Dissidence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Christians are telling themselves a fruitless tale about Brendan Eich.

The ousting of Brendan Eich–the new CEO of Mozilla whose tenure lasted about two weeks–has caused a good deal of consternation for both conservatives and progressives.  The consensus is that the human rights campaigns who campaigned against him were splitting hairs to an uncomfortable degree in a liberal society.  Even pro-gay marriage voices like Andrew Sullivan deemed it a pretty mean piece of business that should not have happened.

Conservatives, for their part, appear to want to take the episode even farther.  An article by Mollie Hemingway over at The Federalist has been shopped around, generally pleasing those on the conservative side of the issue.  She casts Eich’s story in the context of Vaclav Havel, the famous Czech dissident, political philosopher, and later president of the Czech Republic after it freed itself from the grip of communist rule.  She summarizes Havel’s most famous thought experiment of the greengrocer, a useful little fable I read in college, about a hypothetical grocer who puts up a communist slogan in his window “Workers of the World Unite!” because that’s just what everyone else is doing.  Though he doesn’t agree with the slogan (he really just wants to see his own store and local village grow and prosper) the message is just another drop of water in the sea he swims in, and so he doesn’t question it.  If he does not put up the sign or amend it with a truthful statement like “I’m only doing this because I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t” then he becomes a dissident and a danger to the system by causing others to decide whether they will put up the sign or not.  In short, it causes people to actually think about what they believe and choose whether to act in accordance with that belief or go along with whatever power happens to be the order of the day.

Hemingway cuts and pastes the allegory right onto the Eich episode, and I have to admit it’s a good fit.  She, along with the other hopeful conservatives who have shared and retweeted it, seem to be convinced that Eich’s martyrdom will finally burst the dam of unquestioning obedience to the gay rights movement, and people will begin to start actually decide what they think about the issue instead of just putting up red equal signs on their facebook pages.  She proclaims:

What we have in Eich is the powerful story of a dissident…Regardless of our previous views on marriage, we saw in Eich a dissident who forced us to think about totalitarianism and our role in making society unfree. Did we mindlessly put up red equal signs when we hadn’t even thought about what marriage is? Did we rush to fit in by telling others we supported same-sex marriage? Did we even go so far as to characterize as “bigots” or as “Hitlers” those who held views about the importance of natural marriage?

Whether Eich and other dissidents will crack our thick, hardened crust remains to be seen. Perhaps there will need to be dozens, hundreds, thousands more dissidents losing their livelihoods, facing court cases, and dealing with social media rage mobs. But all of a sudden, the crust doesn’t seem nearly as impenetrable as it did last week.

This may be all very well for conservatives, Christians ought to be wary of relying too heavily on this sort of political storytelling.  I too very much want America to start having a reasoned discussion about gay marriage, and I don’t want people who oppose it to lose influential jobs (because that probably means that I will never hold one.)  But I place very little hope in casting conservatives as heroic dissidents against a totalitarian system.  Indeed, I think there is much more false optimism and even a touch of soul-killing pride in the exercise.  I do not mean to say that Havel’s allegory does not map quite neatly over Eich’s story or that there is not a “gay mafia” or that there is not a public mood with a similar attitude toward certain religious expressions as existed in Stalinist Russia, but the problem is that the narrative of dissidence cuts both ways, and is much more often a tale told by the progressive left.  For every conservative dissenter, there is or has been a similarly riveting tale of a progressive one.  Hemingway brings up the famous Czech rock band The Plastic People of the Universe whose arrest was instrumental in sparking the so-called “Velvet Revolution” that overthrew communism in Czechoslovakia.  It is strange that they would be cited as an illustration for Eich because the closest modern analogue, both geographically and thematically, would very obviously be the case of Russian lesbian punk band Pussy Riot raging against Putin’s new conservative hegemony.  I actually wonder if conservatives are not dimly aware of this, and are intentionally spinning an archetypal story dear to the Left in order to intentionally win their sympathy.  This is a fairly pathetic strategy that, if carried too far, will ultimately weaken our witness.

It is very easy to lionize dissent as a justification for the truth of one’s cause.  One gets caught up in the thrill of being a lone, persecuted contrarian, and can fantasize about oneself at the center of that drama.  Tweeted slogans like “If your faith does not lead you to heroic action you must ask yourself, ‘What do I believe? Do I believe anything?'” make me very uneasy because they seem to place heroism as the necessary justification for the truth of the cause.  An emphasis on dissenting heroism will inevitably devolve into fruitless posturing between pro and anti same sex marriage camps, as each side holding up their martyrs as symbols for the rightness of their cause.  I actually think that Christians, when they are true to themselves, are the best line of defense against this sort of breakdown of public discourse, because it is they who have the more robust conception of a moral community lived out in humility and submission rather than cycles of outrage.  Small ‘o’ orthodox Christianity is not the province of political liberty but of right relationship with God (in whom there is true freedom.)  They ought to see this issue in the same light as past persecutions, the moral vision of the church coming up against a rival set of ethical precepts.

And so holding up our own as martyrs for freedom is somewhat disingenuous since we don’t really want it; not for ourselves or anyone else we care about.  We ask for just enough liberty to maintain our vocations as slaves of Christ in public and to persuade others to join us in that noble calling.  Anyway, it ought to be rather beneath us to curry so much sympathy from a liberal society.  We don’t want to be known primarily as victims of illiberalism, but as citizens of Christendom.  We want to be recognized as followers of an ancient and venerable order–one that pretty much built the Western world, I might add–who know how to suffer in patience.  Since the possibility of America voluntarily repenting of its sins and accepting Christian morals, both sexual and otherwise, seems very unlikely as of this date, we will settle for pluralism.  But the currency of pluralism is respect, not pity and so we ought not cultivate the latter.  Our duty instead is to regard this new world from the firm foundation of our tradition and the fervor of our faith, and be unmoved.  We must fly in the face of every post-modern cliche and inform the world of God’s law, God’s judgment, and God’s salvation through Christ. This is how we will deserve respect from our enemies and perhaps we may even get it.

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