Monday, May 19, 2008

When Doing the Right Thing Means Not Playing It Safe: Christians of the Radical Middle and LGBT Human Beings

I continue to read blog discussions dissecting what happened at the United Methodist Church General Conference. I find the “voice” of these discussions much more compelling than the news accounts (and essays) about General Conference appearing on UMC websites, both at the international level and at the level of various regional conferences.

These official news accounts are glitzy. They skim the surface—of what happened, of thought itself. They bruise gospel meaning with lots of breezy (and ultimately vapid) rhetoric about global connections, concern for women and people of color.

On many UMC websites, side-by-side with the gut-wrenching announcement of the 30 April decision to hold the line on homosexuality—that is, against our LGBT brothers and sisters—are happy-clappy news releases showing beaming natives smiling and singing.

I use the term “natives” deliberately. I know it’s condescending. The approach of the UMC to people of color and women is itself condescending. The approach of all churches of Main Street USA to the peoples of the global South and to women is condescending. People of color and women are being used today in disreputable games, in which the white male power structures that still determine the conversation in the churches of Main Street USA play preferred outcasts against disdained outcasts.

This is despicable. It is hurtful. How can our LGBT brothers and sisters not feel pain, when they read these self-congratulatory news stories about how the UMC is full of such compassion towards the suffering, the outcast, the poor and despised: except, “No gays need apply”?

How can our LGBT brothers and sisters look at the pictures of smiling and singing people of the global South and not remember what happened on 30 April with gnawing hurt in the pit of the stomach? How can the church itself—its white male leaders—not see that the game they are playing with talk of globalization and of promoting the rights of women and people of color is transparent and ugly? It is a game that will bring shame on the heads of these leaders of the churches of Main Street USA down the road, when society at large eventually recognizes how cruel is the accepted treatment of LGBT people in much of our culture at present.

Better to admit, frankly, that there’s no strong intent to bring anyone to the table except white men and representatives of approved minorities who have been vetted to assure that they’ll play the white-male power game and not upset the apple cart.

There is, in other words, not just a tiny bit, but a large helping, of prevarication in what the churches of Main Street USA say and do today to our LGBT brothers and sisters, and what they say and do to other sanitized minority groups. To get the real picture beyond prevarication, one has to set aside the glitzy self-congratulatory news stories, the official Comintern-like rhetoric of essays on local UMC conference websites (the two that have appeared on the Florida Conference website, authored by

are especially illuminating), and listen to authentic testimony on blogs.

To get the real picture, one has to delve into first-hand accounts, particularly reflections by those who were actually there and whose lives were yet again determined, without their input, by what one blog has characterized as acts of hate and deceit on the floor of General Conference.

Strong words, hate and deceit. But words I’m inclined to believe. I’m inclined to give credence to these words because I know some of the key players in the 30 April actions that told our LGBT brothers and sisters they aren’t welcome in UMC churches (yes, that’s what the action meant; that’s what it said, beyond the glitzy rhetoric about happy-clappy inclusion). And I know these players are capable of all kinds of deceit, in the name of Christ, to keep our LGBT brothers outside, to hold the line.

I also know this deceit is a manifestation of hate, even when the face speaking the official Comintern words to an LGBT believer is the face of a smiling white man who vaunts his achievements at bringing women and people of color to the table of power and privilege. Hate is hate, and those who feel its cutting edge know what it feels like, even when it’s enshrouded in rhetoric and hidden inside chatter about the power of the Holy Spirit and conversion and campaigns to revive the church.

An interesting recurring theme in the blog accounts of some General Conference delegates who voted to hold the line against our LGBT brothers and sisters is how “tough” the decision was, how “anguished” they felt in making it.

I don’t doubt this testimony in the least. But I’d like to expose it to some analysis, to ask some critical questions about what it really means, about what it means at the level of fundamental reality to say that decisions to keep our LGBT brothers and sisters away from the table are tough and anguishing.

The first critical questions I'd like to ask are, Really? Why? If we know that what we are doing is right, then why anguish? If we have listened for the voice of the Spirit in holy conferencing and have discerned that it is the Spirit Herself who moves us to exclude brothers and sisters, then why do we find the decision tough?

I’d like to propose that these admissions of how tough and anguishing the decision to exclude our LGBT brothers and sisters was contain a revelatory nugget of truth about just what really is at stake in the continued shoving of LGBT people away from the Lord’s table in the churches of Main Street USA.

What’s really at stake is not, as many delegates want to propose, a tough, anguishing decision to hold the line of doctrinal and moral purity, of orthodoxy, of biblical inerrancy. What’s really at stake is exclusion, pure and simple: stark, hate-fueled, fear-filled, Spirit-denying decisions to keep LGBT brothers and sisters outside, to define LGBT human beings as people whose humanity doesn’t count—at least, not the way my own humanity counts.

One blogger (again, someone I know, in that I grew up in the same town as did this General Conference delegate: flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood) who speaks of the tough, anguishing decision she had to make on 30 April actually notes that the focus of concern has shifted in recent years in the UMC from excluding openly gay people from ordination, to excluding openly gay people. Period.

That's quite an admission. I find it a refreshing admission, an honest one, all the more so because it is coming from a theologically trained United Methodist who proclaims herself to be a feminist theologian, but who represents what she clearly sees as the radical middle of the church. This admission has the ring of authenticity about it.

I can appreciate, then, that this delegate’s decision to hold the line was tough and anguishing, because she knew precisely what she was doing in holding the line: she was holding the line against LGBT brothers and sisters, not against doctrinal error or heterodoxy. She was telling these brothers and sisters that, sorry, the door is closed just for now. Come back later. Perhaps we’ll have a crumb or two for you then, when we've fed everyone else and assessed our resources. Only one table—can't feed everybody, you know.

In fact, how about coming back four years from now? Perhaps by then, we delegates will pay a less taxing price if we rethink the tough, anguishing decision to exclude you. Maybe then our fellow church members will no longer punish us so severely if we finally decide to stand up for inclusion.

Because the churches of Main Street USA are, at heart, culture churches, this is really the underlying logic of what is going on in the exclusion of LGBT persons, isn’t it? It’s too risky right now to stand against the radical middle. Many of us have careers to make, after all. We don’t get to one of the big “first” churches of urban areas—the power pulpits where our voice is beamed out across an entire state as "the" Methodist voice of the area—except by playing it safe.

We don't get the power pulpit unless we become skilled at calculating the next step in the radical middle and assuring that we're in line with that step. That's what the radical middle means, for goodness' sake! It means walking lockstep and never stepping out of line, baptizing our conformity as a holy tactic for holding the church together.

We don’t get those coveted episcopal appointments if we step out of line. We would have headaches to deal with if we came back to Main Street USA and told the folks of the radical middle that we had let the gays inside: battles to fight, letter-writing campaigns to combat, dwindling donations, threats of power mongers to make our lives miserable.

Now that the Supreme Court of California has knocked down that state’s ban on gay marriage, it’s interesting to compare the underlying logic of this civil rights decision with the logic underlying the choice of churches of the radical middle to continue excluding our LGBT brothers and sisters.

Yesterday, Maura Dolan of the Los Angeles Times published an interview with California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George (,0,4272300.story). George, a Republican who voted with the majority in the recent gay-marriage decision, speaks about how tough and anguishing the decision was for him to make.

Dolan notes that, as George pondered the decision, he kept returning in his memory to a trip he and his parents made to the segregated South years ago:

As he read the legal arguments, the 68-year-old moderate Republican was drawn by memory to a long ago trip he made with his European immigrant parents through the American South. There, the signs warning "No Negro" or "No colored" left "quite an indelible impression on me," he recalled in a wide-ranging interview Friday.

George’s conclusion about his decision to grant gay Americans civil rights, just as African Americans have been granted civil rights, is fascinating: "I think there are times when doing the right thing means not playing it safe."

“I think there are times when doing the right thing means not playing it safe.”

Churchmen (and churchwomen formed in the churchman's image) of the radical middle, do you hear what the California Supreme Court Chief Justice is saying? When African Americans were told that they were unwelcome at your table in the Jim Crow South, what did you do then?

Did you provide prophetic witness about how the church of Jesus Christ always welcomes everyone to the table, and most of all those who are excluded, demeaned, outcast?

Or did you play it safe? Did you play it safe while talking about the power of the Holy Spirit and conversion and bringing new life to the church?

Now that you have another opportunity to provide prophetic witness, how will you behave? How will you behave now, when you have confessed to the world the sin of your previous racism and misogyny?

Will you continue talking about the power of the Holy Spirit and conversion and bringing new life to the church, while belying that rhetoric with your ugly treatment of your LGBT brothers and sisters? Will you reverse the discrimination you currently practice only when society itself makes such discrimination unthinkable?

Or will you demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit, conversion, and how new life is brought to the church by welcoming everyone to the table, and most of all those who are excluded, demeaned, outcast? Will you demonstrate this now when it still not entirely safe to make such courageous (Spirit-inspired) decisions?

Or will you once again repent only when it’s safe to do so?

What would Jesus do?

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