Since receiving the pastoral letter on the denomination’s stance with respect to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer folk last week from the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, I have witnessed a great deal of thoughtful discussion. I want to try to clarify why I think Dr. Watkins’ letter, given a certain set of commitments to the priority of maintaining unity, is read by many as a retreat from the issue rather than as an engagement of it, and why certain forms of reaction to it strike me as troubling.
In her letter Dr. Watkins made an appeal to the church to remember that, regardless of one’s theological commitments on this issue, Disciples have historically championed an open table, where “people of both points of view—and everyone in between—[is] welcome.” She entreats Disciples to remember their historical commitment to gathering around a common table at which the guests often fail to agree with one another on important issues.
Dr. Watkins makes an important point about the radical inclusiveness inherent in Disciples table theology. In fact, the radical nature of Disciples witness to a broken and fragmented world is manifest in our commitment to gathering around a table not because of, but often in spite of the fact that we so often fail to agree. That we insist on calling one another brother and sister in the face of our frequent failure to come to a common theological understanding on many issues bespeaks our commitment to unity rather than unanimity. This dogged determination to remain in community, as Michael Kinnamon has so often reminded us, is a special gift we give to a world so persistently inclined toward division and violence.
Moreover, Dr. Watkins rightly expands the scope of our responsibilities beyond the theological commitments of a single denomination by raising the issue of the “one body of Christ.” In true Disciples fashion, she points out that our unity is not an idiosyncratic denominational fixation, but a profound expression of the heart of the gospel. This unity, which requires a kind of hospitality that transcends human moral achievement, is itself a sign of the in-breaking of God’s reign.
I want to be understood as, in many ways, affirming the irenic thrust of Dr. Watkins’ letter. As “head of communion,” which is to say, the primary theological and ecclesiological voice of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—a denomination with ecumenical commitments and an exceedingly congregational polity—she has the thankless task of trying to speak to and for a religious movement noteworthy for its thoroughgoing devotion to great latitude in matters of interpretation. Addressing such a wide range of theological positions is fraught with the distinct possibility that anything one might say will necessarily anger some constituency. I think it should be understood in advance that her willingness to speak to the issue of the inclusion of LGBTIQ people requires courage, since whatever she could possibly say will strike a wide range of people as insufficient or offensive.
Many have supported Dr. Watkins’ attempt to address a knotty issue. In trying assiduously to hew to a middle course, many have said, she strikes a perfectly Disciples’ tone of catholicity and openness. On the other hand, many of those (on both sides) who disagree with her attempt to negotiate such a moderate course, argue that in an effort to satisfy the broadest range of people, she has succeeded in disappointing everyone—except, of course, those whose primary concern has more to do with avoiding the kind of conflict that can lead to division. I tend toward the latter, but certainly understand the former.
That Dr. Watkins’ chose a middling path on the issue will surprise no one. She has staked out a pastoral identity on this issue that does not include loud prophetic statements guaranteed to offend. She faces an almost impossible situation that few would be brave enough to confront.
My bone to pick here is not so much that she failed in her letter to speak more prophetically—though, I think that is an area ripe for analysis. My problem is the reaction to her letter in some quarters, the thrust of which is something like: “We don’t have the kind of polity that would stand for prophetic statements about justice. So, what else could she say?”
At least one inference we can draw from such a reaction is that, given the weak hierarchical nature of Disciples’ polity and a potentially hostile audience, the highest priority of the GMP is necessarily one of peace-keeping. Taking into account the historical commitment to an open table that makes “room for whoever will come at Christ’s gracious invitation,” it is seductive to believe that unity ought to be maintained at any cost. In my estimation, this high premium placed on maintaining unity, however, can lead to a couple of serious theological hazards.
For one thing, a church (local, regional, or general) that regards the maintenance of unity as its highest priority is always in danger of misunderstanding unity as a human achievement rather than as a divine gift. In his great “high priestly prayer” in the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed “not only on behalf of” the disciples, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (17:20-1a). The unity of the church on this account comes as a result God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer, not because humans manage to muster up the stick-to-itiveness to avoid falling out over fundamental disagreements. All of which is to say, the unity of the church is not ours to achieve; it is a reality with which Christians must align themselves. Either we swim with the current on this one, or we swim against it. What we don’t do is create the current, then mandate its direction.
This emphasis on maintaining unity above virtually any other concern can lead to another potential pitfall—that is, the mistaken belief that true unity can be present in the absence of true speech. Christian unity is not a consensual non-aggression pact that requires participants to refrain from speaking truthfully so as not to roil the ecclesiological waters.
What do I mean?
If you believe that LGBTIQ people are sinning, and which sin (if unrepented) is an insuperable obstacle to faithful participation in the life and ministry of the church, a tacit denominational agreement not to make offensive statements on the issue is will probably appear fairly unsatisfying, since this is an issue of faithfulness. I respect your convictions. I do not agree with them, but I respect them as hard won. My purpose in this piece is not to persuade you to change your mind—a feat that would esteem my own thoughts too highly and your beliefs too little. You are not the intended audience for these reflections.
Instead, I seek to address myself to that portion of the church that believes that LGBTIQ people have an equal place at the open table without having to forfeit the identity and gifts with which God created them, but who believe that pressing the issue of inclusion is of secondary concern, and who are therefore satisfied with Dr. Watkins’ pastoral letter. A few of the reasons given for simultaneously supporting both the moderate position evinced by Dr. Watkins’ letter and the theoretical inclusion of LGBTIQ people are:
“We must be patient. We can’t let single issues like this divide us.”
“There are other more important issues the church faces.”
“This is only one issue that affects a relatively small number of people.”
I understand the objections. There was a time in my own pastoral life when I made those same kind of arguments for a cautious approach to this matter. As it stands, I can no longer bring myself to deny the urgency of the situation.
A few days ago I met a young gay man who had just recently undergone reparative therapy to “repair” his sexual orientation. Among the accounts of psychologically damaging statements about the fact that he was a “broken” young man—broken in places where straight folks are presumably “whole,” in virtue of their “natural” constitution—were stories of therapies that included beatings, needles, and electric shock. I don’t want to be misunderstood to be asserting that the treatment this young man received is the norm. I will extend the benefit of the doubt to those who both seek and administer such therapy that on balance the intentions are good. However, I have heard enough horror stories told by people who have been the recipient of these “good intentions” to know that great damage is being done to people, often at extremely important and formative stages of their lives.
I have also heard the stories of those people who have been the recipient of bad intentions, who have undergone great suffering at the hands of bullies (physical, psychological, and theological). Stories like that of my good friend, a minister, who was almost beaten to death for having the temerity to eat supper with his partner in a public restaurant. Or the story I encountered a couple of months ago when I sat with the father of a young girl attracted to both boys and girls who killed herself because “bad intentions” rained down on her every day as she tried to negotiate the uncertain waters of life in a public middle school.
But much more common, and almost as vexing as the good and bad intentions of people who think LGBTIQ folk are broken and in need of fixing (at best) or eliminating (at worst), is the silence of those who ought to know better. Christians who don’t believe anyone should be mistreated because of the way that person is created, but who say nothing in the face of such mistreatment—for whatever reason—bear an extraordinary responsibility for maintaining not unity, but an atmosphere in which being terrorized is viewed as preferable to making waves.
If you happen to think (and admittedly many do not, and again, are not the intended audience of these reflections) that the exclusion of people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity rises to the level of the civil rights abuses surrounding race, it is difficult to read Dr. Watkins’ letter without immediately thinking of another letter—one written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while seated in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. If you happen to view the current crisis surrounding the inclusion of LGBTIQ people through the lens of injustice—an injustice that impinges on the revolutionary claims about the love and hospitality present in the reign of God—then calls for the church to have more patience, or to overlook the sin of unjust systems in favor of “keeping the peace,” or to concentrate on more positive and less controversial issues, cannot but be heard as the moral equivalent of the “moderate white clergy” of Dr. King’s letter.
Whether you agree with the way I have framed the issue or not, it is at least important for me to point out why those who do frame it this way find letters that cede ground to those wielding the “good and bad intentions” responsible for the many forms of violence against LGBTIQ people or the response to those letters that result in calls to be patient so frustrating. Dr. King said: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
Again, I’m not saying here that you must agree with me on the equating of the exclusion of LGBTIQ people and racism. All I’m saying is that if you do, it is important to understand the full implications of those convictions and how they are heard by those who are, in many cases, fighting for their dignity, if not for their lives.
I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen …
There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
—Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail