Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Only One Table: An Ethical Analysis of the Churches' Treatment of Gay and Lesbian Persons

Today is an historic day for those engaging in moral analysis of the treatment of gay and lesbian human beings by the Christian churches. Today, Archbishop Desmond Tutu will receive the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission's Outspoken Award at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.

When I speak of “engaging in moral analysis of the treatment of gay and lesbian human beings by the Christian churches,” I am choosing my words carefully. In the heated politicized discussions that have passed for moral analysis of homosexuality in church circles in recent years, the focus has been almost exclusively on sexual ethics. The central ethical question has been whether the churches can “accept” or “tolerate” gay persons or the gay “lifestyle,” given the reproductive intent of human sexuality.

The focus of moral analysis has been on the tiny handful of biblical passages taken by some Christians to condemn homosexuality—despite the fact that the term “homosexuality” was not coined until the end of the 19th century, and that the biblical writers could not have used a term for a psychological concept (the innate psychological disposition of some persons to erotic attraction to members of their own sex) that was completely unknown to them.

I have argued ** that it is time to shift the focus in ethical analysis of the relationship of the churches to gay and lesbian human beings, to shift it away from sexual ethics and towards justice. Once the preponderance of evidence in the natural and social sciences has shown that sexual orientation is a biological given, not something people choose—and most scientists and people of good will have long since accepted that the evidence does suggest this—the ethical discussion of homosexuality has to shift its focus, unless churches choose simply to reject scientific findings—as they did when Galileo showed that the earth orbits the sun, or as some churches still do when confronted with irrefutable evidence of biological evolution.

The churches have to shift focus because they cannot claim to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and justify excluding anyone on the basis of innate characteristics that are stigmatized by some groups in society. The churches have a history of such behavior, of course. They have discriminated—and savagely so—against Jews, women, people of color.

The churches also claim to have repented of such behavior, once their savagery was made apparent to them. As currents of social change originating both within and outside churches forced the churches to hold a mirror up to themselves, to see the ugly evidence of discrimination premised on innate characteristics of demeaned groups (pogroms, Nazi death camps, crusades, witch burnings, enslavement of people of color, second-class citizenship for women and blacks), the churches have gradually repudiated the discrimination they once practiced and defended against these groups.

They have done so because the churches have recognized that one cannot claim to be church, and behave in a way that belies what churches stand for at the most fundamental level. In excluding stigmatized social groups, in failing to provide inclusive and healing social spaces for minorities despised for no reason other than the color of their skin, their ethnic origin, or their gender, the churches fail to be church.

Jesus ate with outcasts. In practicing (and preaching) table fellowship with despised social outsiders, Jesus made himself one with these outsiders, and earned their fate. By breaking bread with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and others placed beyond the pale of his society and religion, Jesus made himself ritually impure: the act of eating with a public sinner turned him into a public sinner.

The memory of Jesus’s table fellowship with outcasts is enshrined in the central liturgical act of the Christian community, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. In taking bread and proclaiming that it is his body broken for everyone, Jesus remembers his table fellowship with outcasts. In enjoining his followers to break bread in remembrance of him, as they repeat the words proclaiming that the bread is his body broken for everyone, Jesus bequeaths a crucial legacy to his followers: this is the recognition that one cannot remember Jesus and what he stood for, one cannot break holy bread at the Lord’s table, without committing oneself to the practice of table fellowship with outcasts.

The church exists, it makes itself church, it fulfills its sacramental calling in the world, by remembering Jesus faithfully in the social context in which the church lives. The church demonstrates that it is church by exercising its ministry of radical inclusivity within the context in which it lives its everyday life. The church remembers Jesus and makes Jesus present by breaking the bread of remembrance both liturgically and in the daily lives of its followers, insofar as it makes itself into a place of welcome, healing, and refuge for those put beyond the social pale, those tormented for no reason other than that they are the despised Other.

Archbishop Tutu’s witness to the church’s call to include (to welcome, heal, affirm, and celebrate) everyone is unequivocal. It is for this reason that he stands out as a beacon in contemporary discussions of what makes church truly church. More clearly than many Christian leaders dare to acknowledge, Desmond Tutu defines church by its radical, simple willingness to embody what it proclaims about Jesus in word and sacrament: in a 2006 speech at Union Theological Seminary, Archbishop Tutu notes, “All are insiders [i.e., in God’s vision of the world]. All belong—white, black, red, yellow, Arab, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, young old, male, female, rich poor, gay, lesbian and so-called straight—all belong" (see www.utsnyc.edu/NETCOMMUNITY/Page.aspx?pid=734&srcid=734).

As Archbishop Tutu noted in a 1998 Capetown interview with Episcopal News International regarding the World Council of Churches and homosexuality, the very credibility of the churches today is at stake, in how the churches choose to relate to gay and lesbian human beings (see http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/tutu.html). Whereas some African and African-American Christian leaders (and many of their advocates in traditional “white” churches) combat recognition of the clear links between how the churches once chose to treat people of color and how they treat gay-lesbian persons today, Desmond Tutu has been prophetically clear about these links. He has repeatedly stated that homophobia equals apartheid, and that discrimination against gays and lesbians by the churches is equivalent to racial discrimination by the churches.

In a 2004 article The Times (London), Archbishop Tutu notes, "We struggled against apartheid in South Africa, supported by people the world over, because black people were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about-our very skins. It is the same with sexual orientation. It is a given. I could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination that homosexuals endure, even in our churches and faith groups" (www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article451901.ece).

More recently, in a 2007 interview with BBC radio, Archbishop Tutu states, "If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn't worship that God," he said. Desmond Tutu takes the church to task today for "being almost obsessed with questions of human sexuality" at a time when "our world is facing problems—poverty, HIV and AIDS—a devastating pandemic, and conflict" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7100295.stm).

Why should the Christian churches address the issue of homosexuality—honestly, openly, dialogically—today? If Desmond Tutu is correct, they must do so, first and foremost, because the churches undermine their most fundamental proclamation—God’s inclusive welcome of every human being—in a way that is not merely incidental, but goes to the very heart of the gospel message, when they continue to foment and engage in injustice against gay and lesbian persons. Put simply, the churches forfeit the right to claim that they are church—in any sense that retains close contact with the behavior and message of Jesus—if they continue to harm, exclude, punish, and discriminate against people who are born with a same-sex sexual orientation.

The churches lose the right to speak of having open hearts, open minds, and open doors when they continue to bolster unjust social practices of discrimination against gay and lesbian human beings. It is impossible to be church, to claim faithfulness to the principle of sacramentality that guides the church’s salvific enterprise in the world, when the church practices exclusion of any social group premised on demeaned innate characteristics.

In the scriptures, from the Deuteronomic strands of Jewish scripture through the Jewish prophets to Jesus, mercy and justice are intimately linked. They are linked not as complementary virtues, but as two aspects of a single virtue. One cannot be merciful without practicing justice; justice lacks life without mercy attending it. To be real, the scriptures constantly insist, mercy has to be embodied in action. Justice points the way to action: it tells mercy what needs to be done to heal the world, the world in which I live, the world in which the church lives.

The scriptures are all about healing my world. They are never about healing someone else’s world, some idealized version of the world. They are about healing, first and foremost, the world in which I myself live, move, and have my being. They are about seeing the stranger in my midst, not across the globe. As Edith Stein wrote before being killed at Auschwitz for no reason other than the fact that she was born Jewish, “For the Christian there are no ‘strangers.’ In every case it is the brother before us at the moment who needs us the most, independent of whether he is related to us or not, whether we ‘like’ him or whether he is ‘morally worthy’ of our help.”

Why must the Christian churches address the issue of homosexuality—honestly, openly, dialogically—today? They must do so if for no other reason than because they obstinately refuse to recognize a stranger in their midst, whose very presence—as a human being making the simplest of demands on the church, to be included, to be treated with justice and mercy—raises disquieting fundamental questions about the fidelity of the churches to the gospels today, as long as she/he is unjustly and unmercifully treated.

In a unique way, gay and lesbian persons are the demeaned Other for the churches today. This is particularly the case in the United States, a nation with the soul of a church, where church attendance remains higher than in other Christianized areas of the globe, and where overt religious influence permeates our political process. Though the Catholic church continues to be, at its highest magisterial levels, intransigent and belligerent on the question of the full human status of gay persons (insofar as it continues to deny justice to gay human beings), polls indicate that, with the exception of some Eastern European nations, European Catholics have long ago decided to shrug their shoulders at the Catholic teaching that gay human beings are intrinsically disordered.

In the United States, the situation is quite different. Here, the churches overtly fuel resistance to gay rights—to legal and ecclesial recognition of the full humanity of gay and lesbian persons.

In the United States, churches that fail to grant full human rights to gay and lesbian persons and thus to accord full human status to gay and lesbian human beings are forfeiting the right to proclaim the gospel. Insofar as churches continue to behave in this unjust and unchristian way, they are belying all that the church stands for and is, at a fundamental level. They are failing to receive the stranger in their midst.

The churches in the United States underscore their savagery to gay and lesbian human beings by issuing statements of repentance for their previous savagery to women and to people of color. This makes the churches’ silence about—or, indeed, their continued noise about the bracketed difference of gay-lesbian persons—all the more ominous. Given the willingness of the church to reconsider and repent its previous behavior towards some groups, the distinction between groups previously stigmatized on the basis of innate characteristics and “the” group currently stigmatized in this way by the churches strengthens the undeniable conclusion that, in singling out gay-lesbian persons today for exclusion, the churches are behaving cruelly and capriciously, and are doing so primarily because there is a price to be paid today for expressing solidarity with gay and lesbian human beings.

The singling out today of the gay-lesbian stranger in their midst calls into question the churches’ sincerity about its repentance for the sins of racism and sexism in the past. The singling out today of the gay-lesbian stranger in their midst allows the churches, and some groups within both the churches and the political realm, to play African Americans and women against gays and lesbians, as if the former have a bona fide reason to seek full inclusion, whereas the latter are simply riding on the coattails of other civil rights movements whose legitimacy is unquestionable. The singling out of the group for which the church would pay a price today, if it expressed solidarity, suggests that the church’s after-the-fact repentance for its sins of racism and sexism, when there is little price to be paid today for this repentance, is a matter of cheap and not costly grace.

Why must the Christian churches address the issue of homosexuality—honestly, openly, dialogically—today? They must do so because the churches are at the very center of legal and social injustice towards gay and lesbian human beings; they are at the very center of this form of discrimination in the United States. The churches resist full human rights for gay persons in the U.S. They fund movements to resist not only gay marriage, but to stop the legal permission for churches themselves to practice discrimination in hiring and firing gay and lesbian employees.

The churches resist laws that protect gays and lesbians from being targeted by proponents of hate, simply because they are gay and lesbian. The churches fuel resistance to laws prohibiting discrimination against gay and lesbian persons in the area of housing and employment. The churches collaborate with some of the most regressive movements in American society in disseminating misinformation—lies—about gay and lesbian human beings, in turning gay and lesbian human beings into political chits to be moved about the board of the public sphere when it is expedient to use homophobia for political gain.

Above all, the churches themselves practice overt discrimination against gay and lesbian persons perhaps more blatantly than do almost all secular institutions in American society today. I have recounted some of my own experiences of such overt discrimination at church institutions on previous blog threads, as well as those of my partner Steve.

These experiences are not ones we uniquely have had. Though the fact that we are theologians living together unapologetically in a committed gay relationship may have made us lightning rods, we know many other gay and lesbian persons who have found themselves without employment in church institutions when it was expedient for the institution to make an issue of their sexual orientation. It remains, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule in church institutions to treat openly (emphasis on “openly”) gay and lesbian employees differently than our straight brothers and sisters.

In their internal life, in how they accord power, the churches engage in gross discrimination against gay and lesbian persons—against openly gay and lesbian persons. Few churches permit the ordination of openly (emphasis on “openly”) gay and lesbian persons. Ordination is power within the churches. Being ordained introduces one into the hierarchical power structure of the church.

In refusing to ordain openly gay and lesbian persons, the churches exclude gay and lesbian persons from sharing in the power through which decisions are made in the churches, through which the future of the church is determined, through which all groups constituting the church are recognized as equally human. In refusing to accord gay and lesbian persons—openly gay and lesbian persons—a full share of the institutional power by which they are governed, churches tacitly but nonetheless decisively exclude gay and lesbian human beings from the table.

The way churches themselves operate, towards gay and lesbian human beings, creates a two-tiered system of humanity that undermines the churches’ most fundamental proclamation of God’s inclusive welcome of everyone to the table. In behaving this way, churches tacitly set The Table and a table—the Table at which first-class believers are invited to dine, and the phantom table at which second-rate believers receive the crumbs from the great table.

In authentic church, in churches that wish to live the gospel authentically, there can never be any table other than the Lord’s Table. At which all are welcome . . . .At which the despised outcast has a special welcome place . . . . In churches that live the gospel authentically, there is only one humanity, the shared humanity of all, who receive their human nature from the hand of God. Churches living the gospel do not make distinctions between first- and second-class humanity, when it comes to setting the Lord's table and inviting the church to it.

I have spoken of the pain I still bear, because my friend and supervisor knelt at the Lord’s table beside me

I have had similar experiences in my own church, the Catholic church. They have caused me to be unable to approach the Lord’s table in my own church. I refrain from doing so because, having been treated as non-human by my church (and now by the United Methodist church), I find it impossible to be persuaded that the churches truly believe what they proclaim about the Lord’s table, given how they continue to treat gay and lesbian persons.

If I wish to retain any belief in the Lord’s table—and I do; it is precious to me—I have to absent myself from that table, as long as the churches setting that table create a lesser table of crumbs for me and my kind.

There are people—many of them, many of them representing what claim to be the most progressive strands of Christianity today—who dismiss the churches’ treatment of gay and lesbian persons today as an issue of secondary moral importance. These liberal Christians often maintain that the churches are tearing themselves apart over the “unreal” issue of homosexuality, while real moral issues and needs, including poverty or destruction of the environment, are ignored by the churches.

I reject this liberal analysis for the reasons I have outlined above. In blatantly excluding gay and lesbian persons from their real table, the churches undercut their most fundamental proclamation about themselves, about God, and about the world. As Archbishop Tutu has noted, they do so in a way that undermines the credibility of the churches themselves—at a very fundamental way.

The liberal refusal to understand or accept this recognition is, in the final analysis, a refusal of my liberal brothers and sisters in the churches to stand in solidarity with me and with other gay and lesbian believers. The church at its best—the “progressive” church—wishes always to remain uncommitted until it has sniffed the winds of power and change to determine which way those winds are blowing.

What is called for now, particularly among liberal “supporters” of gay and lesbian persons in the churches, is costly grace, the kind of grace that walks with the outcast, that sits at the lesser table with the outcast, until there is only one table for all. What is called for now, particularly on the part of liberal “supporters” of gay and lesbian churches, is the costly grace that walked with African Americans and women when those who sojourned with these despised minorities paid a price for such sojourning—when they became one with the despised outcast.y worthy’ of our

Until the churches—and the liberal “best” among the churches—make such solidarity with gay and lesbian persons today, the churches will continue to undermine their arguments against racism, misogyny, economic exploitation of the poor, destruction of the environment, or militarism. All these issues are interconnected. It is only a church that clearly and unambiguously demonstrates that it has chosen the path of costly grace by setting a welcome table for all, and in particular the most despised stranger in its midst, that can speak forcefully about justice in the world, wherever injustice occurs.

The life of the churches—how the churches function and do business—is shot through with homophobia. Until the churches address the homophobia intertwined with their institutional life, the homophobia that prevails in church institutions, the churches cannot effectively address any “serious” questions of injustice in the world.

And until the churches break with the lies of those powerful persons and interest groups that benefit by promoting the particular form of social hatred known as homophobia, the churches will continue to suggest to those seeking signs of God’s salvific presence in the world that salvation, healing, welcome, inclusion, are more readily available outside the churches than inside them. Until the churches break with powerful rich supporters whose money silences the voice and quiets the conscience of the homophobic church, the churches will be seen by many people of good will as advocates of cheap rather than costly grace.

And to the extent that they are viewed this way, they will not be taken seriously—not by people of good will.

** See “On Being Church in the New Millennium: The Challenge and Gift of Gay Believers,” cited in the "Selected Publications" section of this blog.


colkoch said...

Another great post Bill. The problem with cheap grace is you get what you pay for, and in this case it's a shallow unnuanced spirituality leading to a shallow unnuanced life. NASCAR drivers become as important as presidents, or following the Yankees is as important as following the Gospel. No wonder football is the real religion in your neck of the woods. Macho Jesus in pads and cleats, or Macho Jesus making left turns at 220 miles an hour. Where's the gospel in any of that? Maybe this is exactly what the big money boys are buying with all their influence.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, thanks for reading (and responding to) a lengthy posting, which may strike some readers as too long and involved.

And yet this is a point that I think the churches really need to hear, even if some of us keep making it over and over and over. It's impossible for the churches to be credible when they preach justice to society while practicing injustice in their inner life and their own institutions.

I may try to write an executive summary of some sort for this posting, since I hope it gets circulated to those who make decisions in the churches.

I like very much your point that you get what you pay for--with grace, as with everything else. You put the point eloquently: cheap grace leads to "a shallow unnuanced spirituality leading to a shallow unnuanced life."

You've also zeroed in on an important point that I wanted to make about the interconnections between homophobia, machismo, and corporate cultures: glorifying the macho man is not just part of our whole cultural set of values, but it also sells.

And the churches are enmeshed in the same economic system that sells machismo. It's in their own economic (but not necessarily spiritual) best interest to cozy up to the macho corporate cultures. It's not in their own economic best interest to challenge those cultures, though it is clearly in their spiritual best interest to do so.

What makes this hard to say and keep saying is that there is an almost irresistible force of rhetoric on a daily basis spewing out of the noise machines that glorify unrestrained male power. Raise questions about that noise, and we're likely to be drowned out by it, or to have it try to quench our voices altogether.