By Derek Penwell
I remember my best friend at Emmanuel School of Religion, Scott, used to get the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent to him every week by his dad. As a displaced Georgia Bulldog and Atlanta Braves fan, Scott had no other real way of keeping up with his teams—the internet not yet being a thing and all. Being a displaced Cubs fan, I kind of understood—at least the impulse to want information on your team from trusted sources.
I say that “I kind of understood,” because, you know, displaced fan thing—but the whole “Atlanta Braves” thing entirely escaped me. Please understand, this is the pre-Maddux-and-Glavine Atlanta Braves, the Dale-Murphy-in-decline Atlanta Braves, the 106-loss Atlanta Braves. (I’m a Cubs fan, so I do have a pretty finely tuned sense of what a baseball wasteland feels like—but I guess it’s easier to understand when it’s your own wasteland.)
I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to keep up with days old box scores from the Atlanta Braves. But Scott did. Faithfully. Every unimaginably excruciating day. I had a grim admiration for his tenacity.
It used to take a certain amount of courage to be an Atlanta Braves fan, to go to a virtually empty Fulton County Stadium in the torrid Atlanta summer, and watch your boys get hammered by the Montreal Expos—a kind of brave fatalism, if you’ll pardon the pun. However misguided, it struck me as a nobly rash commitment to something that everyone agreed was a bad idea loaded up on a train to nowhere.
Until it wasn’t.
In 1991, the Braves went from losing 97 games the year before to winning 94 games and the pennant. They would go on to make fourteen consecutive post-season appearances between 1991 and 2005.
I remember after we were out of seminary, in pre-Twitter days, watching the 1991 NLCS, talking on the phone throughout the game with Scott and our other friend, Craig—them in Atlanta and me in Waddy, Kentucky. It was magic, lot’s of screaming and crying and beer drinking. 1991 began a baseball resurgence in Atlanta. There was a long stretch during the 1990s and 2000s when it was almost impossible to live in the south and not be a Braves fan—doing all that whooping and hollering and unfortunate aping of Native American culture. Everybody got in on the act.
And do you want to know how all this newfound popularity struck my buddy, Scott? It made him furious. “Bandwagon fans.” That’s what he called them.
You know. Posers. Johnny-come-latelies. Fair-weather. Folks who show up when everything’s already going well.
Scott had no use for people who had no investment of time or anguish in years of grisly box scores lodged in days-old newspapers, people who’d failed to spend countless hours watching as Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren called meaningless game after meaningless game. Where were these people when it actually cost something to be a Braves fan?
I’ve been thinking about Scott and late-to-the-party fans recently. As Utah and Indiana join the ranks of states where same gender marriage is now simply “marriage,” indications are that soon there won’t be a state in the union where people can be denied the rights and benefits of marriage because they happen to love someone with the wrong anatomical makeup. There will be bumps in the road, for sure, but marriage equality—like death and taxes—is inevitable. Like it or not, that’s the world (at least the American one) we’re fixin’ to inhabit.
And with a changed world comes a changed understanding of moral responsibility. In the same way that it is now culturally unimaginable to question to the legitimacy of a person’s claim to equality because of race, it will soon be just as unthinkable to challenge a person’s right to be treated equally based on sexual orientation or gender expression. These kinds of sociological trends are fairly consistent. Whatever you think of it, those who seek to deny cultural legitimacy to LGBT folks will, within a generation, be viewed in the same way as we currently look back on the genteel racism of the 1960s and blanche.
Don’t believe me? Try this one on: Westboro Baptist Church is viewed (even by people who agree in principle with its anti-homosexual stance) as the cultural heirs of the Ku Klux Klan.
Look, if you want to argue that being against marriage equality isn’t in the same moral boat as racism, go ahead. People I love and respect make the argument passionately. I’m just telling you that it’s a losing argument from the standpoint of social evolution.
At this point, my by now apoplectic detractors will say, “But we shouldn’t shift our moral commitments based on legal and social trends.”
My response to that is, “You’re right. You shouldn’t. But you will … or at least sufficient numbers of you who believe what you believe now because of thoughtful moral and theological conviction won’t believe it in ten years.” I know that makes you angry, but it’s true. I’m merely being descriptive of how this stuff works. There is going to come a day in the not too distant future when the cost of maintaining opposition to LGBT people is just to culturally demanding, and you’re going to figure out a way to abandon ship. I know that’s difficult to hear, and I don’t get any pleasure from the cognitive and moral confusion it will cause. I’m merely offering a description of what’s getting ready to happen.
“Well, how do you know so much, Mr. Smarty-pants?”
Because that’s the story I’ve heard repeated over and over again in my work: “I grew up thinking this was wrong, but now I can’t figure out why I was so exercised by it.” (Not to mention the number of young people growing up who never had to get over the belief that “this was wrong.”) That’s how these kinds of tectonic shifts in the culture happen.
So, if this is the cultural inevitability I’ve described, the question to the church is: “Where are you going to be when everybody comes to agree where you always should have been?” Because that’s going to happen too.
Let me see if I can be clearer: One of these days, people are going to look back at the things churches said (and failed to say) about welcoming LGBT people, and they’re going to judge you not by the cultural lights under which you’re currently sailing, but the by the future cultural lights that are present when the question is asked. Think about our moral outrage at Thomas Jefferson when it comes to Sally Hemings, or how foolish the timid white Protestant pastors Martin Luther King, Jr. refers to in Letter from a Birmingham Jail look now. Whether you think that’s fair or not is beside the point. It’s just the way these things go.
It’s not quite done yet, though. There’s still time. But the question to the church very soon is going to be: “Did you become a Braves fan before 1991? Did you make an investment when making an investment cost something, when the box scores were a wasteland, and nobody was clamoring to get to the head of the ticket line to see a winner, when it was still acceptable to ignore people who’ve been abused based on their sexual orientation and gender identity? Or are you going to let the culture do the heavy lifting on this issue and ride in on the bandwagon when it’s safe to do so?”
Don’t think that the people who care about this aren’t watching, and that they won’t remember where you stood.
The tide of history is moving toward fairness. I just happen to believe that the church ought to be on the front end of that pursuing justice, rather than bringing up the rear as an obstacle over which justice has had to roll.