Thursday, May 1, 2008

We Are All Care of One Another

I’m thinking these days about why so many avid readers around the world love Alexander McCall Smith’s African lady detective Precious Ramotswe. I suspect the love affair has much to do with Mma Ramotswe’s profoundly humane (and religiously informed) moral sense.

Precious Ramotswe is both an Anglican and a defender of the traditional moral code of her beloved Botswana—though, as an enlightened and determined woman in a society long dominated by men, she also challenges traditional norms when they conflict with overriding norms that demand that we respect each other at a human level transcending nationality, gender, race, and so on.

The title of the first chapter of Smith’s latest Precious Ramotswe novel The Miracle at Speedy Motors (NY: Pantheon, 2008) is, “We are all care of one another.”

As the novel proceeds, Mma Ramotswe muses,

Yes, we were all care of one another in the final analysis, at least in Botswana, where people looked for and valued those invisible links that connected people, that made for belonging. We were all cousins, even if remote ones, of somebody; we were all friends of friends, joined together by bonds that you might never see, but that were there, sometimes every bit as strong as hoops of steel (pp. 5-6).

I’m thinking of this profound Afrocentric (and Christian) moral code stressing the kinship of everyone, as I read reports today about what happened at the United Methodist General Conference yesterday. In a session presided over by Florida Bishop Timothy Whitaker, the Conference chose to endorse a minority report on the church’s stance towards its LGBT brothers and sisters that is actually somewhat harsher than the church’s previous obdurate stance.

The majority report proposal would have left the door open for, at the least, honest recognition that Methodists are divided about the moral assessment of homosexuality. The proposal called for United Methodists to recognize that “faithful and thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness.”

I say “the moral assessment of homosexuality,” yet this debate is about human beings. It is about brothers and sisters. It is about mothers and fathers. It is about aunts and uncles.

It is about all those human beings to whom we are bound by invisible ties of kinship and connection in our shared journey towards salvation. As Rev. David Dodge, Executive Director of the Center for Clergy Excellence in Lakeland, Florida, who stood up in protest following the vote to endorse the minority report, notes, "Some folks I know are deeply devoted followers of Christ, faithful church people. I see their faces in my mind. It's hard for me to support language that seems to exclude them” (see Cary McMullen, “Methodists Hold Line on Homosexuality,” The Ledger [Lakeland, FL], 1 May 2008, at

“I see their faces in my mind.” How is it possible to claim that one is a faithful follower of Jesus, and not be able to say this—after a vote that excludes gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered, brothers and sisters from full communion in the church? How is it possible to say that one sees these human faces in one’s mind, and shove some people from the table, inform some people that their human nature is not as complete as one’s own human nature?

Can we look a blood brother or sister, a mother or father, an aunt or uncle, in the face, and make such a claim? If not, how do we imagine that we are living according to Jesus’s teaching, and treat those within the family of God with such egregious inhumanity?

A report by an eyewitness delegate at General Conference on today’s “Religion Is a Queer Thing” blog is enlightening (see The delegate is Will J. Green. His report is entitled “Skunked by a Fox.”

In Green’s view, Bishop Whitaker did not encourage or permit substantive debate about the two proposals in front of the body. Instead, he used up the time for debate by entertaining amendments presented in soundbite statements pro and con, as a preliminary to ushering in Rev. Eddie Fox, Director of UMC World Evangelism. According to Green, Whitaker allowed Fox to hold forth for a full half hour in an impassioned wrap-up sermon calling on Methodists to hold the line regarding homosexuality . . .

That is, to continue holding the door shut against LGBT human beings, gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. To continue setting one table for ourselves, the high and mighty of the world, and another for our lowly and despised relatives who deserve only crumbs at the small table.

Fox and various African delegates associated with him argued that acknowledging kinship with LGBT brothers and sisters would fracture the worldwide communion of Methodism. Interestingly, though both Bishop Whitaker and Rev. Fox are white Southern men of late middle age (as I am: these are my people; I cannot deny my kinship with them), they are apparently among the strongest advocates for “diversity” and “inclusion” in the United Methodist Church—as long as those being included are not LGBT (as long as white Southern men continue to sit in the seats of power and dominate the conversation of worldwide Methodism?).

Is African Christianity inherently opposed to recognizing gay people as brothers and sisters, as Dr. Fox and Bishop Whitaker evidently assume? If so, what must we make of the countervailing voice of Desmond Tutu?

Is Tutu not African? When he apologizes to his gay brothers and sisters for the savage and demeaning apartheid practiced by the church against them, and when he says he will not worship a homophobic God, is he not speaking as an African—as an African Christian? Is he not echoing the traditional African (and deeply Christian) ethic of the inextricable kinship of all human beings articulated by Precious Ramotswe?

“We are all care of one another.” “I see their faces in my mind.”

Make no mistake about it, Bishop Whitaker, my brothers and sisters of the Methodist communion who profess mercy while practicing injustice: we are related.

We are brothers and sisters. You may deny the kinship in how you continue to treat us, but God does not do so. You may set a greater and a lesser table, but God does not do so.

You may participate in ugly schemes that deny us job security in your institutions merely because we are gay. You may make our lives miserable through unemployment and lack of healthcare benefits, through acts of exclusion intended to demean us and kick us to the curb, to let us know that this is all we should hope for as long as we do not apologize for being gay. God does not behave this way.

You may assume that once our face has been banished from your sight, that once we have been shoved from your table, we will vanish forever. And we may indeed vanish—from your sight, at least.

But not from God’s. As Mary Doria Russell says in her novel A Thread of Grace (NY: Ballantine, 2005):

“Nothing you were, or are, or will be, is in your own hands. Society is held together by the simplest of human ties. A person in need stands in front of you; if you can help, you must help” (p. 402).

A person in need stands in front of you; if you can help, you must help: this summarizes the Wesleyan perspective on society and ministry beautifully. It is on those ties—our recognition of them, our willingness to acknowledge the person in need standing in front of us—that we will be judged at the end of our lives, when we all stand together, face to face, before God.

I cannot rest easy when I try to banish from my sight those I do not wish to see as the person in need standing in front of me. I struggle daily to continue seeing those whose faces I would prefer not to see, those with whom I would prefer not to claim kinship.

I challenge my brothers and sisters in Christ who appear able to continue resting easy while refusing to see the human face of the gay brother and sisters you exclude from sight, from your table, to struggle to see, to hear, to acknowledge kinship—and the excruciating pain of those whose kinship (and humanity) is denied as you appeal to Jesus as Lord.


Steven Skelley said...


My name is Stevcen Skelley and I am the writer who did the Florida Methodist News article you spoke about...
An article by Steven Skelley on the Florida UMC website today says that a workshop at the Annual Conference yesterday focused on “radical hospitality” as a mark of Wesleyan discipleship (

I agree with you as do MANY Methodists. The denomination's lack of support for gays is reprehensible. The recent dicision in Texas by the Methodists at Conference that homosexuality is INCOMPATIBLE with Christianity is disgusting. I don't remember Jesus ever saying any such thing.

William D. Lindsey said...

Steven, thank you very much for logging in and for this information. Those in the UMC who try to move against the widespread homophobia surely do have my support.

Recently, many faith leaders in Arkansas spoke out against a homophobic initiative on our ballot in November, which targets unmarried couples seeking to adopt.

I was heartened to see the names of the current and retired Episcopal bishop of the state on the list. I was saddened to see that the Methodist bishop did not add his name to this protest, though some individual UMC pastors did.

I also hear little of UMC opposition to the homophobic proposal to amend the FL constitution in the coming election.

At the same time, I should note that NO Catholic priests signed the protest of faith leaders here in AR. I have work to do in my own church, even as I applaud those of you working in the UMC to confront its homophobia.