Holding Hands and Finding Home

I love traveling, but it makes me nervous. I approach new places with great anticipation . . . and dread. I’ve tried to get to the bottom of this ambivalence, but I still don’t have it quite figured out. On the one hand, I like novelty. I like to discover new places, and to make new friends. On the other hand, I’m a self-conscious introvert—which means that going into new places always plagues me with the inexplicable fear that my fly is open and that the people I meet will destabilize my hard-won equilibrium. So, when I can manage whatever it is I must manage to enter these new situations, I want things to go smoothly—no tripping, no spilling coffee all over myself, and no getting stuck next to the guy at the chip dip bowl who believes I’m fascinated to find out about his latest bunion removal (which first turned up at the Star Trek convention in Des Moines a couple of years ago, just as he was starting to bid on a highly sought after 1976 Star Trek Wax Pack Display Box Proof Sheet).

I’ve just returned from a mission trip to a children’s home in San Luis Potosí, México. This year we brought youth from our church, including my two kids. What all of our youth continually remarked on was the amazingly welcoming reception we received. We found it impossible to go from one part of the home to another without having two or three little Mexican children holding our hands, imploring us to come look at a different bug or piece of rock, or offering to bring us water. They made us feel at home, like they really wanted us there. In fact, as we prepared to leave, our youth (only half-jokingly . . . I think) told us they would just as soon stay in Mexico. They felt like they’d found a new family, perhaps a new home.

All of this is on my mind, since at General Assembly in Nashville, many Disciples—in particular, readers of [D]mergent—wondered at length why, as a denomination, we remained silent on the issue of welcoming our sisters and brothers who are LGBTQI. Not technically silent (there were scattered mentions of the issue from the platform—and certainly from the floor), but practically silent (there was clearly no effort to speak normatively as a community about any kind of moral responsibility we might have to show hospitality to LGBTQI folks). In fact, I put up an unscientific poll on the [D]mergent website, asking “Should Disciples Vote to Become Open and Affirming in 2013?” At present, the poll indicates that 79% of respondents—admittedly, a somewhat self-selected audience, but significant nevertheless—believe that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) ought to speak prophetically to the world at the General Assembly in 2013 about the fact that we embrace all people equally, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation.

At first glance, the comments by those who disagreed that we ought to pass a resolution proclaiming ourselves to be Open and Affirming seemed to have more to do with ecclesiology than with theology. That is to say, of the people who commented expressing disagreement with a denominational stance on becoming Open and Affirming, more were dismayed about what—given our congregationally based polity—such a stance might mean. Would taking such a stand be an act of bureaucratic and theological imperialism—“ramming one theology down the throat” of the church? I think this is an important question—not only ecclesiologically, but also theologically. Disciples are undeniably constitutionally squeamish about forcing any position on others. What this question fails to take into account, however, is that staking out a position refusing to impose viewpoints on others is itself an imposed viewpoint. Saying that the most important thing to consider in moral debate is whether one is inflicting one’s understanding on everyone else is to have already stacked the deck in one’s own favor by establishing ground rules that place one in a position of power, able to foreclose any discussion that might result in a decision with which one might disagree.

If I were to say in 1860, for instance, “The church cannot condemn slavery because slavery is a controversial moral issue, and to arrive at a moral position that speaks against slavery would impose an alien viewpoint upon that part of the church that finds slavery to be sanctioned by God, scripture, and tradition,” I would be abiding by the ground rule, “Impose nothing on another.” But would I be more correct to worry about coming to a decision over which there is disagreement, or should I be more concerned with whether the decision is theologically warranted? The fact that some will invariably hold an opposing position with great sincerity does not release me from the responsibility of following my own theologically formed conscience.

Someone will stop me here, I suspect, to ask, “But isn’t it arrogant of you to believe that you’ve come to the correct decision about the inclusion of LGBTQI people, and that anyone who disagrees with you is wrong?” Perhaps. Humility ought to be chief among the virtues found in the techne of theology. It is altogether too easy to assume one has answered for all times and all places theological questions that have been in dispute for years. No one should be too quick to rush in with the definitive answer. But those of us arguing for the embrace of our LGBTQI brothers and sisters aren’t arguing “for all times and all places”; we’re arguing that, given what we know about this time and this place, the justice spoken of as constitutive of the reign of God calls out for the embrace and celebration of those God has created LGBTQI. A call to humility in the pursuit of truth is often a tactical weapon directed at those with whom I disagree, when it ought first to be something back to which I call myself.

Moreover, false humility—humility that fails to be honest about genuinely hard won theological convictions—is its own kind of moral failing. False humility that leads to inaction in the face of injustice has been at the heart of some of the great moral failures Christianity has witnessed (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow, Apartheid). Standing on the sidelines while children of God are being dehumanized because of the way they were created, for fear that wading into the fray will disappoint or anger other people, ceases to be humility and becomes morally and theologically indefensible. Theological humility is not a call to inaction, but a call to the pursuit of God’s justice, tempered by God’s grace.

Would such a denominational stance risk denominational disunity? Again, perhaps. But if our Stone/Campbell roots teach us anything it is that Christian unity can only be sustained in the presence of the truth. Absent the truth, what we experience is not Christian unity, but a strategic non-aggression treaty. Whatever “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” means, it ought to mean something more interesting than “Disciples: We’re nice! We’ve agreed not to talk about things that make us uncomfortable!”

All of which brings me back to my own discomfort in new situations. If the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is serious about bringing healing and wholeness to a fragmented world, about offering welcome and hospitality to the marginalized and forgotten, then we’re going to have to go out of our way to show it. We can’t afford to be tolerant anymore. People don’t want to be tolerated; they want to be loved and affirmed. We’re going to have to be a church that seeks out those standing on the outside, who’re no longer, many of them, even looking in—because they’ve been told for so long that the church doesn’t have a place for people like “them,” until they change and become people like “us.” We who hold the keys to the church are going to have to throw open the doors and windows and shout that all God’s children are welcome here. Better yet, we’re going to have to go out of the church and indicate our willingness to forfeit our power, to hold hands, and to offer water, to convince people that wherever we are together, we’re all family. And maybe together we can find a place that feels like home . . . to everyone.

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell was once shot with a potato gun while fleeing the scene of a Cold War espionage sting at a premium vodka distillery in a rural Estonian outpost. (He doesn’t like to talk about it . . . so don’t ask.)

14 thoughts on “Holding Hands and Finding Home

  1. Amen Derek! Very well said! The time has come, sooner rather than later (ref my Facebook Note posted Tuesday, 19 July) for the CC(DofC) to declare herself an Open & Affirming Church! To continue to avoid this critical issue, reminds me, in a different context, of a comment by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his powerful LetterFrom Birmingham Jail: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;…..who paternalistically believes he set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a more ‘more convenient season.'”

  2. Derek, this is a really good piece! I’m going to share this with others. I’ll admit that I’m biased in that I agree with you. Indeed, you wrote what I’ve been thinking, but you communicated it better than I’ve been able to date.

    Theology is practiced in a particular time and place: This time and place.

    Those on the margins are where we find Christ most fully revealed.


  3. I would also love to see the CC(DOC) become Open and Affirming. Coming from a slightly more conservative denomination where the resolutions have been the opposite–to restrict membership and ordination to those who are straight–I have found the CC(DOC) more engaging in at least speaking about being open and affirming. My suggestion is that we begin by removing the restrictions to ordination–because once you do that, all other restrictions fall away. Our brothers and sisters in the ELCA, PCUSA and other denominations have recently done this and it seems high time the CC(DOC) begin there–by acknowledging that God calls all people, not regardless of, but including people of different sexual orientations and gender identities.

  4. This is beautiful, true, and well-said, Derek. The non-agression treaty allusion is right on: for too long, our movements (mine of Reform Judaism) have been too silent. Tolerance is an insult with its connotation of forebearance. We need to actively welcome, to celebrate all of our brothers and sisters.

  5. Not having an authoritative national body is kinda what you sign-up for in Congregationalism. My criticism of using a General Assembly resolution to make such a stance is that it would not accomplish what it would proclaim. A GA resolution cannot force GLBT acceptance where it does not already exist, and would not expand it where acceptance does exist; a non-authoritative resolution on controversial questions has no benefit and only pain (whether passed or defeated). O&A is a congregation’s prerogative, and the responsibility for ordination belongs with Regions. Where is your congregation and Region on GLBT equality? Start there (where resolutions matter) and encourage others to do the same.

    I am not saying that the Disciples cannot speak on any controversial issue; but GA resolutions are not dialog. Remember we have a parallel accountability, and you are using it through this blog and other ways you speak out on the question, I applaud you for creating this forum for this discussion. With the slavery analogy – a resolution would have done nothing concerning that issue either; parallel accountability and dialog is what accomplishes justice. Keeping speaking, and others will keep listening; keep listening too – there are valid concerns from those on the other side.

  6. Joel – I share your criticism of GA resolutions. They are symbolic with no practical meaning. In fact, I’d be happy to eliminate them all together.

    That said, if we are going to have GA resolutions, we may as well use them to speak to the world. For instance, the recent one on immigration is getting some nice press notice. I’m proud that my denomination made this stand.

    If we are going to have GA resolutions, then I want one loud and clear that the CC/DOC does not discriminate in hiring/ordination practices based on sexuality/identity.

    I’m confused about the last sentence in your post. “Keeping speaking, and others will keep listening; kep listening too-there are valid concerns from those on the other side.” My confusion is this. What are the valid points on the other side? Which other side are we talking about? Are we talking about people who have an ecclesiological/church governance argument? Or are we talking about people who have a theological argument? If it is a theological concern, please name one valid concern from the other side.

    • “If we are going to have GA resolutions, then I want one loud and clear that the CC/DOC does not discriminate in hiring/ordination practices based on sexuality/identity.”

      Such a resolution would not speak loud and clear; and it cannot say “The CCDOC does not discriminate” it still would be able to, and will.

      Valid theological concerns: Biblical injunctions against same gendered sexual expression (one can argue them on case by case, but they cannot be dismissed out of hand). From a natural theology standpoint: the mutual complement of men and women and the ability for such a union to emanate life. Both points are debatable, and good Christians have arrived at different conclusions. However to say that Traditional, Evangelical (etc) Christians have no theological leg to stand on is, frankly, unfair.

  7. I didn’t state that traditionalists have no theological leg to stand on. I don’t find their arguments to be valid, but such is interpretation.

    What is the point of having GA resolutions unless we make couragous statements? Again, I’m all for eliminating the resolutions. But if we’re going to have them, lets make a statement that is bold and couragous (and about 10 years too late).

  8. Joel – I’m wishing I would have asked a different clarifying question. I tend to be a little slow.

    I’m unclear. Are you opposed to this particular issue for a GA resolution, or are you opposed to having resolutions in the first place?

    • Sure. I appreciate the clarifying questions.

      Short answer: yes, I would be opposed to this particular issue for a GA resolution, both on polity and theological grounds. Not as short answer: I think I would describe myself as “open” – that is all peoples regardless of any kind of status are welcome into the full life of the church. But I cannot affirm same-gendered sexual expression.

      Is it safe to express that other opinion at a place like Dmergent?

  9. Thanks Joel. I see that we are on different sides of this, but I respect your frankness. A Campbellite without guile.

    Safe? I think Derek & Ryan will keep things pretty safe. Challenging, but safe.

  10. Joel – I’ve not been able to shake this last exchange. The issue of safety to express an opinion is what I’m concerned with.

    When I compare and contrast the safety you have speaking truthfully here it is very different from the safety for a gay person to speak truthfully in a place that is not affirming as well as open. The worst that can happen to you (or I) is ridicule. The worst that can happen to a gay person is losing their church, maybe their ordination. In some places they even lose their physical safety.

    This is part of why I support our denomination making a public statement. Congregations who disagree will not have to change. Congregations who are so offended as to leave should probably not be Disciples congregations in the first place.

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