We're all sinners, but that's not the end of the story
The Atlantic’s designers picked up on the most striking line in the story. “Why Every Church Needs a Drag Queen” read the headline, just below a big picture of a woman with very short hair, huge earrings, thick-black-framed glasses, and visible tattoos. The first sentence of the article, a quote from its subject, ends with a profanity.
“If you don’t have a drag queen in your congregation, you should get one,” the subject, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says at another point. To encourage giving, the drag queen wanted to make a rude but amusing t-shirt, of the sort you will never see at First Baptist or Our Lady of Mercy. “Oh my God, it just makes church better,” exclaims Bolz-Weber.
Isn’t that just precious, as my grandmother used to say. But Bolz-Weber — already a bit of a sensation in some Protestant circles — has something to say about church life in America. She is part of a movement in American Protestantism that emphasizes grace to the near or complete exclusion of law. The movement stresses Christ’s invitation. It proclaims the Lord’s words, “Come to me all you who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” It declares that all is grace.
She told The Atlantic: “I have this hunch that people really find Jesus compelling, and they see what Christianity really could be. But what they see instead, so often, is an institution that tries to protect itself and promote itself. I think they want to have a place where they can speak the actual truth about themselves in the world and they don’t have to pretend.”
Later in the article she explains that “There’s a cultural wrapping around a lot of mainline Protestantism where the church has confused the gifts and the wrapping. The sort of slight formality and nicey-nice chit-chat and dressing up a little and not going too deep, but just being nice, good people who do some volunteer hours.”
She’s talking about mainline Protestantism, but there are Catholic and Evangelical analogues. This is not a point on which Catholics can safely throw stones. Her response to the suffering people she meets is to talk about sin and to use a traditional liturgy which conveys a sense of sin and redemption. “We have this socially progressive church, all these queer people, everyone’s welcome. And you know what we have in our liturgy every Sunday? Confession and absolution. Let us confess that God is God and we are not.”
When she talks about her own sins, she says “I don’t want to be in bondage to the fact that I can be a [rude word for a very difficult person]. So for me, the best path toward some sort of freedom from being absolutely bound to it is to admit that I need grace.”
Bolz-Weber has something to say. Americans would rather talk euphemistically about sin — about falling short, for example, or stumbling on the journey. We’d like to think of ourselves as B students in life, or maybe even C students, not actual sinners. (It strikes me, if I may say just in passing, that this helps explain the common preference for using the Kyrie rather than the Confiteor at Mass. The latter is an explicit admission of our sins. The former leaves unsaid exactly for what we’re asking the Lord for mercy.)
In a culture that refuses to recognize sins for what they are, someone has to say “This is a sin, and you’re a sinner.” Because people feel themselves to be sinners, to be alienated, out-of-sorts, not living the life they want to lead, to have caused others damage they can never undo, to have done wrong and to have been wrong, even if they don’t have the words to articulate what it is they feel. There is no solely this-worldly answer to that feeling. No amount of therapy will remove the sense of guilt — and if it does, it hasn’t healed you, it’s just made you a psychopath.
“I feel like crap all the time,” someone once said to me. That was as close to a recognition of sin as he could get. He thought, because his culture had told him so, that his problem was the way he felt about himself, not what he’d done to feel that way. He seemed surprised when I explained the Christian insight into human nature. He didn’t buy it, but it made sense to him.
To say to people “You have sinned” is a powerful message in itself. It provides the answer to a question many people have been asking, even if they haven’t asked it very clearly. To be able to say, as a Christian, “You have sinned and God loves you anyway, so much that Christ died for you” is an even more powerful message. It’s the Gospel Christians have to share, but for all sorts of reasons, including the reasons Bolz-Weber describes, we don’t share it very well.
Cheers for Nadia Bolz-Weber. But just one or maybe two cheers, not three. She leaves out much of what Christianity has to say. There is a limit to how radical she and her church can be. God wants to do more than forgive you. He wants to change you.
In her world, being a [rude word for a very difficult person] is a sin, but acting upon your homosexual desires isn’t. Everyone agrees that if you are a [rude word for a very difficult person], you should apologize to someone — and you might as well start by apologizing to God — and try to change your life. But few outside orthodox Christianity think that if you’re sexually intimate with someone you’re not married to, you need to apologize to God and try to change your life. And yet it is a sin and will affect your life for the worse.
I would be interested to know from what source Bolz-Weber gets her understanding of human sinfulness. Without some external, objective, “de-centering” definition of sins, such as that Catholic teaching gives us, Christianity becomes a self-help movement with a new technique: Instead of telling people how great they are, you tell them how bad they are but that God accepts them as they are anyway. Better, certainly, but not all that needs to be said.
All is grace, but grace is not all invitation. It’s also direction, formation, guidance, command, judgment. The Lord who said “Come to me all you who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest” also said, “Go and sin no more.” Every church doesn’t need a drag queen, but every drag queen needs the Church.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.