An Open Letter


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Last week, I received a letter that maybe many of you in the Disciples world have received regarding an argument for not taking sides (or perhaps taking both sides) on the issue of sexual orientation.

This is my open response:

I was not raised in a faith community and I spent much of my life ridiculing the institutions of what I considered to be a hypocritical, irrelevant and corrupt religion, often distracted by the pursuits of worldly interests such as self-serving power or wealth, and impotent to bring any real change to gross social injustices. Fortunately, I have come to recognize and take responsibility for my own blindness. My faith journey has been unexpected, to say the least, and my call has been only accepted with a fair amount of kicking and screaming. I have not, however, forgotten how it was possible for me to see Church the way that I had for so long. Sometimes I wish I could slip back into that blindness, so that I could align myself closer with the many visionary revolutionaries in our society, who are often atheist and almost always anti-religious. But alas, it is my faith that sets me apart from them, while it is strangely my passion for social justice that sets me apart from much of the institutional church.

I am not writing to berate the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). But I am writing to implore one to consider that above and beyond the call for tolerance of a diversity of opinion, is the imperative to advocate for the marginalized, the abused, the powerless, the oppressed. The problem with a call to accept all at the Table of Christ, is that the table we have to offer is inherently crooked. Not because we are bad people. But because we are people. Those who conform to the current power-structure (those who are not marginalized, abused, etc) take no risks by coming to that table and take no risks by inviting others to join them there. But those who have been systematically denied a place, those who have been denied a voice at all, those who have been told implicitly and explicitly for centuries in this society that who they are is an abomination in the eyes of God, those people risk everything. In fact, they not only risk everything, they actually pay the price with their identities, since the proposition is that they come to the table stripped of the dignity of being in a community that affirms that they are not created as an abomination but rather in the image of God. In other words, it is not sufficient to ask those who have been oppressed and ridiculed to be the bigger person and come to the table of reconciliation without demanding that the oppressors who wish to join them give up their power.

What I have heard is that conservatives and liberal-minded folks are both children of God and must sit side by side, for the sake of unity. I understand that. But getting conservatives and liberals to get along is not the imperative of Christ. Proclaiming the Kingdom of God, which radically overthrows oppressive systems, is. Doing so at the risk of one’s life is Christlike. There is no neutrality when it comes to justice and there certainly is no playing on both sides of the field. And there should be no patience when it comes to justice. We cannot rely on secular society (again) to perform our moral duties for us. If justice is what God demands, then the due date was yesterday.  If justice is what God demands, then it is up to Her people to clear the way.

Furthermore the line is not between liberals and conservatives on this issue. The line is between the few who actually do something by taking a stand and the majority who do nothing while debating ideas. I lump liberals and conservatives together on all social justice issues so long as human beings are subordinated under chatty theories that hardly challenge the status quo. I am especially critical of so-called liberals like those of the Jim Crow era who, as Malcolm X put it, preached integration while practicing segregation.

So what about the privileged? What about the powerful? What about the bigots? Don’t they deserve Christ’s love too? Of course. But the appeasement of the prejudiced at the expense of the abused is cruel and inhumane. We must make a bold statement on the inclusiveness of God’s love, but with the caveat of Her preference to the poor and oppressed. Not because God loves some more than others, but rather because the undoing of an unjust system to set us all free, by definition, prefers those who have been denied dignity, power and a voice. Most people are going to get disturbed, but that is why we are pastors in addition to prophets. We must comfort and guide folks that have been lied to their whole lives in the process of overcoming the blindness of heterosexual privilege. But we must recognize that the price of not doing this work is paid by the oppressed. We cannot ask them to bear that burden any longer.

Lastly, to claim that people who like the color blue are welcome into a community that also welcomes people who like the color red as equals is permissible, because neither red nor blue are preferred in our society. To say that LGBTQi folks are welcome in a community as equals that also welcomes those who think that LGBTQi folks are an abomination is really to say that either LGBTQi are not welcome as equals, or that our definition of welcome is perverse or meaningless. The reason, of course, is obvious: LGBTQi folks are not considered equals in our society. When they are, then the statement would be as uncontroversial as the earlier example. Until then, we are not doing any justice work by pretending that it is now. That, again, is blindness.

The call of the Church is to preach truth to power, serve the marginalized, and emulate the Kingdom until it comes. None of this is meant to be comfortable. In fact, it is ensured to bring hardship and loneliness. But we can trudge that path because of where it leads, and because of who walked it before us.

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7 thoughts on “An Open Letter

  1. Joseph,

    So if we are focusing more on justice over mercy then how does that get lived out in the wider church? Even if General Assembly or the General Minister and President clearly announced their support for LGBT persons, the proclamation doesn’t have any force. Congregations in the DOC who might not be gay-affirming don’t have to follow what either the General Assembly or Sharon Watkins has to say.

    On a practical matter, what do you do with congregations and people who might not agree? Do you tell them to find other places? Do we make it uncomfortable for them?

    I don’t believe in unity at all costs and I don’t think Sharon Watkins was trying to do that. But the fact remains that there are people in churches across this denomination who don’t see things the way I do. What is to be done with them? How do we treat them in a way that preaches Christ to others?

    As a gay man, I do want to reach out to LGBT persons that are hurting. But I also want to be loving to those who in many cases reside in the church I serve, who are on the other side. Can we strive to show both justice and mercy, or does one do you do one at the expense of another?

    Dennis

    • Thanks for your comments, Dennis. In a my perspective, the dichotomy is not justice/mercy; it is justice/oppression. And since, I may not have stated it earlier, I want to make clear that I have no particular, personal hard feelings against the DoC or the General Minister. One could assert that given our polity and history, hers was the only congruent response. I would not disagree. My contention is that there is a higher imperative over our polity or our allegiance to the concepts of “unity.” That imperative is justice. And I don’t mean “justice” the way the word has been used as a weapon. I don’t mean “God’s punishment” per se. I mean that the Kin-dom sets everything in its right order, and that quality is justice.

      You also point to this unenforceable element of our denomination:

      “Even if General Assembly or the General Minister and President clearly announced their support for LGBT persons, the proclamation doesn’t have any force. Congregations in the DOC who might not be gay-affirming don’t have to follow what either the General Assembly or Sharon Watkins has to say.”

      But also you also offer this insightful query:

      “On a practical matter, what do you do with congregations and people who might not agree? Do you tell them to find other places? Do we make it uncomfortable for them?”

      My response is to point out inherent the contradiction of our denomination’s position here. Either the GMP has power or she doesn’t. Either there is some reason we get together at a General Assembly or there isn’t. Either the GMP’s stance means absolutely nothing and we can do what we want as congregations, or it carries some depth and weight and helps guide us on our spiritual journeys. Which is it? Just because we (thankfully) lack the enforcement mechanisms of other faith traditions doesn’t mean that statements lack meaning or power. And I should hope that our GMP does wield the power with which we who call ourselves Disciples entrust her.

      The world we live in should be confronted with the power of God’s people. The world is a heart-breaking place! Anything less than this recognition of the chasm between heaven and earth risks genocidal blindness. I refuse to forget that we are a nation and society capable of enslaving human beings for 400 years. I cannot afford to forget that in spitting distance from this generation, we legally segregated human beings on the basis of color. I surely cannot afford to ignore that this country still allows race-based oppression (in the enforcement of our incarceration state), the bombing of poor, brown people across the globe by unmanned drones, and the cultural scorn of people in a so-called free society based on gender, class and orientation.

      My faith, however, is that God’s Will will be done. With or without the “church,” the Kin-dom will come. None of us have to worry about that. The question is whether or not, as God’s faithful, do we hear the call to participate in that work of love, healing, peace, mercy, hope, forgiveness and justice? And do we respond by committing our lives to the bringing of the Kin-dom.

      I think that your question about what to do with all the people who are bound to disagree with us is a good one. My point is that we have been ignoring that question with these “non-responses” that try to appease both sides of the so-called issue by never bringing it up unless pressured by culture. I reject the strategy of avoidance for dealing with slavery, Jim Crow, homophobia, sexism, classism, etc. What other disease does it make sense to ignore as a strategy to cure it? Well, it only makes sense if you believe that by pretending that a problem doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist.

      So my answer to your question is that we treat good, well-intentioned, valuable folks such as those who believe that homosexuals are an abomination in the eyes of God with the same love as anyone else. But we don’t for a minute allow that misguided and abusive view to stand in the way of our statement that gay people will be celebrated in the Kin-dom of God and therefore will be celebrated here in the church until it comes. In other words (to use a relevant historical metaphor), we integrate the lunch counter TODAY and pastor to those law-abiding white folks who are offended on an ongoing basis. They deserve it. We must be 1.) prophets for the marginalized and 2.) pastors to those who are going to be disturbed by the radical change that justice requires.

      And we must, as ministers, reveal the systemic nature of sin. It is not good enough to invite gay folks to come in and act like “us” any more than it is permissible for white folks to invite black folks to come in and conform to the polite white worship. This proposition assumes the legitimacy of status quo (white worship). If we are fighting racism and racism is a systemic, corporate sin, then precisely what we are saying is that the status quo is illegitimate and must change immediately for the sake of those who have been oppressed by it. Polite white worship is what made religious racism possible. So how can any effort to conform to the will of God allow it to survive? Polite, heterosexual worship is complicit in the broader sin of homophobia. Not because people are malicious sadists. It’s because we are all locked into unjust social structures that blind a few and hurt many. So any meaningful justice must radically change polite heterosexual worship. Does that mean that worship will resemble a gay pride parade? Of course not. But it does mean that we are going to have to step out on faith and realize that it will indeed look different. But if God’s hands are all over it, then it is going to be beautiful.

      I think that the denomination could be a valuable source of resources, guidance and support for the enormous task that is set before us. I’m not looking for mandates, but I do expect leadership. This change will be painful, especially for the privileged. But that’s okay. We as ministers are committed to helping people through the change. What we can’t do is delay the change so as to indefinitely avoid bringing the pain. And that doesn’t mean that as Disciples we have to abandon our commitment to openness and grace for some condemnation theology. But it does mean that we have to stop pretending that there is such a thing as neutrality when it comes to justice. There is only blindness and sight. And if our vision has been transformed by an encounter with the Divine, then we have little option than to speak to that vision despite the hardship it is promised to bring.

      God bless and thanks again!

  2. Pastor Joseph, I am grateful for your thoughts.

    The “power” of the Church of Jesus Christ, its members and leaders, is the “power” of persuasion, is it not? That is, the real power of the Church is in our authentically faithful lives (actions and words) that corporately testify we believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true. The “power” (“authority”?) of our GMP is indirect in at least this sense: it is derived from how faithfully she reflects to and for the Church the image of God in Jesus Christ who loves in freedom.

    Also, for the sake of clarifying each Christian’s PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY in the LGBT discernment process, I want to suggest we move the conversation away from such frequent calls for justice, and instead sound the clear call for our brothers and sisters in the Faith to embrace “righteousness” that is, live in “right relationships” with those who are different, as taught and lived by Jesus. This is not to say that justice is not dear to God’s heart! However, when the conversation is centered on “righteousness,” then thoughtful believers are required to consider their relationship with those who differ from them THOUGH their saving relationship with Christ Jesus. When believers can focus on agapaic “righteousness” centered on imitating Christ, we move the conversation along WITHIN THE CHURCH, and also avoid spending Christian time and energy chasing the less helpful secular rabbit of “their rights” and “my rights” which often slips into conversations when the door to “justice” is opened.

    May I also respectfully suggest that the lunch counter became truly integrated not on the day when persons of different colors could sit down and eat (important as that day was!), but when they could sit down and eat in community. I believe the Church is called by Christ Jesus to be an authentic comm-unity. I believe that is an important part of the Rev. Dr. Sharon’s pastoral message, too.

    Respectfully, may I ask what you mean by “polite heterosexual worship”? I participated in worship recently with the House for All Sinners and Saints (ELCA) in Denver and the pastor had assured me there were a number of openly LGBT persons active in that faith community. My wife and I could not detect any difference in the liturgy.

    Blessings on your ministry,

    Shalom,
    Charles

    • Thank you so much, Charles. You have given me a lot to think about.

      I am intrigued by your suggestion regarding a shift from justice to righteousness. I must admit that I have to do some more digestion. Thanks for this perspective! Off the top of my head, I still think that the appropriate framework to view the current state of LGBTQi in our society is one of justice, especially when considering what the appropriate response of God’s faithful people is. But this is not to say that God’s righteousness is not applicable.

      I want also to touch on one other comment you made about the lunch counter metaphor. You are absolutely correct. The justice was not served on the day justice was demanded. But this insightful observation strengthens my firm belief that we must demand justice today. The momentum of the social organism moving through time and space is tremendous. It is so great that we have no hope of turning it in any one direction unless we get as many people as possible to dig their shoulders into the wheel and push as hard as possible. I think that we underestimate the amount of necessary force to push the arc of history towards justice. Perhaps true equality and dignity for LGBTQi folks in my lifetime is unrealistic, but if I use that as an excuse to let up on the urgent demand for justice today, then I jeopardize equality in the generations to come. That’s unfair and irresponsible, not to mention morally unconscionable.

      This forces me to admit that of course I know that I know that there are many people who are no where close to where I am on social justice issues. After all, I wasn’t always where I am. Despite my criticism, I am not jumping the DoC ship out of righteous indignation, partly because I deeply respect and appreciate the latitude it gives me to make such statements. But I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors -not the bigoted, not the oppressed- by using that latitude in the strongest possible way to bury my weight behind the wheel of this great ship. I don’t want to hurt people who do not agree with me, just because I think that I’m right. I want to help set them free, because I believe that oppression holds captive the oppressor too.

      Finally, as for my “polite heterosexual worship” comment, I am using a deliberately provocative phrase to shock the reader into noticing the water in which we are swimming. When it comes to the content of a message and the medium through which it is conveyed, I am one of those people who believe that both are important and worth examining. I don’t believe that the medium (i.e worship) is neutral while the content or the congregation is interchangeable. When I say “polite heterosexual worship” I mean worship that has been created for and by heterosexual people. That doesn’t mean that worship was created with exclusion of others in mind, it simply means that we must be prepared for worship to change (in unexpected ways) if we are truly committed to inclusion. I could go on and on, but I hope this response is sufficient to further explain my position and invite further conversation.

      Shalom,

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