Friday, May 2, 2008

The Radical Middle: Better Angels and Main Street USA

Observers of American churches have concluded that the United Methodist Church represents the middle—the radical middle—of the religious consciousness (and conscience) of our nation with the soul of a church. For that reason, many of us concerned to see how the churches are responding to various issues—including the positive acceptance of LGBT human beings—in American society are keeping a close watch on what happens in the United Methodist Church.

In what just happened at UMC General Conference, we get a crystal-clear picture of where our nation with the soul of a church stands vis-à-vis homosexuality—which is to say, where it stands in relation to LGBT human beings and our cries for full inclusion.

On the one hand, the church “held the line” (as many press accounts and quite a few Methodists themselves are saying) on the issue of homosexuality (that is, the church held the line against gay brothers and sisters who have been asking that the church cash in its promises about its open heart, open mind, and open door).

On the other hand, it passed noble resolutions condemning discrimination against its gay brothers and sisters and violence fueled by homophobia in a society in which many hearts, minds, and doors are resolutely closed to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered human beings. (Question for further consideration: can the church call society at large to accountability when it does not call itself to accountability; can the church condemn homophobic discrimination and violence in society when it practices these in its own life and institutions; if the church is sincere in wanting to condemn such social violence, how do those of us who are gay and who have suffered injustice in Methodist institutions gain a hearing for our stories?)

In making these choices, the United Methodist Church professes to be saving the “radical middle” of the church’s conscience about its LGBT brothers and sisters. The decisions it made at General Conference are already being framed by right-wing driven soundbites in the mass media as an attempt to hold the church together, to keep it united in the face of schismatic forces that call on it to speak with one voice, rather than duplicitously, about its stance towards LGBT human beings.

Can the radical middle, the center, hold?

In what follows, I am focusing on the case of the UMC as an icon for the nation as a whole, and for American churches in particular. My focus is in no way intended to isolate the United Methodist Church as if it is a singular example of the tragic inconsistency, the divided mind, of American Christians about their gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered brothers and sisters. I am focusing on the UMC because it professes to value the radical middle as a manifestation of the mind of God for contemporary culture (even though Christians throughout history have had to admit again and again that social consensus—the radical middle—has been downright wrong, unholy, and at variance with the gospel time and again, e.g., when Christians burned witches and Jews at the stake, held pogroms to destroy Jewish lives and appropriate Jewish property, held human beings in chattel bondage, told women that they are the possession of men, and so on).

The radical middle of American churches, then—here’s a sharp snapshot of what it offers its LGBT brothers and sisters today, insofar as it responds to our cries:

On the One Hand:

Our Mission Statement:

Every Member a Minister:
Inviting, Nurturing, Sending

to proclaim the gospel,
to invite all peoples into the church,
to nurture them in the Christian faith and life,
and to send them forth
as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ,
making our community and world
more caring, more loving, and more just,
all for the GLORY OF GOD.

On the Other Hand

This is some of the best news I've seen from the General Conference in many years. This means that the UMC affirms the sanctity of marriage as being only between a man and a woman, consistent with our statement in the discipline which prohibits our clergy from doing weddings for homosexual couples, and the use of UM facilities for homosexual weddings. The UMC General Conference has made stronger and stronger statements every year they have met concerning the sin of homosexual practice and its incompatibility with the Christian Faith. It's time for them to finally "put their foot down" and refuse to consider the questions any more.

The preceding statements appear side by side on the blog of a United Methodist Church somewhere in America yesterday. The precise location is not important. The name of the church is not important. If the author of the second statement reads this blog and wants credit for his statement, I will gladly give it. I am not doing so here because I do not want to single him out.

The church is in Main Street USA. It could be almost any church anywhere. Along with its mother church, it hews to the radical middle in its message to the world.

If I were teaching an introductory class in logic for college undergraduates, I would be tempted to take these two statements, put them side by side, and then ask students to spot the logical inconsistencies that make it impossible to make the two statements simultaneously.

On the one hand, the United Methodist Church tells us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered that its mission is

▪ To invite us, nurture us, and send us forth;

▪ To invite all peoples into the church;

To nurture all peoples in Christian faith and life;

▪ To build a more caring, loving, and just community and world

On the other hand, the very same church blog announcement that can make that glorious proclamation—with a straight face, I have no doubt—can say in the same breath that it is proud of its church for “putting its foot down” when it comes to its gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. The commentary appearing side by side with that glorious, warm-fuzzy mission statement can encourage the church making the mission statement to tell LGBT human beings to shut up from now on.

▪ Stop dividing the church.

▪ Stop making things difficult for the rest of us.

▪ Stop diverting us from the important business of inclusion—of inclusion of non-sinful, deserving minorities such as people of color and women.

▪ Stop rubbing our noses in it, asking us to face it.

▪ Stop whining and staging demonstrations.

▪Stop pointing out our inconsistencies and challenging our honesty when we make statements of Christian practice that, on the face of it, are impossible to hold together.

Just go away. Find a church that is actually tolerant and inclusive—not like our church. Yes, I read just that statement, in so many words, on another blog yesterday, which was discussing the decisions of General Conference. It was a response to a gay brother in Christ who had spilled his guts out about how the decisions at General Conference deeply disappointed him, cut him to the core of his being.

The statement was made by a white Southern Methodist man who proudly proclaimed himself a heterosexual, who is tempted in his “thought world,” but doesn’t submit to sin and can’t endorse homosexual brothers and sisters who ask to have their actual sins excused because of their sexual orientation.

In other words, the statement emanates from the power center of Methodism (and the white male heterosexist power center of society). It is, in some sense, a core statement of the church (and of culture), from those who have traditionally held the reins of power in the church (and in the culture at large).

If I were using the preceding two side-by-side statements in a class in elementary logic, to examine how people can profess one thing while practicing another, I would expect students to note some of the following points:

It’s impossible to say that you invite and want to nurture people when you also talk about holding the line against them and goad them to leave your community;

▪ You can’t invite and nurture people you don’t let in the door;

▪ Not recognizing people’s full human rights (not giving them any legal protection from discrimination in hiring and firing in your church and its institutions, for instance; not ordaining openly gay and lesbian ministers; etc.) is actually a way of not inviting and not nurturing “all peoples”;

Since the church making these two simultaneous statements to its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered brothers and sisters also professes to root its teachings in the gospel, I would expect my students to ask about whether the two statements mirror the teaching and practice of Jesus. Logical consistency demands such conformity to the tradition one professes to draw upon in one’s statement to contemporary society.

For instance, I’d expect them to ask if statements like hold the line” and “put your foot down” echo sayings of Jesus. I’d want my students to comb the gospels for evidence that Jesus told anyone who came to him that he was putting his foot down and holding the line against them.

I’d hope that my students would read the gospels carefully for any evidence that Jesus disinvited people (why not leave and find a church that’s really tolerant and inclusive?), at the same time that he invited them.

I’d expect my students to conclude the following: Something’s wrong with this picture. Something's radically wrong with the picture that the church of the radical middle wants to project to the world.

▪ The churches cannot profess one thing and practice another—not, that is, and expect to be believed;

▪ All the beautiful words in the world—wonderful words of life—don’t mean a hill of beans when they are belied by practices that undercut the beautiful words;

Among the critical questions I’d expect my class to ask as it concluded its exercise in logical inconsistency would be the following:

How and why do human beings profess to invite and nurture, while excluding and demeaning?

▪ Can flowery religious language turn into demonic language when it is used as a smokescreen for actual practices that are anything but flowery?

▪ Is the impulse in the radical middle of American Christianity today to hold the line—and to disinvite gay brothers and sisters from the table—really about keeping ourselves in the radical middle comfortable: comfortable with the way things are, or how we wish to imagine that they are?

▪ Is the besetting sin for which we in the radical middle want to exclude our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters ultimately that they make us uncomfortable: that they raise troubling questions about gender lines and gender roles that we do not want to face in the radical middle?

▪ Should churches be about making people comfortable or uncomfortable?

▪ Which did Jesus aim at in his own ministry?

▪ When agendas of demonization and exclusion can be tracked to political activist groups whose ultimate agenda is protecting the powerful and wealthy from the demands of the gospel, do churches that capitulate to those agendas serve or violate the gospel?

▪ Can churches preach justice (or inclusion, or mercy) in any area of human life, when they practice injustice, exclusion, and savage cruelty in their own intraecclesial life?

Again, these are not merely questions for Methodists. They are questions I press in my own communion, the Catholic Church, which has repeatedly proven itself capable of precisely the same duplicity General Conference has just endorsed while “holding the line” and “putting its foot down” against gay human beings and simultaneously decrying discrimination.

And the same time, groups that try to divide the Methodist church are also fiercely active in my own church, like roaring lions seeking to devour. They are roaring now about giving the Eucharist to brothers and sisters in Christ who do not toe their political party line. They are ravenously hungry following the recent papal visit, to punish selected bishops who, in their mind, did not hold the line. They are doing all they can to coerce those bishops to say they were wrong for not denouncing the ill-favored brothers and sisters who went to communion while the pope was here. Money is changing hands behind the scenes, dirty money. Midnight phone conferences are being held. The media are being bought, when they are willing to sell themselves for dirty money.

The battles going on in the UMC are going on in all the American churches. They divide the nation at its very heart, asking us to examine our heritage and decide whether we are a people who welcome or repudiate the Other.

We are both. We have been both from our inception. The question before the churches is whether, in our divided soul, in our radical middle, we will be governed by the better angels of our nature, or by the ravenous, devouring-lion angels.

And as the battle rages, those of us caught in the crossfire grow weary. We do so in the very marrow of our bones. Unlike many of my UMC brothers and sisters, I had no hope at all that the United Methodist Church would radically revise its position on homosexuality—its approach to its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered brothers and sisters—at this General Conference.

I knew in my bones otherwise. These are my people, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. I know them. I have also worked in Methodist institutions and have an outsider’s perspective on the huge disparity between the noble rhetoric, the wonderful flowery words of life, and what they actually mean in practice.

I bear the stripes of that disparity on my back. As in my dealings with my Catholic brothers and sisters, I have been told in Methodist institutions that I am corrupt and dishonest—when I would rather have my tongue plucked out than dishonor myself and my family by knowingly telling a lie.

When we refuse to vanish, when we keep on using the tongues God gave us to speak the truth and witness to God's grace in our lives, this is what we must expect. This is what we who are gay and lesbian, and who retain faith, must expect at the hands of the radical middle in the churches. This is why the very idea of church grows ever more distant and repugnant to many of us.

Not the idea of Jesus, of course. But the idea of church.

And that’s where I’ll end for today: Jesus, not the church. When I read the gospels, I discover that who I am in my inmost being is who God made me to be. The gospels convince me that I count in God’s eyes, though I do not count in the eyes of the men who rule the church (or the monied men who rule them). The gospels convince me that, no matter what those churchmen or monied men do to me or say about me, nothing will ever change who I am in God’s eyes: one who counts, one who is called as much as any other believer in Christ to walk the journey of faith and testify to the faith I find on that pilgrimage.

Not all the money in the world, nor all the flowery or abusive church proclamations that can be drafted, nor all the pretend sympathy accompanied by demonstrative scorn on the part of the radical middle, nor the accusations of dishonesty made against us by churchmen bought off by utterly dishonest political operatives: none of these can stop me from reading the gospels and discovering there the certainty that God loves me, unambiguously, with open arms, no matter what the church does or says.


colkoch said...

"Not all the money in the world, nor all the flowery or abusive church proclamations that can be drafted, nor all the pretend sympathy accompanied by demonstrative scorn on the part of the radical middle, nor the accusations of dishonesty made against us by churchmen bought off by utterly dishonest political operatives: none of these can stop me from reading the gospels and discovering there the certainty that God loves me,"

This is absolutely true Bill, but what saddens me is that the accusations of dishonesty, as well as intrinsic corruption, leveled against us by bought and paid for clergy, prevent the average Joe from ever understanding or appreciating just what we can, do, and have brought to the table. Our gifts are a huge loss to mainstream Christian denominations, and some of those gifts appears to be a stronger sense of the solidarity we have with our brothers and sisters, the creative talent to express these truths in music, art, and literature, and a strong connection with the mystical. I guess Gene Robinson said it best, people won't realize the contribution of their LGBT brothers and sisters until we all walk out. Since that's what radical middle apparently want, maybe we should.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, you say, "Our gifts are a huge loss to mainstream Christian denominations, and some of those gifts appears to be a stronger sense of the solidarity we have with our brothers and sisters, the creative talent to express these truths in music, art, and literature, and a strong connection with the mystical."

I agree wholeheartedly. I can't remember where I read this story, but it's apparently a true story. I think it was on a blog I read last week and didn't think to mark.

In any case, it's about something that happened in an African-American church in a major U.S. city not too long back. Apparently, the pastor was haranguing "his" congregation about the evils of gay folks.

After he'd heard enough, the organist stood up, announced, "There will be no more music today," and walked out, followed by a large percentage of the choir.

What saddens me about this story is that the churches (and their institutions) know we're there. They gladly make use of us and our talents--as long as we remain closeted and hidden. My experience and Steve's has been, time and time again, to give lavishly of our time, energy, intellect, possessions as we work for church institutions, only to be booted by those institutions if we insist on what every other human being insists on: the right just to live, freely, without pretending.

As John McNeil says somewhere, if all gay and lesbian people went on strike just one day in the U.S., the country would grind to a halt. Its schools would shut their doors. Its hospitals couldn't function. Its churches would be closed and empty. The helping professions--therapy, etc.--would be crippled, along with the arts, and countless other areas.

They want and need our talents. They do not want to affirm or even recognize us, because there's a price to be paid when they do so. Sad.

colkoch said...

Bill, don't you think that until gays stop reacting to who they tell us we are, and start making them react to the reality of who we are, the conversation can go nowhere. Kudos to the organist and his choir. That's the kind of step we need to take. People need to understand that our talents involve the creation and advancement of culture and spirituality. Producing babies is not the only way God intends man to create.