David Gushee has spent more than twenty years as a writer, professor, and activist in the evangelical community. Often a minority voice—both within that world and in the broader Christian conversation—he advances a wide-ranging moral vision that insists on God’s care for society’s most vulnerable elements. His advocacy on behalf of the environment, the unborn, and victims of US torture both lend his ethic of life an unusual consistency and make it the frequent target of criticism from liberals and conservatives alike. In this interview, Gushee engages the problem of celebrity in modern social existence, locating it within the complex spaces occupied by stories, saints, and economic power and articulating how these influences can shape our Christian identity.

The Other Journal (TOJ): In a recent column in the Associated Baptist Press, you explore the virtues at work in several movies from 2010, concluding, “We’re a storytelling species, and we have always used our stories to teach one another about how we should live and how we should not” (January 3, 2011). Your first book, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, offers a detailed account of those few Christians who rescued Jews at a time when the majority of Gentiles were bystanders or perpetrators. And at one level the book constitutes just such a project of morally formative storytelling. It’s a project that asks, especially in chapter six, how is it that some Christians became formed into a different kind of Christianity? And moreover, how do we form people of moral courage like those Christians? When you survey the American religious landscape, how would you characterize the significance of that question today? Do you find churches still asking it?

David Gushee (DG): I think the question of how we form people of good character is still asked, especially under the influence of Stanley Hauerwas and character ethics. I think that particular question of how we form people of moral courage is asked far less frequently. How do we form people who will stand against prevailing currents of ideology and prejudice and hatred, even if those currents are ratified by their government?—I do not think these are questions that are on the agenda of most church leaders.

TOJ: And do you see that as a shift today, as opposed to, say, when you began your career in writing and teaching Christian ethics? Or is this a perennial problem of American church life?

DG: I think it’s more a consistent problem and I think it goes back to the general assimilation of American Christianity into mainstream American culture. In one sense, it’s our particular version of the Christendom problem. Churches have not felt themselves to be cocoons of countercultural formation and identity. Pastors and Sunday school teachers and education ministers have not generally woken up in the morning asking, “What might it mean to be a distinctive people following Jesus Christ in this culture?” And so while there have always been theologians and activists who have a bit more of a countercultural edge to them, the average church, I would say, has not. And that would be consistent through the course of my career.

TOJ: In the time since the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, what stories have you seen emerge in which the witness of people of moral virtue might lay claim to the critical situation of today, inviting us to imitate and participate in their moral formation? Can you offer other examples of those kinds of imitable moral figures who could perhaps address this lack we’ve identified in American church life?

DG: There is no shortage of them in history. In some cases it’s about discovering those stories and making them important to us. Part of what I’ve always tried to do when teaching moral leaders and telling narratives of moral courage is to retrieve such stories. Whether it would be William Wilberforce in England, who is very popular with Evangelicals now, or, less popular, Oscar Romero in El Salvador or Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa or the labor activists who sometimes gave their lives for the basic rights of workers in large parts of the world. I would say such stories continue to be generated, especially in contexts in which Christians are not the majority or in which some kind of prevalent evil requires resistance and at least a portion of the Christian community recognizes that evil and offers resistance.

In my own experience of dealing with the recent issues of American detainee abuse or counterterrorism, I have found that the basic pattern always seems to be the same: at the time, only a minority of people see a situation as wrong and are willing to do anything about it. Most people are bystanders. Those categories of perpetrator, victim, bystander, and rescuer that I wrote about in Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust remain normative for me, and I see them time and time again. There were people who rescued one another during the Rwandan genocide. But there were also Christian leaders who killed fellow Christians during that same genocide. In every context, Christian behavior tends to distribute along a spectrum from the most appalling to the most admirable. So there’s really an endless store of stories to be told and narratives to be either shunned or imitated.

TOJ: Let’s get in a plug for your forthcoming book on theological engagements with the sanctity of life, because it’s quite relevant to this conversation. Do you want to say more about what moral leaders you have identified in that book and how they’re operating as a kind of norm for ethical and moral discourse? What role do they play in your forthcoming book?

DG: Yes, but let me set up a bit more context. I decided to undertake an exploration of the idea that every human life is infinitely precious, infinitely sacred. And so the book, in one sense, is a conceptual exploration of the questions: what does it mean to say that a human life is precious? Which human lives? How is preciousness further specified? What actions are demanded by persons having sacred worth? However, that kind of analytical moral philosophy—the defining of terms and the drawing of distinctions—is intrinsically less interesting to me than the exploration of narratives that illustrate the point, regardless of whether those are biblical or postbiblical narratives. I just finished chapter seven of the book, so I’ve taken the story up through the Enlightenment, having traced out the way in which figures from the early pre-Constantinian church as a community embodied a holistic sacredness of life ethic. What I did for that exploration was not just to quote them, which is easy to do, but also to quote people who watched them, people who were not Christians, to see what they said about it. Then, moving into the medieval period, I spent an unexpected amount of time on Francis of Assisi and the story that some people know, but most don’t, about his effort to make peace during the fifth crusade by walking unarmed across enemy lines to go talk to the sultan in Egypt during the heat of brutal battle. And then I wrote about Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish priest in the New World who in the early sixteenth century protested the horrible abuses of the native populations of Latin America, abuses that other theologians of the time believed were justified. I’ve also written about Richard Overton, who was one of the very first Europeans, an Englishman, to argue for total religious liberty, including religious liberty for atheists and Jews and Muslims, and he lived right in the middle part of the seventeenth century. And Roger Williams gets a mention. I’m interested in people like that, and the book is going to move on and talk about a variety of movements and individuals in the twentieth century who, in one way or another, said every human life is sacred, especially those people that everyone else devalues. I think that is an easily derived notion, even from Matthew 25:40, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”[1] And I talk about that in my New Testament chapter, the idea that through the stranger, especially the devalued, hated stranger, we encounter Jesus Christ. That’s really all the theological grounding you would need to see every human being as sacred. But some Christians are captivated by that vision and, sadly, others aren’t.

TOJ: You recently participated in a conference at Princeton University called, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words: A Conference on Life & Choice in the Abortion Debate.” As you move forward on your book project, how did your experiences at this event shape your ongoing engagement with the sanctity of every human life? What does the complex question of abortion mean for the conversations we’re having on the moral formation of the Christian community?

DG: Several thoughts come to mind. One is that the phrase “sanctity of life” has been thrown around so much, often as a weapon, in the abortion debate that I find I have to cut through a lot of resistance to the phrase when I speak to any audience other than a conservative Christian one. I was impressed at the conference by profound expressions of deep concern for women’s lives and women’s suffering on the part of many who are ardent pro-choice activists, but this was not usually coupled with a similar grave sense of the value of the lives of unborn, developing children. Of course, the inverse sometimes appears to be the case on the pro-life side. I am more convinced than ever that a holistic approach is needed—we cannot serve the well-being of unborn children without loving and caring for women facing crisis pregnancies. They are a tandem, a pair, and must be loved and served accordingly.

But I do remain convinced that a society that appears to require one out of every five pregnancies to end in elective abortion as a corollary of its sexual practices must not be sanguine about that reality. I was glad to meet at least some on the pro-choice side who are also deeply troubled by this, while being disturbed to encounter others who don’t find it particularly problematic.

TOJ: We’ve looked at strong, positive examples of the kind of moral formation that occurs by way of imitation, by way of listening to moral leaders who are worthy of that imitation. But it’s also no secret that the power of stories, their characters and these practices of imitation, cut both ways or, we might say, in many directions. So what stories and characters—whether in entertainment, the arts, politics, or the academy—grip the American imagination today in ways that you find to be destructive, distracting, or otherwise damaging to moral formation?

DG: That’s a great question. There is a story circulating that a hoard of mainly Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants has come to the United States and is taking all of our jobs and undermining our economy or undermining our culture. This is a narrative that feeds anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant actions, including politics and laws, which I think is destructive. There’s the story that we have a secret fifth column of radical Muslims who sit around in their homes in the United States planning the next 9/11 and that that, in fact, is really what Islam is all about. This story helped, for example, to feed the hysteria around the idea of a mosque in the general vicinity of Ground Zero. I think that since the election of Barak Obama there has been a narrative of some kind of alien-stranger-not-one-of-us who somehow, by some evil design, came to be president of the United States and seeks to destroy our country—I think that that is a disastrous story. I don’t know what percentage of the population believes it, maybe 15 to 20 percent, but it’s terrible and untrue. I think there’s a story that if I could just get rich by becoming a celebrity or winning the lottery that all of my problems will be solved. So it’s a story of celebrity as the key to happiness. I think there are all kinds of narratives that are implicitly taught by our celebrity culture, such as that marriage is ephemeral, that sex is commitment-free, and that the whole arena of marriage and family relations is totally up to the individual to negotiate what he or she wants it to be and that there are no standards. These are some of the stories that are out there. You can talk about stories in films, too. One recent story that I wrote about in the article you cited earlier is the story of True Grit, a story of vengeance through the tracking down and killing of evil men. I think that story of vengeance and violence, especially through guns, is very deeply embedded in the American psyche.

TOJ: Having watched the American scene for a long time now, do you notice that those sorts of themes, say, of revenge fantasies, crop up more in times of war or times of internal distress in our country?

DG: I think there’s a couple background factors we need to keep in mind that have distorted our national psyche. First is that we’ve never really moved off of a war footing since 1941. We went right from World War II to the Cold War, and it really wasn’t very long before we began getting embroiled in Islamist terrorism, and then of course 9/11 came along. There may have been a window of four or five years where it felt like we were at peace. Meanwhile, we’ve developed this massive national security apparatus that, after a while, becomes self-justifying and has its own impact on the American psyche. So, being on a constant war footing, I think, has had a subtle and often-overlooked impact. I would say that 9/11 traumatized the country, traumatized our sense of impregnability to attack. I mean it was a traumatic, traumatic event that we are, I think, going to be wrestling with as a people for another twenty or thirty years. And second there is also economic distress. Almost one out of every five people are unemployed or underemployed—if you count underemployed too we’re at least one out of five. And economic distress, going bankrupt, losing your home, not being able to feed your family, wondering how you’re going to make the bills—these factors have a deranging effect on people and, collectively, on a nation. So I would say that all of those factors have rendered America a pretty disturbed place. And it’s affecting our storytelling.

TOJ: In addition to discussing this role of storytelling within American culture, I’d like to draw attention to the fact that you’ve been a professor, activist, and churchman in the evangelical community for over twenty years. Within that community what evangelical celebrities do you notice your students aspiring to be like? And what do you think those celebrities mean for your students’ discipleship and formation?

DG: It has changed a lot. And I would say that the evangelical celebrity market is fragmenting now too. It totally depends on where you are. A couple of examples: when I was at Union University, John Piper was a hero to the Calvinist sector of our students, and there are others in that line—sometimes Al Mohler—but that’s not really a factor where I am now because Calvinism is just not a serious issue on the Mercer University campus. I think that some of the megachurch pastors of an older generation had their following and maybe still do—people like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, but I don’t hear twenty-five-year-old students talking about Rick Warren and Bill Hybels. You have some activists who have an appeal to students, people like Rich Cizik, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, but then there’s a younger generation of people too, people like Brian McLaren or even younger, like Shane Claiborne. And then there are heroes and leaders in the African American evangelical community and in the Hispanic evangelical community.

I would say that my sense right now is that I don’t hear my students aspiring to be so much like an individual as to pursue a certain way of life that maybe they have seen written about or exemplified to some extent by several people. And so you have your peace-and-justice-activist students or your missional church students or your plant-in-urban-America-and-just-live-and-serve-there students. They’ve found models and examples, sometimes local ones, and are modeling themselves to some extent after those individuals.

In general, a personality-driven approach is vulnerable to what happens when that personality, that individual, makes mistakes or is no longer relevant or turns out to be not-so-good when you look at them over the sweep of time. And you can imitate and model yourselves after someone for the wrong reason. Sometimes in our churches, we imitate people because they’re successful, because they’re visible, because they’re wealthy, not because they’re especially profound in the way they follow Christ or in the quality of their moral witness. So I think there’s a good reason to pay attention to the saints of the ages and to allow some testing of time before we lift someone up and say, “This person is worthy of attention in the Christian community.”

It actually makes me think of the Catholic process of canonizing saints. It takes awhile. It’s not supposed to be done quickly, because you have to let a life settle for awhile and have a little time to reflect on it to see whether it really is an imitatable, worthy-of-imitation life.

TOJ: And that’s been a recurring theme for us in this conversation, what we might call a moral hagiography of looking at those lives that have conformed to discipleship in Christ in ways that are worth considering and maybe imitating today. In terms of the nature of that sort of imitation, what do you see as the difference in how that operates from the way in which the call to imitation takes place in celebrity culture as a pervasive influence, especially on young people in American life? Is it a difference just in the content of that imitation or is there something different in the way that the dynamic itself operates?

DG: In celebrity culture, people are famous often for the most superficial reasons. They’re famous because they’re beautiful or sexy or rich or scandalous in their behavior—making stupid mistakes, being in and out of drug rehab, or whatever it might be. Even actors and actresses—I’m thinking of the magazines you see on the racks at the grocery store—the stories about them are not stories about their skill in acting. It’s not about virtues or skills. It’s about their being famous for being famous. Or that they photograph well. Or they’re famous for being scandalous. Or because they were in the most recent movie that made a lot of money. In Christian hagiography, we imitate people because of the contours of their lives, because of the virtues they exemplify, the skills they developed or the practices they developed in association with those virtues, and because their lives conform to the pattern of Jesus Christ, at least, we’ve come to conclude that that is true. They did better than most at conforming their lives to the pattern of Jesus Christ. And that is another difference. We have a standard in Jesus for the kind of life we’re aspiring to. It’s like a mold. So we can test our own lives and other Christians’ lives against that mold, and when somebody gets pretty close to fitting their life around or in that mold, you might say we know it. We notice it. Or at least we should. So I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say that it’s not them we are imitating so much as Christ in and through them. It’s their conformity, their being conformed to the image of Christ, which also provides a standard that keeps us from just imitating people for the superficial considerations that pop up in celebrity culture, whether it be Christian celebrity culture or secular celebrity culture.

TOJ: That reminds me of what you said earlier concerning the emerging and missional church communities that I think you rightly identify as not so much trying to find specific people to be like and imitate but more as identifying a common shape of moral life or common patterns of Christian formation. In assessing the contemporary situation today—for you especially, having a good deal of historical knowledge of the American church in the twentieth century—what kind of advice would you give to those young church leaders, specifically in how to return to that first question we began with: how do you form Christians who can resist? How do you form Christians who are not bystanders or perpetrators? How do you form Christians who have the moral courage to act with wisdom and boldness in the contemporary political and social situation we find ourselves in?

DG: For a pastor or leader, you first have to decide whether those are the kinds of questions that you believe it is the responsibility of a church leader or Christian community to keep at the center of your vision. If you really do believe that, then you’re a lot of the way there, because everything you do will be affected by that. But what are some of those things you can do? I think it has a lot to do with the way Scripture is taught and preached, the story that Scripture is allowed to tell or invited to tell. I think it has to do with—and I’d recommend—a whole lot more retrieving of the kinds of narratives we’ve been talking about. I would love it if more preachers and teachers knew about, accessed, and communicated stories like the Righteous Gentiles, like Romero, like Wilberforce, like Bonhoeffer. So in other words, I think for Protestants especially, I call you to a new hagiography. We need our own saints. We don’t have to exclude the Catholic saints. Some of them need to be taught by us, too. But then we need others. We need to tell stories of lives worthy of imitation.

I would also say that I’ve seen a pattern in my students that as a pastor when you move into an existing church and you plug into a structure that is there, in many cases, with the church paying you a pretty nice salary, the freedom of pulpit and the freedom of the serious challenge of moral formation is gone from the beginning. And so I have to ask, what kind of financial arrangements and structure would be required for people who exercise leadership in a Christian community to speak into that community the truth that is needed, even if it’s an uncomfortable or painful truth. As long as leaders are driven by fear of dismissal because some powerful person or group in the congregation wants to get rid of them, that’s a serious hindrance to the kind of formation of disciples we’re talking about here. But in a house church or in a little neighborhood church, where the salary is minimal and people are bivocational or living simply or in community, a lot of those financial pressures are not there, which is, I think, part of the appeal of these alternative church models these days. So these are things you have to ask. Where your heart is there your treasure will be also—to the extent that your financial well-being is tied up in keeping quiet about issues that require address, you’ve got a problem.

TOJ: It just occurred to me that in the landscape of figures who end up being emulated today, none of them are poor. Speaking broadly of American culture, we only imitate people who have moderate or tremendous wealth. What’s the significance of economic reality for how imitation operates as a moral discourse?

DG: I think that’s a wise observation. I can only think of one cluster of counterexamples, and that would be the New Monastics, who have voluntarily chosen simple living. And that paradigm goes back through the centuries. But when I was coming through, the people who were closest to exemplifying that in mainstream evangelicalism were people like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis. It does take a certain amount of money to start and sustain an organization, to get significant access to media, and to be taken seriously in a money-drenched culture. You don’t see too many poor people, as you said, or too many people who don’t have crisp suits and ties being interviewed on CNN. We valorize money and the things that money can buy. It’s in our blood. It oozes out of our pores. I do think of local church communities far from the headlines and the bright lights, communities where some of my students pastor in urban Atlanta, mainly African American churches; there’s no money there, or very little money. The pastor doesn’t make much, the people don’t have much, but sometimes there’s some serious moral formation going on there—it’s just that nobody will ever know about it except for that local congregation.

So if you’re talking about imitation on a grand scale, that usually involves the resources required to have a story become known to a large audience, and that usually takes some money. But imitation on the local scale happens everyday to people who don’t have much in the way of wealth and resources.

TOJ: Following up on that phenomenon, in the last ten years or so we’ve seen new media explode through the Internet and social networking. And I think it’s common to lament or worry about the dangers those forms of new media pose to true, face-to-face human community. But what potential might those new forms of media offer for telling stories which don’t normally get told, stories that CNN wouldn’t send a camera crew out to tell but that a kid might put on YouTube?

DG: My initial concern about new media was the way anonymity releases inhibitions, and so it’s like alcohol or a drug. You’re commenting on someone’s article, as happens to my articles all the time, and people just slash and burn them anonymously because nobody knows who they are; they’d never say it to your face, but they will say it on a screen. So I would say that that factor and the retreat—sometimes quite visible retreat—of people from actual face-to-face community into virtual community is a concern. But I think as we’ve seen even recently with the uprisings across the Arab world, social media becomes a way of actually knitting together a community and of resisting centralized power. It is true there’s a certain radical democratization on something like YouTube, so once something that is really funny or really inspiring or really stupid is posted on YouTube and by common consent goes viral, everyone knows it very quickly. So there is potential both for getting together community in some surprising ways and for democratizing access to people’s attention. The main brokers, the national brokers whose voices count and get heard, have less power there, which is probably all for the good.

TOJ: We’ve been talking a lot about figures worthy of imitation. What do you make of the fact that wherever you go, a group of students seems to crop up and declare themselves “Gusheeites”?

DG [laughs]: I believe the Christian life at its best is about a love that knits together strangers into community, and I’ve always loved students and felt a special calling not just to teach classes but to build community with students. So to some extent the Gusheeite phenomenon, if one would like to call it that, is about my need or sense of call to build community with students and about students’ responsiveness to that and their own desire to be in community. That’s one reason I’ve never gone full time into administration or politics or activism, because I need to be in community with students. I must be called to it, wired for it and called to it. If the day were ever to come where I didn’t feel that way anymore, I would hope that I’d stop teaching because community is fundamental to my identity as a professor.

I think that some of my classes and some of my own activities have motivated students to be introduced to a new vision of what it means to be a Christian and given them access to some heroes they’ve never heard about or to a moral vision they’ve never thought about as going with the Christian faith before. They get turned on to that and pursue that in ten thousand different ways. I hope I never have clones but always have people who get inspired to this life of Christian moral courage and take that in whatever particular direction they are called to. I’ve seen that happen a lot of different times, and hopefully I will have many more years to have that experience. It’s humbling. If people are attempting to emulate you or gather around you, then you have a responsibility not to mess up, a responsibility to be worthy of that and to always point to Christ, who is the pattern we’re all seeking to conform to.

[1] From the English Standard Version.