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Why naming Tim Keller’s sexism and transphobia isn’t dancing on his grave
If we aren’t honest about the legacies of people who have died, we are not remembering them.
Tim Keller, even among prominent progressive voices, garnered praise and admiration on the week of his death. Obituary after obituary, I read about how impressive of a pastor, church planter, and man he was. I have not been shy about my views on Tim Keller, and you can read them here, but I was saddened that so many writers failed to mention that Keller excluded women from the pulpit and queer folks from membership until his demise. Even the paper of record only mentions his bigotry eleven paragraphs into it (meanwhile the Washington Post, mentions it early, but cushions by mentioning his championing of racial equity). His legacy as a church planter is noteworthy, but his primitive exclusion of entire groups of people from fellowship and leadership is the most significant thing about his ministry.
Within the world of Christianity, I think we have expected women and queer folks to be excluded, since it happens so frequently and without apology. We have grown tolerant of hatred, in a way that makes Christianity outdated, but also hypocritical. In my view, not being able to name Keller’s bigotry as elemental to his ministry does a disservice to victims of his bigotry – it ignores them and reduces their very lives as something we can just “agree to disagree” on, and further, it all
It is even worse when supposed allies of these groups simply ignore Keller’s sexism and transphobia. If you fail to address these flagrant problems, you cannot call yourself an ally to queer people or a feminist. If you ignore hatred, you are complicit in that hatred. And if naming that makes me a polarizing Christian who is exacerbating the political divide in the church, then so be it. Unity that falls on the back of women and queer folks’ dignity is not unity at all. Jemar Tisby, in his exceedingly and inappropriately generous memory of Keller, directly addresses this issue:
In speaking candidly of my memories of Keller, I risk the arousing response of the people who were displeased with his teachings or actions. I’m sensitive to the real pain people may have experienced, and my intention is not minimize those instances or reopen any wounds.
For me, I wondered what the standard is.
When can we speak of our individual impressions of people whose work has affected so many? How can we talk about a life in the aggregate and not just isolated instances? In what ways can we point to a person’s witness and character even when there are areas of important differences?
Keller’s bigotry is not an isolated instance, it is essentially a part of his approach to Christianity, church planting, and evangelism. For the queer people and women affected by it, it is how we must remember his “life in the aggregate.” Tisby is acting like it is a small feature when those affected would name it as a primary feature. Further, it is impossible to point to the positives of a person’s witness and character when he summarily dismisses and excludes entire groups of people.
I don’t want to talk out of turn, but I imagine Tisby would have a much different opinion if Keller excluded a person like me from the pulpit because of my skin color, instead of my sexuality. Clearly, if Keller was a segregationist – which is the racial equivalent of what he was when it came to queer people and women – Tisby, and others (including Evangelical voices) would absolutely and necessarily mention his hypothetical record on race. The reason they would is because Christianity, at large, has repudiated segregation (although, not all of it). So the question is, how much time must women and queer people be oppressed in the church before it is normative to name their oppression when we remember the people who oppressed them?
Keller garners praise because he collected critiques from both sides of the political spectrum. For people on the right, his “winsome” approach was not confrontational enough of secular philosophy (in other words, he was too nice about his sexism, homophobia, and transphobia), and on the left, Katelyn Beaty wrote, “his teachings on gender and sexuality are seen as oppressive and a tool of exclusion for already marginalized people.” Beaty noted that his right-wring critics found him too winsome, and his left-wing critics saw him as oppressive. While Beaty’s point doesn’t praise him for his inability to take a side, her ability to “both sides” critics of Tim Keller showcases that we have an inability in Christianity to call out bigotry when it is plain. To her, it is merely the perception of oppression that the left critiques Killer for – not the fact of the matter that he excluded people from the pulpit and the church because of their gender and sexuality. Tim Keller was a fundamentalist Christian, who yes, disguised his fundamentalism by baiting and switching Manhattanites into following Jesus, while rewarding their bigotry and never challenging it. In a world that is already rife with homophobia, transphobia, and sexism – Keller did nothing to challenge it and made it clear that neither did Jesus or the Bible.
Ultimately, it isn’t the fault of the journalists and friends of Keller for writing soft pieces after his death that don’t mention his prejudice. Keller was certainly responsible for spreading his hateful theology, but the secular, Christian, and progressive voices that fail to mention it are just a reflection of the fact that Christianity is seen as a sexist and anti-queer religion. It is normative within Christianity to exclude women and sexual minorities, and further, it is normative for society to tolerate it. I find that to be a shameful reality, and I wish more Christians would name it. It is entirely within the bounds of critics to name this prejudice plainly when they remember the giants of Christianity that upheld this prejudicial and dangerous belief system.
We don’t have to tolerate sexism, transphobia, and homophobia in public life or in Christian belief. It is not too late to challenge people on these issues. And further, it is appropriate to do so at the time we’re remembering those people who upheld these beliefs. When I mention Tim Keller’s legacy, I have to mention his sexism and homophobia. There’s certainly more to say and debate about him – such as how he upheld Christian exceptionalism as a solution to society’s problems -- but at the very least his fundamental belief that women and queer people should be excluded must be robustly named.
It wasn’t so long ago that Christianity was known for its sponsorship of racialized chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and its opposition to Civil Rights. Today, it is known for its prejudice against women and queer people, and Tim Keller is one of the leaders that made it so. We should and can name his prejudice as we honestly reflect on his life. And to not do so, is to tell women and queer people that their livelihood is not important enough to polarize the church over. It is then to further oppress them. I am not dancing on his grave when I mention his egregious theology, rather, I am ensuring that in remembering him, I don’t further burden those who Keller oppressed for decades.