The Raleigh Rant
For decades public opinion assumed that if you were gay you could not be Christian, and if you were Christian you could not be gay. The two were mutually exclusive. Theologians, authors, psychotherapists, and religious advocacy groups have challenged that assumption in recent years. In prior blog posts, I have cited several authors and written reviews of their books telling their personal stories of how they reconciled their sexual orientation with their faith.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources in 2009 and again in 2013 published “Building an Inclusive Church: A Welcoming Toolkit 2.0” with the support of eleven different denominational organizations. It provided an outline for Protestant Churches to provide a more open and receptive relationship with their LGBT members, and in some case to make a formal statement to that effect in their policies and publications.
This past fall, the Reformation Project, headed by Matthew Vines in Salt Lake City, hosted a conference at the National City Christian Church in Washington, DC that drew a star group of speakers and leaders and several hundred in attendance. Just this week in Portland, OR, Justin Lee with the Gay Christian Network, headquartered here in Raleigh, led several hundred evangelical leaders in a conference titled “Together at the Table.” Most of the denominational organizations cited above also host periodical national and/or regional conferences. The Reconciling United Methodists of North Carolina hosted one in Winston-Salem in 2013 and another in Greensboro in 2014. They are affiliates of the Reconciling Ministries Network that is headquartered in Chicago.
For several years the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, has had a full-time staff member for faith partnerships for reaching out to churches and faith communities. Many Reformed Jewish congregations and some individual Catholic Churches have organized connections with the LGBT community, and the new Pope has taken a much less judgmental view of LGBT people. So the gap between the two is closing both from the approach of gay activities and from the religious leaders. The radical right wing of the Republican Party and the Southern Baptist Convention are the two remaining holdouts that still use homophobia as both a political weapon and a judgment against all homosexuals.
The media seems to have been focused exclusively on same-sex marriage and the controversy that has risen in the past five years and the rapid reversal of state laws regarding the issue. The number of cases that have reached federal appellate courts has with only a few exceptions struck down state laws banning same-sex marriage, and the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to finally consider the issue even though it has declined to the review the decisions of appellate courts in recent years.
In the United Methodist Church, the media has focused on the church trials of ministers who have conducted same-sex marriage in violation of official church policy and how the regional administrators, who in this church are called bishops, have conducted those trials. There has been less publicity about the wave of congregations across the country that have openly stated their willingness to welcome LGBT people as members in full standing. The international legislative body of the United
Methodist Church, known at the General Conference, has debated the issue of the role of homosexuals in the church every four years since 1972 without any movement. This is in contrast with the other mainline Protestant Denominations who not only welcome LGBT people as members but also have ordained them as clergy.
For too long the debate centered on the interpretation of seven verses in the Bible that supposedly address the Christian theology about the practice of homosexuality. Some people have even said that it is OK to be homosexual as long as you do not act on that orientation and remain celibate, so that splits the hairs even further. Fortunately, the discussion seems to have moved more to whether or not LGBT people are to be accepted rather than condemned and not to focus so much on church dogma and the literal interpretation of a few scriptures. More LGBT advocacy groups are becoming less anti-religious, and more faith communities are becoming less hung-up on gay sex so the breech is narrowing.
Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor: Being Friends in Grace and Truth (Moody Publishers), by Glenn Stanton, staff member at Focus on the Family.
I got interested in this book by reading the book review in the Dec. 5th issue of Christianity Today by Karen Swallow Pride: Christianity Today Book Review
I won’t “review” her review, but I will offer comments of my own. The author makes a big point of his cordial relations with opponents on the issue of Christianity and homosexuality and how they have appeared numerous times to debate each other. Through that they have developed friendships and come to know each other as individuals, not just as stereotypes. Which, of course, is how people come to change their opinions, attitudes, and beliefs on the issue.
The one point where he will not budge is that evangelicals stand on the authority of the Bible, while his opponents have no standing in how to interpret the Bible. This is the first of his many false choices. Evangelicals appear arrogant when they assume they are the only ones who know how to read the Bible. He stands on their <em>interpretation </em>of the Bible, and there are as many interpretations as they are Protestant denominations. That is one of the primary reasons why the Protestant church is so fractured, although history, tradition, local social customs, etc. also played a significant role in how the church continued to divide over time.
He ignores Jeff Chu, Jason Lee, and Matthew Vines, who as fellow evangelicals have published very different interpretations of the Bible. In his history of homosexuality he ignores John Boswell, who wrote the most authoritative book on the subject. So he either chose to carefully select his sources or was not aware of these.
He starts off by saying that same-sex marriage cannot be a true marriage because it does not create life. If you follow that logic, the heterosexual couples who are infertile and have sex are living in sin. Where does adoption come into the equation? Paul doesn’t mention adoption in the Bible, except in a very different context. Glenn cites a couple of authors and quibbles with their interpretations of a few of the key texts in a very patronizing manner. He says, “God is unmistakably clear in these texts,” but there are other theologians who disagree with him. One example is Jack Rogers, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, USA. Somehow he skips over the historic fact that polygamy was the traditional practice in Biblical times and nowhere is it condemned in the scriptures although in modern practice it is considered a sin.
He claims that it is not the sexual orientation that is a sin; it is only acting on it. That is the fallacy of many of the evangelicals who focus on condemning people’s actions rather than focusing on what’s in their hearts, which is what Jesus instructed us to do. He gives a quickie orientation on the doctrine of original sin and for the call to obedience to God in that we must confess our sin. But that makes the giant assumption that homosexuality IS a sin, which he has not established logically. It is only a matter of church traditions.
He claims that sexual orientation or gender identity are not comparable to race or ethnicity offering only limited evidence to support that broad claim. He cites a few studies claiming that sexual orientation is not genetically based, but you can’t prove a negative. The fact is that science is inconclusive at this point and new research may prove that it is genetically based. And there’s the rub. If it is comparable to race in that is how God has created us, it is only wishful thinking to believe that we can change who we are. Yes, we can suppress our desires and our actions, but that only creates more internal conflict and psychological trauma as evidenced by the “cure” techniques that have been widely discredited as fraud.
It certainly is encouraging that a representative of an organization that for a decade preached hate of homosexuals to assume a more measured tone of judgment, and he states that we should disagree in civil tones and be respectful of each other. Obviously, I agree that abuses have occurred on both sides, and threats have been made. But I don’t know of any evangelicals who actually have been killed by a homosexual for their beliefs, and I do know of homosexuals who have been murdered by those on the radical right.
His discussion about whether or not homosexuality is a choice missed the point that 40 years ago the American Psychological Association determined that it is not a disorder and is merely a variation from the majority and that homosexuals can live a perfectly normal life. Of course, that doesn’t address whether or not it is a sin, which depends upon your theological point-of-view.
The false choice of being celibate condemns people to a lonely, unhealthy life in which they never are truly complete. The Catholic Church didn’t claim that prerogative for its clergy for a thousand years, and it’s still a false choice for the laity.
Chapter 4 relates the accounts of several people who have formed friendships in spite of strong opposing view on the issue of homosexuality, and these are encouraging examples. I fear that they are merely the exception to the rule, and I hope that I am wrong. Chapter 5 is about possibilities and limits of evangelicals forming friendships with homosexuals with reasonable suggestions. Chapter 6 is OK. In chapter 7 he states that the LGBT people claims special rights rather than the ordinary civil rights that everyone else has, which is another one of his false choices. I won’t debate the same-sex marriage issue simply because it is too complex to go into here. Federal discrimination laws cover race, gender, ethnicity, and age and now include sexual orientation. If you discriminate against an African-American (or any of the other protected classes) because of your religious beliefs, you cannot legally do business. Why separate out sexual orientation as a special privilege to discriminate based on religious beliefs? I agree that making a big fuss over gender-neutral bathrooms is more of an issue of sexual politics than mere practicality.
I don’t usually give such a lengthy, chapter-by-chapter book review, but I found myself debating the points the author made as I read the book. I couldn’t help myself, therefore this lengthy post.
I just finished watching the web cast of the panel of eight bishops, and I was disappointed just as I was in the book of that name that was published by the Council of Bishops last spring. (Find my review of the book in my blog post of June 20th.) I found the talk of unity disingenuous since the reality is clearly that the church is not united on this issue. One of the Twitter commenters stated that he didn’t like being described as an “issue” rather than a human being and noted there were no LGBT people on the panel discussing the issue of homosexuality.
I suppose the two webcasts and the book are efforts to fulfill the Wesleyan quadrilateral, but I felt they lacked the spirit of his intentions. His method involves scripture, tradition, experience and reason as four different sources of theological or doctrinal development. The current buzzword is to pray for discernment. The Roman Catholic Church for centuries emphasized tradition and official established church doctrine as the only sources, with very few options for personal beliefs, insights, or enlightenment. Wesley formed the Holiness Societies to not only study the scripture but also to discuss them in the light of their own experience, to reason together as to how they would be most applicable to the circumstances of their time, and to be accountable to each other. The Methodist Church must be held accountable for the damage this long debate and the resulting animosity have caused.
The Evangelical tradition of some Protestant Denominations has placed the scripture as the sole source of doctrine or dogma, and declares that it has been fixed in place for 500 years without regard to translations, exegetical research, original manuscripts, or other issues related to the intended meaning of the actual words in the King James English translation of the Bible. “It means what it says it means,” except of course the 16th Century English that was archaic at the time does not have the same meaning as contemporary English today. The purists claim that progressives are heretics who diminish the true intention of the Holy Scriptures by interpreting them in the context of our modern culture. Of course, they choose to ignore the context of the culture in which those scriptures were originally written down. The writings were compiled after centuries of oral traditions and were not established as the canon until hundreds of years later. (So much for the difficulties of reading and interpreting scripture.)
I still get the feeling that Jesus must have felt in discussing the law with the Pharisees and the Sadducees who claimed that all that was necessary to a good life was to fulfill the law as prescribed by Moses. Jesus taught that we are required to understand and to apply the heart as well as the letter of the law.
And so for 42 years we have been haggling over the wording in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, which is the official dogma of the church. The legislative body of the church, the General Conference, has debated this wording and modified some sections but still retained the principal condemnation that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Political camps have maneuvered every four years with little progress.
The devotees of the status quo claim that because the majority have voted at General Conference, then in the urgency of unity we must all obey and observe that dogma if we are to maintain the integrity of the church and the sanctity of the scriptures. We don’t have people calling out publicly that homosexuals are going to hell or that homosexuality is a sin anymore, but it is clearly implied by our policies.
So why do we get so hung up on seven deadly scriptures that are cited to use the Bible as a club to attack and condemn people rather than to use the Bible how we can best learn to live together in charity and to reach out to everyone to bring them to Christ no matter who they are?
Any church that is preoccupied with maintaining the status quo, regardless of the issue, rather than reaching out in its primary mission of evangelism is doomed to failure. If nothing else, it eventually becomes irrelevant to the needs and concerns of society and becomes defensive in self-perpetuating itself. When dogma has been revealed to not only be damaging to individuals but also to the grace of the church itself, what justification can be given of the primacy of the need to maintain unity? Am I suggesting the United Methodist Church separate as it did over the “issue” of slavery? No, but I do believe the endless dialogue is not productive if it leads to no resolution. The Jews love to debate the Midrash, but that is not the Christian tradition of how we understand the scriptures.
Why has there been a 7-week hiatus in this blog? I had a series of appointments with a variety of doctors, resumed my weekly Bible Study group, attended several political rallies, and went to the annual Gay Pride parade and festival in Durham in Sept. I posted photos of the parade on Facebook. In Oct. I’ve spent the month recuperating from hip replacement surgery. I spent 3 days in the hospital, a week in re-hab, and 2½ weeks at home. I really haven’t even read much and have survived just performing the usual activities of daily living plus daily exercises. I’ve pretty much just slept most of the past month in dealing with pain and weakness. I’ve fed the daily email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, but that’s been the limit of my activity online. So much for excuses.
In the meantime, North Carolina has achieved gay marriage through a recent court ruling, the airways have been saturated with negative political ads, and ISIS and Ebola have stoked the national panic. We’re now one of 20 states offering that recognition. The Raleigh LGBT Center hosted its annual awards banquet with recognition of several outstanding volunteers and activists. The HRC hosted its annual awards dinner in Washington, DC with lots of national press coverage. Within the past week, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has upheld the re-instatement of the credentials of Rev. Frank Schaefer, and the North Carolina and Western North Carolina chapters of the Reconciling Ministries Network hosted a successful conference in Greensboro. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend so can’t offer a first-hand report and didn’t get to see Bishop Talbert speak.
So while I sat on the sidelines, the worlds of gay rights, equality, and action have boomed with significant advances in many fields. So is there anything to hinder this burst of optimism? Yes, the radical right continues to propose reactionary legislation, media pundits and preachers still make ridiculous homophobic public statements just to gain notoriety, and the mood of the nation is generally cautious about our economic future. It’s like the economy is on hold until November 4th. I will be glad the daily panic email appeals from the Democratic Senate Congressional Committee finally will cease, and that I will be able to turn on the TV without Thom Tillis and Kay Hagan attacking each other continually. We still don’t have any employment non-discrimination legislation in North Carolina or in the Congress, and it appears unlikely to come up before 2016.
I hope to be back to driving again this week and more engaged in the community and to become more of a participant rather than just a spectator.
Gay marriage was never my issue. I believed in pragmatic politics, and I feared the backlash it would generate with church folks. But the Massachusetts court decision created an avalanche that cascaded through the legal system and surprised even the experts. The backlash I predicted happened in several other states that passed laws or even constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. One-by-one those have fallen on appeal, and public opinion has shifted radically in just a few years. It is happening worldwide and isn’t limited just to the United States. Of course, the churches are still fighting it, but it is a losing battle.
In the meantime, although the majority of the public opposes discrimination against LGBT people, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has languished in the Congress for two decades. Several states, many communities, and most corporations have enacted similar protections. The Executive Branch prohibited LGBT discrimination for federal employees and recently extended that to apply for contractors doing business with the federal government. But many employees still can arbitrarily be fired just for being rumored to be gay, and housing and public accommodations can be refused to the LGBT population. This is a really big issue for transgender people who face the most discrimination.
So I was surprised by my reaction to a new documentary film with the misleading title of <em>Bridegroom.</em> It features two very attractive young men who find romance and live together for six years even though they cannot be legally married. I won’t give away any spoilers, but the emotional impact of the film went far beyond the comedy that I was expecting. If this film doesn’t change your attitudes or beliefs about gay marriage, then nothing will. It is not yet in general release, but it is available on Netflix.
Currently a lot of people are speculating about what the Supreme Court might do in hearing the rulings of various Federal Courts of Appeals striking down laws banning gay marriage. They have cited the Supreme Court decision striking down the federal law banning gay marriage, known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA.) Even the opponents seem to think that gay marriage is inevitable and that state legislatures and courts can only delay it.
Proponents of gay marriage claim this is the new civil rights issue and that LGBT people have the same rights as others. When the rights of one class or group of people are restricted, then it affects everyone. Even the African-American community that long opposed this issue have come around and recognized that we have faced discrimination similar to what they encountered for generations even after a U.S. Constitutional Amendment and many federal and state laws banning racial discrimination. Discrimination is discrimination regardless of how you categorize it. Legislation has become more specific in spelling out what kinds of discrimination are prohibited, but it still exists. Hatred of people who are somehow different than the majority has historically resulted in discrimination. Simon Schama portrayed that recently in his PBS special <em>The Story of the Jews.</em>
So get over it, gay marriage is here to stay.