Holding Hands and Finding Home

I love traveling, but it makes me nervous. I approach new places with great anticipation . . . and dread. I’ve tried to get to the bottom of this ambivalence, but I still don’t have it quite figured out. On the one hand, I like novelty. I like to discover new places, and to make new friends. On the other hand, I’m a self-conscious introvert—which means that going into new places always plagues me with the inexplicable fear that my fly is open and that the people I meet will destabilize my hard-won equilibrium. So, when I can manage whatever it is I must manage to enter these new situations, I want things to go smoothly—no tripping, no spilling coffee all over myself, and no getting stuck next to the guy at the chip dip bowl who believes I’m fascinated to find out about his latest bunion removal (which first turned up at the Star Trek convention in Des Moines a couple of years ago, just as he was starting to bid on a highly sought after 1976 Star Trek Wax Pack Display Box Proof Sheet). I’ve just returned from a mission trip to a children’s home in San Luis Potosí, México. This year we brought youth from our church, including my two kids. What all of our youth continually remarked on was the amazingly welcoming reception we received. We found it impossible to go from one part of the home to another without having two or three little Mexican children holding our hands, imploring us to come look at a different bug or piece of rock, or offering to bring us water. They made us feel at home, like they really wanted us there. In fact, as we prepared to leave, our youth (only half-jokingly . . . I think) told us they would just as soon stay in Mexico. They felt like they’d found a new family, perhaps a new home.

All of this is on my mind, since at General Assembly in Nashville, many Disciples—in particular, readers of [D]mergent—wondered at length why, as a denomination, we remained silent on the issue of welcoming our sisters and brothers who are LGBTQI. Not technically silent (there were scattered mentions of the issue from the platform—and certainly from the floor), but practically silent (there was clearly no effort to speak normatively as a community about any kind of moral responsibility we might have to show hospitality to LGBTQI folks). In fact, I put up an unscientific poll on the [D]mergent website, asking “Should Disciples Vote to Become Open and Affirming in 2013?” At present, the poll indicates that 79% of respondents—admittedly, a somewhat self-selected audience, but significant nevertheless—believe that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) ought to speak prophetically to the world at the General Assembly in 2013 about the fact that we embrace all people equally, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation.

At first glance, the comments by those who disagreed that we ought to pass a resolution proclaiming ourselves to be Open and Affirming seemed to have more to do with ecclesiology than with theology. That is to say, of the people who commented expressing disagreement with a denominational stance on becoming Open and Affirming, more were dismayed about what—given our congregationally based polity—such a stance might mean. Would taking such a stand be an act of bureaucratic and theological imperialism—“ramming one theology down the throat” of the church? I think this is an important question—not only ecclesiologically, but also theologically. Disciples are undeniably constitutionally squeamish about forcing any position on others. What this question fails to take into account, however, is that staking out a position refusing to impose viewpoints on others is itself an imposed viewpoint. Saying that the most important thing to consider in moral debate is whether one is inflicting one’s understanding on everyone else is to have already stacked the deck in one’s own favor by establishing ground rules that place one in a position of power, able to foreclose any discussion that might result in a decision with which one might disagree.

If I were to say in 1860, for instance, “The church cannot condemn slavery because slavery is a controversial moral issue, and to arrive at a moral position that speaks against slavery would impose an alien viewpoint upon that part of the church that finds slavery to be sanctioned by God, scripture, and tradition,” I would be abiding by the ground rule, “Impose nothing on another.” But would I be more correct to worry about coming to a decision over which there is disagreement, or should I be more concerned with whether the decision is theologically warranted? The fact that some will invariably hold an opposing position with great sincerity does not release me from the responsibility of following my own theologically formed conscience.

Someone will stop me here, I suspect, to ask, “But isn’t it arrogant of you to believe that you’ve come to the correct decision about the inclusion of LGBTQI people, and that anyone who disagrees with you is wrong?” Perhaps. Humility ought to be chief among the virtues found in the techne of theology. It is altogether too easy to assume one has answered for all times and all places theological questions that have been in dispute for years. No one should be too quick to rush in with the definitive answer. But those of us arguing for the embrace of our LGBTQI brothers and sisters aren’t arguing “for all times and all places”; we’re arguing that, given what we know about this time and this place, the justice spoken of as constitutive of the reign of God calls out for the embrace and celebration of those God has created LGBTQI. A call to humility in the pursuit of truth is often a tactical weapon directed at those with whom I disagree, when it ought first to be something back to which I call myself.

Moreover, false humility—humility that fails to be honest about genuinely hard won theological convictions—is its own kind of moral failing. False humility that leads to inaction in the face of injustice has been at the heart of some of the great moral failures Christianity has witnessed (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow, Apartheid). Standing on the sidelines while children of God are being dehumanized because of the way they were created, for fear that wading into the fray will disappoint or anger other people, ceases to be humility and becomes morally and theologically indefensible. Theological humility is not a call to inaction, but a call to the pursuit of God’s justice, tempered by God’s grace.

Would such a denominational stance risk denominational disunity? Again, perhaps. But if our Stone/Campbell roots teach us anything it is that Christian unity can only be sustained in the presence of the truth. Absent the truth, what we experience is not Christian unity, but a strategic non-aggression treaty. Whatever “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” means, it ought to mean something more interesting than “Disciples: We’re nice! We’ve agreed not to talk about things that make us uncomfortable!”

All of which brings me back to my own discomfort in new situations. If the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is serious about bringing healing and wholeness to a fragmented world, about offering welcome and hospitality to the marginalized and forgotten, then we’re going to have to go out of our way to show it. We can’t afford to be tolerant anymore. People don’t want to be tolerated; they want to be loved and affirmed. We’re going to have to be a church that seeks out those standing on the outside, who’re no longer, many of them, even looking in—because they’ve been told for so long that the church doesn’t have a place for people like “them,” until they change and become people like “us.” We who hold the keys to the church are going to have to throw open the doors and windows and shout that all God’s children are welcome here. Better yet, we’re going to have to go out of the church and indicate our willingness to forfeit our power, to hold hands, and to offer water, to convince people that wherever we are together, we’re all family. And maybe together we can find a place that feels like home . . . to everyone.

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell was once shot with a potato gun while fleeing the scene of a Cold War espionage sting at a premium vodka distillery in a rural Estonian outpost. (He doesn't like to talk about it . . . so don't ask.)