The Raleigh Rant

Can We Find Peace at Thanksgiving?

Gather and Give Thanks

My church continues to struggle and is engaged in a battle of who will control the denomination. I went back and read my commentary a year ago on “The Way Forward” in the current controversy of the United Methodist Church over homosexuality. We now have the report of the commission, the three optional plans they presented, and the recommendations of the Council of Bishops. Here in North Carolina we’ve had a series of “discernment” meetings to discuss the options and to consider the positions of the local churches. Everyone is gearing up to lobby the delegates of the Special Called Session of the General Conference in February 2019. The conference will consider the options and presumably reach a decision on the issues. It’s not just a question of the wording of the Book of Discipline; it’s also about what happens with the potential reorganization of the church, especially if the Wesleyan Covenant Association decides to leave the denomination.

Other than religion writers, I don’t think anyone other than Methodists are concerned about these issues. We’ve been debating dogma for almost 50 years without any resolution, and I’m not confident that we will come up with a practical solution this time.

My fears and concerns are not only for the future of the United Methodist Church but also about the future of the LGBT Civil Rights Movement. It is under attack by the federal government on many levels, including a potential reversal of Supreme Court decisions. My pastor’s Thanksgiving sermon was about relying on faith to soothe our worries and ease our souls. That’s a hard road for me right now. I am concerned not only with LGBT rights but also the explosion of gun violence in this country, the lack of social justice not only in our economy, but also in our judicial system. We are a divided nation that seems incapable of breaking out of gridlock to reach solutions. Love is the answer, but how do we express unconditional love in such a fractious society?

I’m reviving an old tradition and going to DC on the train for Thanksgiving this year to visit friends. Hopefully there will be a break in the demonstrations, and I will avoid the traffic by leaving my car at the station. We tend to blame all of our problems on Congress and sometimes see it as the center of everything. In fact, because of the gridlock we’ve been pretty much able to get along without it. I’m going to an inter-faith supper preceding Thanksgiving, which is pretty unusual. We tend to think of the holiday as a Christian celebration, but in fact it never was. It is about family, community, friends, and at least one day a year in which we express our gratitude for being Americans. It is also the occasion when many Americans choose to be very generous with their time and money.

God Bless America.

Matthew Shepard

twenty years later the life and legacy of matthew wayne shepard

Considering all of the anti-LGBT rhetoric that has come out of Washington the past 18 months, it was inspiring to watch the memorial service at the National Cathedral today. Most of the music was surprisingly old-fashioned and simple until the end when the extended mournful melodies carried on too long. Bishop Gene Robinson gave a short, informal homily that was moving but not maudlin. I was surprised that he got a standing ovation in the middle of a worship service.

The service was a preamble to his internment in the Cathedral crypt. He is one of only 300 persons to be so honored. It also recognized the pain of his cruel death 20 years ago, and how with the efforts of his family he has become the symbol of the gay rights movement in the US. Whatever one might think of the political aspect of the call to get out and vote, it brought into focus the division in this country of how LGBT people are viewed. Unfortunately, that has taken on a popular view of liberal versus conservative stances. In many situations the positions of evangelical Christians have been at the forefront of resistance to LGBT people, not only in the church but in civil society. The Episcopal Church split over this issue, and the Methodist Church has been struggling with it for almost 50 years and also is facing a possible split. Denominational in-fighting over the issue is a waste of time and energy. We already have hundreds of Protestant denominations that have fractured over much more minor issues. Whatever the evils of the Roman Catholic Church over 1,500 years, it did maintain a certain unity that has dissolved in the last 500 years into endless quarrels and debates.

The rationale of this discrimination is the interpretation of a few passages of scripture in the Bible that is used to justify discrimination of the LGBT community. Haggling over interpretations of the Bible is a no-win situation that only leaves everyone frustrated. Taking Jesus’ mandate to love everyone as ourselves is the basis for a solution to the conflict.

Some politicians in the current election cycle are once again using the LGBT community as a bogeyman to imply that we are a threat to Christian moral values. In fact, Christianity was formed by challenging the traditional 613 Jewish laws of the First Century. It established that the true moral values existed in a person’s heart and mind rather than a self-righteous pursuit of strict legalism. Surely, we have come beyond that debate in the intervening centuries.

Our Dysfunctional Congress

congress capitol building darkI usually try to steer clear of politics and focus on the civil and religious rights of the LGBT community in this blog. But the cultural divide in this nation was dramatically displayed in public in the recent Senate hearings. The appointment of a controversial nominee for the Supreme Court dominated the news cycle for weeks. A proposed appointment two years ago was blocked from even having a hearing because “it was an election year.”

The partisan divide in the Senate merely demonstrated the chasm in the dysfunctional Congress that can’t agree on anything. Essential legislation on the basic functions of government is frequently delayed or weakened. Our infrastructure, economy, and social fabric have suffered. Sure, the stock market is booming, but that represents only a portion of the economy. Many other areas are suffering.

The LGBT community is concerned that this new partisanship on the Supreme Court may reverse prior decisions that struck down laws regarding sodomy and same-sex marriage. The media seems to focus on the abortion issue, but many other issues such as judicial reform and privatization of prisons and public schools also may be up for review.

The Senate hearings were dramatic and riveting to watch, but they showed the petty personalities of some of the Senators who revealed their primary concerns were seeking re-election rather than seeking justice. The result was a draw of “he said she said,” with the aborted FBI investigation revealing nothing. We can only assume that because it was never made public and many of the corroborating witnesses were not heard.

November may bring about a shift in which political party controls the Congress next year, but it will not heal the divide. The Congress may not reflect the will of the people, but it reflects the cultural chaos of our times. I cannot recall a more explosive period in our history since the 1960’s. Then we were convulsed in a debate over the Vietnam War and the civil rights of African-Americans. Unfortunately, racism is still a major issue in this nation. Even though we are a nation of immigrants, immigration has boiled over into policies and practices that have horrified the entire world.

We may not yet be in a literal shooting war, such as what occurred in the 19th Century over the issue of slavery, but we are reaching the boiling point that may yet explode. We already have huge public demonstrations across the country, and local outburst of violence. The hope for calm and cooperation seem far off. We look into the future with trepidation. Both sides claim that God is on their side, and we saw that also in the two World Wars. Let’s hope that our failing foreign policies may not again result in another war.

So get out and vote!

Hurricane Florence

Hurricane FlorenceDisasters and national tragedies create havoc, but at the same time they seem to bring out the best in Americans: our compassion, generosity, willingness to help others, and reaching out beyond absorption with self-interests that seem to plague us in normal times.

From the comfort of my apartment in Raleigh, I watched the non-stop TV coverage of the slow crawl of the hurricane across the southeastern portion of the state. It is too soon to assess the amount of the damage or to compare it with Matthew in 2016. North Carolina has great natural resources and beauty, but hurricanes are part of the cost of living here. Most people are not aware that the damage is often not limited to the coast.

The uplifting point to me is that in these times people put aside their differences and work together toward a common goal. When things are just rocking along, we tend to focus on ourselves and look at others with suspicion as though they are somehow a threat to us that we must fear. I think that one of the goals of the LGBT community has been to try to project the idea that we’re “just folks” like everybody else so why can’t we just get along?

Some people think that we threaten the established traditions and norms of the majority, so they feel that we must be ostracized, punished, or even killed. They justify their beliefs and actions because they fear our differences even though we can do nothing about who we are. We are not a “lifestyle” nor a choice, we simply have a different sexual orientation that is ingrained in us. Of course, some of the right-wing nuts blame us for everything bad that happens and use us as a bogeyman to support their diatribes. Let’s not even consider the so-called Christians who spew hate instead of love.

In the United Methodist Church, we’ve been haggling for 46 years about church doctrine and homosexuality, and the debate isn’t over yet. We’ve got a special called General Conference scheduled for next year. The various factions already are lined up with their position statements that we call resolutions. Can you imagine what might happen if only a portion of that time and money had gone to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)?

We tend to lift up as heroes those people who respond in exceptional ways in times of emergencies, but we tend to ignore the many acts of kindness and self-sacrifice of ordinary people in daily life. We should be challenged by these people who lift us up emotionally by their examples of heroism. We should apply that energy in our lives to help meet the common good every day. We’re not gay or straight; we’re all God’s children. God bless America.

Religious Liberty Task Force

In many aspects the double speak of George Orwell’s 1984 book has arrived, but none is more flagrant than the actions of the U.S Department of Justice. Our founding fathers wanted to preserve our nation from the religious wars that dominated Europe for centuries and so proclaimed “freedom of religion” in the U.S. Bill of Rights. In reality, they proclaimed a “freedom from religion,” i.e. a state-imposed religion that required everyone to not only accept that religion but also to pay taxes to support it. That is still the case in some European nations.

The intent was to allow citizens to practice their individual beliefs and to organize different churches, or denominations, to express those beliefs. There was no one state religion in the United States. In fact, that is what we are reverting to with the recent actions of the Office of the President of the United States and the U.S. Department of Justice via various memoranda, legal opinions, and public statements. In a continuing effort to weaken the non-discrimination clauses of both legislation and case law, they have established a precedent of stating that any person is exempt solely on the basis of their religious beliefs. That would not stand up in court if a person refused services or public accommodations to a person because of their race or national origin, but they claim it does apply if the issue regards sexual orientation. They claim we are not a “protected class,” in legal terms. Thus, they are promoting a special exemption just for this one category solely to mollify the religious fundamentalists who form the base of the Republican Party. It is an exemption based on partisan politics rather than religious freedom.

Using an obscure 1993 Law, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Administration has targeted the LGBT community and claimed that we alone can face discrimination because some people hate us because of those people’s personal religious beliefs. First, the DOJ issued a series of memoranda, and this week the U.S. Attorney General stepped up the pressure by appointing a task force (made up of himself and three others in the DOJ) to enforce these memoranda on the various departments and agencies of the DOJ. Waving the banner of “religious liberty,” they are in fact granting the privilege to discriminate by using religion as a weapon. The DOJ is establishing the religious practices of one minority group as official government policy. That is, in effect, state religion.

A lengthy op-ed in The Daily Beast, a Capitol Hill newspaper, blasts Jeff Sessions for his blatant cynicism and double speak of what constitutes religious liberty. When words are so twisted and mis-used, they lose their meaning and sometimes assume the opposite of the original meaning or intent. This is what we are dealing with regards the Trump Administration’s practice of propaganda (look it up!), lies, and misinformation.