Fluffy Talk: The Testimony of a Moderate, Passive-aggressive Advocate for Equality


This post is offered by Betty Sivis, Senior Pastor of First Christian Church, Auburn, IN.

This is not so much a letter, as it is a personal testimony….

There have been many reactions to Rev. Watkins’ pastoral letter on the issue of homosexuality. Some have praised the letter for its gentle approach and its attempt to exalt the highest values of Disciples tradition; the unity of the body of Christ, despite a disunity of opinion.

Others have railed against the letter in the manner that Civil Rights activists did in the past because of the perceived warning to “wait” for fearful church people to ease themselves into a more comfortable position before they can accept the principle of full inclusion.

For my own part, I did perceive her letter as being too weak, but not for the reasons many other authors have stated. This will not be eloquent.  It will not be ground breaking. And very likely, what I have to say will disappoint, confuse, and/or rankle most people who read it.

That’s all right.

What I think Sharon got right in her letter was the implication that our identity as Disciples of Christ, gives us an edge in this conversation.  Not that fluffy talk about welcoming all to the Table, at least not in the way some people use it.  Don’t mistake me, I use that fluffy talk, but not because I believe it is adequate in this case. I use it because it calms people, it allows pastors to affirm peoples’ fears and misgivings so that they will be more open to reevaluating their beliefs on this issue. It is a kind of gentle manipulation that depends on the illusion of affirmation. I do not affirm the belief that LGBTQ individuals are unworthy of full inclusion in the church.  But I will affirm for the moment, a person’s right to give in to their fears in that regard if it means the chance to lead them to a change of action if not a change of heart. This is a typical pastoral care tactic. And it works.  Slowly, but it works.  And the shrewd pastor would do well to use it to its greatest effect.  This is what Disciples mean by agreeing to disagree agreeably.

I know very well the people who do not, and will never come around to supporting full inclusion.  Some of them are hostile. Some are not.  All of them are afraid. Terrified in fact. And I fully admit that at this point, I’m not particularly concerned about whether or not they remain in the church after all is said and done.  My reason for this shouldn’t be mistaken for a callous “good riddance” attitude.  Rather, I believe that people don’t leave their churches over a single issue.  It’d be easy to assume that, just as it’d be easy to assume that couples divorce because of infidelity.  But in both of those situations, separation occurs over time, and as a result of deeper problems that were present at the start of the relationship.  The single issue is merely a symptom and in this case, most likely the final symptom of an irreconcilable difference.

So, why do I use the fluffy talk? Because God’s grace has a way of redeeming even the most stubborn minds and hardened hearts. Even if I am convinced that some of my own members will never change their minds about homosexuality, I’m going to invite them to sit at the Table regardless. I’m going to approach them with an open hand, and not with a flaming torch.  Whether they choose to sit and converse and work through the fear that keeps them from accepting their gay or lesbian neighbors, is entirely their choice.  But as their pastor, I will give them the chance, and I will pray that God’s Holy Spirit empowers them to make the right choice.  That is where I feel particularly called.

I cannot and will not force people to agree with my opinions.  And I think that is what Rev. Watkins was getting at.  I think most Disciples who appear to some to be too moderate are just as firmly set as their more vocal counterparts in their opinion that full inclusion is the only Christ-like course of action. But I also think that many of us are not called to fight this fight in the same manner or with the same tools as others.  Some do well and have a particular vocation to brandish the sword of justice and the torch of enlightenment and to take the greatest risks in doing so.  Others are called to be, well….more passive aggressive.

Most of you who know me won’t be surprised to read these words. Others will be incensed that a minister of the Gospel should buy in to such a cop-out.  Either way, I’m not terribly concerned about the judgment of others.  I feel strongly that I have been called to extend my pastoral hand to the person with whom I can never agree and to welcome them to sit beside me.  If they slap my hand away and leave, it will hurt, and it will throw the church into distress and confusion.  But we are called so often in Scripture to let go when the time comes, to shake the dust from our feet and to move on.  I may do that with some resistance, but do not mistake that resistance for inconstancy or hesitancy.

As ever my constant prayer is that those who oppose full inclusion will be empowered by faith to soften their resolve and to discover the radical truth that God’s love will always transcend our prejudices.

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14 thoughts on “Fluffy Talk: The Testimony of a Moderate, Passive-aggressive Advocate for Equality

  1. Thanks for this important reflection and specifically this line, “[..]think that many of us are not called to fight this fight in the same manner or with the same tools as others.” It reminds me of the large split in the early church between those that went as Martyrs, and those that hid and bowed to the powers that be, yet kept church things from destruction. Some thought those that caved were wrong, yet 1,000’s of years later, it was clear both roles ended up being important. Obviously I am overly simplifying, but I do understand the need to engage in the conversation and on a pastoral level. I currently serve in the Bible Belt and my way has not been as outright as I would desire, yet I have been there for families and individuals that have come out. Yet I still would like the table to be truly fluffy now.

  2. I totally respect your opinion and position.

    My polite dissent is grounded on my belief that while I think that quiet or passive “advocacy” (if there is such a thing) is certainly less abusive than outright bigotry on the surface level of human interaction, it is actually more dangerous on the fundamental level. The reason, I argue, is that people who are advocates in their hearts but use fluffy talk actually legitimize unjust structures, which are more to blame for injustices such as discrimination and denial of rights than bigoted people. In other words (to use a grossly extreme example), Hitler was not as dangerous as the complicit communities and governments that allowed the Nazis to rise up unimpeded. More dangerous than the sadistic slave-driver with a whip was the good, Christian folks that said nothing. The latter legitimizes the former. I think it is better to treat the soil than just fight the weeds. I used to see things differently, but a careful study of history, and rigorous theological study has led me to conclude that social movements for justice come not by gradual, piecemeal improvements, but rather through tumultuous overhaul.

    In today’s political climate, I feel like some of the so-called liberal-progressives are guilty of trying to have it “both ways.” What I mean is that they want the clear conscience of being on the right side of the issue, but the comfort of not having to do anything about it. I think in that respects (when we are talking about addressing the system), there is no meaningful difference between liberals or conservatives.

    So, like I said, I appreciate and respect your position. But in the spirit of open dialogue, I hope my comments have some value here.

    Shalom,

    • And, of course, I don’t want to give the impression that you are one who “does nothing.” I am only trying to speak generally about my view of the spectrum and meta-structure of society.

      • This comment was for another commentator, but I believe it may also apply to your post:

        I think you mistake me. From your reply, may I assume that you believe that I do not actually speak of my convictions openly?

        If that is an accurate assumption then you are incorrect. Never, do I hesitate to lay out in the presence of those opposed to full inclusion, where I stand and why. But I do not deny that their own convictions are, as Rev. Penwell noted in a previous post “hard won” and faithfully approached. I openly say to them that I disagree with their opinion. But I also affirm that their disagreement is not proof that I am a real Christian and they are not.

        As I said in my post, my interest and my intention is to help them make the right decision on this issue. I have no interest in forcing them to do so. I will leave it to them to make their own decision. And if that means that the person opposed to full inclusion feels that they cannot remain in relationship with me or with this church, then that is their decision. I will not expend energy worrying that they have left. I will accept it and move on.

      • Certainly I cannot judge your ministry. It seems obvious by your post that you seem compassionate and dedicated to inclusion.

        It is not that I am claiming that you do not speak your convictions openly. It is that I believe that in the spirit of an open dialogue in the movement forward towards justice in the church, I am obligated to enter into conversation with folks like yourself who are fighting the good fight.

        My contribution is meant not to be a critique of your ministry (which would be unfair and offensive, but rather to offer my perspective as to why we must move further down the spectrum of confrontation for the sake of justice work.

        Your further explanation of the intent of your post was helpful to help me see the nuance of where your methods of pastoral care is applicable and I can understand and appreciate that.

        Perhaps then my “dissent” here is not mutually exclusive to what you are explicating here. I still wish to emphasize (in the hopes that it is helpful to someone here) that I think it is so important to get people invested in leaning up against the long, high wall of injustice so that we can push it over together. The problem I see in progressive-minded Protestant churches is that we are all getting right up to the wall, placing our shoulder on the stone, and then we stop. We think that it is good enough to not be hateful towards the marginalized, but we feel held back from leaning into the wall with all we got. If my call to ministry is anything (and this is just me), it is to encourage those who are unengaged in the struggle to join us as the wall and, more importantly, to topple it. This latter commission is the hardest, because we must convince folks to reject the privilege and security that the Empire gives them, and to reimagine boldly what the Kin-dom of God can be on the other side of that wall. It is a leap of faith, for sure, and a walk through fear.

        God Bless you in your ministry.

  3. I appreciate the important role of pastoral care in the process of changing social conscious. There is critical place for hand holding and for creating safe space for genuine sharing and listening. And, I too believe that, by design, the DOC has built into our structure these very things.

    However, I have some serious concerns about assuming the role of “passive-aggressive advocate for equality.” I understand where you are coming from, however advocacy, by its nature is not passive-aggressive. There is no room for silence in advocacy, because silence gives consent to the status-quo. Please do not say you are an advocate on my behalf if you are not willing to give voice to the injustice faced and abuse that you witness being done to your sisters and brothers. You can be a friend. You can say you affirm the need for full inclusion. There are lots of people who will stand with you. But please. Please do not claim to be an advocate unless you are willing to take the risk to cross the line and truly stand on the side of the oppressed.

    • I think you mistake me. From your reply, may I assume that you believe that I do not actually speak of my convictions openly?

      If that is an accurate assumption then you are incorrect. Never, do I hesitate to lay out in the presence of those opposed to full inclusion, where I stand and why. But I do not deny that their own convictions are, as Rev. Penwell noted in a previous post “hard won” and faithfully approached. I openly say to them that I disagree with their opinion. But I also affirm that their disagreement is not proof that I am a real Christian and they are not.

      As I said in my post, my interest and my intention is to help them make the right decision on this issue. I have no interest in forcing them to do so. I will leave it to them to make their own decision. And if that means that the person opposed to full inclusion feels that they cannot remain in relationship with me or with this church, then that is their decision. I will not expend energy worrying that they have left. I will accept it and move on.

      • And furthermore, please do not think that what I am saying amounts to a call for all advocates of equality to “slow down” and “wait.” As I said in my article, we all choose our own weapons. I believe that people like Rev. Penwell are necessary and they should continue to fight this fight as they do. I’m asking anyone to wait for me. I believe that full equality is a foregone conclusion precisely because there are many ways in which the battle is being fought.
        And I pray continuously that this conclusion will be reached soon. But I approach ministry in general in a passive-agressive kind of way and I don’t apologize for it, because more often than not, it has allowed me to convince people to rethink their positions. I am not proposing this as a tactic for all to use, I am suggesting though that it is not evidence of weakness nor of hesitancy.

    • I think we are talking past each other just a bit… 🙂 I’m not critiquing your practice of pastoral care. I use very similar method on my our practice of care – its openness and affirming a person’s authentic beliefs regardless if I disagree with their personal convictions. Making space for the other to share and be genuine is essential part of developing deep meaningful relationships which thereby allow for deeper theological conversations where differences arise can take place. Yes, this is an invaluable tool! 🙂

      I think my challenge specifically is with how you define your practice of care as passive-aggressive advocacy. People who practice passive-aggressive behavior tell people what they want to hear, but then the follow through is the opposite. Its an unhealthy relating system. Its not advocacy. And in the long term, people begin to see through the manipulative motives.

      Please don’t think I’m critiquing your practice of ministry. I’m not, and honestly, I can’t. I haven’t seen or participated in it. My critique is more in the language you use to describe it.

      • I was using the term in an ironic attempt to criticize myself. Most people in the general populace incorrectly label pastoral care techniques like this as “passive agressive.” I should have explained that. I’m sorry. This came out of a conversation with a colleague in which we both discovered that we have been accused of being passive agressive because of the way in which we conduct pastoral care.

  4. I should more rightly have said “what people assume to be passive agressive.” I have a tendency to just claim a term when it is hurled at me and just live with the label. Apologies again for the misunderstanding.

  5. Blessings to everyone who finds this discussion relevant (and I mean that seriously). For me, the fact this subject is an ongoing topic of conversation in 2012 is a sad commentary and why I am no longer an active member of a Disciples congregation. Society has moved on. The Secretary of Defense just issued a video statement praising LGBT service members for goodness sake. If what’s left of the Disciples want to continue to discuss whether a “pastoral letter” is strong enough, enjoy. It’s a conversation that the majority of society (and the huge majority under 40) has finished already. I just find it sad a denomination that played a large role in most of my 61 years is still stuck here.

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