she approves of the choice of fashion worn by a representative of one of the parties who speaks on television. Clearly the vote in the Scottish referendum may go either way and it may be won or lost for the most trivial of reasons.
Although in the case of the referendum I am on the side of the Union side, there are many occasions where I want to keep my options open indefinitely. This may sound like a weak decision but I question whether that is in fact the case. The nature of politics requires people to make up their minds and choose a particular political party but in making these decisions they perhaps lose something. The undecided individual in a voting booth may feel they have to follow a family tradition in the choice of party, thus never working their way through to finding out what they think as a mature adult. I have already spoken much of the way that Christians sometimes make decisions out of a loyalty to a ‘tribe’ or particular fellowship. In last Friday’s Church Times there was an interview with the Director of the Evangelical Alliance, Steve Clifford. In the interview he made the statement the ‘vast majority of Christians around the world’ take a ‘biblical view’ in their attitude to homosexuality. I question whether this statement is even true of self-identified evangelicals, let alone other Christian groups. I would maintain that among the ‘vast majority of Christians’ are many who embrace the ‘don’t know’ category. Many, many Christians have simply not engaged with the issue properly, let alone come to a mind about it.
The question of who is right and who is wrong on the gay issue is not here important. My own position, whatever my post on Vicky Beeching may have suggested, is to side with the large company of ‘don’t knows’. What exercised my passion at that point was the pretence, even fantasy, that there was an inevitability that all Christians should side with the so-called biblical view which is set out by the Evangelical Alliance in their 2012 report, Biblical and Pastoral responses to Homosexuality. The implied implication is that I and anyone who does not agree with the received point of view is somehow not properly Christian. I experience that kind of pressure to think in a particular way in the same way as a political dissident in a dictatorship. My hackles rise on behalf of my fellow ‘don’t knows’ and also of anyone who is unhappy to be lumped as assumed members of the ‘vast majority’. If I appear to side with the supporters of gay liberation, it is not because I agree with them totally but because I see them as persecuted minority, deserving of support in the face of tyranny.
Years ago as a student I lived almost a year under the fascist government of the Colonels in Greece. The government were not out to get me personally but I watched the effect of arbitrary tyranny on people I knew and that affected me deeply. I suppose I would claim that any attempt to tell me what to think, using any kind of pressure or force, sets up in me a reaction that wants to argue for the opposite as well as challenge that use of power. I want to challenge Steve Clifford with the observation that he does not have the right to assume he knows what people believe. He is entitled to hold a position based on his study of Scripture and I, for one, respect a well argued position. The fact that his position is based on use of Biblical texts does not mean that it possesses a specially privileged status in the debate and can ignore the arguments coming from the other side. The talk about what the ‘vast majority’ think would suggest he has not properly considered the position of the many ‘don’t knows’ in the discussion, let alone the people who argue that his use of the Bible is in fact deeply flawed. We are coming uncomfortably close to the kind of mind-set known to dictators and anyone who deals in absolutes which cannot handle difference or disagreement. The ‘don’t knows’ challenge such authoritarian assumptions and demand the possibility of free, open and fair debate. There is still a lot more debating to be done over the gay issue and perhaps the ‘don’t knows’ are those who are most championing the need for continuing discussion. Talk about the ‘vast majority of Christians’ holding a particular position does not create the best environment for that debate to happen. Closing down or discouraging discussion is the behaviour of authoritarian groups, whether political or institutional. It will not do either in our nation or in our churches.