On Choices and Orlando

By Rev. Sandhya Jha

When I was in eighth grade, I saw a bumper sticker on a car (in Akron, Ohio) that said, “Honk if you support civil rights, religious liberty, gay rights, disability rights, women’s equality…” I turned to my mother and said, “I would honk for the rest of them, but gay rights?” My mother is really smart and so said nothing, knowing I would have to do the math in my head about who deserved rights and who didn’t. Because she had raised me to know that everyone deserves rights and deserves self-determination.

Some folks still talk about homosexuality being a choice. You know what I got to choose every day of my cis-gender heterosexual life? I got to choose whether to acknowledge the basic human dignity of the LGBTQ community as a whole. I got to choose whether to stand with LGBTQ individuals or whether to be silent and therefore participate in violence done to LGBTQ people and the LGBTQ community. Because when I throw the LGBTQ community under the bus (through my words OR through my silence), I’m also doing harm to every individual within the community.

That’s what choice looks like.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe this tragedy is about access to horrifically dangerous weapons. I believe it is about “toxic masculinity.” While I think it has very little to do with Islam or even ISIS, I believe it is about the values cultivated in relationship to craving a role in militarized organizations. Since the instance of gun violence closest to me is connected to two people’s struggle over their sexual identities in relationship to one another, I have no problem believing this might be about the murderer’s internalized hatred unleashing itself on others. And it is about lack of exposure to consistent teaching that God loves all of God’s children and that God never wants to see unmitigated, unrestrained violence against God’s children. For millennia we have failed to teach consistently and strongly that above all things God abhors violence.

But the massacre at Pulse is also about over 100 anti-gay bills in 22 states this year, creating a growing culture of acceptance of contempt for LGBTQ life. And it’s about pastors and politicians preaching hate that creates a culture of bullying and suicide. (More here and here .) And it’s about the ways race and gender identity have been pitted against each other as if there’s only enough tolerance for one, and we might have to choose us versus them…and if you’re both a racial/religious minority and LGBTQ, then there is no room for you. Millions of people helped set the stage for this tragedy. And that’s where my choices matter.

I’m not Orlando. And in all the ways I haven’t fought to reject efforts to legislate against the basic human dignity of LGBTQ people in the past year and for decades, in all the ways I’ve not fought hard enough for LGBTQ inclusion in the church, in all the ways I’ve not created space for people to know that they are not bad people for struggling with their sexual or gender identity, I’m the people who let Orlando happen.

The Creatively Maladjusted

Given the fact that it is Martin Luther King, Jr. day and injustice toward vulnerable people persists, I thought I might offer a few thoughts about what it means to remain silent in the face of that injustice—and about what it means not to, what it means to be creatively maladjusted.  Disclaimer: My analogy with the Civil Rights movement is only meant to be suggestive, not to establish easy equivalences

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those whowere selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:1319).

Following the first miracle at the wedding in Cana, Jesus and his new disciples take a few days off, then head into Jerusalem.

Where do they go?  Straight to the temple.

What happens?  Jesus makes a whip of cords and starts turning over the tables of the money changers.  He’s ranting and raving about how they’re turning God’s house into a marketplace.  The folks in charge don’t much care for his attitude and say, “Who are you?  What sign can you show us for doing this?”  Then, Jesus commits the ultimate Jewish faux pas by saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

What Jesus has done, in effect, after making such a grand splash at the wedding at Cana, is to guarantee that the very people who might have helped promote his ministry are the ones whom he has alienated by his little foray into temple finances.  He’s made some pretty influential enemies in his first trip to Jerusalem.

So what?  What’s the significance?

Well, think about it.  When Jesus cleanses the temple in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it occurs at the very end of Jesus’ ministry—after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and just before being snatched up and crucified on Good Friday—which, if you think about it, makes more sense.  You can see why Jesus would be upset with the religious establishment in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  They’ve hounded him for three years, and are plotting to kill him.  A little righteous indignation seems appropriate.

But in John, the cleansing of the temple comes right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  He’s had nothing but smooth sailing up to this point.  Why upset the temple bigwigs right off the bat?  It makes much less sense, from a narrative standpoint, to have Jesus challenge the money changers in the temple just as his ministry is taking off.  Why does John set up the story this way?

John puts the story of the cleansing of the temple right next to the wedding at Cana on purpose.  He’s making some rhetorical hay about the shape and trajectory of Jesus ministry.

What do I mean?

Well, how must the disciples be feeling after seeing Jesus pull a Bobby Knight in the temple? They have to be terribly confused.  They thought they were getting a pretty engaging guru, fun to have around at parties, somebody to keep the open bar open—but what they got instead was a loose cannon, an unpredictable guy who knows his way around the business end of a whip.  Jesus' impatience with the way things are calls to mind what Martin Luther King wrote in Strength to Love:

 “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”

Well, Jesus is nothing if not creatively maladjusted.

Jesus explodes our tame, self-aggrandizing expectations about how joining up with him will be the end of our problems.  John wants to show us that just because you follow Jesus doesn’t mean everything magically becomes sweetness and light.  In fact, joining up with Jesus may cause you a whole new set of problems you might otherwise have avoided if you’d just stayed home and watched Jeopardy.  Sometimes we have to follow Jesus into the temple, where only hostility awaits us.

And that bothers us, doesn’t it?  If not, we haven’t been paying attention to what happens to people willing to walk into the teeth of the storm.

In April of 1963, a group of well-meaning (I think) white clergy in Alabama got together and issued a statement calling for the end of demonstrations they considered “unwise and untimely,” by “some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” even though this group of white clergy recognized “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today, responded to these clergy in his, now famous, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Not surprisingly, Dr. King’s anger at the unjust social systems made bolder through their embodiment in law is present throughout his letter, raising again the Augustinian question about whether unjust laws—laws that degrade “human personality” and “distort the soul”—ought rightfully to be considered laws at all.

Dr. King reserves his biggest disappointment, however, for the church.  He rightly criticizes white moderates, whom he considered to be “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘justice’; who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”   He speaks candidly in his letter about weeping because of the laxity the church, about how “blemished and scarred” is the body of Christ “through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformist.”

At one point, Dr. King recalls with a certain wistfulness “a time when the church was very powerful.”  It’s interesting to note, though, just how he sees the church’s relationship to that power.  The church was at its most transformative, he argues,

when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.  Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’  But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than humans.  Small in number, they were big in commitment.  They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’  By their efforts and their example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide, and gladiatorial contests.

It occurs to me that we who have committed ourselves and our communities of faith to seeking justice are the inheritors of that legacy—a legacy that hears the cries of inequity and injustice, and remains incapable of turning a deaf ear.

We are the spiritual offspring of the creatively maladjusted.  We cannot stand by and do nothing.  We join together across the diversity of theological and denominational lines to take our place in the procession—a procession that, just in this country alone, stretches back through the Civil Rights movement, through women’s suffrage, and through the abolition of slavery.

We are people who cannot abide and will not stomach the excuses offered up by unjust systems that somehow “now is not the time,” or that raising a ruckus only contributes to the problem.  We draw together because we’ve been called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God—not because there is anything necessarily heroic in us, but because we’ve been passed a torch by heroes and saints who’ve gone before us, and who have called us to bear witness that God is not satisfied with either an unjust society or a lazy church “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘peace.’”

There's a constituency within the church today urging caution, who think it "unwise and untimely" to press the issue of justice for young African American men who suffer disproportionately at the hands of the legal system, for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the church, for a beloved community that includes our Muslim sisters and brothers—even though this constituency recognizes “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.”  They believe that taking any kind of a stand will be heavy-handed and disruptive, while failing to realize that, if Jesus is our model, heavy-handed disruption of the existing unjust order is sometimes not the thing we wait for the right time to pursue, but the very thing with which we lead, the thing that sets the shape and trajectory of our ministry.

If we are indeed the offspring of the creatively maladjusted, we will never have a better time than the celebration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to start living like it.

Can Evangelicals and Christians Coexist in America?

I just read an article entitled, “Can Gays and Christians Coexist in America?” Once again, I find myself annoyed by the presumption--the enduring arrogance present in unself-critically asserting that the “Christian position” with respect to LGBTQ people is by definition condemnatory.

This just in: There are Christians who actually believe God created LGBTQ people the way they are. So, I propose a title more representative of reality:

“Can Evangelicals and Christians Coexist in America?”

Oh, now I’ve got your blood boiling--at least some of you. Such a title sounds like heresy to a significant portion of the American Christian population, since in many people’s minds “Evangelical” is but a placeholder for “Christian”; which is to say, in many people’s minds the Venn diagram of “Evangelical” and “Christian” is a single, round circle. And therefore, anything not in that circle, anything not suitably “Evangelical” enough is suspect tout court.

But, I’ve got to tell you, I’m much less sympathetic to the outrage my title elicits from that particular segment of the population than I used to be. After repeatedly seeing evangelicals refer to their take on faith as “Christianity”--unqualified by even the slightest trace of humility that, you know, there might be other ways of reading the Christian faith that don’t necessarily correspond to evangelical interpretations. There’s always a subtle presumption at work among these folks that evangelical theology is the uncut dope, straight from the dealer--no fancy “interpretation,” no ostentatious hermeneutical parlor tricks (like the liberals employ), no “politically correct” weasel words that say “bad is good” and “down is up”--just the unalloyed stuff God intended for us to know and believe all along. Traditional means always and forever--as in, “We stand for ‘traditional marriage,’ one man and one woman, the kind God laid out in the Bible. We don’t go in for all that stupid contextuality stuff. God’s word is unchanging.”

But that is such a craptacular lie! Or if that’s too strong for you, God’s word may be unchanging, but our ability to read it correctly sure as hell isn’t.

Tradition. Orthodoxy. Precedent. These are not fixed theological quiddities, despite all the indignant howls to the contrary; they’re all much more fluid than Evangelicalism seems comfortable acknowledging. For example:

  • There was a time when baptizing people most likely meant dunking them under water, until it didn’t …

  • There was a time when fighting in the military was an unprecedented affront to the peaceful example of Jesus, until Constantine and his heirs came along and a new precedent was set …

  • There was a time when the mother of Jesus was deemphasized, until she wasn’t, but then the Reformation happened and (among Protestants) she was again …

  • There was a time when torture and forced conversion satisfied the rigorous demands of orthodoxy, until it didn’t …

  • There was a time when tradition permitted the owning of slaves, until traditional Christianity opted for a new tradition …

  • There was a time when it seemed clear to a number of the religious forbears of today’s evangelicals that interracial marriage was a grievous strike against God’s unchanging will for humanity, until it wasn’t …

Tradition, orthodoxy, precedent … all have a nasty habit of changing over time, and thus disappointing those who so vigorously contend that “God’s word is unchanging.” So, it seems a more plausible reading of the history of faith to argue that one of the constants of Christian theology over time is not some fetishized constancy expressed in a vacuum, but an ability to engage an ever changing world in new ways that honor the unfolding reign of God’s desire for peace and justice for all God’s creation.

Consequently, if one of the central components of Christianity is the tradition of thoughtfully embracing new traditions when those new traditions seem more fully capable of expressing God’s character and will in new and previously unheard of ways, then one is prompted to ask the difficult question: Can evangelicals and Christians coexist in America?


By Rev. Mindi

That’s an awfully a long hashtag. American Baptist Churches, USA, we still have a long way to go in using social media effectively.

American Baptist Churches, USA, we still have a long way to go in including our marginalized folks.

However, there was progress made at our biennial gathering in Kansas City last weekend. Besides more people tweeting this time, three out of the four general worship service preachers mentioned inclusion of LGBTQ folks. The first praised the SCOTUS ruling as a just and right ruling. The second said for far too long we have pushed LGBTQ folks out. The third said “If you have a problem with someone’s sexual orientation, go talk to Jesus.”

I know it made some people uncomfortable. I saw the walkouts. But I also recall sitting in far too many American Baptist biennial meetings and walking out with my lesbian and gay, bisexual and transgender friends as they were told, from the pulpit, that they were an abomination, full of sin and bound for hell. I have walked out to comfort so many with tears from the pain and violence of exclusion. So for those who felt they had to walk out, I didn’t have much sympathy. As another friend said, “For now, we get to stay.”

For now.

We still have a long way to go. As Baptists, we believe in Soul Freedom, and that means that I cannot tell you what to believe, and you cannot tell me what to believe. It means that you and your church are free to determine your theology and your stances on issues, and me and my church are free to determine our theology and stances. That is how it should be. And at times it may be uncomfortable when we express our Soul Freedom in ways that bump up against each other.

But will this progress continue? Will the ending of exclusion actually happen? Will our LGBTQ friends feel safe in attending a Biennial gathering without worrying about the threat of vitriol from the pulpit?

We still have a long way to go. We claimed #BlackLivesMatter from the pulpit but have yet to come out with a unified voice to work on racism within our own congregations and communities. Many of us signed a statement pledging to work on anti-racism but met resistance from some who felt it didn’t do anything. Thank goodness our outgoing President viewed this as an opportunity and read the letter from the pulpit, and we can continue the work long beyond our Mission Summit. You can read the Epistle of Metanoia from the 2015 Mission Summit here.

We still have a long way to go. We have fabulous young preachers who shared their gifts in the Festival of Young Preachers and young seminarians getting ready to enter the search process, but so many churches are cutting back salaries and opportunities. There are pastors retiring but then staying on or taking another church in their retirement instead of encouraging congregations to take the opportunity to call a young pastor. And as I’ve shared before, our definition of “young” sometimes stretches well into middle-ages, leaving the truly young pastors still looking for a call.

We have made progress. I believe it. I left with a lot of hope for our future and actual excitement about attending our next Biennial “Mission Summit” Gathering as American Baptists. But until we call younger pastors, have younger leadership represented at our national gatherings and in our national leadership, and work to include those who have been pushed to the margins because it makes some of us uncomfortable, we still have a long way to go.

An Open Letter to Jesus, Apologizing for This RFRA Mess

By Derek Penwell

Dear Jesus,

I feel like I should apologize. I mean, for all the bad press you’ve been getting lately because of us. It must drive you nuts.

We’re a fallible lot, your followers. We make mistakes. We misunderstand. We hurt one another. That’s true across the board. All of us.

But apart from the garden variety meanness in which all your followers engage, now you have to deal with a bunch of us enacting legislation that will allow us not just to behave like our ordinary screwed up selves when we hurt other people, but to commit that spitefulness in your name.

No. I’m not kidding. Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) are springing up all over the place. These religious refusal ordinances allow people to ignore laws that they say are in conflict with their personal religious beliefs. The sponsors of these acts wink as they argue that this groundswell of religious legislation isn’t specifically targeting LGBTQ people. That same gender marriage is experiencing its own groundswell of support (both culturally and legislatively) is apparently only a coincidence. But everybody knows it’s about the gays. (It seems that the thought of baking LGBTQ people cakes and renting them tuxedos is more than any pious person ought to have to endure.)

“I shouldn’t have to serve anyone I don’t approve of,” is pretty much what it boils down to—which is bad enough. But then they baptize this bigotry, anoint it with oil, and send it out into the world as a herald announcing to everyone that this is what you’re all about, Jesus. So, it’s not just “I don’t approve of you,” but more importantly, “Jesus doesn’t approve of you. And if you don’t like it, too bad. You can just go buy your cake of abomination and lies from some other reprobate who doesn’t love Jesus as much as I do.”

So, I’m apologizing that some of my brothers and sisters have seen fit to act like toddlers who pout when they don’t get their way, sharing their marbles only with pre-approved playmates. Again, that kind of reaction is irritating enough. But what’s even more exasperating is the fairly common assumption that all your followers are simply waiting around trying to figure out against whom it is now permissible to discriminate.

Remember that church where the young teenage girl got pregnant? Then when she decided to keep the baby, some of us suggested that the church should throw her a baby shower, let her know that we loved her and were excited to welcome her child into our community? But there were a couple of people who grumbled, “If this church throws a party for her, it will be like I’m personally endorsing her pregnancy?” Remember that?

And then another young woman stood up and said, “Look, this isn’t about you and your endorsement. This is about a young woman who’s getting ready to face the most difficult time in her life. And we just want her to know that she doesn’t have to face it alone. She’s a follower of Jesus too. In fact, if I recall, Jesus always seemed to go out of his way to support those questionable folks all the religious people were busy not approving of.” You remember that, right?

We’re bad at this stuff sometimes, Jesus. Too often we privilege purity over faithfulness—which seems odd, since we claim to follow the guy who told the story about the Good Samaritan. Unfortunately, it seems that too many of us make a habit of passing by on the other side of the road in the name of not dirtying our consciences.

Unfortunately, we claim to invite everyone to your table, but we hang a big sign with asterisks on the front of that table, listing the kinds of people we reserve the right not to serve.

Unfortunately, too many of us are more concerned with being right than in getting it right.

And, Jesus, we’re hurting people in the process. Humiliating people. Telling folks that they’re somehow defective, somehow unloveable.

So, I apologize for those who call themselves by your name, but who commit acts of cruelty while brandishing that name like a weapon. Forgive us (myself included) when we act less lovingly than you expect. Grant us the courage to stand with those who, too often, find themselves standing alone.

Challenge us to be better than we are, to love more than we can imagine, and to seek a justice more expansive and inclusive than our wounded hearts can dream.



(A special shout out to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who have vowed not to hold its General Assembly in Indiana in 2017, because it's a state that just passed a version of RFRA!)

Just A Spoonful: Why Congregations Can't Just Get By

By Derek Penwell 

One of my best friends is a funeral director. He told me the other day about a family he’d had dealings with at one point in his career. It seems that a woman had died, and the family had my friend’s funeral home take care of the arrangements. The family, according to my buddy, was especially difficult to deal with. They didn’t know what they wanted, and they never brought up the subject of how they were going to pay for the funerary services. They fiddled around long enough without making any decisions that, after fourteen days, my friend had to do something. So, he shipped body off to be cremated.

When the woman’s cremains finally came back to the funeral home, my friend invoiced the family for the cost of cremation and embalming. The bill went unpaid for quite some time, until a member of the family (the woman’s sister) eventually called and asked for the woman’s ashes. My friend said that they would gladly be turned over to the family upon receipt of the bill–$2,250.

“We don’t have that kind of money.”

.“That’s no problem. She’ll keep till you can locate it,” my friend informed her.

“Couldn’t you just give up her ashes, and we’ll pay you later?”

“Sorry, mam. It doesn’t work that way. I’ll be happy to turn loose of them after you pay your bill.”

She was, of course, upset and hung up the phone.

Not long after that another sister called, “I heard you won’t let us have our sister’s ashes.”

“That’s right, mam. When you’ve paid your bill, I’ll make sure she’s turned over to you.”

The sister persisted. She was torn up over the loss, and just wanted to have something by which to remember her loved one. In a choking voice she said, “We ain’t got much money. Can’t you just let us have her?”

“Not until the bill’s been paid.”

“How about part of the ashes?”

Puzzled, my friend said, “What do you mean?”

“Well, how much,” she asked, “would you charge us for a spoonful?”

“$2,250. And if you pay for that, I’ll throw in the rest for free.”

I know congregations like that. They want to know how little they can pay and still get by.

“We don’t have much. Isn’t there an installment plan we can get on? A little up front, and then we’ll pay the rest along the way? Anything like that?”

Following Jesus isn’t for the faint of heart: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:34b–37).

Interestingly, congregations have gotten very comfortable with individual sacrifice. Stewardship month in November every year wouldn’t be the same without the reminder that “Jesus’ sacrificial giving of his own life ought to motivate his followers to be sacrificial givers in response.” Some aspiring greeting card copy-writer wannabe even came up with that execrably jejune bumper-sticker slogan: “Give until it feels good!”[1]

One thing congregations often have a more difficult time coming to terms with, however, is the idea of sacrifice on a corporate level. I know of congregations (not all, mind you–but a notable number nevertheless)

  • who would rather the minister learn to exercise a little personal financial discipline than to give up the professionally printed letterhead contract
  • who would be much more comfortable holding the line on educational curriculum than on waiting to invest in touchless paper towel dispensers
  • who would prefer to ignore, and risk alienating, their LGBTQ members (and the straight people who love them) than to risk making even one member uncomfortable by openly addressing the possibility of becoming Open and Affirming
  • who would sooner frustrate the attempts of young leaders to try something bold and new than to seek to withstand an onslaught of recrimination from the former leaders who’ve otherwise faded into the background
  • who would rather burn bridges with the old by continually treating tradition as something to be avoided at all cost.

Surely, there’s something in there to offend most people. The point, however, is not to offend people, but to alert us to fact that congregations are generally all for personal sacrifice, but are often surprisingly skittish about the collective sacrifice of the community.

Why shouldn’t congregations have to pay too? Congregations are no less bodies than individuals.

“Well, sure, but going out on a limb might cost us our lives if the limb fails.”

Welcome to the joy and excitement of following Jesus.

“Aren’t there safer ways?”

Absolutely! It’s just that none of them have to do with living and dying like that crazy Galilean.

“How much for a spoonful?”

Full price.


  1. I’m all for “giving” and “feeling good,” just not for distilling important theological concepts and experiences into bumper-stickers.  ↩


(Just finished up with the content editing portion of the book, so this is the last one from the archives.  Back to full production next week.) 

Coming Out as a Christian Liberal

By Rev. Mindi

I attended and graduated from a small, liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, a college affiliated with my denomination.  In my first year, I became involved in all of the different Christian organizations on campus, ranging theologically from middle of the road to conservative. The few theologically liberal Christians on campus that I knew (that admitted to being Christian) didn’t attend most of the Christian organizations’ events or kept quiet about being theologically liberal most of the time, as I did for my first year.

But by my sophomore year I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I didn’t like hiding part of myself just so I could feel like I belonged and fit in to Campus Crusade or any of the other groups. I grew up in a congregation that was Welcoming and Affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning folks, and there was a group on campus that was the equivalent of a gay/straight alliance. In addition, my pastor had recently written a book about his journey as an evangelical pastor coming from a place of “love the sinner,” to full acceptance and affirmation of gay and lesbian people. I wanted to share this book with the group and hopefully find a place where I was welcome with my liberal Christian theology.

I attended my first meeting and after about a half hour, I finally introduced myself. When I mentioned I had brought copies of my pastor’s book for free, I heard a collective gasp as people’s eyes grew wide. I suddenly realized they thought I was there to condemn them and I quickly had to assure them that was not the case.  Once they knew I was not only an ally but convinced by my beliefs that God’s love meant a full inclusion of all people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, the tension left the room.  Following the meeting, several people stayed and we chatted about our religious backgrounds.

What followed was story after story of rejection. A Missouri Synod Lutheran who had faithfully attended church with her grandparents until she came out at seventeen and when the church rejected her, she rejected the church and Christianity. A Catholic who now identified as spiritual but not religious. An evangelical Christian who was now an atheist because she had not experienced love from Christians in the way she imagined love was supposed to be.  Story after story after story. 

And finally, a story of acceptance.  After almost everyone had left, a woman who identified as a Quaker and attended the local Friend’s meeting spoke to me. She spearheaded change in the food purchases by the campus cafeteria in regards to migrant worker’s rights and was involved in raising awareness of social issues on campus.  She shared that it was her trust in Jesus’ teachings in why she was involved so much in the local community.  But as far as I know, she never shared about her faith in that way outside of this small gathering, with the few who had not left.

It’s time for liberal Christians to come out and stand up. This week, Jason Collins came out (and I had to look up who he was because I’m not an NBA basketball fan). Sixteen years ago yesterday, Ellen DeGeneres came out on live TV. I was in college, junior year, at a “coming out” party put on by the student group and the one fraternity on campus that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation.  Every day, people come out to their families, to their pastors, to their bosses, to their friends.

How many liberal Christians still hide their beliefs, because they don’t want to rock the boat? How many liberal Christian pastors stay quiet when a member says a derogatory slur, making the excuse that “they are a long-term member, I can’t offend them,” or some other excuse? How many liberal Christian leaders say nothing because “the issue hasn’t come up in my congregation”? 

How many more stories will we continue to hear of people who have been rejected by their church, so they have rejected their church, their religion, or God, altogether?

It’s been seventeen years since I sat in that campus room and came out as a liberal, welcoming and affirming Christian. After that moment, I didn’t hold back from my friends my views. Eventually I dropped out of most of the campus Christian organizations, except for one, the Student Chaplain’s group. My junior year also marked the year I was not alone. While I had known a few other liberal Christians on campus involved in the different organizations, they had kept quiet in public about their views. But my junior year, two others from the Student Chaplain’s joined the gay/straight campus alliance group. And one eventually came out about her sexuality as well.  And that all happened because one night I was hanging out with members of the alliance group and these two Student Chaplains came up to me and I introduced them and invited them to join the alliance group.  

It’s been seventeen years, and yet I know so many pastors still afraid to come out as welcoming and affirming or open and affirming today. It’s long overdue, friends. Come on out. Stand up for equality and justice for all LGBT folks. Even if you don’t think your church is ready to join O&A or W&A yet, they aren’t going to get there at all unless they know their pastor will help lead the way. And you never know what youth is hanging on by a thread, needing to know not only that God loves them, but that God’s representatives in their community—their church and especially their pastor—love them too. Otherwise, I fear that more college campus alliance groups will be filled with the same stories mine was—stories of rejection and loss, instead of stories of Christ’s love, faith, and hope.

God's Table: Playing Musical Chairs and Losing

By George Rizor

I’m a pastor for a Christian denomination where communion is one of only two sacraments observed.  It’s pretty important to us.

Recently with the debate over homosexuality in the church, including membership, ordination, same-sex marriage, etc., communion has frequently defined the analogy for the debate.  It often appears in the form of ‘how do we be inclusive and welcoming of all people to the table?’

As our society has made strides in social and legal equality for those LGBTQ persons who have been historically disenfranchised, the church has lagged behind and struggled with not only a debate of basic, fundamental rights for the LGBTQ community, but also has had to deal with religious, scriptural and ecclesial questions.  It’s not just ‘is it right?’, but ‘is it right in the eyes of God and in our faith tradition?’

In our denomination, I have heard a question related to LGBTQ equality in the Christian Church expressed using the table analogy.  That question distills to something like this: ‘If we embrace the liberal perspective and make room at the table for LGBTQ persons, are we pushing away from the table the more conservative folks, who in many instances have tolerated the change at the table as we made room for those who had been disenfranchised?’

An interesting question, but one that has some assumptions and presumptions that must be addressed to honestly answer the question of including in the faith process versus excluding (and pushing some away from) the faith process.

It has to do with an economics concept: that of Nash equilibria (John Nash, the real-life subject of the movie, “A BRILLIANT MIND,” and Nobel-winning economist) and zero-sum versus non-zero sum games (or economies or life, for that matter).  Zero-sum and non-zero sum, even if you’ve never heard of them, are very important to our fundamental understanding of the nature of God and omnipotence.  A zero sum game like Monopoly assumes that if one person wins another must loose.  There are a finite set of resources and players compete for them.  A zero sum game must end in a win-lose manner.  A non-zero sum game like The Prisoner's Dilemma assumes that there are not limited resources and that players can play the game, collaborate and orchestrate a win-win ending.

I'd like to suggest - again not addressing the issues that have been debated regarding liberal/conservative and why we've had to 'make room at the table' —our society and culture tends to be 'zero sum' and to perceive life as having a fixed, finite set of resources for which we must compete. And therefore, if someone 'gets' another person must 'lose.'  Our national economies and our personal economies are generally built on zero-sum assumptions.  Negotiations, competitions for jobs, personal economic transactions, etc. all speak to a notion that we have to do better than the next person, because if we are to win, it will be at their expense and vice-versa.

Now—we run into a real puzzle when we ascribe zero-sum thinking to faith journey.  Basically, if we adhere to a conventional and scriptural understanding of God as infinite and omnipotent, it is not possible to 'push someone away from the table.'  God's table can accommodate everyone.  That means that making room for someone at the table or pushing someone away from the table must encompass two aspects that have to be examined: first, what is the nature of God's table, through Jesus Christ, exemplified by Jesus' example and teaching?  Are there limitations?  Most important, is the table in any way exclusive?  Is there anyone who cannot be accommodated at the table?  Does God set a table where mutual exclusivity can exist?  Is it possible that if one person/group/identity is permitted at the table, another person/group/identity must be denied?  Can mutual exclusivity be applied to any two persons/groups/identities within God’s creation?

Can we—in any way—assess the breadth, depth and elasticity of God’s ability to accommodate all the diverse components of creation?  Even if we were able to discern whom God, through Jesus Christ would accept/reject, is that our purview?  Basically, how do we decide if God’s love is zero-sum, or even can approximate zero-sum, with some being permitted ‘at the table’ meaning that others cannot be present?

A completely separate issue is the second aspect: If we decide, ‘yes, God’s table will accommodate some and not others,’ who fits which category?  That’s where most of the equality/inequailty debate in the church today has centered.  But the reality is: are we trying to retrofit belonging to a belonging template that doesn’t exist?  Have we rushed so haphazardly to decide who is worthy and who is not worthy that we have ignored the fact that such debate seems to limit God and to set our human, finite, limited understanding as the model for God’s table?

Is zero-sum and mutual exclusivity a function of our societal and cultural existence that has slopped over into our definition of God’s nature and how God conducts ‘business’ with humankind?  And if that’s true, is it legitimate and defensible?  Our understanding of the nature of God needs to be addressed and understood before we begin contemplation of someone being pushed away from God as a result of human perceptions and actions.

Maybe, just maybe, God’s table is larger than our ability to imagine and more accommodating than we can possibly conceive.  Here’s hoping . . . 

Turning the Tables: Why Conservative Christianity Bears the Burden of Proof

By Derek Penwell

Word on the street has progressives engaged in a “war against religion,” or if not a war, then at least a Monty Python-esque call to “run away” from all that is good, Christian, and decent. A column by Russ Douthat in yesterday’s New York Times, as Diana Butler Bass points out in her wonderful response , rehearses the old trope that liberal mainline denominations are dying because they are liberal. Without naming it, Bass draws attention to the fallacy of the liberal-kills-churches meme, that is, the confusion of correlation with causation, by offering the reminder that conservative churches are also experiencing decline.

The tired charge that liberal mainline churches are dying is, ironically, itself difficult to kill off. This fact has caused liberal churches for at least forty years to find themselves always on the defensive. Underlying this indictment of liberal Christianity is the assumption that a progressive reading of scripture and its ethical conclusions are somehow an accommodation to a purely secular system of meaning, while conservative interpretation is self-evidently the gold standard of biblical faithfulness.

What I want to challenge is the persistent and difficult-to-kill assumption that conservatives occupy some kind of religious and ethical high ground, and that any deviation from a particular kind of conservative orthodoxy isn’t merely a matter of interpretation, but is tantamount to initiating hostilities against God, motherhood, and the flag—all of which, interestingly enough, are conflated in some people’s minds. But that’s another article.

The smug certainty with which some conservative religious and political types believe not just that they occupy the side of truth on every issue, but that they occupy the side of God’s truth is alarming—not because they believe these things of themselves so uncritically (self-righteousness is a time-honored religious and political posture on both sides of the ideological divide, after all), but because so many in the culture agree to cede them this authoritative land of milk and honey.[1]

In fact, I not only want to challenge certain popularly held assumptions about the rightful place of the Right at the center of theological discussion, I want to suggest that if a war on religion is being waged, it’s main combatants aren’t progressive Christianity, Barack Obama, or left-leaning political types at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. I want to set down a more radical charge:

The real war on religion is being waged by those on the Right who read the bible not as the story of God’s saving interaction with the world through the unfolding of God’s reign, but as foundational for a conservative politics of self-interest or as a blueprint for a post-Enlightenment cult of individual piety.

There. I said it. The greatest damage to Christianity comes at the hands of those who display their devoutness with such practiced conspicuousness.[2] Jesus spends the better part of the Gospels crossing rhetorical swords with those who have arrogated unto themselves the mantle of God’s special emissaries for a publicly muscular show of religious devotion.[3] Ironically, Jesus, when faced with an opportunity to cash in on his religious popularity, always seems to strike out in the opposite direction.

I am weary of playing defense against fundamentalism, as if it holds some sort of privileged theological position that requires a special deference, as well as the expectation of an explanation from those who would deviate.

It’s not that I resent having to come clean about my own hermeneutical presuppositions, to be required to set down the story I’m telling about how I interpret scripture. What makes me unutterably weary is the popular assumption that a fundamentalist reading of scripture is somehow the hermeneutical true north by which all interpretations are to be judged. The assertion that the bible is to be read in a common sense fashion, as close to literally as possible, is not only itself merely one interpretative strategy among other strategies, it’s also a fairly recent development in the history of interpretation.

If, for example, one holds that LGBTQ people should be embraced and welcomed as full participants into the life and ministry of the church, the popular assumption among some is that one makes such moves in spite of rather than because of one’s reading of scripture. I have been asked on more than one occasion why I don’t “just quit pretending to be be a Christian,” since I “obviously don’t believe the Bible.”

Apart from the general incivility of such dismissiveness, claiming that Christians who don’t read the bible in a “literal” or “common sense” way are cynically attempting to circumvent taking scripture seriously is captive to its own set of prejudices, which are most often transparent to the speaker. That form of biblical interpretation (viz., “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it”) is question-begging in its most basic sense.

My hunch is that much of what gets put forward as the practical policy implications of fundamentalism have at least as much to do with conservative economic systems as with biblical interpretation. If progressive Christians have merely uncritically baptized liberal ethical systems when it comes to issues like homosexuality—as is often suggested by our fundamentalist brothers and sisters—why is it not the case that the conservative embrace of tax breaks for the wealthy, the adoption of a do-it-yourself attitude toward healthcare, welfare, and unemployment benefits, and the enthusiastic correlation of patriotism and militarism are merely a baptism of conservative (or worse, libertarian) ethical systems?

So, here’s what I’d like to see: A turning of the tables (or perhaps better, a “turning over” of the tables)—a rebalancing of the burden of proof.

  • I’d like to see a fundamentalist defense from scripture of such policies as cutting taxes for people who already have enough for several lifetimes. How does one “literally” read the prophets or the Gospels and come away thinking that protecting the ability to purchase another yacht or vacation home at the expense of those just struggling to feed their children is something Christians ought to have any stake in?
  • I’d like to see someone defend from scripture fighting for a healthcare system, the chief motivation of which is to figure out ever more ingenious ways to deny coverage to those who can least afford it.
  • I’d like to see a scriptural justification for treating undocumented workers not with Christian hospitality—if not as potential friends and neighbors, then at least as fellow children of God—but as an insidious threat to “our way of life” (in which “our” refers to American and not Christian).
  • I’d like to see how scripture works as a legitimator of arms stockpiling in the service of military adventurism in other countries (see, in particular, Iraq).
  • I’d like to see how the bible comes to the aid of those who would stand idly by while LGBTQ kids endure the dehumanizing and often deadly effects of bullying.
  • I’d like to see how the bible can be put to use defending the belief that our ultimate loyalties to flag and faith are interchangeable, that to have invoked one is ipso facto to have named the other.

I don’t see these arguments being made in convincing ways; and my fear is that this is so because these arguments don’t need making in our culture, since everyone already knows that if Pat Robertson, or James Dobson, or Gary Bauer, or Ralph Reed, or John Piper, Albert Mohler, or Mark Driscoll say it the burden of proof is on anyone who would disagree with them.

If Jesus is any model, turning over tables in the temple is a necessary, if potentially perilous practice.

  1. Before you start emailing me, let me just say that I know, love, and am related to some fine people who read scripture differently from me. I regret, however, that the hard won devoutness of these folks is a moral commodity traded on by religious entrepreneurs and politicians hoping to plant the victor’s flag on the cultural landscape.  ↩
  2. I am using Christianity and religion interchangeably, not because I assume that Christianity is predominant or that other religions are merely placeholders for the “real” truth of Christianity, but because some Christians do assume something very nearly like this. Other religions, generally speaking, stand to lose considerably more than Christianity when a “war on religion” has been identified in the United States, since certain constituencies within Christianity tend to protect a form of Christian hegemony against all other religious comers—often with deadly enthusiasm.  ↩
  3. See, for example: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1); “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them” (Matt. 23:14); “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to sit at the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38–40). You get the point.  ↩

The "Family" Unit

Ever since this article by Tony Robinson came out in June, I have been reflecting on the church as family. Growing up, that is how I felt about my church—they were an extended family. In my ministry, I have often referred to the church as “The Family of God.”  There are still good uses of the metaphor of family.  However, I agree with Robinson that it’s time to rethink that metaphor, especially of how it has been mis/used in church circles. First, we have to understand that the concept of family and household has changed throughout the Bible and throughout our own human history, so to think that today’s definition is the same as it was even a few generations ago is a false assumption to start on.  Yet I hear many Christians objectify the “family”—the idea that there is a husband who is the provider, a wife who is the caregiver, and children who are cared for by the mother.  Every Sunday I hear of people who share about the morning’s worship service that praised the family and where the pastor taught that we need to protect the family.

Frankly, this is contradictory to the Gospel and to the New Testament.  Jesus certainly didn’t provide for or care for his earthly family (save in John’s Gospel where he asked the “beloved disciple” to care for his mother, who, probably widowed and without support would have needed someone in that culture to provide for her given the cultural barriers).

Jesus taught that “whoever does the will of God is my mother and my sister and my brother” (Matthew 3:35)

Jesus said, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:47)

And Jesus even proclaimed, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

The family unit was something never upheld by Jesus.  This doesn’t mean the family unit is contrary to Scripture or to faith—it means that it is not nearly as important as we might think it is.  This is Good News.

This is Good News to the stepfamilies, the same-sex families, the grandparents who raise children, the single moms and dads.  This is Good News to those who do not have children.  This is Good News to those who live together, friends that share homes, multiple families in one roof.  This is Good News to married heterosexual couples with children, interracial and multicultural families.  Because it’s not about how we live together, but that we are part of God’s Community together.

In the Old Testament, we do hear of God being called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but later God is called the God of Israel.  This is not the God of one person or of one family, but this is the God of the Community.  God is not just present with one individual or one family, but when multiple families and individuals and all people come together as a community.  In the New Testament, Paul often speaks of “households” which included not only the biological family unit, but the servants and caregivers and others associated with the family.  When one person became a follower of the Way, as in Acts 16 with Lydia, the rest of the household was assumed to also be followers of the Way, as often the whole household was baptized into the faith.  The act of faith was not one of the individual or the individual’s family, but of the community the individual belonged to, greater than themselves and family.

Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).

Jesus said this in the context of discipline and forgiveness within the community.  When we are in community, we need to be conscious of how our lives affect the well-being of the community, how our actions and decisions affect others.

In the question of equal marriage, posed in several states this election year, including my new home state of Washington, we would do well to remember this: it is not about the family unity, but how we live in community with each other.  When we limit rights to one kind of family unit, we disallow not only homosexual families but we are making a statement that there is no other kind of family unit that is acceptable.  It is clear that Jesus would stand against this hypocrisy.

A Letter to Someone I Love: Responding to Questions about Why I Believe What I Believe Concerning My LGBTQ Brothers and Sisters

Dear _____, I appreciate the tone of your note, since I often get correspondence that appears much angrier. Let me see if I can address your concerns, if not in a persuasive—then perhaps in a clear manner.

a. You take issue with your opposition to LGBTQ inclusion being labeled “hate,” since you consider yourself to be a loving Christian, someone merely attempting to follow scripture faithfully. Some people may genuinely hate, but you don’t consider yourself to be one of them. You’re also worried that when some people use the word “love” they are twisting it out of shape, making it merely a synonym for "permissiveness."

I hear you. With respect to the whole “hate” thing: If you don’t hate gay people—as I believe many people do not—it can’t help but be disconcerting to find yourself lumped in as an antagonist with people you don’t even recognize. That’s one reason I don’t use that kind of language. I think it’s possible to disagree on this issue in good faith without hate.

However, the people I work with have been systematically told by folks in the church that they are fundamentally flawed human beings—flawed in an especially appalling way that other people are not. I spoke with a teenager recently who’s family believed they were “loving the sinner, while hating the sin,” when the treatment they sent him to used shock therapy, beatings, and threats to make him “normal.”

Now, you might say that this is surely outrageous behavior that you would never condone, and that it must represent, if true, the exception. I’m not going to lay down any statistics, but I hear horror stories all the time about people (usually Christians) who’ve threatened, verbally and physically abused, ignored, or disowned their friends and family because of sexual orientation.

I also realize that “love” can be a very pliable word, one that is often much tougher than popular culture gives it credit for. Love is not just magnanimous feelings toward another. So while there are, I believe, “good actors” among those who disagree, it might be easier, after hearing as many stories as I’ve heard, to see how being at the sharp end of the stick your whole life one might get “tough love” and “hate” confused, thus tarring everyone with the same brush (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).

b. You have some questions about the material contained in Hebrew Scriptures.  Genesis seems to ground the parameters of human sexuality between “one man and one woman” (2:24). Additionally, Mosaic law sets up what appear to be acceptable boundaries to sexuality. Why is it now permissible to discount those boundaries?

As far as biblical arguments go, I think this ultimately is a discussion about authority. Here is the question for some folks: “Is the bible intended to be a timeless and universal blueprint for human behavior, social, political, and economic organization?” We might need to be more explicit about our definitions of words like “blueprint” or “political,” but having said that, I think it’s a defensible characterization of one method of reading scripture.

Another way of reading scripture is to ask the question: “Is the bible intended to lay out the story of God’s interaction with God’s people in an inductive fashion—leaving God’s people to determine how God is moving at different places and times, not by uncritically following rules set down for people thousands of years and thousands of miles removed?” Again, some words might need to be defined, but I think this is also a defensible characterization of another method of reading scripture.

The larger problem—that is to say, why conservatives and liberals often talk past one another—is that these two interpretive strategies are, for the most part, incommensurate. It’s almost impossible to believe both at the same time (e.g., I can believe George is a human or I can believe George is a wildebeest; but I can’t believe both at the same time). Which incommensurability leads me to the more particular problem you and I face: I suspect you feel more comfortable with the former strategy for reading scripture, while I feel at home in the latter.

Consequently, I fear our discussion is bound to get bogged down fairly quickly. Take Genesis, for example. I don’t read the creation story as an attempt to lay out a set of immutable guidelines for human life for all time. Instead I see it as an attempt by exiles in Babylon to try to explain the apparently chaotic world in which they found themselves: why there is evil in the world, to help give justification for how it was that their relationship to creation and the kind of social arrangements they enjoyed had come about, and how it was that God was in the midst of it all.

Now, I expect that you’ll find that to be an unsatisfying reading of the first few chapters of Genesis, a feat taking an amazingly dextrous hermeneutic—just as I find a reading of Genesis through the former lens unpersuasive.

The Mosaic Law, to take another example, is also (at least in the hands of modern Americans) a fairly pliable concept itself. It gets pretty well picked over in terms of which laws are time bound and which are timeless—another case in which hermeneutical gymnastics must be employed (but this time by those who hold parts of the Mosaic Law to be binding, while other parts are disposable—e.g., Leviticus 18:19 or 19:33–4 or 20:10, to name just few).

I read the Mosaic Law as in no part literally binding in all times and all places as such, but as instructive of the kind of just community God was trying to create among bedouins in the desert. Had it been dockworkers in Jersey, I suspect the laws would have looked entirely different. The issue is not the laws themselves, but the kind of worshiping community those laws were intended to create.

The point I am trying to make is that I read the Mosaic Law not as a potential source of legislative detail per se, but as a principled (and in this case, general) guide to the way God wants humans to arrange themselves in communities so that God can be rightly worshiped, so that people will have enough to eat, and so that no one jeopardizes the integrity of the community through transgression or misuse of power.

c. You also want to follow up on what Paul has to say about the issue.  Even if one says that the issues in Genesis and Leviticus are discountable as “Old Testament,” what does one do with Paul who seems to have a very decided understanding about human sexuality as precluding homosexual behavior?

In terms of Paul and his relationship to the Roman world, I think we’re going to run into the same difficulties. I take Paul to be expressing outrage at a particular kind of activity in Roman society that had to do with idol worship and men who mentored boys, the payment for which was the obligation of sex—arrangements for which no one I know is arguing.

However, even if you take idol worship and pederasty not to be the target of Paul’s comments, one thing is clear—whatever Paul is addressing, it’s certainly not the kind of mutual, committed, and persistent relationship entered into by two people capable of giving and withholding their consent. He could not mean what we mean, because there was no such convention even conceptually possible until recently. Paul couldn’t hold forth on nuclear weapons or the adverse effects of Nintendo either, because, well … why would he?

Here, you might say, “Yes, but Nintendo and human sexuality aren’t moral equivalents.”

I agree. Where we differ, however, is in the belief that in this instance Paul is talking about human sexuality. I happen to think he’s got his eye on a problem of the way power is exercised in a relationship where people do not have equal standing—that is, between temple prostitutes and those who pay them, or between men and boys. In other words, I think Paul’s reference to sex acts in Romans 1:24–25, for example, is about human sexuality in the same way rape is about human sexuality, which is to say, it’s not. The context in this passage is ritual prostitution at pagan temples. The tip off that this is about idol worship and not about two people who love each other and who are prepared to commit to one another for life is the reference in verses 22–23—which immediately precedes 1:24–25—to the practice of worshiping and serving “the creature rather than the creator.”

The long and the short of it is that what Paul meant by the word translated in some English translations as “homosexual” is not what people who hold the positions I do mean by the word “homosexual.” In fact, I’m reluctant to use the word “homosexual,” since it focuses on the “sexual” part of the issue, which for LGBT people is only one portion of the lives they envision together. Moreover, it is possible to read Paul as speaking not to sexuality per se, but to sexuality-as-it-exists-under-Roman-occupation-with-pagan-temples-as-a-backdrop.

But when Paul does talk explicitly about sexuality, he does so with a particular set of societal expectations in mind about the function sex fulfilled in stabilizing the Empire. Sexual immorality in the otherwise “family values” oriented culture of Rome was seen as subversive, and therefore, potentially corrosive—a charge that Christians by the time Paul shows up on the scene as an apostolic force (who were already viewed as troublemakers, and potentially as revolutionaries) were most anxious to avoid.

Regardless, though, if you are inclined to see Paul speaking for all places and all times, the argument I just set down won’t be convincing. It cannot but appear to be only a capitulation to a certain set of political commitments that appear antecedently to the interpretive act. That is to say, if you don’t already agree with me, what I just said will only look like liberal weasel words. However, if one believes that that’s all I’m doing, then it’s important to be clear once again how one goes through Paul’s letters and determines which parts are meant only for people in that specific time and place, and which parts are for all people in all times and places. What, for example, does one do with 1 Corinthians 8 (a chapter devoted to food sacrificed to idols) or 1 Corinthians 11 (head coverings)? If we’re meant only to read those now as analogs or placeholders for modern problems, how does one arrive at that conclusion about these things, while at the same time holding that other parts of the same document are universally binding?

d. You express some confusion as to why monogamy is the place progressive Christians want to hang their hat when it comes to same gendered relationships. If you allow same gendered relationships, aren’t you opening the door to such practices as polygamy and bestiality? Where are the boundaries?

As to your question about monogamy, I’m not sure why polygamy and bestiality are the logical extension of this argument. I understand that you mean to suggest that same gendered marriage is a step down a slippery slope, the bottom of which holds these practices we all should want to avoid. However, without being misunderstood to be arguing for them, let me first point out that polygamy was apparently a perfectly acceptable arrangement for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for an unusually long period of time—a problem for those who would argue some version of traditional marriage being rooted in creation and persisting until now in an unbroken conceptual line.

[Moreover, though we don’t any longer sanction coterminous polygamy, because of the high rate of divorce—which cuts across all theological lines—it’s hard to argue that we’re not already practicing serial polygamy.]

But setting aside the issue of what appears to have been the temporary biblical sanction of polygamy, the assertion that allowing for committed relationships between people of the same gender takes away an important hedge against more objectionable practices like polygamy and bestiality (you might also add incest and child molestation, to complete the poker equivalent of an unbeatable hand) runs into problems.

For one thing, the kind of same gendered relationship I am describing meets the demands of just relationships (which I take to be at the heart of the vision of the reign of God, and therefore a hermeneutical key) because it requires a kind of mutuality available only to two people in a position to give and withdraw their consent. Mutuality and an equitable distribution of power isn’t a component of the other sexual relationships you name. So, to compare same gendered relationships with these other things is to make a comparison between things that differ not in degree but in kind.

For another thing, nobody I know of is arguing for those things.

Here you might say: “Ah, not yet. But that’s exactly my point. If you allow same gender relationships, you will have taken down an important barrier to someone advocating for just these sorts of practices.”

But the fact that nobody is advocating for these things is my point. The slippery slope argument suggests that there is a set of causal relationships between two actions, such that if you do one thing, you will eventually find yourself doing the other. What this fails to account for, however, is that there are gradations of difference (steps, if you will) between the two acts—none of which must necessarily lead to the next. Just because you pierce your ear, that doesn’t mean that next thing you know you’ll wake up with ear spacers and a host of pierced body parts.

The objection to that might be: “But once you open the door to piercing, what’s to stop you from continuing to get pierced, until you end up ineligible for airport security? The point is: you could now if you wanted to.”

My response to that objection is: “Yes, but I don’t want to. If your real worry is ear spacers and excessive body piercing, then you should concentrate your efforts on outlawing those things, and not in trying to set up hedges back up the line.”

I’m not sure where the confusion about those who are for same gendered monogamy lies, unless the love between same gendered people is reduced purely to the sex act—a move I’m not clear why anyone would make, since we don’t even do that with Brittany Spears or the Kardashians. LGBT people who want to get married want pretty much the same things everyone else wants—love, companionship, joy, somebody to clean your Depends when you’re too weak to do it for yourself. They want to raise families, celebrate old-fashioned Christmases, go to their kids’ t-ball games, and grow old together.

And a bunch of them want to go back to church. As odd as that might seem, many of them still want to see the face of God in the very the place that has told them (and nobody else, it should be noted) that their faces are not welcome—in many cases, not even human.

But they also want not to be bullied, fired, turned out of their apartments, or made to leave restaurants just because they happened to love someone with the same anatomical make up. They don’t want to be told over and over again that the way they were born is aberrant, or ill-formed, or mentally ill, or reprobate in ways different from everybody else.

You see the problem, though. These arguments aren’t compelling on their own. What makes them compelling is when you come to know and love people who are otherwise no different from you.

Disclaimer: This part is going to come off a little strong. And I’m not speaking directly to you, since I think you’re a wonderful and genuinely loving human being, and since I don’t know whether you have gay or lesbian friends—and by friends, I mean, people you hang around with, go to the pool or play basketball with … that is, people you love.

This is the problem I have with the generalization of the “love the sinner and hate the sin” argument abstracted from real life: It’s an easy argument to make from afar. It’s easy to talk about loving someone in a notional sense, while still saying things that harm and belittle them—because you never have to sit across the table from them and explain why what you said (or didn’t say) isn’t really hateful, but loving and “for their own good.”

I would be much more inclined to take an interest in what the average person who “loves the sinner and hates the sin” said if that person were taking opportunities to spend time actually loving the sinner—in the here and now, after picking up the groceries, and putting the kids to bed. If the only love we ever show another is telling them why they’re wrong, we have misunderstood love. (I heartily believe telling someone they’re wrong can be the most loving thing to do. But if that’s the only time they hear from us, we’ve seriously “underserved the population.”)

Coincidentally, the reason I think younger generations are increasingly convinced the LGBT thing as an issue is so uninteresting is because they know and love LGBT people, all kinds of them—people they go to school with, people who are parents of their friends, people who’ve come out to their families, people who don’t stand for the collapse of society, but who just seem normal and everyday to them. Young people don’t see these folks as threats, but merely as people struggling to get through life with a bit of love and a shred of dignity still intact.

I suppose that’s enough for now. I hope that, while perhaps not entirely persuasive, that gives you a sense of not only where we differ but why.

I must say, I really do appreciate you taking the time to ask these important questions. I hope my writing voice doesn’t come off to you as an entirely self-satisfied smartass. I don’t mean it that way to you—it’s kind of a force of rhetorical habit. I really do respect what you believe about this stuff—which is, as you know, pretty much the stuff I grew up believing too.

However, I really don’t want our differences on this issue to jeopardize our relationship, and from my standpoint, they need not.

At any rate, I love you and I look forward to continuing our conversation.

I love you.


Words Have Power: On the Abdication of Authority

This article was written by George Rizor, Senior Pastor of Landover Christian Church, Landover, Maryland, and Professor of Psychology at Westwood College, Annandale, Virginia. Anyone familiar with the Freeh Report on The Pennsylvania State University?

Anyone familiar with Star Trek's Prime Directive?

Let’s be brutally honest for a moment. We’re not going to arrive at any satisfactory or definitive answer to the issues that we’re discussing when it comes to whether or not to introduce a resolution regarding the full inclusion of LGBTQ people into the life and ministry of the church, because a satisfactory, definitive answer would require revelation of an absolute.

There are still people who believe that black skin is the mark of Cain,and is God’s signal of the inferiority of black persons.

There are still people who believe in the primacy of ownership.

There are still people who believe that the American dream is about getting all you can and stepping on the next person if necessary.

There are still people who believe that marrying someone of a different race or different ethnicity is wrong, that racial purity is a desirable goal.

There will continue to be those who believe that homosexuality is an abomination and that homosexuals should be punished. In this thread, alone, we’ve heard that punishment posited as refusal to accept homosexual clergy and leadership in the local congregation.

So, the Freeh report? … ? Words have power. And leadership devoid of integrity, direction and a willingness to stand for ethics and morality, which it perceives as correct, is not leadership at all.

The Freeh Report on the Pennsylvania State University points to a culture that turns it’s head to avoid confrontation and upsetting the status quo. The result there was pedophilia. In the instance of bigotry toward gays, the result is—oh, that’s right—every thing from teen suicides to denial of basic human rights and opportunities.

The Prime Directive (i.e., “there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations”) points to a higher, more mature society refusing to intervene in developing issues and cultures. What it fails to address is how strong the stench of degradation of integrity has to be before someone notices the odor.

With all due respect, or at least the respect I can muster, I am tired of calling abdication of morality leadership.

I am tired of calling equivocation over human rights and Biblical injustice leadership.

I am tired of pretending that there isn’t a disheartening familiarity between racial prejudice and homophobia, when the vast majority of Biblical scholars now suggest that homophobia cannot be Biblically justified.

I’m tired of being beaten up by those who call themselves Christian, but have elevated the Hebrew Scriptures and the Pauline epistles to levels of idolatry, while ignoring the Commands, example and teachings of Jesus, while still nominally practicing a religion that borrows his name.

I’m tired of apologetics apologizing, instead of explaining and guiding.

As I said earlier in this thread, there’s a body count in the debate over social justice issues surrounding exclusion of homosexuals from the full, open and comprehensive inclusion in our fellowship, and I’m pretty sure that a body count wouldn’t jive with the Jesus I read about in the Gospels, no matter how one contrives and convolutes to have Hebrew scripture words or Epistle words coming from Jesus’ mouth.

Good leadership may proclaim, but there should be prophetic truth embodied in that proclamation, and not so much accommodation and capitulation to societal influence and to the forces of cultural and religious dogma and tradition.