Why the Church and Its Allies Must Come Together to Fight Oppression Now

By Derek Penwell

In the aftermath of the recent presidential election it is no understatement to say that many people are anxious about what lies ahead. Women and minority groups have understandably begun to organize, so as not to be taken by surprise should they find themselves the targets of harassment, legal intimidation, or violence.

I believe the church has a role to play, along with other religious communities and non-profit justice organizations. As such, I recently reached out to over 200 hundred area clergy, and over 25 different non-profits in the city where I live to gather together, to see how we might offer support to one another as we brace for the worst. Below is the statement I gave about why we need to stand in solidarity with one another now.

In the wake of the presidential election those who are celebrating victory are calling for the country to unify behind the new administration. Such a call for unity, however, rings hollow for many who feel threatened by the aggressively hostile rhetoric of the winning campaign—not to mention the violent acts of some of the President-elect’s supporters. Those threatened by the repeated denigration of women and minority groups rightly wonder how they can be reconciled to the very people who have expressed such antipathy toward their fellow citizens.
But perhaps even more hurtful is the awareness that such large numbers of otherwise good people were willing to overlook the fear and hatred being sown by the candidate and his allies. The feelings of betrayal extend beyond the disappointment at having lost an election to the dawning realization that a significant portion of the country has made peace with the potential victimization of so many of its citizens. Consequently, calls for the country to “come together” sound like a way for those newly empowered to tamp down dissent—a dissent, which is not so much political in nature, as it is moral.
As leaders within the religious and non-profit communities, we’re also aware of the need for unity. However, our belief is that the kind of unity necessary is one predicated on truth and a commitment to the flourishing of all our friends and neighbors, regardless of race, gender, religious affiliation, ethnicity, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender expression, or ability. Moreover, the kind of unity we envision draws its strength not from a desire to consolidate power, but from our deeply rooted values and beliefs about the worth and dignity of all people.
As faith leaders, we can speak pastorally about the fear and dislocation people are experiencing as they anticipate the implications of disquieting policy proposals. We can speak in ways that no one else is capable of speaking about the spiritual nature of our call to protect those who are most vulnerable among us. We are motivated not by any benefit to us, but simply because—across religious traditions—our commitment to caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger—which is to say, those who often find themselves alone and without voice—is at the very heart of all of our religious expressions.
As leaders within the non-profit world, we have intimate knowledge of how some of the policies that have been proposed will negatively impact those whom we love and serve. We know the weak points in the system, and where those who will be disadvantaged are most likely to encounter difficulty. And we know that without the concerted effort of all of us who find ourselves at the intersections of justice work, too many people will be left behind, too many will suffer under the boot of oppression.
Whether it is fear of deportation of refugees or the undocumented; or a justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color—leaving them in constant fear of the very authorities charged with protecting them; or the institutionalization of bigotry toward LGBTQ people in housing, employment, and public accommodations; or the coarsening of attitudes toward women that will inevitably continue to underwrite rape culture and an environment hostile to women’s flourishing; or a society that defaults to treating Muslims with suspicion and hatred; or a world in which those with disabilities are systematically disadvantaged—we know what the disastrous possibilities of such a future promise.
But if we come together, if we embrace the unity that finds its strength in our shared commitment to justice for all our neighbors, we can begin to reassure them that they need not live in the fear that they will be abandoned by the very people tasked with advocating on their behalf. And our unity will send a message to those in power that the values and beliefs that bring us meaning and purpose will not allow us to look the other way while our friends and families are torn apart by bigotry and fear.
We’re better than that.

"I Love the Sinner" Is Often What Abusers Say

By Derek Penwell

“I love her, but she’s got to learn right from wrong,” he said … after beating her half to death. And there she lies, one foot in this world and another in the next—but fully “loved.”

I imagine that’s what LGBTQ folks hear when yet another Christian says, “I love the sinner, but I hate the sin.”

Now, I can imagine that immediately upon reading the connection between those last two thoughts, cries of righteous indignation will rise as a chorus unto heaven. “We’re not abusers, simply because we hate what homosexuals do with their private parts. We’ve never actually, physically struck a gay person because of their gayness.”

Hmmm … Maybe not, I don’t know you. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to believe you’re not part of a roving band of homo/transphobes out trolling the streets for fresh bodies on which to work out your frustrations with the dismal state of America’s godless culture. Nevertheless, I don’t think that gets you off the hook for the violence that is done in the name of your religious commitments for two important reasons.

First, when you fight against anti-bullying laws written to keep LGBTQ kids safe from being abused, you are propping up a system of violence that steals the dignity, and often the lives of those children you say you love. If a gay or trans kid commits suicide because you want to retain the right to loudly and repeatedly announce to the world your moral disapprobation, giving energy to a system dedicated to never letting LGBTQ kids forget that they are sinful aberrations for which the fires of hell are regularly stoked hotter, you bear some responsibility for their death. When LGBTQ kids get beaten, when they’re kicked out of their homes and forced to live on the streets and struggle to do some of the despicable things they have to do to stay alive, you may not be raising a hand against them, but you’re certainly massaging the muscles that do the damage. When you support a vision of the world in which LGBTQ people daily have to live in fear for their livelihoods, their homes, their right to a peaceful and flourishing existence just so you can proudly announce your doctrinal purity and your commitment to a world where only your religious beliefs matter, you may not be drawing anyone’s actual blood—but don’t kid yourself that there’s not blood on your hands.

Second, physical violence isn’t the only kind of violence. The abuse that takes place in families, for instance, is often not physical abuse. You can lay claim to having never physically harmed a person, while at the same time being guilty of killing that person’s soul. As anyone who’s suffered abuse by an abuser who claims to love them can tell you, some of the worst things that can be done to you have to do with being humiliated, devalued, dehumanized, made to feel alone and crazy. For how many years, for instance, did we gaslight LGBTQ people, makinghomosexuality a mental disorder? [Answer: Even though homosexuality was removed from the DSM-II as a disease in 1973, it wasn’t until 1987 that it was completely removed as a disorder, “ego-dystonic sexual orientation,” from the DSM. In other words: “Gay people are crazy or, at least aberrant” gave shape to the world we now inhabit.]

Take a casual glance at a list of behaviors considered emotionally abusive in personal relationships; then, read that same list through the eyes of someone who is LGBTQ, and try to persuade them they’re not victims of “loving” abuse. As one of my favorite theologians, Fred Craddock, said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words … can kill me.”

Now, someone might object: “We really do love them. We just think what they’re doing is wrong.”

Fine. The problem is that if you talk to many abusers, they will say the same thing … and mean every word of it. Punching someone in the mouth because you “love” her and “want to correct” her, can’t help but be heard by the person being so punched as a blatant form of patriarchy (i.e., I know better than you do what’s appropriately “not sinful”; you’re just going to have to trust that I have your best interests at heart), or as a way of justifying the hatred and violence of the puncher, or simply as a cynical lie. Whatever the case, your attempts at “loving” the object of your disapproval always seem to come off as a self-righteous assertion of your moral superiority (at best), or downright antipathy (at worst).

Let me see if I can make this any clearer (and I know it doesn’t feel good): Participating in a system that belittles, punishes and commits violence against those who are often in the weakest position to defend themselves, frames you as an abuser in the eyes of those whom you claim only to be trying to love.

Here someone might wonder: “But how can they not know I love them? I said I love them, didn’t I?”

That’s the whole point. Saying you love someone as you punch them in the mouth, or standing by (while cheering or remaining silent) while somebody else punches them in the mouth or loudly fighting for laws that will continue making punching them in the mouth legal in the name of “religious freedom” isn’t love.

A cursory reading of the Gospels suggests that, for those of us who follow Jesus,love isn’t the perpetual need to make everyone else conform to our understanding of righteousness; it’s the merciful realization that Jesus has freed us from the responsibility of thinking that’s even our job.

How My Mind Has Changed Over The Matter Of Full Inclusion In the Church Of LGBTQ Folk

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Today, I choose to tell the story of how my mind has changed.  I was not always a supporter of the full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the life of the church.  For me, I hoped I always lived with an element of compassion toward this group of people and believed that they had a place in the church, but that place stopped when it came to positions of leadership.  I believed that same-sex relationships stood outside the accepted Christian norm of what was permissible for those in leadership positions.

My compassion was rooted in two things.  My understanding of the gospel as a vehicle of love and grace, not judgement and condemnation.   And my friendship in college with a gay student.  We were at a very conservative Christian college thirty years ago where he had to keep his orientation a secret. We became close enough that he revealed it to me and I kept his secret with him.  I saw firsthand his difficult struggle and witnessed the lie he had to live.  I watched the look on his face when “gay jokes” were told.  I know he experienced deep pain at times and he struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation even in a large Christian community.  On the other hand, my hesitation toward full inclusion was also influenced by two matters.  One was my understanding of the scriptures.  Though, I would acknowledge it was mentioned rarely, and never by Jesus, the seven times that same-sex behavior was discussed, I understood it to be in a non-approving way.  Second, was my personal inability to understand same-sex attraction.  I just didn’t get it.

I was able to live with this “welcoming but not affirming” understanding for quite some time and even viewed myself as somewhat of a progressive on the matter.  The change started happening when a young gay man asked to be ordained by the regional church that I was part of, a region that expressly forbid the ordination of “avowed and practicing homosexuals.”  A rather quick, awkwardly planned, and loosely understood Regional Discernment process was put into place.  What it ended up doing was kicking the can further down the road to a more fully formed Regional Discernment Process.  It was a process I was asked to co-chair along with another pastor in the region.  Participating in that process was a long five year commitment.  Though that process had too many parts to mention in this post.  It was during that five years that my mind began to change.  Here are a few of the specific things that happened that changed my mind.

1)      I could no longer reconcile my understanding of scripture with a negative view of homosexuality.  Scripture is not primarily a rule book full of do’s and don’ts.  Scripture is a story about God’s love for all creation.  A love most fully known in Christ, who not only did not mention the matter, but always welcomed into his circle those who had been pushed to the edges of society.  If I interpret the scriptures through my faith in Jesus, I can’t come up with any understanding other than that of full inclusion for LGBTQ folk.

2)      I met too many especially talented gay and lesbian people who loved the church and wanted to serve it fully.  I met numerous persons who were in lifelong committed relationships with a person of the same gender.  Their relationships were of a mutual love and reciprocal caring.  The only difference between them and a heterosexual couple was the matter of gender.  At this point, I began to realize it was more important how we loved than who we loved.

3)      The book, “Middlesex,” played probably the most important role in my change of mind for it dealt with issue of intersex people.  Though the book was the fictional account of someone whose gender from birth was not distinguishable, I was gripped by the things I learned.  I was also driven by this book to look at matters from a scientific perspective where I learned that 1 in every 1,500 births has some biological problem with gender identity.  I decided, that if gender can be non-determinative biologically, then there are psychological and emotional aspects to gender that are difficult to understand as well.    “Middlesex” helped me “to get” what I didn’t get for a lot of years.

So this is a very brief story of how and why my mind has changed.  How has it changed my ministry?  In every congregation I have served I have tried to address the matter of human sexuality both from the pulpit and the classroom.  Since, I save all my sermons and class material I went back and researched my offerings on this matter.  You can see a clear progression in my work from “welcoming but not affirming” to “open and affirming.”  In my previous congregation I led a four week study that looked at the matter of homosexuality and the Christian faith from a personal perspective, an understanding of scripture, what science has to say about the matter and finally what kind of community should we be as people who follow Jesus.  More than forty people attended the class and we had a healthy and healing conversation that I think influenced the understanding of many folk.

I know it is likely that many of the people who might read this article have already made the journey toward full inclusion, but there might be some who haven’t.  I told my story for the latter.  I could no longer understand my Christian faith as one that excluded people who wanted to be part of the body of Christ and be fully accepted for who they were created to be.  I believe changing my mind on this matter has drawn me closer to following the one I call Lord.  And my prayer is that my friend from college found a church that could love him fully for who he is.