It’s Time. Why the Church Needs to Stand up for Justice


Fairness Rally (2012) bwIt’s time.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the official position on sexual orientation in the military ended September 20, 2011.

President Obama announced that same-gender couples ought to have the right to marry on May 9, 2012.

Connecticut. Iowa. Maine. Massachusetts. New York. Vermont. The District of Columbia.

Joined on November 6, 2012 through public ballot referenda by Maryland, New Hampshire, and Washington as states that recognize the right of same-gender couples to marry.

The winds of change.

All over. Even in Kentucky. Yeah, you heard me correctly. Kentucky. Things are changing. On the front page of the Louisville Courier Journal this morning is this article about the way small towns in Kentucky are looking to enact legislation to make LGBTIQ people part of the enumerated classes protected against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. It’s a big enough deal that even USA Today picked it up.

The culture is shifting.

It’s time.

Even in the Church

Much of the church is shifting, too. The ordination ban on gays and lesbians has been falling.

In August 2009 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided “to accept gay clergy in sexually active monogamous relationships.”[1]

On May 10, 2011, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to allow the openly gay and lesbian ministers the right of ordination.

On October 8, 2012, I wrote:

Over the course of the last three weeks, three regions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have voted to remove sexual orientation and gender identity as obstacles to ordination: the Northeastern region, the Indiana region, and most recently, the Kentucky region (you can read more about the Indiana and Kentucky decisions). In Indiana the resolution passed by 70%; in Kentucky the vote was 82%; and in the Northeastern region fully 87% voted in favor of rewriting the ordination guidelines more inclusively. Because of the heavy concentration of Disciples in the Midwest, the votes in Indiana and Kentucky may be interpreted as leading indicators of the kind of movement afoot on the issue of the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer people in the life and ministry of the church.

It’s time.

No. It’s past time for mainline Protestant churches to stand up and speak prophetically about justice, and what that looks like for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer people who’ve found themselves repeatedly excluded by the church.

So many LGBTIQ people and those who love them want, if not a way back to the church, then at least the simple satisfaction of knowing that there are some churches, some denominations willing to open their arms and love the people Christ loved … willing to say, “We’re sorry. You should have been able to expect better from us.”

Mainline Protestant denominations and the churches they represent need to take the lead in this fight for justice. Instead, we often seem much more comfortable letting the culture move ahead, providing us enough political cover to do the things justice demanded of us all along—often long after important things have been decided without us.

A colleague of mine asked the other day, “When is the church going to start acting like the moon that helps to shape the waves, rather than the surfer who just rides them?”

It’s time.

If you don’t agree that LGBTIQ folks ought to enjoy the same welcome and consideration as everyone else, if you think the fact of their sexual orientation or gender identity is a sin, I’m not trying to persuade you otherwise. I don’t have time to roll that particular rock up the hill, Sisyphus.[2]

No. I’m writing to those people who agree that it’s time, but who just haven’t, for whatever reason, found a way or the medium in which to say so. We need to find our voice.

Why?

Mainline denominations need to do this because it’s the right thing to do. As people who claim to pursue the justice envisioned by the reign of God, we do it because that’s who we are. We shouldn’t need any other reason.

However, if that’s not enough, consider the lives of our children.

I was at the prayer breakfast with some legislators last February morning in the state capitol in Frankfort. Lobby Day. We went looking for fairness for all God’s children.

No more bullying.

No more being kicked out of a restaurant because you look “too gay.”

No more getting fired because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

We need laws to protect people from the bad stuff society too often tolerates.

Anyway. Everything was nice and comfortable—eggs, biscuits, grits, coffee. Cheerful conversation. Then, a man in a leather jacket and a crew-cut walked in.

Michael Aldridge, director of the Kentucky ACLU, came over to me and said, “That’s Travis Campbell—the father of Miranda Campbell, the girl who killed herself 3 weeks ago in Hopkinsville after being bullied. She was fourteen years-old. She came out as bisexual in sixth grade. She couldn’t take the bullying anymore.”

I got up and went over to Mr. Campbell. He seemed shaken—and really, who wouldn’t? I said, “I’m Derek Penwell. I’m glad to meet you, and I appreciate you coming here today. I have a fourteen year-old myself. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

He looked at me with tears in his eyes, and he said, “I just found out about this yesterday. I had to come. I don’t want anymore children to have to die, just because they can’t figure out a way to love the people society tells them it’s ok to love. We need everybody to help us put a stop to this.”

He looked at me standing there in my clerical collar, and I could see in his eyes what he’d left unsaid, “Especially people like you, and the churches you represent. You all have to do something.”

It’s time.

  1. For a fuller listing of decisions on homosexual ordination, see this article.  ↩
  2. I don’t mean that working with these folks to come to a different understanding of LGBTIQ people isn’t important. I just no longer labor under the misapprehension that blog posts are the way to do it.  ↩
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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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