The Raleigh Rant
A Faith of Our Own
A few months ago, I downloaded the Kindle version of this 2012 book by Jonathan Merritt titled: A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Through the Culture Wars. A few weeks ago, I finally got down in my pile of unread books and started reading it. May was a busy month, and I kept getting interrupted by other priorities.
The author comes from a background very different from mine. He was raised in the Southern Baptist Church and is a graduate of Liberty University and personally knew Jerry Falwell. But he is of a younger generation of evangelicals who are revising their agenda to focus more on social issues rather than political ideology. To summarize his thesis: we are in danger when we politicize our religion. It is one thing for an individual to be active politically and engage in advocacy for certain issues in which he or she fervently believes in. It is another quantum leap when an entire denomination of a church endorses a specific candidate or political party as the Southern Baptists did for 30 years.
Critics of the book claim that he hems and haws on hot button issues such as LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, and abortion. I don't think that he is dodging those issues as much as he is trying to claim a priority for evangelism of the Gospel. When we are totally absorbed with social issues to the exclusion of spreading the Good News, then we're putting the cart before the horse. He doesn't equivocate in stating that he thinks that Jerry Falwell was wrong even though he believes that he was a good man with good intentions. I can't agree with that assessment. I think that Falwell got caught up in the glare of power and publicity that fed his ego so that he succumbed to the thrill of notoriety rather than focusing on the Gospel. I do agree that when we descend into name-calling and judging those with whom we disagree we are on dangerous ground. The church, however, must be called to account for the damage it has done (both literally and psychologically) to a very vulnerable population that has faced decades of discrimination. Words matter, and when you attack homosexuals from the pulpit (as a group) as Falwell did, then you must face the consequences of those actions.
Trump has unleashed a revival of the open hostility to LGBT people, immigrants, and people of color. Racism is implied in most of his tweets if not directly called for. We are under attack again, and we must defend ourselves. But we must not lower ourselves to the level of our opponents. We must take the higher road. Hateful or hurtful language has consequences no matter who uses them. We alienate potential allies when we question their motives.
As a young staff member of a large evangelical church in Atlanta, the author demonstrates the reality that the culture is changing, and the views on LGBT issues are very much a generational issue. Most young people, even those who have been raised in the church, just don't care or think that they are of primary theological importance. Of course, if you are LGBT, they assume a much higher priority because of the impact on you personally. Most people's views change when they get to know a LGBT person as opposed to talking about generalities of "the other."
I am actively engaged with a number of LGBT advocacy groups, including one within the United Methodist Church: The Reconciling Ministries Network. But I also try to be understanding and gracious in talking with someone who is not affirming. At 81, I sympathize with a person for whom the media focus on LGBT issues is bewildering. When I was a young adult, it was an issue you couldn't even mention. Our society has progressed on these issues, as well as many European nations, but we still face an uphill battle. Let's try to engage with love and grace rather than with hate or harsh words.
Heaven and Hell
I didn't post on the blog around Easter because of the death and/or disability of too many friends in the past year. The hope of Resurrection seemed weak in my heart, and I couldn't fake overcoming the depression. I believe strongly in the Holy Spirit, but I struggle with the theology of our bodily resurrection and the concept of heaven and hell as a physical place. God isn't "out there" someplace, even though there is a world of the spirit that exists parallel to our known universe of our senses. My years of Bible study have convinced me that we place too much emphasis on trying to define or demonstrate God in terms of personification That limits God and our understanding and our knowledge of the world. We claim we know all the facts because of science, and state that we can't prove (or disprove) the existence of God. That's a false assumption. We really don't know or understand the world or the mind, even with the advances in science. There is still just too much that we don't know,
I recently had a discussion with a friend who formerly was a Methodist but now has become an atheist. He said he changed the beliefs of his childhood because they didn't fit with what he understood to be scientific facts. He just didn't believe any of those Bible stories anymore. I conceded there are many things we don't know or understand about Jesus, including the nature of his divinity. Theologians have argued about it for centuries. Yes, there were many other iterant preachers in Palestine in the first century, and some of them also were crucified by the Romans. But the one question he couldn't answer was, why was Jesus the one who changed the world? What happened to his disciples after the Resurrection? They had been ignorant, weak, self-centered and misunderstood much of what he taught. Suddenly they were changed and became powerful, committed, and filled with a faith that eventually overturned Rome. The church became a driving force for good and for human rights and responsibility for others. Unfortunately, as the "church" assumed a more formal organizational structure, it also became susceptible to human weaknesses and mistakes.
The basic issue of the conflict between the church and the LGBT community is whether being gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender is a sin. If it is the only unforgivable sin, then we're going to hell. Most people hedge and dodge around the issue. The fundamentalists quote some of the 613 rules of the Old (Hebrew) Testament and a few quotations from the letters of Paul. They ignore the cultural context of the times in which the Jews were a small minority threatened on all sides. They had no separation of church and state so they developed what we would call civil laws and a health code that were appropriate for that century. It was a matter of survival. Even the 1st Century Jews had different beliefs about the afterlife as well as a preoccupation with procreation. Rob Bell has an interesting book and more detailed commentary about Heaven and Hell in Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
It is pointless to debate the scriptures. People simply interpret them in different ways so we end up with hundreds of denominations based upon deeply held beliefs and traditions that are only loosely related to the Bible. We have dozens of English translations from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. That's not even considering the translations into other modern languages. Most of these translations/commentaries were influenced by the cultures of the times in which they were written. For centuries slavery was an unresolved issue in the church with both sides claiming God as their champion. Although LGBT people have been around for centuries, we were hidden and repressed to conform to the cultural mores of the times.
The United Methodist Church is split on the issue of homosexuality, but many people and congregations are welcoming and ignore the official dogmas of the church. These marginal steps are not very satisfying to me. I'm tired of 40 years of bickering. I guess that it just will have to take another generation to resolve this gridlock. In the meantime, I'm not afraid of going to hell.
Romans 12:11-13 New International Version (NIV)
11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
The recent ABC mini-series docudrama When We Rise covers the lives in America of a handful of actual persons over a period of 40 years. Although the reviews were good, the 4-night, 8-hour series covered a wide expanse of LGBT history that sometimes was hard to follow. I recorded the series on a DVR to avoid the frequent commercials that further broke-up the continuity. The focus was on the liberation movement on both coasts, but primarily San Francisco. A mixture of archival film footage and re-enactments, the series crams a lot of stories into a relatively short span of time. A lot of series run 10 - 13 episodes, but apparently, it was assumed that the ratings for a prime-time show on such a controversial topic could not be sustained that long. Their stories range from the early 1970's to 2016 so they are relatively recent history that focuses on the break-out of the LGBT movement into public view in the U.S.
I lived through this period of LGBT history and was familiar with most of the primary characters even though for most of that period I lived in Texas, which isn't even mentioned in the series. I even met Harvey Milk in person. I saw the AIDS quilts on display in Washington in 1996. We had pride parades and huge gatherings in Texas, but I think they are largely forgotten to history. We even filled the Astro Arena in Houston.
The political struggles, AIDS, and portrayals of a relatively wide scope of personalities are compressed and sanitized for general viewing to pass the TV censors. Reviewers have commented that the series is largely accurate on a factual basis. Unfortunately, we appear to be re-starting the struggle all over again with the election of Donald Trump. We still lack any federal legislation providing protection in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Several states are passing discriminatory laws in the name of "religious freedom," which is a sad commentary of the Orwellian double-speak we have today.
The anthology by Adrian Brooks Right Side of History:100 Years of LGBTQ Activism in 30 brief chapters tells the stories of a much broader range of characters over a longer time. Although each chapter includes footnotes for further reading, they are so anecdotal as to lose any continuity or really portray in any meaningful way the experiences of these people. It is a broad treatment that doesn't provide any real insights into the personalities or their stories. It concludes in 2015 before the Supreme Court decision of same-sex marriage.
John Boswell's historical account Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century covers an even longer time and reveals that LGBT people have been around for centuries even before we had names for them. The original edition was published 36 years ago and has been updated twice.
Our history is still being written, and unfortunately it appears that many of the rights we fought for so hard and so long are being reversed, and we will again face widespread discrimination, violence and hatred, especially in the United States. The fundamentalist missionaries spread a hatred of LGBT people across the African continent, and that has changed very little in the past 100 years.
What Is the Reconciling Ministries Network?
Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love. RMN envisions a renewed and vibrant Wesleyan movement that is biblically and theologically centered. As committed disciples of Jesus Christ, RMN strives to transform the world by living out the Gospel’s teachings of grace, love, justice and inclusion for all of God’s children.
This paragraph is taken from the mission and vision statements on the website (RMN) of this international organization that is headquartered in Chicago. With a small professional staff, the organization depends a great deal on the time, talents, and donations of friends and volunteers to make the United Methodist Church (UMC) live up to its motto: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.
Matt Berryman, Executive Director, and Helen Ryde, Southeastern Regional Organizer,
for the Reconciling Ministries Network
The organization is a caucus of the UMC, but it is not funded nor officially recognized by the denomination. It is concerned with a broader reach than just LGBT issues and works with allies in addressing issues of concern to people of color, ethnic, and disability protections. The current theme of Biblical Obedience reaches much broader than just church dogma and religious practices. It also coordinates activities with other organizations affiliated with other denominations.
RMN is made up of 700 groups and 34,000 individuals. It is most visible at the UMC General Conference and regional Annual Conferences, the legislative bodies of the UMC, but it also is involved in a wide range of other programs. In North Carolina, the UMC is divided into two conferences: The North Carolina and the Western North Carolina, with Greensboro being the dividing. A bishop serves as the CEO of each conference.
Information about the North Carolina chapter of RMN can be found at their website: (Reconciling Methodists of North Carolina). RUM-NC (along with the Methodist Federation for Social Action) sponsor a worship service and luncheon at the UMC-NC Annual Conference and works with local congregations on social issues. We have joined in the Moral Monday demonstrations supporting social justice and opposing some of the discriminatory legislation of the North Carolina General Assembly. We are an all-volunteer group, and we would welcome your participation. We have three facilitators who help organize events, but we have no membership dues or formal organization. Unfortunately, tax deductions are not allowed for donations because we do not have the funds to file the legal documents required by the IRS.
The question we receive the most often is, what does it mean to become a Reconciling Congregation? The foremost requirement is a public statement in the church media that it does not discriminate against anyone becoming a member or participating in the leadership of the church. Secondly, RMN does require dues from congregation that are proportional to their membership.
The National LGBT Task Force (LGBT Task Force) has a publication on Building an Inclusive Church that provides ideas and resources as well as a listing of affiliated faith communities. Whatever mainstream denomination you may belong to, there is an organization comparable to RMN.
What is SAGE?
Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders (SAGE) is one of the first organizations to provide services for the elderly LGBT community. The organization originally was founded in New York City in 1978, and now it has spread with SAGENET 28 affiliates in 20 states, including an active chapter in Raleigh.
The national organization is involved with a wide range of issues, and the local chapter provides support services and activities for LGBT elders. Single LGBT people often have no family or support system to help as they age and often go "back into the closet" when they move into institutions. Of course, one of the primary objectives is to help them to remain independent both physically and mentally. Discrimination knows no boundaries, but it is particularly devastating on the elderly.
Cooperating organizations include the U.S. Administration on Aging and AARP. The local chapter has focused on advocating for affordable housing in our community since that is an issue as the city rapidly has grown. Younger families move out farther into the suburbs where housing is less expensive, but that isolates LGBT seniors with few social connections. Unfortunately, many churches that otherwise provide a social connection discriminate against LGBT people.
Meet-Up and other social media have provided alternatives to the bars for social connections for the LGBT community. I belong to several gay LGBT groups, including SAGE. With the advent of legalized same-sex marriage, many couples simply have blended into their communities and have been accepted. Companies and local governments have become more accepting and less discriminating. Unfortunately, the North Carolina General Assembly reversed that trend and enacted discrimination of all LGBT people into law. Some erroneously believe that law affected only the transgender community.
The LGBT Center of Raleigh provides services and activities for all ages. One of their events OutRaleigh draws thousands of LGBT and heterosexual families to the annual street fair in downtown Raleigh. The Center partners with numerous other local and state organizations in advocating for non-discriminatory policies. We are active supporters of the Moral Monday marches that draw thousands to protest the right-wing legislation of the General Assembly and its impact on the poor and marginalized people of the state. Their tax policies particularly have favored their wealthy supporters.
As the discriminatory policies of the Trump Administration go into effect, the programs of SAGE and LGBT Centers will be increasing important in protecting our civil rights.