By Derek Penwell
I was teaching about Judaism in class last Thursday, two days after the 2012 election cycle. When I came to the story of Jacob and Esau, I explained how the writer of this portion of Genesis took pains to frame Jacob’s character. The writer describes the epic battle between Jacob and his twin, Esau, in their mother’s womb. Of interest for my purposes, however, is the account of the subsequent birth:
“The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Easau’s heel; so he was named Jacob [i.e., ‘heel grabber,’ or ‘supplanter’]” (Gen. 25:25-26).
As I stood there recounting the tale of Jacob clawing at Esau’s foot, trying desperately to beat his brother out of the womb, I considered the nature of the church’s relationship to the culture in the wake of the election. I found the comparison rather unflattering to the church.
What am I talking about?
At the same I as was considering Jacob’s struggle to get out in front of his brother, I was also thinking about the gains made for LGBTIQ people in the recent election. An historic day for civil rights unfolded last Tuesday, as I suggested in another article:
Ballot initiatives in Maine, Maryland, and Washington give the citizens of those states the right to marry, regardless of sexual orientation, putting an end to 32 straight defeats of same-gender marriage at the ballot box. In Minnesota voters defeated a constitutional amendment banning same-gender marriage. In Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin, became the first openly lesbian Senate candidate in the country. Last Tuesday’s election results indicate a sea change in our culture’s attitudes toward LGBTIQ people.
So, I was thinking: Will the mainline church be like Jacob clinging to the heel of Esau trying to keep up with the moves of the culture?
Or will we be out front and make the hard decisions to bring justice into the present now?
Only, I think the analogy breaks down in this respect: At present, I don’t get the sense that the church (at least the folks seated at the ecclesiastical control panel) wants either of those things when it comes to LGBTIQ people. It seems pretty clear the church doesn’t particularly care about not letting culture get too far ahead of us on this issue. And it certainly feels very little in the way of shame for not leading the culture when it comes to advocating for justice on behalf of LGBTIQ folks.
My sense of the current state of affairs within many mainline denominations is that their leaders want to keep a hand on the cultural heel of Esau not for fear of failing to lead, but so that when civil rights for LGBTIQ people is fully birthed it will look like we were right there all along. That is to say, we don’t want to risk getting too far out in front of culture, but neither do we don’t want to appear too far behind.
From the vantage point of those whose full inclusion is on the line, the calculation looks like this: Mainline leaders—who for the most part agree that sexual identity and gender orientation shouldn’t be an obstacle either to civil rights or to full participation in the life and ministry of the church—fear the inevitable fallout from being too far out front on this issue; but they also fear driving away LGBTIQ people and their allies if it appears the church is too far behind on it either. So, it looks for all the world like a decision to embrace welcome and hospitality can come only after it appears the culture has made it safe for the church to be faithful.
But a calculation of this nature presents problems.
For one thing, such a reckoning has more to do with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill than with Jesus. Making decisions by calculating the potential losses associated with a set of convictions, instead of by doing what you feel to be the right thing, looks coldly utilitarian to those who have a dog in the fight.
I want to be clear here: Leaders of mainline denominations who genuinely think homosexuality is a sin have every reason to try to prevent its acceptance in both the culture and in the church; this is a faithful response. (I think it’s wrong; but it is faithful to a set of convictions.) However, leaders of mainline denominations who personally believe sexual orientation and gender identity are gifts from God, but who set those beliefs aside for fear of getting too far out in front have failed a key test of leadership—embracing the risk of blowback for doing what’s right.
For another thing, a calculation based primarily on the numbers for or against inclusion is too conceptual. Jacob grabbed a body part, not his brother; which is to say, the whole calculation thing goes down a lot easier if all you’re dealing with is abstractions, and not faces.
The day after the election, out of the blue, I got a message from a guy with whom I went to school. We both grew up in a fairly conservative tradition—a tradition in which he still participates—so it was a private message. He wrote to tell me about the circumstances of his life, and why he appreciates the fact that this issue is receiving attention:
My middle daughter is gay. I love her so much. I want her to be able to marry and have a family. I am confused on the biblical doctrine on this subject … All my FB minister friends are so [fundamentalist] and by the book on things like this … But I’m tired of them judging me.
I wrote back and said:
You’ve brought tears to my eyes. How kind of you to write.
The reason [I care] about this stuff is because I have people’s faces in my mind—real life people who are affected by these policies. And now, your face and (by extension) your family’s face will be in my mind. You will be in my prayers.
As much as I write about this as an “issue,” the reality of the situation is that this about people—people who have families, people who eat Pop Tarts and watch football, people who wash their cars and who sometimes forget to return their library books by the due date, people who coach T-ball and who love to take walks in the autumn, people who are embarrassed by their senior pictures and who cry when they watch that Sarah McLachlan commercial with the abandoned cats and dogs, people who grew up fundamentalist and who have gay middle daughters they love, people who are gay middle daughters. In other words, people.1
The culture is shifting its understanding to a more favorable view of LGBTIQ people and their rights. In fact, it’s shifting faster than anybody could have predicted. The demographics have supported this conclusion for some time. Now, the shift is being institutionalized at the ballot box. I suspect that a tipping point in the U.S. has been reached, one from which there is no retreat.
The real question now is: Will the church continue to grab the heel of culture, or will it find its voice and struggle to get out front?
There’s an awful lot riding on the answer.
- I realize that part of the calculation denominational leaders make about whether or not to get out in front of this issue involves the faces of the people whom they fear will leave. I understand that. I have people’s faces in my mind—people I love and who have loved me and my family—as I write this who will leave if my denomination adopts a more open and affirming stance toward LGBTIQ people. I take some comfort in the fact, however, that my outraged friends will just shift denominational loyalties. Were it to go the other way, though, I fear that many of my LGBTIQ friends and the people who love them would give up on the church altogether. I’m willing to live with the former, but not the latter. ↩