I was buoyed by the recent General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indianapolis. Some of my positive response involved the lack of bickering and complaining that often takes place around the edges; some of it also had to do with the fact that I didn’t hear much of the customary kvetching about how the denomination is falling apart, and how we-need-to-get-more-young-people-involved-or-we’re-going-to-die.
But what I found most encouraging about the recent General Assembly was the near unanimous support for the election of Rev. Teresa Hord Owens as our newest General Minister and President. In so doing, the Disciples among all mainline denominations have taken a historic step by electing to its highest office the first African American woman. Her nomination, election, and installation brought chills to many of us. A proud moment for our denomination.
I came home and told our congregation that we made history by electing Rev. Owens. But more importantly, we did the right thing for our time and place—and we did it boldly. Disciples of Christ—who have often displayed dispiriting institutional timidity in dealing with controversial topics until society has evolved sufficiently to assure that the controversial rough edges have been sanded down, providing us with the cover we think we need, so that we won’t lose too many more people or congregations over it—appeared to have taken a courageous stand by so enthusiastically embracing an African American woman for the denomination’s top post.
Consequently, I was disappointed to read her comments in The Christian Century, which seem to be a step back toward timidity. I’m willing to be corrected on this. In fact, I hope somehow I misread her intent, and someone with personal knowledge will make a statement reassuring LGBTQ people, who likely feel thrown under the bus. (It’s only that I have such high expectations of her and respect for her that I write at all. I want her to succeed. I can't stress that enough.)
What do I mean?
Rev. Owens brought the issue of LGBTQ inclusion to the center of the discussion about her new role as GMP when “she noted that the calls she has received have not been about her views on Black Lives Matter, but about sexuality and politics. She emphasized that her desire is to care for the vulnerable, not to align theology and politics.”
Admittedly, it’s difficult to know in that quote what relationship “sexuality and politics” have to one another. Does that quote mean something like “the politics of sexuality” or does it mean that both “sexuality” and “politics” are separate but important issues she’s had to take calls on—but that the calls about politics have not included the politics of race? I suspect it’s the former, since the sentence preceding it states: “The Disciples have had conflict over LGBTQ inclusion, though a previous General Assembly passed a resolution in favor of it.”
If that’s the case—that is, she’s talking about the politics of sexuality—I think her stance is troubling. What she seems to be saying is that LGBTQ inclusion is a matter of personal or congregational interpretation, one on which the GMP should refrain from announcing a theological opinion. This explanation seems warranted by her proximate reference to banners in her congregation that offer the traditional Disciples’ motto: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love.” In other words, the implication appears to be that Rev. Owens sees LGBTQ inclusion as a “nonessential” about which everyone should be encouraged to believe whatever they want—and that those beliefs should be respected by all.
Without sounding terribly ungracious, such a denominational line is all too familiar to Disciples’ LGBTQ people and their allies. We’ve heard forever how LGBTQ people—who want to be included and celebrated because of and not in spite of who they are—are a divisive force in the denomination who will drive conservative congregations away, and that LGBTQ people should forbear from judging their fellow Disciples who believe differently from them—even if those differences consign LGBTQ people to the status of conscious and inveterate sinners. This faint-hearted view from the General Church isn’t new. It seems to be a reflexive institutional response.
But what’s disappointing is that Rev. Owens is an African American in a denomination, which at one point not that long ago found itself planted at the center of a culture that saw racial inclusion as a “nonessential” about which people of good faith could disagree. There were Disciples congregations that thought racism was an issue about which the church should not attempt to “align theology and politics.” And yet, I suspect, like me, Rev. Owens is glad that enough people stood up and said that aligning theology and politics isn’t just a distraction for loudmouth trouble-makers like me, but that pursuit of justice in matters of race is at the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus—indeed, it’s at the heart of what it means to be a Disciple of Christ.
And thank God it is. We should take pride in seeing our theological/ecclesiological identity wrapped up in being a pro-reconciling/anti-racist church. Not only should we be proud of it, we should invest in it, hold it up, speak prophetically about it, and hold religious and political leaders accountable because of it. We believe that our identity as a pro-reconciling/anti-racist church is an “essential” that should unify us.
But, and here’s the rub, being a pro-reconciling/anti-racist church means that our core social commitment is to justice, of which racism is an obvious contravention. Put differently, injustice is an abomination that manifests in the form of racism. But it also manifests in sexism, in xenophobia, in ableism, and in economic systems weighted in favor of the rich against the poor … and in discrimination against LGBTQ people. Being a pro-reconciling/anti-racist church means that we are aware of the intersections of injustice, and that we therefore take seriously all manifestations of injustice.
That not everyone agrees on LGBTQ inclusion is largely beside the point. If Rev. Owens believes that commitment to LGBTQ inclusion is a matter of justice, then perforce it becomes an “essential” around which we expect to see “unity,” and about which we can expect our leaders to speak publicly and prophetically. (A presidential commitment to banning transgender people from the military was announced today. That’d be a good place to start.)
If Rev. Owens doesn’t believe that commitment to LGBTQ inclusion is a matter of justice … well then, we’ve got a big problem.