Category: diversity

Diversity in Name Only

diversityA friend on Facebook linked to an article in First Things by Mark Regnerus.  Regnerus is an interesting fellow.  He is a sociologist at the University of Texas and  has been at the center of some controversy in recent years over a study he released on gay parenting that did not put same sex families in a positive light.  Knowing that, I was a little hesitant to share this article because so many will dismiss this article at first read because of who wrote it.

I disagree with Regnerus, but his article on diversity in mainline churches did hit at something I’ve been thinking about.  If you can read past the triumphalism of the post, he shares that for all the talk within mainline churches about diversity, there just isn’t that much to be found vis-a-vis Pentecostal or Catholic churches:

There’s a mainline congregation I walk past on my way to the local Starbucks. The church’s advertising signals a key priority: “We value our inclusivity—whether you are young, old, gay, straight, single, married, partnered, all walks of life and all backgrounds and cultures—we welcome you!”

In a world where our devices, apps, and sites foster narrow social circles based exactly on such categories, it’s refreshing to know that Christian congregations are mindful of their call to reach the spectrum of souls.

But it’s not happening, at least not within the mainline. Data from the 2014 Relationships in America survey reveal that mainline churches are anything but diverse. They’re whiter (84 vs. 64 percent), older (43 vs. 28 percent are ages 50-60), more apt to be married (49 vs. 43 percent), have a college degree (52 vs. 31 percent) and are “straighter” (91 vs. 88 percent heterosexual) than the national population. Have you met an Episcopalian plumber? If you ever do, remember it, because it won’t happen twice.

By contrast, 54 percent of American Catholics are white, and 39 percent Latino. Pentecostals are a shred under 60 percent white, with an additional 23 percent African American and 14 percent Latino. Even evangelicals are less white—at 76 percent overall. And Pentecostalism and Catholicism, by comparison with the mainline, are veritable youth movements (26 percent each vs. 16 percent between ages 18–32). Evangelicals even more so—at 30 percent. Only 28 percent of American Catholics have a college degree, slightly below the national average.

I think there is truth to be found here.  I’ve heard more than enough stories about mainline clergy who are persons of color and how they are treated.  I know some of the hidden racism I’ve faced over the years from people supposedly committed to social justice.  There are problems within other sectors of American Christianity, but mainline congregations have never seemed to me to be naturally diverse in a way that I’ve seen in Catholic or some evangelical communities.  We are good at talking about race and racial injustice, but I think we aren’t that good when it comes to living it.

To add to that, Regnerus’ joke about Episcopal plumbers shows another embarassing truth about most, but not all of the mainline: there are almost no working class folk in the pews. I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of the mainline congregations in my hometown of Flint, Michigan as well as here in Minnesota that are closed tended to be less middle to upper middle class and more working to middle class. When I think of some of the strongest mainline churches, they tend to be large urban congregations that again have few working class people. Regnerus’ quip about rich and poor Catholics taking communion together is very true.  My years attending Catholic schools and having many Catholic friends have shown me congregations where doctors and carpenters worship together.  My Catholic high school in Michigan had a mix of people from  various economic classes.  Maybe that’s because I came from a working class town where General Motors had a big influence, but I don’t think I’m far off.

In contrast most of the mainline churches I’ve been involved in tended to be folks that were professionals of some sort.  Nurses, teachers, middle management folk are what make up some of the Disciple, Presbyterian and UCC churches.

Three years ago I wrote about the fact that the white working class are few and far between in mainline churches. I wrote in 2012:

The thing is, I don’t think the people who make up most mainline churches, who tend to be from a more professional background don’t like these folks very much.  I know this, because I hear how pastors talk about working class whites in meetings with other pastors, and I can tell you they aren’t looking at them as some kind of salt of the earth figure.  I’ve also heard it from people in the pews of mainline churches as well: this kind of contempt for them.
We look down at them because we see them as racist, homophobic, sexist and any other -ist and -ism that you can think of them.  The thing is that working class whites can be all these things, but they are more than that as well.  As Packer notes in his essay, these are people who see very little hope and take it out on everyone for their lot in life.
When we talk about planting new churches to reach young adults, we mostly mean reaching people of the same socio-economic class that we are a part of.  As much as we want to talk about caring about the poor and the workers, I sometimes wonder how accepting we are of those that actually fit this description.  How willing would folks be to accepting a man or woman that you can tell has lived a hard life and whose moral life is kind of a mess?
My own opinion is that the mainline church has a class issue and we don’t know it or at least don’t want to acknowledge it.  A good number of the mainline churches I know exhibit the values of the middle and upper middle classes.  We don’t have any way to connect culturally with the working class.
I also tend to think mainline churches tend to not welcome those of differing political and theological views.  Every so often I notice how some of my pastoral colleagues will say something about conservatives and libertarians.  Now, both political persuasions don’t always adhere to the gospel and they should be called out on that.  But the chatter in I see on Facebook sometimes go further.  They seem to show Republicans as heartless monsters.  In many ways some in mainline churches have adopted the language of politics instead of the language of theology and God’s grace.  So when one hears a pastor rip on Republicans, someone who might lean that way may think that this congregation isn’t really for them.  When an evangelical hears their beliefs and practices being mocked, they might think this church is for them. As someone who leans right, I’ve wondered at times if I’ve really found a home in the mainline.*
I think that mainline/progressive Christians really need to think about who is really welcomed at the table of Jesus. We need to examine our own biases and preferences to discern how inclusive we really are. We need to think about what it really means to say “all are welcome.”
Unlike Regnerus, I am not writing off the mainline church.  I believe it can become once against a Broad Church, but for that to happen it needs to take a good, long look at itself.

We Call Ourselves Disciples

My wife Jan and I have been members of First Christian Church of St. Paul for nearly 20 years.  We love the congregational focus.  We particularly embrace the dedication to the principles of wholeness and inclusiveness of the Disciples of Christ, that welcome everyone to the Communion Table with no exceptions.  We have recently rededicated ourselves to mission based activities.  Our work with food banks, homeless shelters, and job programs is very important to us.  If we are making sandwiches for the homeless, staffing a homeless shelter, packing food for the hungry, or just raising money for local support organizations, it helps us realize our goal of furthering God’s plan and Christ’s love in our communities, local and world wide.  When someone asks about our church we say, “Open, active, and loving.”

-John Paulson, member of First Christian-St. Paul.

IMG_1294This past weekend, First Christian-St. Paul did something we’ve never done before: took part in the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis. Joining two other Disciple churches in the area, we shared a booth and handed out fans and information to the passersby. It was great to see our little church on the hill take part in this joint effort.

But we were doing more than just handing out fans. I mean, yeah we did hand out fans; but it was for a far greater purpose than getting our name out there. What we did in Loring Park on a warm weekend in June was an act of evangelism, telling the good news of Jesus to people passing by.

Evangelism is something that tends to scare people, especially those in moderate to progressive congregations. We fear it because of the stereotype that plays in our mind’s background. We envision someone yelling at people and making them feel bad. I get that. The actions of a few have kind of ruined that work for many.

And yet, we are called to evangelize. Actually, we are called to make disciples, followers of Jesus. Handing out fans at a gay pride festival doesn’t seem like evangelism, but in God’s economy it most surely is.IMG_1292

You see, to be an evangelist is to be someone that tells the good news: the news that Jesus is with us and worked to set things right through his life, death and ressurection. We tell the good news of a God that loves, because we have seen it in our own lives and want to see it in the lives of others.

Some of the people who passed by the booth might have kicked out of their church after admitting they were gay. Maybe they were told that they were going to hell or something. Our handing out brochures and fans helped them to see that this God that they thought hated them, welcomes them to the Welcome Table. The body of Christ is truly for them.

We small d- disciples are called to live like Jesus and sometimes that meant being in places we haven’t planned for. Disciples of Jesus are called to share the love of God with others and remind them that this Jesus who lived, died and rose again is concerned about YOU. This is a God that loves everyone and we called to make more people become disciples of a loving and caring God.

I don’t know if we will get people to come to church. That would be nice, but that’s not what mattered. We are called to do more than that; we are called to love the other as if he/she were our only kin.

Evangelism isn’t about getting people saved (though that does happen). It is about relationship; about knowing that this God of the universe does truly love us.

I say to those who volunteered, thanks for letting God speak through you. We aren’t done yet. We have more work to be done to show people God’s kingdom.

-Dennis Sanders, Pastor

Crossposted at the First Christian Church of St. Paul website.

Why Being Nice to The Gays Won’t Save Your Church*

rainbowpcusaThis past week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) meeting in Detroit, approved pastors being able to marry same sex partners in states where same sex marriage is legal.  According to Presbyterian polity, it still has to get the approval of the majority of presbyteries (there are 172) before it becomes the law.

Judging Facebook and Twitter there were a lot of comments about how good this is and I agree with them.  But will this action, coupled with the approval of non celibate gays to become ordained a few years ago save the Presbyterian Church?  Will it save any church?

I ask that question, because I read an article by Carol Howard Merritt about how these actions might turn around the PC(USA)’s decline.

After serving growing churches, I know that people have been attracted to our church because we upheld LGBTQ rights. This is why we can grow, because of this decision:

Young adults overwhelmingly support LGBTQ rights. According to Pew Research, about 70% of Millennials support marriage equality. Guess what? The 30% is probably already going to another church. So, it’s a good plan to focus on the 70%.

The old-school evangelical church is declining because of their attitudes towards LGBTQs. For many years, people have told us evangelical churches were growing because of their doctrinal purity. But, as a refugee from the conservative Southern Baptist Church, I can tell you, homophobia combined with asking women to “graciously submit” and not use birth control pills, is not a strategy that will hold up with… almost anyone.

We’ve watched the exodus of younger generations. We’ve seen emerging churches mature. We’ve witnessed a movement of evangelicals embrace a more compassionate faith. Now the Southern Baptists are grieving losses as well. I don’t want to sound smug about this. Leaving my Baptist roots was the most painful thing I’ve ever done and I’m distressed when someone leaves church. I’m just saying that so-called doctrinal purity is causing decline in many cases, not stemming it.

I would like to believe this, but my own experience tells me that this reasoning is too good to be true for a few reasons.  First, I think everyone wants to pin the blame on something they don’t like as the reason for church decline.  If you’re a conservative, you will blame those loose liberal values.  If you’re a liberal then you think it’s because of the strict morality preached from conservative pulpits.  Either way, it’s the other side that is causing the ruin of mainline churches.

I don’t think that the reason mainline churches are losing members rests soley on embracing liberal theology and practice. Yes some folk do leave for doctrinal or theological issues, but I don’t think that captures all of the problem.  Some of the “fault” lies in a changing culture that is far more secular than the 1950s Mainline Protestant dominance.  Loses within the Southern Baptist Convention could stem from the fact that many Millenials don’t have a presence for any religion.    Are Millenials leaving the SBC because of the gay issue?  Probably.   But it also could be that the youth have lost interest in the adult world.  It could be having to work to pay off student loans which takes time.  We don’t know all of the why it’s happening; we only know that it is happening.

Also, if the gay issue is the thing causing people to either leave or join the PC(USA), you would expect massive shifts from more conservative denominations to liberal ones.  That’s not happening.  The splinter groups that became denominations never get a huge chunk of followers.  The same goes with the reverse: if people are upset at the SBC, you would think there would be a massive uptick in the mainline denominations.  In both cases, what probably happens when young people stop coming is that they stop coming to church,  period.

The thing is, while votes to change policy are very good and necessary; there is something about this belief that mainline churches will now grow that seems half-baked.  Progressive Christians believe that if they take some official position on gays or women or the economy that will cause people to consider their churches over evangelical ones.  Yes, it’s good that churches are becoming more open to LGBT folk.  But the thing is, the job is only half done.  Maybe some people will darken the door of a church because of a positive vote, but not everyone.  What will bring people is when members of LGBT-friendly churches do some old-fashioned evangelism.  They need to go to a LGBT friend and tell them about their church and how welcoming it is to them.  They need to tell LGBT people of how God loves them.  When that happens, then maybe, just maybe the numbers in mainline churches will grow.

Methodist blogger Sky McCraken wrote two years ago, that the reason for decline in denominations has little to do with it’s stance on homosexuality and more on making – or failing to make- disciples:

Changing the stance on homosexuality in the United Methodist Church will not stop the loss of membership in the denomination. It’s at best a red herring and at worst a lie to espouse otherwise. The Southern Baptist Church continues to lose membership; they are in their fifth year of decline, and they have a very decisive, very clear statement on their opposition to homosexuality. On the other side of the issue, the Episcopal Church also has a very decisive and clear statement on homosexuality, where they bless and celebrate same-sex unions as they do male-female marriages, even though doing so separated them from the Anglican Communion. Did it help them gain members? Their membership is now lower than it was in 1939.

The loss of membership in both denominations, as well as in the UMC, can reasonably point to one reason: failure to make disciples. We can blame society, we can blame the president and Congress, we can even blame MTV. But we can’t blame our stances on homosexuality. The fact that I hold an orthodox view on this issue and agree with my denomination’s stance doesn’t let me off the hook for anything – that has nothing to do with a failure to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ. And yes… that is what it says in Greek: μαθητεύω – to make a disciple  – it’s a verb, aorist tense, imperative, plural, second person. And as Dallas Willard reminds us, we are more often guilty of the Great Omission: once we baptize folks, and/or they have been converted to follow Christ, we seem to forget the rest: “teaching them to do everything that [Jesus] commanded you.” That’s discipleship. We have failed at discipleship – we suck at it! –  and have for several generations.

If gay people show up at a local Presbyterian church and ask to be married, that’s a great thing.  If they end up attending, that’s even better.  But what do we do once they are there?  Is our job over, and we can now relax?  How are we helping them become better followers of Jesus.  As McCraken notes, Americans Christians have done a poor job of making disciples; people who want to follow Jesus.

I am glad that this vote passed.  What I hope is that those Presbyterians in churches near and far not only welcome LGBT and Allied people into the church, but then help them become disciples of Jesus as well.

*I wanted to add that not being nice to gays won’t save your church either, but that would have been a crazy long title.

By the Time I Get to Arizona

ArizonaAbout a week ago, I wrote a post on same-sex marriage and how those of us who support it should act towards those that oppose it.  Can we be good winners to the losers?

Some of the response to that post got me thinking (and agonizing) over this issue.  In two states, Kansas and Arizona, bills have made their way through the state legislature that would give people the right to refuse service to gays.  I think both bills are unconstitutional on their face and bring to mind the dreadful memories of Jim Crow.

That said, these laws are the signs of a way of being that is passing.  I as said in my previous post, those in favor of same sex marriage have won.  But there is still something nagging me.  How do we live with those who are the losers?  How do we deal with those who say their opposition to gay marriage is based on religious teachings?  Do we ignore them?  Do we try to stamp them out?  What is deemed as religious (even if we think it is weird) and what is not a religious practice?

The issue of a baker or florist refusing to serve a gay couple brings out conflicting emotions.  I do think at some level there is the potential of bigotry behind that refusal.  I also think that having laws where people can refuse service could cause chaos in our economy.  But then I think about how someone who is a social conservative would see this.  There’s something about compelling someone to do something they don’t agree with because of their interpretation of the Bible that bothers me deeply.  Those of us on our side tend to see this simply as case of bigotry.  Bigots don’t deserve protection and they should shut up and do their job.  After all their “religious objection” is just a smoke screen for their hate.

But the thing is, seeing homosexuality as a sin was considered the normative teaching in our society until recently.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong, but we have to take in account that tradition is not something that you can easily dispose of.

The tactic that I have shared at times is that it’s okay to believe what you do in private, but in public you have to set your beliefs aside.  But upon thinking on this, I found this reasoning to be bothersome.  We are basically saying that their faith is a hobby that can be pursued at other times, but not when we enter the public square.  For the faithful, religious belief is not something that is private, but very public.  It orders every part of one’s life.  I think it would be difficult for someone who might think that same sex marriage to have to set their belief aside.  In fact, it wouldn’t make sense.  Why would they knowingly put themselves in a position to sin?

About three years ago, writer Jonathan Rauch wrote about the change that was heading our way on marriage.  He called on the LGBT community and allies to not immediately try to challenge the other side when it came to issues like refusing service to a gay couple.  To do so would be to make social conservatives fears come true and would basically play into their hands.  He writes:

…gay rights opponents have been quick, in fact quicker than our side, to understand that the dynamic is changing. They can see the moral foundations of their aversion to homosexuality crumbling beneath them. Their only hope is to turn the tables by claiming they, not gays, are the real victims of oppression. Seeing that we have moved the “moral deviant” shoe onto their foot, they are going to move the “civil rights violator” shoe onto ours.

So they have developed a narrative that goes like this:

Gay rights advocates don’t just want legal equality. They want to brand anyone who disagrees with them, on marriage or anything else, as the equivalent of a modern-day segregationist. If you think homosexuality is immoral or changeable, they want to send you to be reeducated, take away your license to practice counseling, or kick your evangelical student group off campus. If you object to facilitating same-sex weddings or placing adoptees with same-sex couples, they’ll slap you with a fine for discrimination, take away your nonprofit status, or force you to choose between your job and your conscience. If you so much as disagree with them, they call you a bigot and a hater.

They won’t stop until they stigmatize your core religious teachings as bigoted, ban your religious practices as discriminatory, and drive millions of religious Americans right out of the public square. But their target is broader than just religion. Their policy is one of zero tolerance for those who disagree with them, and they will use the law to enforce it.

At bottom, they are not interested in sharing the country. They want to wipe us out.

He continues writing what should be our response:

In a messy world where rights often collide, we can’t avoid arguing about where legitimate dissent ends and intolerable discrimination begins. What we can do is avoid a trap the other side has set for us. Incidents of rage against “haters,” verbal abuse of opponents, boycotts of small-business owners, absolutist enforcement of antidiscrimination laws: Those and other “zero-tolerance” tactics play into the “homosexual bullies” narrative, which is why our adversaries publicize them so energetically.

The other side, in short, is counting on us to hand them the victimhood weapon. Our task is to deny it to them.

I think we have to decide what level of discrimination is acceptable and what is off limits. As James Antle notes in his latest article, that at least according to the 1993 Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, there has to be a compelling interest for the state to force someone to violate their religious conscience:

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 seems to have this much right. Freedom of conscience isn’t absolute. But the government can only override religious conscience to serve a compelling interest and then must pursue that interest using the least coercive means available.

So even if there is a compelling public interest in ensuring access to contraception, if contraception can be made affordable and readily available through means other than forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraception or contraceptive coverage, than those other less coercive means should be employed.

The same logic would seem to apply to participation in same-sex marriage services. If we can allow conscientious objectors to refuse to fight in wars, we can surely make some allowance for people to who don’t want to bake cakes, provide floral arrangements, or take photos at a particular wedding. A case could also be made that same-sex couples should prefer to send their business to vendors who share their values.

A sense of proportion matters here. It’s unlikely that we are talking about very many businesses, and even fewer large companies. In some parts of the country, at least, vendors who take this stand risk being picketed out of existence. A few news stories about a same-sex couple who was refused service in their town could easily attract a flood of free wedding cakes, floral arrangements, and photography offers from other more supportive businesses.

He also brings up something that I’ve been thinking about. The analogy that has been used likening these proposed laws to segregation doesn’t really work:

Should gay business owners be forced to provide services to Chick-fil-A, Phil Robertson or organizations that lobby against same-sex marriage? Should gay advertising executives be compelled to write ads in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act? Freedom of conscience applies here too. So does the market’s ability to punish irrational discrimination and a business’s willingness to turn away paying customers.

If a Muslim fundamentalist car dealer refused to sell automobiles to women on religious grounds, even if it was not against the law, he would almost certainly go out of business. (If he didn’t, then immigration laws might need to be revised rather than the First Amendment.)

This is where the Jim Crow analogy, used by Kirsten Powers and others, fails. People often argue for or against the civil-rights laws of the 1960s on the basis of abstract principles, pitting generic equality against generic freedom of association, but they were in fact a reaction to a very specific set of circumstances.

Jim Crow was a system of extensive discrimination, not isolated incidents. It relied on the state enforcement of laws requiring racial separation and the non-enforcement of laws banning private acts of violence when the victims were black. It denied blacks’ constitutional rights and was rooted in state government coercion and social customs so powerful they were largely impervious to market forces. The federal government had repeatedly attempted to remedy these problems through more modest measures.

It is theoretically possible that allowing a New Mexico photographer to refrain from taking pictures at a same-sex wedding ceremony—or more plausibly, allowing the Kansas legislature to enact the previously mentioned bill—would create conditions like this for gays. But it is not very likely.

I would agree. On the surface the two seem the same, but not in context. The Jim Crow that my father lived through in Louisiana was not simply one person refusing him service, but an entire system that was placed into law. There is a difference between the two, not that refusing a gay couple is okay, but it is not backed by a system of laws, at least not in every state but Arizona it seems.

The point of my rambling is that those of us in favor of same sex marriage and those opposed have to find a way to tolerate each other.  Those who have a traditional understanding of sexuality have to understand that being gay is becoming more and more normative.  LGBT folk and their allies have to understand that the other side isn’t going away anytime soon and in many cases they are compelled to follow what they interpret to be from God (even if we think this is pure hogwash).  We have to learn to coexist, because this tit for tat war of stigmatizing is futile and for those of us who are Christian not very Christ-like.  We have to learn to love the other even if we think they are wrong.

I want to end with the words of fellow pastor Trevor Lee who has this to say about tolerance:

Tolerance now means completely accepting viewpoints that culture, and especially the media and TV/movie industry deem correct. Many of these viewpoints are against traditional moral stances. So those who hold to the “outdated” views are intolerant. Yet this has almost nothing to do with tolerance. In fact, very often those who rail against those “intolerant people” are being intolerant in the process. Here’s what it comes down to…

You do not tolerate someone or something you agree with.

The dictionary defines tolerance as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from [emphasis mine] one’s own.” So the only people and opinions we can logically tolerate are those we disagree with. If we change our opinions and beliefs we would now be tolerant by continuing to respect and treat with dignity those we used to agree with. I am for tolerance (really I’m more for love than tolerance, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but this is teetering on the edge of being a useless word in our culture.

I pray for more tolerance in our society. On all sides.

Social Media and the Rise of Fake Outrage

cokeadIt seems to follow a predictable pattern:  there is some example of diversity that takes place; a commercial with an interracial family, another one features to the rich multiculturalism of America, an Indian American woman wins Miss America, a young boy of Mexican heritage sings the national anthem at an NBA game.  Shortly thereafter someone says something rather ignorant and racist about the event.  This then bring a counterattack on the trolls which is usually far louder than the original tweet.

This seems to be happening a lot lately.  It has me bugged.  But I’m not bugged about the bigots.  I’m bugged about all the fake outrage out there.

More often than not, a lot of people with good hearts take to  social media to denounce the racist tweet or Facebook post.  The news media then takes the racist tweets and post them up on an article or talk about them on television.  Everyone is very concerned about this behavior and very. very upset.  All the while, the original event, the example of diversity gets pushed aside while the idiot that decided to say something from the safety of his (or her) laptop gets an audience.

I just wish it would all stop.

Yes, it’s sad to see people say mean things on social media.  But folks, in the scheme of things, this is not that important.  We seem to be shocked, shocked that someone, somewhere would take to social media to say something really bad about someone.

Really?  Are we really that shocked?

Social media is full of people saying stupid, mean and abusive things.  The tenor of debate on social media can wait for another post.  Yes, someone saying something racist is bad.

But let’s put this into perspective.  There was no physical harm done.  It was someone saying something foolish.  Do we all really need to get so upset about this?  Do we really expect that no one will ever say a mean thing about someone, even when it says racist things?

There are times we need to stand up against meanness and abuse.  But we have to pick our battles and we have to look at the current situation.  The fact that major corporations and cultural institutions are becoming more diverse and willing to cater to that diverse populace is a wonderful thing.  I am happy to see an interrracial couple with their biracial child on TV.  I like seeing ads where we see two men in love parenting their child.  We would not have seen such things a generation or so ago.  This is a major step forward in the history of our country; where corporate America is wanting to focus on how we look now.  THAT is what we should be focusing on, not a few people who sent a mean tweet.

Of course there are times we need to challenge people.  But not every event is a Supreme Court case.  We don’t have to fight every fight.

Some of the outrage over such events are more about wanting to look good than it is about facing an issue.  Most people want to identify with the winners, not the losers.  Our outrage makes us feel good and makes us superior to the racists.  Thank God we aren’t like those bigots, we think.

Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount talks about how we should not make a big noise when we do things. He says:

“Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

I will be thankful for the day that something sparks some racist tweets and the response is…nothing.  That, and we will talk more about the accomplishment than about the response.

“The Right Side of History” and Other Fundamentalisms

right side of historyOver and over again, I heard one phrase being used on my side of the same-sex marriage debate: “the right side of history.”  Yes, most of us who believe in marriage equality do think this is the right thing to do.  We liken this current debate in the backdrop of the civil rights movement and interracial marriages where equality was seen as the march of progress and those who disagreed were out of touch and archaic. The steady march of progress on marriage equality can make one think that those of us on the pro-same sex marriage fight are truly on the “right side of history.”

Despite all of this, if I were King of Everything, I would have that phrase banished from the English language.

The problem with the “right side of history” is that it smacks of hubris and certainty, the very things we accuse the other side of all the time. I’ve said this before, my coming out experience was based less on certainty than it was on faith and grace.  The Bible really doesn’t say much positive on being gay (probably because in biblical times the focus was on the sex act not the person’s sexuality).  It also doesn’t say much about the gay man who is in a monogamus long-term relationship, either.  So, since the Bible is not telling me much to help me, I have rely on faith that God loves me no matter what and also rest in God’s abundant grace.  Grace isn’t about being on the “right side of history” as much as it is how we can be loving to one another; how we can welcome each other even when we disagree.  For Christians, same sex marriage is not about the inevitable march of progress as much as it is about two people entering in a covenant with God and each other.  That’s not as thrilling as being on the right side of history, but it is what Christians are called to do.

Earlier this year former Anglican Bishop and well-known author N.T. Wright warned Christians who use the “right side of history” or progress as the reason to do something.  Not every mark of progress is a good one.

“Now that we live in the 21st century,” begins the interviewer, invoking the calendar to justify a proposed innovation. “In this day and age,” we say, assuming that we all believe the 18th-century doctrine of “progress”, which, allied to a Whig view of history, dictates that policies and practices somehow ought to become more “liberal”, whatever that means. Russia and China were on the “wrong side of history”, Hillary Clinton warned recently. But how does she know what “history” will do? And what makes her think that “history” never makes mistakes?

We, of all people, ought to know better. “Progress” gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that “history” was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of “progress”.

He then remarks on the then failure of the Church of England to allow women bishops:

It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops. And Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.

What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.

Progress is not always a good thing and it shouldn’t be the basis for ministry and mission in the church.  Sometimes the church will do things that might mirror society.  Other times it might be in direct opposition to culture.   We can only discern where God wants us at a point in history.  But we can’t be so sure that we have history on our side and in the end that isn’t our concern.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that the certainty of liberal Christians tends to mirror the fundamentalism of conservatism.  Berger looks at the recent goings on in the Episcopal Church and how the denomination is beset by two fundamentalisms:

I am not concerned here with the merits of these various contentions. (By way of examples, I see no reason why gays and lesbians should not be priests or bishops, but I have serious difficulties with an endorsement of abortion without any limitations.) My point here is simply to point out that two fundamentalisms are embattled here. I am not acquainted with Bishop Schori, but I am prepared to stipulate that as a person she may be amiable, even tolerant. But her public record impresses me as representing a dogmatic adherence to current progressive ideology. This fundamentalism is mirrored by fundamentalism on the conservative side. In the Anglican case this is a mix of Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical groupings, which are at odds with each other but (sort of) allied in opposition to the liberal theology and (less strongly) progressive politics dominant in mainline Protestantism. The two fundamentalisms are very visible in their respective approaches to the Bible. Anglo-Catholics are more concerned with fidelity to tradition than to the Bible, but for Evangelicals the Bible, Old as well as New Testament, has an absolute if not “inerrant” authority. It seems to me that there is a different “inerrancy” operative on the other side—that is, an unquestioning certitude of being “on the right side of history”. Both conservatives and progressives comb the Bible for “proof texts”, an exercise that often leads to very imaginative exegeses. Take, for example, the problem of excluding from imputed “inerrancy” some of the hair-raising penal texts in Leviticus. Schori’s exegesis of the text from Acts is a nice example of hermeneutic imagination on the other side.

In the next few days, I will head down to Orlando, FL for the 2013 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  We will be discussing a resolution on being a table of welcome to all including gays and lesbians (or LGBT).  While I’m in favor of the resolution, I hope that those on my side will not talk about the church “getting with the program.”  We don’t need to be modern as much as we need to be faithful.

Repost: We Can’t Be Friends

First off, welcome to all the new visitors who saw my post on Freshly Pressed. Below is a post from last year. 

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills. At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up. She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor. You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other. “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on. But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today. Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore. Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other. Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

When it comes to the issue of gay rights the two camps talk past each other, having very different objectives that the other side just doesn’t get.

For liberals, this is about equality. Framed by the story of the civil rights movement, they see any attempt to block same-sex marriage or gay clergy as akin to denying African Americans the right to vote.

For evangelicals, this is about conscience. They feel they must be faithful to what they believe the Bible is telling them when it comes to sexual morality. They see any approval of gay sex as going against God’s commands.

These differences were there 20 years ago, but I think there might have also been more opportunity to come together and meet the other. Our self-selected society allows us to basically pick our friends instead of trying to build bridges with those who might be different.

Why am I telling this story? I don’t really know, except that maybe I would like us to find ways were we can learn to disagree without being so disagreeable.

Civility is all the talk in our political culture, mostly because it seems like we have less and less of it. We have made it a civic value, but I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value. We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree. Evangelical church planter Tim Keller said it best a year ago:

AMANPOUR: You talk about polarization between left and right. It does seem to be extreme, at the moment, in the United States politically, socially. Is there any hope that that can change, do you think?

KELLER: It will start if we stop demonizing each other. I — my — my — my elderly mother once said that up until about 15 years ago, if you voted for a different person for president and the person you voted against became president, you still considered him your president. He said — she said 15 years ago, that changed, that if you voted against that guy and he became president, you actually act as if he’s illegitimate. And I’m not sure that is a big social and cultural difference. We — and it really means the other side isn’t really just wrong, they’re kind of evil. And that’s pretty bad.

MANPOUR: I have to say that many would say the church plays into this highly acrimonious debate — public debate, not all church, but certainly some parts of the church. What should the church be doing different?
KELLER: At the very least, we should be creating individuals who know how to talk civilly. The gospel should create people who say, I’m loved by God but I’m — I’m a sinner. So there — there should be a certain humility and graciousness about the way in which you talk to everybody. As an institution, most of the churches have lost a lot of credibility. So I think my job is to create individuals who can participate in civil discourse.

AMANPOUR: You’re saying institutionally, the church has lost credibility?

KELLER: The mainline church identified with liberal politics, the Evangelicals have identified, at least they’re identified in people’s minds, with conservative politics. The Catholic Church has had the sex scandals. And so institutionally, each church has lost credibility. So I think it’s our job as individual congregations to care for the poor, to produce civil — people who speak civilly, to just serve our neighborhoods and serve people and be careful about speaking ex-cathedra, you know, about these great political positions on issues.

I would disagree with Keller in that I do think the church has a right to speak out on issues and there are some issues where we have to be clear where we stand. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to look at our sister and brothers as if they are evil. We can find ways to be civil in maybe in some way speak to people about what church is all about.

What a witness that would be.

On Holy Friendships

friendship

My thoughts these days are drifting towards relationships, or the lack thereof in churches.

I’ve been thinking about this in light of a recent blog post on CivilPolitics.org on the dearth of cross-party friendships.  The post linked to a longer article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the issue.  The author, Neil Gross notes that such friendships have benefits for the whole of society:

President Obama last month took a group of Republican senators to dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, in Washington, to discuss the sequestration crisis and a wide range of other policy matters. The next day he asked Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice-presidential candidate, to lunch at the White House. Another meal with Senate Republicans is planned for April 10. The goal of those meetings? To score PR points—but also to build personal relationships that might erode partisan gridlock.

It’s too early to tell whether the president’s outreach will work, but social-science research suggests that friendships that reach across the political aisle may be good for democracy: They facilitate cooperation by reducing extremism and enhancing trust. In a 2002 study, the political scientist Diana Mutz assessed the effects of political diversity among friends. Study participants who reported friendships with those who were unlike them politically had a better grasp of why people on the other side held the view they did. Those participants were also more tolerant…

The problem is that, in both Washington and the country as a whole, friendships that cross party lines are becoming rare. The political scientist Robert Huckfeldt and his co-authors found that in 2000 only about a third of Americans who supported George W. Bush or Al Gore for president had someone in their political-discussion network who backed the other candidate. And in a study of wider acquaintanceship networks, the sociologist Thomas DiPrete and colleagues discovered that such networks are segregated by politics as well.

It should not surprise anyone that such a lack of cross-party friendships are lacking in the church as well.  I’ve noticed more and more how liberal Christians tend to stick with each other, while conservatives keep with their own kind as well.  In a post from last year, I explained that this wasn’t always the case:

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC.   The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today.  Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff.  The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills.  At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up.  She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor.  You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other.  “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on.  But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today.  Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore.  Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other.  Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

As I move within my different circles, I’ve noticed how liberal and evangelical Christians don’t talk to each other at all.  They don’t see to like each other and say not-so-nice things when they are in their own groups.  Since I work for the Presbyterians and pastor a Disciples church, I’ve seen how we all self-select or how we wish we could not have to deal with “those” people.  I’m reminded of talking to another pastor a few years ago after a difficult vote.  The pastor wished our denomination was more like the United Church of Christ, our sister denomination that tends to be far more liberal.  I was privately irked by the pastor’s comments, because what was being said is that life would be easier if we didn’t have to deal with “those” conservatives.

In our society, it is becoming easier and easier to not have to hear diverse viewpoints.  As much as I like social media, it has the tendency to shelter folks from other opinions and reinforce our own views.  It’s been interesting to see people on Facebook who seemed more temperate in the past become more zealous over time.  People will put up the latest graphic that makes fun or demonizes the other side.

We are less interested in trying to build bridges, than we are in setting the damn bridge on fire.  In the name of social justice or orthodoxy, our places of worship are becoming less graceful.

Recently, social conservative writer Rod Dreher shared his experiences meeting the well known gay blogger Andrew Sullivan.  The two have tossled more than once on the issue of same-sex marriage, and yet something surprising happened over time: they became friends. Here’s what he said, responding to Andrew’s take of an evangelical church he attended where a mutual friend’s funeral took place:

It will not surprise anyone to learn that Andrew and I will simply not be able to agree on theology. It may surprise some to know that I can live with that, because Andrew is a decent and kind and very much alive person (though I can see his difficult side too; we all have them, as did — very much — David Kuo; as do I). Listening to Andrew speak with passion the other night about his love of Jesus Christ, and his experiences of Christ’s presence, was moving, because so genuine. Hearing of him speak of his own deep suffering as a child and as a young man — stories I hope he will be able to tell one day in his writing, because they were incredibly powerful, and gave me a new perspective on him and why he believes and feels the things he does — deeply reinforced for me the Gospel interdiction on withholding judgment from others. We really don’t know what others have endured, and how they have managed to hope in spite of hopelessness. I found myself back at my hotel room that night praying for Andrew, that Jesus will help him carry the things he has to carry, which to a degree that startled both of us, I think, resemble some of the heaviest burdens I myself have to carry.

If that makes me a squish, well, it makes me a squish. The older I get, and the more I become aware of my own frailty, my own vanity, my own hard-to-govern passions, my own weaknesses, and the more I come to grasp how freaking hard life is, the more inclined I am toward mercy. It’s not out of big-heartedness, necessarily, because unlike my sister Ruthie, I am not big-hearted. I am petty and jealous and quick to anger. My worst fault is my unbridled tongue. Rather, I think any inclination towards mercy on my part comes from a recognition of how much I need it myself.

The words that are most important here is that Rod could live with not agreeing with Andrew’s theology.  Live with. Tolerate.  Knowing that you might never change another person’s views and coming to a place where that’s okay.  To know that sometimes, it’s better to be loving than to be right. Grace.

What I wish for the church today is that we could live with a little more grace towards each other, especially when we don’t see eye-to-eye.  We need to get to a place where we can disagree and argue and still hug each other afterwards.

Maybe if we were more merciful we would be willing to hear each other.  Methodist pastor Stephen Rankin wishes that people not refer to things with the various political adjectives that keep us separated:

We absolutely must enact a moratorium on political labels as identifiers for the “kind of Methodist” that someone thinks she or he is.  Calling a particular theological position “progressive” or “conservative” perpetuates (ironically) the very groupthink that we often say we deplore.  These words are code that do nothing more than allow people to decide whether they like the theological idea or not without having actually to engage the idea itself.  It thus stops necessary reflection even before it gets started.

Using political labels, therefore, like “progressive” and “conservative” and, in some ways “evangelical” does nothing but short-circuit and maybe even ruin the possibility of important and serious conversations.  Let us please stop using them, at least long enough actually to talk and listen to one another without these maddening distractions.  I am not naive to think that we’ll stop using them altogether, but let us please become very self-aware and spare in our use of them.  And we should agree never to use them as conversations stoppers in public debate.

Our society is so fractured, and our churches mirror this sin.  What needs to happen is for Christians to not always work so hard to be right.  I’m not saying we give up our views, but to know that relationships matter, even when you don’t see eye-to-eye.

I know this will seem weird to others, but I hope one day to become friends with a social conservative.  We won’t agree on the issue of sexuality.  We might even think the other is sadly mistaken.  But I want to have a friendship with someone I don’t agree with to learn to love someone for more than their having the right viewpoint.  I want to love them as Christ did and does: with grace and mercy.

So, if there are any social conservatives who have always wanted a sassy black gay friend, I’m available.

Birth Control And The Sham of Theological Diversity

One of the things that Progressive Christians like to say about themselves is how welcoming and tolerant they are.  Compared to their more conservative cousins, progressives can pride themselves in being able to think for themselves and to have a place where all ideas and beliefs can be shared without fear. Why, your progressive church even welcomes Republicans!

But in reality, all of this talk of diversity is a complete shame.  We are no more tolerant of other viewpoints than our conservative relatives.  What we are good at is lying to ourselves about how good we are.

Case in point is the current discussions over birth control and the new federal health care law.  Catholics and Evangelicals were upset at the initial rules which came out a year ago that mandated birth control in all health care plans.  The exceptions were religious places for worship like churches or mosques.  However, religious bodies such as a hospital or university would have to include birth control in their health plans regardless if they found such things goes against their faith as they understand it. The Obama Administration has offered a compromise solution that seems to fall of deaf ears of the opponents.

Now, I need to say straight up here is that I support people using birth control.  I think it can help prevent unwanted pregnancies, which is a good thing.  That said, even though I think birth control is a good idea, that doesn’t mean that I think anyone who has a problem should just shut up or that the government should force groups to go against their beliefs.  If people of faith have really discerned the issue and they believe that mandating universities or hospitals to include birth control in their health plans goes against their faith, the those of us who might have an other position should within reason stand to support them.  Not because we agree with them, but for the simple reason that Christians should be able to express their faith without the state forcing them to go against their beliefs.

Very few progressives were up in arms about the proposed changes a year ago and not much has changed.  Methodist pastor Morgan Guyton shares in his somewhat overly candid Huffington Post piece his satisfaction that the United Methodist Church covers birth control.

Apparently, the Obama administration just announced a rule change in the contraception mandate to allow broader exemptions for religious employers beyond churches themselves. Well, that’s fine and all, but I’m actually grateful that my health insurance through the United Methodist Church pays for my wife and me to have our IUD that keeps us from having more babies. And I think it’s time someone named the fact that family planning is a legitimate part of the equation of Christian sexual ethics rather than always being a demonic conspiracy against God’s will for humanity. Birth control is part of how my wife and I try to be faithful stewards of our bodies and our relationship for the sake of both our family and the ministry to which God has called each of us.

I’m very attracted to Roman Catholic theology for a lot of reasons. The Roman church’s theology of the body is derived from a lot of principles I agree with: a sacramental understanding of human existence, an affirmation of God’s sovereignty over modernist individualism and a suspicion of the worship of science. At the end of the day though, I’m a pragmatist. My wife and I are at the age where we would risk having a child with serious health problems if we did not use birth control. We would receive a child like that as a blessing from God and love him or her with all our hearts, but it would result in our relative lack of availability for ministry beyond our family, which is why having an IUD is appropriate stewardship for us.

Again, I’m not personally opposed to having birth control as part of a health care plan.  Good for the United Methodists for including it.  But not everyone thinks that way.  Should we just ignore them because they get in the way of our pleasure?

Guyton says birth control is part of Christian sexual ethics.  I’m not saying it can’t be part of a Christian sexual ethic (it should), but how?  Guyton doesn’t say.  He keeps saying that having his wife use an IUD keeps them from having another baby that could be subject to health issues.  He then lifts up a Latino couple who are low income and might not be able to afford the IUD.  Okay, but why are we acting as if this is the only option?  Has Morton ever heard of a condom?

Guyton then goes to focus on the evangelicals who oppose the mandate and basically says their opposition is probably racist and very selfish:

Fifty years ago, the threat that black male libido posed to white girls was the main justification for the social order of segregation (if they come into our neighborhood and our schools, how will we keep our women safe?). Though the racial dimensions have been sublimated (somewhat), the threat of sexual transgression has carried over into our era as the primary underlying anxiety behind middle-class evangelical family decision-making whether it’s about homeschooling, suburban living, or finding a church with a strong youth program so my kids won’t go to the drinking sex parties that every non-Christian high school student attends every weekend.

The irony is that the culture war over sexual purity is not at all the counter-cultural stand that it purports to be; it’s completely accommodating to the mythology about the underlying causes for the social order that privilege needs to tell itself. It reassures a population of middle-class parents that focusing on their nuclear family to the exclusion of everything else is exactly what Jesus wants them to do (the same Jesus who said, “My mother and brothers and sisters are those who do my Father’s will” [Mark 3:35]). This reassurance is one of the most important obstacles to kingdom living among Christians today.

So, it’s pretty obvious that the kingdom of God includes IUDs and selfish conservatives should wake up and smell the coffee.

The problem with Guyton’s piece is that he makes no attempt to even understand the other side.  He has made up his mind that the other side is profoundly evil and if they want to be good Christians they need to give up their upper middle class priviledge and support birth control coverage.

A year ago, Episcopal Priest and commentator Frederick Schmidt wrote about the contraception mandate issue.  He wrote:

What should be troubling to Protestants is that there aren’t more people in our circle voicing support for the Catholic bishops. It is true that the intersection of secular government and religion poses peculiar tensions and the church cannot afford to treat the government as if it were a surrogate for Christian activity. But, for the same reason, no part of the church can afford to compromise its freedom to take specific religious positions—regardless of what other churches or even its own membership might think. The issue of precedent is at stake here, not just the specifics of this particular policy decision.

Furthermore, simply because Protestant churches may not completely share the Catholic position this time around, does not mean that they will manage to avoid jeopardy at some point in the future. Presidents come and go, but precedents are forever—unless the Supreme Court reverses them—and religious leaders everywhere would do well to remember that. What would the same progressive Protestants argue if some future administration reinstituted the draft and eliminated conscientious objector status?

Schmidt continued to note that Progressive Christians have lost the theological language to speak on issues, especially those dealing with sex and marriage:

So, is there any other reason that progressive Protestants aren’t more actively engaged? Yes, there is one: We don’t have any language for the presenting issues of contraception, choice, and abortion, except for the political vocabulary that we’ve been using all along. So, while the administration has run a coach and horses through the First Amendment, we find it hard to explain why that might be a problem, because we are convinced that what the administration just did was strike a blow for what is not just politically, but theologically appropriate.

Shame on us. The right to choose, control over our bodies, and access to treatment are all political issues–and they have a place in the conversation.

But in using that language alone, we have neglected the hard theological work that is properly the church’s task. From the theological point of view the stewardship of the bodies that God has given us, being made in the image of God, giving birth to those made in the image of God, chastity, the sacrament of marriage, and the purpose of life are all in play as well. How those values are honored in a complex world is the stuff of Christian conviction and practice.

Progressive Christians who are dead sure that the Catholic bishops have conflated church and state should remove the beam in their own eyes before reaching for the microscope to help others. Far too often Protestants have bought the so-called Erastian notion that the church is subordinate to the state and that faith, therefore, is a private affair. Now we are in danger of taking those notions to their logical, self-destructive conclusion: The only theological vocabulary we have is the vocabulary that the state gives us.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that many secularists and their liberal Christian counterparts, want to defend the gains in sexual liberation made in the 1960s.  Here’s what he said relating to two legal cases on the public display of religion:

I do want to make a general observation: In all these cases the authorities accused of violating the plaintiffs’ rights operate with a definition of religion as a private matter to be kept out of public space. There is here a general issue of government overreach, as clearly illustrated by the (still unresolved) attempt by the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health plans. Beyond that, though, there is a very ideological view of the place of religion in society. In other words, religion is to be an activity engaged in by consenting adults in private. The attorney for the Judeo-Christian side in the aforementioned American case had it quite right when he compared the treatment of his client’s religion with measures of disease control. This is not an attitude one would expect to find in a Western democracy. It is curiously reminiscent of policies toward religion in Communist countries and toward non-Muslims under Islamic rule….

Let me venture a sociological hypothesis here: The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution. Since the 1960s there has indeed been a sexual revolution in America. It has been very successful in changing the mores and the law. It should not be surprising that many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. No wonder they are hostile!

Now, I benefited from that sexual revolution.  If that never happened, I would never be able to be an openly gay man.  So, I’m not against the loosening of sexual standards.  But why are they good?  Why should we use birth control?  What is does marriage mean for the Christian community?  What about divorce? What about sex outside of marriage?  The answer doesn’t have to be no (though sometimes it can be) but we need to do some thinking theologically as to why Christians can take these stances instead of just baptizing any left-wing idea as holy and good.

Which brings me back to the subject of theological diversity.  If we really have a spirit of discernment and an openness to what God might be saying, then there will be room for other views and a willingness to allow for space for different views.  However, when we adopt the language of politics, we divide folks into like minded groups and hinder any chance of diversity.

Which is what Guyton is doing here.  Instead of trying to understand the other side and explaining in theological terms why he thinks his view has merit, Guyton wades into demonization.

If Progressive Churches are basically suppose to be chaplains to the Democratic party, then let’s be honest about that.  Just don’t dress it up in religious garb.  I’ve had enough of that, thank you.

Wait for the Healing

Back in May of 2012 , I shared a story of what happened at a Baptist church I attended in Washington, DC in the early 90s.  It was a story of how people who disagreed with each other on the issue of homosexuality were able to still be friends and support each other.

Around that same time, I remember someone saying something after a congregation was going to make a tough vote on becoming open and affirming.  The exact situation is foggy after 20 years, but what I remember this woman saying that after this vote, “there would be some healing to do.”

The pastor was quite aware the stand be open and affirming to gays and lesbians was the right thing to do, but there was also a need to heal the rifts from this challenging process of discernment.  After the prophetic, there had to be time for the pastoral.

When my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) gathers in Orlando this summer for our General Assembly a resolution will be up for consideration on welcoming LGBT persons not just as congregations, but as a whole denomination.  Knowing some of the folks who came up with the resolution, I think it’s pretty good.

And yet, I’m concerned what will happen to the wider church after the vote.  Will the body been torn apart, never to be put back together, or will there be agents of peace who will try to mend the broken pieces after a hard, but neccesary vote?

The thing that I don’t hear much these days is the call to mend fences after a vote such as this.  More often what happens is that folks vote and the winners claim victory and the losers walk off to sulk.  What missing in all of this is the larger picture, the larger whole of the church.  There is no desire to heal the wounds.

As I said in my post from last year, I think part of the problem here is sorting of American society into like-minded communities.  Here’s what I wrote back then:

Civility is all the talk in our political culture, mostly because it seems like we have less and less of it.  We have made it a civic value, but I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value.  We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree.

Last summer, Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President tape a video about the importance of all sides of this issue to remain at the Table.  The letter and video, called Setting a Graceful Table stressed the centrality of the communion table:

All tables of the church must be safe places, where respect for diversity among God’s children is honored. As self-governing ministries, in covenant with one another, our challenge is to make room for each other within one Church – even when we make different decisions on important matters. In the past, maintaining the respect and safety of the Table has challenged Disciples. In the era of slavery and abolition Disciples did not divide, but stayed at the common table. Today, the politicized and polarized character of the sexual orientation and equality debate again poses such challenges. This is the time to use our best table etiquette of entering into dialogue in love even in our diversity of opinion. This is the time for the church to show the world that wholeness wins out over fragmentation.

I shared in a post that this issue of welcoming LGBT persons into the full life of the church is personal for me.  But so is being a unique community of love:

Being an openly gay man and a Disciples pastor, I have a dog in this fight.  I’m not going to pretend I’m above the fray and all that.  I want to see churches become more accepting of LGBT persons.  However, I also want the church to be a better witness in the world, not only being more inclusive, but also showing how we can deal with one another humanely even when we disagree profoundly.

We live in a world that is increasingly polarized and factionalized.   More and more, we sort ourselves into like-minded ghettoes where we never encounter folks with a differing view point.  More and more we are certain that our view is the correct one and the other side is going surely lead us down the road to ruin.  As our political and social lives have become more polarized, so has the church. In the name of justice or faithfulness or what have you, we have erected barriers to protect ourselves from other views and launch verbal attacks on others, cloaking our incivility in some form of being prophetic or speaking God’s truth.

What I long for this summer is two-fold:  I hope the resolution passes, but I also hope that if my side succeeds they will reach out to their sisters and brothers who might be on the losing side.  I hope that we won’t just be prophetic, but that we are also pastoral to those who might be our “enemies” and welcome them with open arms.

I hope we can wait for the healing.