Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The AIDS Crisis and the Church: The Churches' Calling to BE Church

From journals of September 1990:

I've been thinking of an idea I sketched in journals last year about an article on AIDS and the church.* It strikes me more and more that the primary obligation of the church to the gay community today is healing. And as the etymology of the word “heal” suggests, churches can heal people only by recognizing and wanting their wholeness. This seems key to the church’s mission of healing, if it's going to claim that it really wants to offer healing to those living with HIV and AIDS.

If abundant empirical evidence suggests that people harm themselves and are harmed by others when their sexual identity is denied, then the church has a moral imperative to heal by affirming the wholeness of the gay person. You can't deny a part of a human being, or ask him or her to deny an integral part of his/her makeup, and claim to be about healing.

Central to any project of describing/defending such an ethic of acceptance, it seems to me, is defending the notion that we make world, that the social construction of reality includes the construction of the self as a sexual person. This cannot of course militate vs. the recognition that people’s orientation is also a “given”—but a given to be achieved, consolidated, as a task.

* I did write and publish this article. “The AIDS Crisis and the Church: A Time to Heal” appeared in Theology and Sexuality 2 (1995), 11-37, and was then reprinted in Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher and Elizabeth Stuart (London: Eerdmans and Gracewing, 1996), 347-66. For those who want to read the full article, it's now online.

Thought for the Day: Constance Perin on Social Mechanisms of Discrimination

Experiments have shown that simply by dividing individuals into groups and identifying them with labels, systemic "discrimination" is produced against the out-group. Further, that once there is an in- and out-group distinction (when there is also direct competition and rivalry), the out-group will be the target of hostility and negative attitudes and behavior. These destructive attitudes and actions subsequently become general norms . . . . Thus are social categories made to be culturally problematic.

Constance Perin, Belonging in America: Reading Between the Lines (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin, 1988) (pp. 124-125, citing Robin M. Williams, review of Towards the Elimination of Racism, by Phyllis A. Katz, Ed Science 192: 660-662 [14 May 1976]).

Monday, June 29, 2009

Thought for the Day: Richard Isay on Creative Energy for All Suppressed by Homophobia

Our society does not desire to see gay men in stable, responsible, mutually gratifying relationships. Such relationships are still too threatening to the sense of masculinity of men in most segments of Western culture. When the time comes that such relationships are fostered between gay men, when homosexual men and women alike will no longer have to expend so much energy and time in hiding and disguising themselves and finding secret ways to express their love and sexuality, there will be release of creative energy that will benefit all society.

Richard A. Isay, Being Homosexual: Gay Men and Their Development (NY: Avon/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), p. 133.

Living, Struggling, Believing in the Face of the Mystery of Being Gay

From a journal entry in March 1990:

How does one live in the face of mystery? Without seeking to control or manipulate . . . . This was the sin of Adam and Eve, in the view of neo-orthodox thinkers like Barth—they could not rest content with the sheer giftedness of the existence that had been handed to them; they wanted to penetrate behind this giftedness in order to wrest it to their own ends.

I feel lately as if I’m in the presence of a huge energy cell, as I keep struggling to integrate my identity as a gay person with my vocation as a believer and as a theology. On the one hand, the energy cell that emerges through this struggle charges me with new and deep recognitions, with an upwelling of hope and anguish. On the other hand, it burns and consumes and scars.

Part of the mystery of existence—a key to it—is to live in recognition of our sinfulness, as a prelude to opening our hands to all the undeserved gifts God sheds on us. For me, the narrow door—both mystery of evil and gift/grace—through which I must come to God is the door of my sexual orientation. My life will never be whole until I accept, celebrate, integrate that—and doing so seems to kill me, too, because the integrating and celebrating process brings me face to face with the evil that has long told gay persons that we should apologize for and hide ourselves, as God has made us. And that evil enters into our own psyche in a society saturated with homophobic messages.

The sinfulness I encounter in this struggle is not where the church keeps telling me to look for sin, inside myself and my gay human nature. It's in those who want me to understand my very nature, the nature God has given me, the source of my gifts, joy, and ability to love, as sinful. My sin is actually the temptation to hate myself because the church tells me who I am in my very nature is sinful.

Who will deliver us from the body of death? We need grace to walk through that door.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thought for the Day: Hannah Arendt on Metaphor

Metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about.

Hannah Arendt, “Introduction: Walter Benjamin 1892-1940,” in Illuminations, by Walter Benjamin, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (NY: Shocken, 1969), p. 14.

Coming Out in Homophobic Church Institutions: The Ongoing Struggle

From a journal entry dated November 1989:

Yesterday, I was leafing through the latest issue of Southern Reader. I saw that it contained an interview with Allan Gurganus. I’ve been reading his The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, so I skimmed the interview.

The interviewer asked him how he so marvelously places himself inside the head of a female character. He responded that, as a gay man, he finds it not difficult to imagine how women think.

I was electrified. I had picked up homoerotic overtones in the novel, but—even more—an underlying gay sensibility that finds it hard to rest easy with any easy answers to anything. Yet there’s a simultaneous tenderness in the book re: human foibles and our tragicomic past.

What impressed and liberated me in reading these remarks was to hear that a gay Southern novelist who has not written a “gay” novel would avow his gayness in a staid mainstream journal. After reading this, I went off to a campus meeting fired up to be more stalwart about owning myself. On the way, I thought that it would be good to re-read the gospels to see how they provide warrant for men-identifying-with-women to do so. That they do so was clear to me as a child. The marvel is that I’ve grown far from these insights—and from myself—as an adult.

At the meeting I was put to the test and failed miserably. The committee chair suggested that we show the movie “Maurice” to our gender and class students. As she talked, I began to blush. I caught the eye of the man across from me—a nasty homophobe who knifes gay men in his department in the back—and blushed all the more.

Why? Had it been an out-and-out standoff, I may well have held my own. And at another time I may not have blushed. But just when I wanted to stand up and be counted . . . .

Sometimes I think of just kicking off all the traces and being totally up-front and public. This would mean a radical reorienting and radical lifestyle changes. I think of this because it seems one cannot first claim one’s gay identity and then act on it. One claims identity by acting. Identify is forged and painfully achieved as a process, not merely by inner decisions or by coming-out statements. For all human beings, coming out is what we strive to do over a lifetime. It’s no accident that the same word—psyche—serves in Greek for both “butterfly” and “soul.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thought for the Day: Seamus Heaney on Totalitarian Attempt to Control the Act of Interpretation

In ideal republics, Soviet republics, in the Vatican and Bible belt, it is a common expectation that the writer will sign over his or her individual, venturesome and potentially disruptive activity into the keeping of an official doctrine, a traditional system, a party line, whatever. In such contexts, no further elaboration or exploration of the language or forums currently in place is permissible.

Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), p. 96.

The Place of Gay Persons in God's Plan: The Biblical Question (2)

The following is from a journal entry dated August 1990:

I want to do this thinking through of the biblical evidence about “homosexuality” as a personal thinking through in which I try really to encounter the negative objections and let them persuade me as they may. So I’m stretching for a cool, reasoned, academic voice. Futile, of course, as futile as Thomas’s entertainment of objections to his theses, because I know ahead of time what I think.

Or do I? I want to write as if I’m responding to a reasonable and thoughtful gay-basher. I don’t recall having ever met any such person.

Re: the bible. A reasoned analysis would cite the specific texts. I’m working from memory and not troubling to do so. Not sure I will. If I do look at each text eventually, I’ll have to pay more attention to the exegetical details.

But I'm looking at the texts as a group deliberately, to point out that, even before we approach the texts individually, we have a serious problem of interpretation to face. This is why anyone, or any church, would ever grab a handful of disparate texts from a huge grab like the bible (which is a compilation of many texts written at many different times for many reasons) and then claim that that handful of mysterious texts written over many centuries in many contexts is a consistent statement about a psychological phenomenon that was not even understood until the late 19th century.

This is where I was headed with my concluding remarks last time re: texture: what seems never to receive sufficient attention as any question of interpreting the biblical evidence about “homosexuality” arises is what to do with any specific text. We have such a strange book with which to work—many books.

As my remarks about the fundamentalist canon within a canon (and the fundamentalist tendency to mirror cultural norms in selecting this canon within a canon) suggest, one of the primary problems confronting the biblical theologian is that of deciding what to take seriously. I don’t mean simply what to take seriously when there are notorious difficulties with what the scriptures appear to teach—and here I’m narrowing the focus to the problem of deciding what to take seriously ethically. The imprecatory psalms pray that God’s people may dash the heads of their enemies’ children against the rocks; the chosen people are divinely ordained to exterminate their conquered peoples; the bible accepts slavery as a permissible social arrangement and tells slaves to obey their masters; Leviticus commands God's people to execute witches.

No. I’m talking more about focus and perspective, that which enables us to see anything at all in the text. To be more precise: I’m talking about hermeneutical starting point. What makes us even see, let along highlight, the “anti-homosexual” texts? And why do we miss so much that appears even more significant from another ethical vantage point, say that of feminism? (Feminism is about ethics—it's a movement centered on ethical questions—that seems self-evident to me, because it envisages the liberation of women to full personhood. God who makes persons wishes them to be fully liberated . . . .)

Part of the answer to what makes us see these texts in the first place, I think, is that we’ve taken 17th-century confessional statements as the benchmark for orthodoxy. As Shailer Mathews observes, when most American biblical literalists tout orthodoxy, what they actually mean is not the long, vexed, rich historic traditions of the church. What they mean is something like the Westminster Confession or a variant thereof. We’ve been fixated for some time at this stage of development, and stuck with the exegesis it entails.

The connection between 17th-century orthodoxy and an anti-homosexual exegesis may not be readily apparent. Homosexuality—the concept as we know it, of an irreformable predisposition to erotic attraction towards one’s own sex—did not exist in the thought of the Reformers (or of their Catholic patristic and medieval predecessors). I’m not even sure, in fact, if they addressed the question of homosexuality.

What I’m getting at, rather, is a suspicion that the way we read the bible now has been framed for us for some time, for several centuries, in fact. E.g., our tendency to ignore the numerous and weighty texts that call into question the very possibility of a capitalist economy seems clearly rooted in how the Reformers, or at least their first followers, who formulated the classic Reformation credal statements, read the bible. This is not a novel insight. Max Weber showed us this years ago. And liberation theologians are hammering the point home today.

Liberation theology seems very pertinent to this discussion, it seems to me. If we grant a fundamental premise of liberation theology—that the bible can and must be read in new ways in response to new historical developments—then it seems to me we’re always beginning anew, we’re always in a position of having to ask why this text and not that one, why have we privileged this and ignored that? This means, of course, taking the bible seriously, far more seriously than fundamentalists do or many Catholics, with their doctrine of ecclesia docens.

To point the discussion back towards the “anti-homosexual” texts: have we “heard” these texts primarily because we’ve always read the bible patriarchally? (Note that hardly anyone immediately imagines, when the texts are cited, that they refer to women. Our concern is with forbidding male homosexuality—our concern, and so the bible’s, we imagine?) How would our hearing differ if we heard the biblical texts with feminist-liberationist ears? Perhaps we would not even notice these texts!

Perhaps we would notice instead the very attractive, alluring softness of Jesus—what Leonard Swidler calls his androgyny. Generations of muscular Christians have attacked the anemic, neurasthenic sissy iconography of Christ in parts of our tradition. And I don’t mean to imply that he was the pale and wilting flower of 19th-century sentimental iconography.

But what alternative do we envisage? I fear muscular Christianity has thought of Jesus as a kind of divine Rambo, someone who, if he appeared today, would come among us chewing a cigar stub, swaggering, kicking ass, and bellowing in a loud deep voice about all the problems of the world, all the problems the world presents the men who want to control it. Or church bureaucrats no doubt would refine the image, but it would be equally macho: the 3-piece suited, slim, svelte, bronze poster boy who would toss out his cool aphorisms with supreme sangfroid in boardrooms.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

People for American Way Call on Mr. Obama to Be a Leader

People for the American Way have sent an open letter to President Obama about his unfulfilled promises to support the rights of LGBT citizens. As John Aravosis notes at Americablog, though this letter is being sent by a non-gay group, it makes the best case yet for why the president needs to address these unfulfilled promises, or risk underming the moral basis of his entire progressive platform.

Some excerpts, with brief comments of mine in highlighted text (highlighted text in the letter itself is my addition):

It's about moral vision:

I am writing to respectfully urge you to bring the energetic moral vision that you championed as a presidential candidate to the cause of equality for gay and lesbian Americans. . . .
That vision energized not only gays and lesbians, but many other fair-minded Americans who recognize discrimination as a national moral failing, who view equality under the law as a defining part of the American Way, and who believe the country is ready to discard discrimination based on bigotries that should be left in our past.

It's about leadership and the president's obligation to lead:

As importantly, Mr. President, you are uniquely capable of communicating to the American public the moral and constitutional values at stake in ending discrimination against gay Americans.

Lack of leadership in this morally-grounded human rights area affects not just LGBT citizens, but all Americans:

Beyond the clear harm to gay and lesbian Americans, the lack of your leadership on these issues damages both America's sense of fairness and the credibility of your administration.

If the president expects to lead in other areas (and he has shown leadership in other areas), he must lead in this area, as well:

We have seen you change a nation's conversation with an extraordinarily compelling speech on the issue of race in America. We have seen you change the perceptions of the world with a historic speech on history, pluralism, respect, and democracy to the world's Muslims. We have seen you bring grace and conviction to the debate with your speech at Notre Dame about preserving a woman's right to choose.

On the question of LGBT equality, it's time to make that speech.

The clock is ticking. As many of us continue to argue, failure to exert leadership in this area of human rights for LGBT Americans, and to observe the moral principles that underlie this administration's entire platform, will quickly undermine all that the new administration hopes to accomplish.

Thought for the Day: James Hillman on Literalism's Assault on Imaginal Understanding

Without metaphorical understanding, everything is only what it is and must be met on the simplest, most direct level. Everything then is a call to action and the hero is there to realize himself in a reality that serves his literal notion of it. A view of reality that does not recognize other views is of course delusional. In the heroic ego’s case, the delusion is self-divinization, the perspective of the human ego as the superior, indeed the only, actuality. The rest is not real. . . .

Without imaginal understanding, we may expect killing, as if our culture cannot ever take down the wild Western ego until it has restored the ancient sense of image and recovered the imaginal from the broken shards of reformational literalism.

James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld (NY: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 115.

The Place of Gay Persons in God's Plan: The Biblical Question

The following journal entry is from August 1990. In this and several other journal entries I wrote at this period, I was attempting to step back from the theological questions about homosexuality and to look at them as objectively as I could, as a theologian (and a believer using his head). I was deliberately not reading many books on gay topics or theological or moral analysis of the question of homosexuality.

I had, of course, read any number of theological books about various topics in the years leading up to this journal entry, since I had just completed a master's and doctorate in theology. And I feel certain I am echoing the ideas of theologians I had read in what I say below.

But I'm trying not to do so directly. I wanted to make these theological claims my own, because it was my own life that was on the line, as I decided how to face being gay in a homophobic church.

In what follows, I wanted, insofar as possible (but recognizing that we never approach any such questions like this with total objectivity) to imagine that I was encountering these questions for the first time and thinking through how a reasonable believer should respond to them.

And so the following from August 1990, on the scriptures and homosexuality:

Those who argue that active, self-affirming homosexuality is reconcilable with a Christian ethic encounter a number of objections—from scripture, tradition, and natural law. In my view, the natural law objections deserve most attention because they are the most persuasive. The scriptural argument is often in the forefront of the cultural battle, and many churches continue to promote it, but obviously without having done much research or thinking about the very weak basis that the bible provides if we want to oppose homosexuality on moral grounds.

One has the impression that the scriptural argument had less force in the past than it does today. Today it is foremost in most people’s minds—a testimony to the power fundamentalism exerts in American culture, and thus, through American influence, globally.

As I believe John Boswell has shown, until the High Middle Ages, the purported scriptural injunctions against homosexuality counted not for a great deal in the church’s teaching regarding sexual morality. Scripture had simply never been used in a literalist fashion within the Christian tradition, up to that point.

The patristic tradition of exegesis was allegorical, and Origen’s famous method of reading the bible privileged non-literal interpretation. These hermeneutical approaches tended to preclude a crudely literalist reading of those texts that presumably outlawed homosexual activity.

The texts: the prohibition in the Leviticus holiness code of males lying with one another; the Sodom and Gomorrah story; and the Pauline texts—the castigation in Romans of the vices of the pagans, for which God destroyed them, and the inclusion of “homosexuality” among those grave sins which, in various of Paul’s parenetic passages, will keep one out of the kingdom of heaven.

Commentators usually deal with these texts one by one, seeking to divine their original intent or purpose, to decode them or even to translate them (for the Pauline texts present serious translation problems), and to place them in their context. Such careful exegesis is of course necessary, and appears to show that these texts are hardly so transparent as fundamentalists have taken them to be. But I think that a set of preliminary interpretive observations can be made about the whole group of “anti-homosexal” scriptures qua group.

The first such observation concerns the paucity of the texts. Clearly, if one can search the whole bible and find only a handful of texts—and those not patent at all—forbidding “homosexuality,” the issue is not for the scriptures anywhere near the crucial moral issue that modern moralists have made it out to be.

When one thinks of how much more extensive and persistent is the condemnation of the more conventional sexual vices—adultery, fornication—one realizes how much less the matter of “homosexuality” was at the forefront of biblical writers’ concern. (An obvious counter to this observation is that a culture that could hardly envisage the possibility of homosexual desire or behavior would of course not have dealt with the issue. But I’m not sure that that objection doesn’t actually speak on behalf of a cautious reading of the biblical injunctions against homosexuality.)

And when one compares the few biblical texts on homosexuality with the wealth of texts forbidding capitalistic business and banking practices, one wonders even more at our contemporary allocation of weight to the “homosexual” texts, and our elision of the others . . . .

Another general preliminary comment is, of course, that fundamentalist interpretation is hard to support, unless one simply decides a priori that the scriptures must be read literally. Catholicism does not so decide and has not, though in the current push to keep gays marginal and powerless in American society, certain Catholic clerical leaders and many Catholic laypeople are willing to make common cause with the fundamentalists (and to adopt their approach to the bible, whether consciously or not).

In my view, one of the neatest and most persuasive critiques of the fundamentalist approach is Barth’s. Barth points out that biblical literalism actually humanizes the scriptures in a way that robs them of their divine otherness and mystery. To say that we can clearly understand the bible (a linchpin of the fundamentalist argument) is to imply that it operates at our level, and not God’s. As Barth observes, in this way we wrap up the refractory and challenging message and put it on a shelf so that it won’t bother us: or, to change trope, we construct a manageable human bible that keeps us fairly comfortable with much around us. Literalists always choose a canon within the canon, and this canon not surprisingly usually mirrors the prejudices of the culture.

I’m not quite sure how to voice my final preliminary observation. The best way I can put the insight is to say that the purported anti-homosexual texts simply lack the “texture” of strong, unambiguous moral condemnations of homosexuality. Perhaps I’m really thinking of genre. When one looks at these texts from the standpoint of genre, what does one find? A holiness-code prescription; a quasi-historical narrative; a conventional diatribe against decadent morality; and parenetic lists. In order to collate these into a single moral teaching about homosexuality, one must wrest them from context and wrench them into a shape (and purpose) that it’s doubtful they were intended to have.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

All Means All: The Contribution of the Black Church's Prophetic Critique

And, as a follow-up to what I have just posted, and a first installment of the series from my journals discussed in that posting, I'd like to offer the following. This is from a journal entry in the summer of 1991.

I offer it now as a contribution to the discussion over the weekend of what welcome really entails, when a church professes to be a welcoming community.

As the following posting will indicate, I've been convinced for some time now that if churches don't mean all when they say all, then they might as well stop proclaiming to welcome anyone (and therefore admit that they are failing at the most fundamental constitutive obligation of Christian churches). If all doesn't mean all, then churches are just failing to be church. Church, at its most fundamental level, is always about welcoming everyone, about embracing everyone, about combating every invidious social distinction that makes one person more valuable than another, on the basis of distinctions that have nothing to do with human worth.

That's how Jesus lived. And that's how any church that claims its origin in him has to behave, if it wants to claim to lead believers to walk on the path Jesus walked. And so to my journal entry from the summer of 1991:

I never understood the old Southern hymn “When We All Get to Heaven” until I heard it sung by a soloist in a black church. As I heard the song sung in white churches when I was a child, I imagined the point was heaven—another of those many next-world songs that impoverished Southern people have sung for so long, full of lavish imaginings of the topography and ornamentation of the beautiful city where we won't weep or hunger anymore.

When the soloist in the black church sang the song, I suddenly knew it was not so much about heaven as about all—the accent is on getting all of us to heaven. The hymn is eschatological: it’s about the final gathering together of all God’s people, the final completion of salvation in which all thrive.

It takes the black church to tell this story. It takes a people who experience being shut out, deprived, maligned—a people for whom the way of salvation as defined by the self-righteous middle-class morality of many white churches is made much more difficult by the exclusionary walls that such morality constructs and refuses to see as even subject to discussion. How to obtain salvation in that middle-class moral framework, with its emphasis on propriety and appearances, when there’s hardly food on the table, no adequate health care, no work? Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t fornicate, white slave owners preached to their slaves, and the middle-class church continues to preach as the core of its moral message. And damnation to those who do these things, the middle-class white church and its moral system have insisted.

No wonder that under the circumstances, many fail to make the mark and are cast into outer darkness by churches intent on equating their middle-class values with gospel values. But God’s ways are not our ways. God sees the heart whereas we see the appearance. God is on the side of the poor. When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be—rejoicing because you brother who peddle drugs while politicians preached at you to work but provided no decent jobs, you’ll be there; and you sister who sold your body for a fix while white women in the beauty parlor whispered about the decline in morality, you’ll be there. We’ll all be there, and the first shockingly last.

How did the soloist get this across? With flawless execution, she took that “all,” held and elaborated on the word, exalted it till it filled the church and people began to clap and stomp and pass out with elation. All. That’s what God says to the church today.

+ + + + +

Some notes:

1. Philadelphia Sunday School teacher Eliza Edmunds Hewitt wrote "When We All Get to Heaven" in the 1890s, and it was published in 1898. Hewitt was Presbyterian. The hymn circulated after that in hymnals widely used in various churches in the U.S., and became a favorite hymn in Southern evangelical churches, one often sung at funerals.

2. The incident I'm recounting here occurred in the years in which I was teaching theology at Xavier University in New Orleans, an historically black Catholic university. During my time at Xavier, I went to a funeral in a black church at which "When We All Get to Heaven" was sung in a way that moved me profoundly and opened my eyes to the real significance of this popular old hymn.

3. As well as I recall, the funeral took place at a black Catholic church, though the hymn is more often associated with evangelical piety than Catholic piety. But many black Catholic churches in New Orleans have freely adopted elements of black evangelical piety and incorporated them into their Catholic liturgical traditions.

4. As I listened to the hymn and thought about how different the rendition of it was in this black church setting than in the white churches in which I had always heard it sung, it struck me that I was hearing, in this alternative rendition, the powerful current of prophetic thought that runs through some parts of the black church experience, which contests the claim of white middle-class Christians to own the gospel.

5. The WPA slave testimonies report again and again that white plantation owners encouraged their slaves to go to churches whose preachers were controlled by the white community, where they would hear a carefully tailored "Christian" message that focused on the obligation of slaves to obey their masters, not to steal, not to lie, to work hard, etc. Many of those speaking to WPA employees about this experience in the Depression period stated that they were not persuaded by this white middle-class moral message.

6. Many former slaves asked, for instance, how those who had stolen human beings away from their homes in Africa had the right to turn around and tell those stolen human beings that stealing a ham to keep their families alive was sinful. They also noted that the God of Moses and Daniel and Jesus seemed to have different values than the God preached to them by the white church with its middle-class morality. That God, the God of the bible, seemed to value all human beings and to be particularly interested in those in bondage, whose side God took.

Continuing the Pilgrimage: Bilgrimage in the Weeks Ahead

Dear Friends and Fellow Travelers,

I’m writing to let you know that Bilgrimage will be undergoing a slight (and temporary) change in coming days. In the several other lives I lead outside blogland, I have a number of responsibilities coming up, which will be taking me away from the blog for a short period of time.

Bilgrimage will continue during that hiatus, though. One of the reasons I asked for your assistance a week ago was that I knew the hiatus in my ability to blog routinely was coming up, and I wanted to know whether the blog is reaching a particular audience who benefit from what I do on it most days.

I appreciated the response to the questionnaire, which was encouraging. Several readers kindly sent very positive feedback by email. It is encouraging to hear that people struggling to value their God-given sexual orientation in faith communities that often inflict harm find strength in the story told on this blog, and that people looking for resources for a spirituality of engagement that resists some dominant trends in the churches find empowerment here.

I’ve decided, as a result, to keep the blog running even when I will not have time to focus on it daily, by posting pre-written material on it. I’ll follow this path for the several weeks that I am away from my desk.

I’ve spent some days now transcribing material from things I’ve written in the past, which haven’t appeared on this blog (or anywhere else, for that matter). What I’ve selected focuses, for the most part, on a key period of my journey, in which I dealt with questions about coming out as a gay man while teaching theology in church-related schools.

As these journal selections will demonstrate, that process was a laborious and difficult one. When I went into the field of theology (or, more precisely, as I saw it, when I was called by God into that vocation), I knew, of course, that there would be a price to pay, in terms of my identity as a gay man. I knew that what I saw as my personal life and not the business of anyone else in a professional setting, unless I chose to disclose that life to someone else, could easily be made problematic by anyone with authority in my church and its institutions who wanted to marginalize me for any reason whatsoever.

I chose to trust in that distinction between the private and the public, and in the ethical integrity of those in leadership in Catholic institutions to respect that distinction. As the material I'll be posting shows, that choice turned out to be an impossible choice, since many of the institution's leaders do make a point of focusing on these "private" matters today, and anyone living in the closet and working in Catholic institutions is susceptible to attack for that reason.

It's far better to be open, honest, and let the chips fall where they may--as I was coming to recognize in the period of these journal entries.

But the path I chose at the start of my career as a theologian (private life, public professional persona) was the only one I saw open to anyone who is gay and working in Catholic institutions at the time. Perhaps things have changed since the late 1980s and early 1990s, which is the period captured in these journal reflections. I’m not sure they have, frankly, in most places.

I believe that gay and lesbian persons working in Catholic institutions still encounter the kind of quandaries that the upcoming series of postings will discuss, as I dealt with them almost two decades ago. And for that reason, I hope the postings will be helpful to anyone else walking the same path today.

I also help they will help LGBT people in general, who are trying to cope with questions about how to claim our God-given identities and to celebrate those identities within faith communities that assault us and deny our full humanity. I know there are many such folks out there, and that they include vulnerable younger people. I know this because some of them have emailed me to thank me for providing a voice for their experience as people of faith, trying to come out as gay, while maintaining positive ties to faith communities. Because they value their spiritual lives and the life of faith . . . .

Finally, I hope the postings that will be appearing on the blog in the coming days may help anyone who is seeking to understand, these days, what it means to be gay in the U.S. at the turn of the 21st century. Churches seldom make a place for our testimony, unfortunately. Faith communities talk about us and to us (down to us), but not with us.

The dialogue, such as it exists, is always unequal. Our voices—our real voices—are always excluded. At best, churches normally permit some sympathetic straight ally within a church community to speak on our behalf.

In the process, churches lose precious gifts that are right at their doorsteps, if they would only open the door and let the stranger in. And listen to her. And treat him as if his humanity counts in the same way anyone else’s humanity counts—precious humanity that comes from the same hand of God that makes every other human being in the world.

And the churches’ handling of issues of inclusion has become, unfortunately, paradigmatic for society’s handling of these issues, in this nation with the soul of a church. Certainly there are strong currents within society at large (and also within many communities of faith) that are pushing and pushing hard for full inclusion of LGBT people in American society, and full recognition of the humanity (and human rights) of LGBT people.

But as we’re seeing with the current administration’s timidity (and the timidity of a Democrat-dominated Congress) to deal with gay issues, to see gay faces, to hear gay voices, to include gay contributions, the response of communities of faith to our presence continues to dominate the political life of the nation, in a way that harms LGBT people.

It is always easier to regard someone else as less human than you are when you refuse to see his face. It is always easier to safeguard your belief that you are a morally admirable human being when you talk about and talk down to someone else, while refusing to hear his real voice. Or to sit at the table with her and break bread with her.

This is among the reasons that I personally argue, and will continue to argue, that anyone interested in gay rights—including those of us who are gay—cannot ignore communities of faith and what they do to us. Faith-based groups frame the response of our political leaders, and thus the response of the culture at large, to LGBT persons at a very fundamental level. And, unfortunately, at a fundamentally negative level . . . .

The churches will one day have to repent of what they continue to do to gay people today, just as painfully as they are now trying to repent of their role in slavery, the Holocaust, millennia of oppression of women, anti-Semitic violence, the Crusades, the upholding of segregation, and the burning of witches.

Meanwhile, I offer this series of postings (which touch on other moral issues of concern to me in the same period, as well, because my approach to gay rights insists on the need for solidarity with all unjustly marginalized Others) with hope. I hope the postings will help someone. And I hope they will be of interest.

As always, I welcome feedback in the comments section, even though I may not always have time for several weeks to reply or acknowledge your contributions. I value your responses and I take them seriously.

The graphic is a picture of a portion of the pilgrimage path for Santiago de Compostela in Conques, southwestern France.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thought for the Day: Edward Said on the Oppositional Task of the Critic

Were I to use one word consistently along with criticism (not as a modification but as an emphatic) it would be oppositional. If criticism is reducible neither to a doctrine not to a political position on a particular question, and if it is to be in the world and self-aware simultaneously, then its identity is its difference from other cultural activities and from systems of thought or of method. In its suspicion of totalizing concepts, in its discontent with reified objects, in its impatience with guilds, special interests, imperialized fiefdoms, and orthodox habits of mind, criticism is most itself and, if the paradox can be tolerated, must unlike itself at the moment it starts turning into organized dogma.

Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983), p. 29.

Sunday Tidbits: Cyber Bullying and "Welcoming" Churches That Fail to Welcome

A few end-of-week tidbits for a Sunday posting:

Elizabeth Kaeton’s Telling Secrets blog had an excellent posting yesterday about cyber bullies and their frequent connections to the über right circles within some churches trying to block open discussion of issues like the churches’ refusal to welcome and affirm gay and lesbian persons.

Elizabeth Kaeton notes that though cyber bullying has predominantly been seen among children and teens, it is “becoming increasingly known and documented among adults,” and women and LGBT people are a common and preferred target of many adult cyber bullies. Based on research she has done about the phenomenon, Kaeton offers the following profile of the adult cyber bully:

▪ S/he delights in the negative attention gained from attacking others;

▪ S/he obtains intense gratification from the perception of control and power s/he gets from intimidating others;

▪ S/he is skilled at twisting words and phrases to turn arguments on their heads;

▪ His/her bullying is driven by internal aggression that may involve projection, false criticism, and patronizing sarcasm;

▪ S/he is not primary interested in contributing something of value to a conversation, but in controlling and, if possible, thwarting conversation of issues s/he does not wish to see discussed openly;

▪ S/he is adept at creating conflict where there previous was none by raising questions that are not so much about the pursuit of answers but more about casting doubt or calling into question the character and integrity of a person.

Elizabeth Kaeton’s analysis of how cyber bullies try to control and block open conversation of issues like the churches’ response to gay persons when those conversations move in directions the cyber bully considers taboo is illuminating. As I noted yesterday in my discussion of the provenance of the word “whine” in online political discussions, the real object of those representing the controlling center of social (and church) groups is not to foster careful, respectful discussion.

It’s the opposite: it’s to stop conversations the controlling center has sought to control, but has not succeeded at controlling. I’m particularly struck by Kaeton’s insight that, even when cyber bullies write copiously about their reasons for questioning the integrity of another poster or the feasibility of that poster’s proposals, the object is not to build, but to tear down.

Like bullies in general, cyber bullies are all about tearing down, not building up. Like other bullies, they often lurk voyeuristically around a blog that has caught their eye because the blog in question is transgressing lines of control important to the cyber bully. Like bullies in general, cyber bullies take careful note of what their target says and does, often for an extended period of time, gathering information to be used when they decide to go on the attack.

Anything self-revelatory or self-referential a target may say on a blog can then become the basis of an attack in which the self-revelation or self-referential discourse is twisted to imply that the blogger is weak, limited, psychologically aberrant, unintelligent—what have you. It’s important to note, too, what Kaeton has to say about the groups typically targeted by cyber bullies.

They tend to be women and gays. Which says something in turn about the typical profile (the typical heterosexual male profile) of the cyber bully lurking voyeuristically around some blogs, watching for personal or self-revelatory information the blogger might share, while keeping his own identity completely masked, as he prepares to attack.

And, for a good discussion of where some churches are as they struggle with the question of whether gay and lesbian persons should be welcome in the Christian community, I recommend this recent thread at Matt Horan’s ReEmergent Church blog. This has to do with the current discussion of the place of gays and lesbians in the United Methodist church, about which I’ve blogged repeatedly.

And no, I’m not lurking around this discussion. I do not have the slightest interest in what interests bullies as they follow such a discussion: that is, to subvert it. I do not choose to contribute to the discussion primarily because I’m not United Methodist and I suspect I’d be considered an unwelcome intruder, if I leapt into it.

At the same time, I’ve been blunt about making a point I consider important for churches discussing welcome of LGBT persons to ponder today, as they continue to try to tell the world they are welcoming while they practice the opposite of welcome in the lives of LGBT persons. This is that if the churches are really serious about knowing whether they’re succeeding in welcoming gay and lesbian persons even as they shove us roughly away, they need to set up welcome spaces and forums in which to hear our voices. (See my comment about this in the comments thread of this recent posting.)

If they did this, I think they’d often hear a response that ought to embarrass and shame anyone in unwelcoming churches who still wants to posture as welcoming, affirming, loving, and kind. What the churches persistently do to gay and lesbian persons is the opposite. It is cruel, deceitful, unjust, and anti-salvific.

These are points prominent in the discussion to which I’m pointing here, on Matt Horan’s ReEmergent Church blog. Matt Horan was a delegate to the recent Annual Conference of the UMC of Florida. The conference took place at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

Horan voted for the “all means all” amendment. It did not pass. The Florida Annual Conference voted with its Old South brothers and sisters to uphold the exclusionist stance that the Methodist churches of the Old South took in the slave period, when they upheld slavery, and then in the period leading up to the abolition of legal segregation in the 1960s, during which they persistently fought for the right to continue excluding and discriminating against black members.

As I’ve noted previously (see here and here), it is ironic in the extreme that members of these United Methodist churches of the Old South now try to claim that they are fighting against the collapse of Methodist orthodoxy to cultural norms, as the culture moves towards acceptance of gay persons. The truth is the opposite: in fighting to exclude gay persons from their churches, a majority of Methodists of the South are upholding cruel and unjust cultural norms with which they have become comfortable, every bit as much as they upheld cruel and unjust cultural norms with which they were comfortable in the slave period and the period of legal segregation.

Homophobia is the new racism, and churches will one day have to repent of it as bitterly (and, frankly, often insincerely) as they now claim to repent of their previous institutional racism and support for slavery. In all these cases, we see churches doing something of which churches ought never to be proud: clinging to deep-seated cultural norms with which their members have become comfortable in the face of the gospel's call to conversion.

The discussion following Matt Horan’s posting is illuminating. Anyone interested in the games many churches have been playing with gay and lesbian lives for some time now, as they try to paint themselves as welcoming communities while they practice savage exclusion, would do well to read the discussion. Note the following arguments Florida Methodists who continue to uphold exclusion of gays and lesbians from Methodist churches put forward:

▪ Let the gays in, and you’d have to welcome Satanists(!).

▪ We’re doing it for the Africans. We’re defending black Methodists against the cultural imperialism of white Methodists in the developing world, who want to impose their cultural norms on people of color in the developing nations of the world.

▪ And perhaps most astonishing of all: It doesn’t matter to gays and lesbians, ultimately, if we tell them they are not welcome. It doesn’t matter because we are welcoming, no matter what we say about your right to join our church. “Having open hearts, minds, and doors doesn’t have to mean membership is open – and truthfully – in many respects – who cares?”

Astonishing, isn’t it? I don’t want you in my church. You cannot join my church. But you are welcome! You are welcome regardless of how you feel about being excluded, because I say I’m welcoming you! My heart, mind, and door are open to you, even though they’re, well, closed to you. Because I say that I am a welcoming person even when I slam the door in your face.

And don’t tell me you have a problem with my comparing you to a Satanist (or a pedophile, or that your marriage is akin to incest). Because there is no forum for you to tell me how you feel, anyway, since I refuse to admit you to my church—though you’re, of course, welcome. Because I say you are welcome, and it’s important for me to think I’m open and loving and welcoming, even when I am clearly the opposite.

Maddening, isn’t it? Maddening to deal with, hurtful in the extreme to live with. If UMC churches really want to know what we who are gay think about this “welcome,” please ask us. Please set up a form to hear our feedback. You might get an earful that calls into question—radical question—your pretensions to have open hearts, minds, and doors.

These attitudes and assertions, this ugly game-playing designed to bash gays while allowing the basher to paint himself as welcoming, have real-life consequences. It was in the Florida United Methodist church, at one of its “welcoming” institutions, that Steve and I had our last in a series of hard-knock experiences at the hands of “welcoming” churches.

Though we had been told that we would be welcome at a Methodist institution in Florida, welcome as a gay couple, when the Florida United Methodist church split over this issue on the very day we arrived in Florida, the welcome mat quickly disappeared. We found our lives turned upside down by ugly, discriminatory treatment in a Methodist workplace that had no prohibitions—none at all—against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. We were told that we were in a “caring community” whose behavior towards us was anything but caring.

I found myself without a job when I was terminated without having even having had my work evaluated by my Methodist supervisor, though I later discovered she considered a sneak review she performed by an outside evaluator—which I never even saw or had any chance to respond to—an evaluation. I discovered this information only when a document in which the supervisor made that claim about the evaluation fell into my hands. She never did me the courtesy of knowing she considered the review an evaluation, nor did she allow me to see it or answer its contents, even when she used it to destroy my livelihood.

Steve and I were told during our year of work at this Methodist institution that we might not take each other to doctors’ visits, and should arrive at our workplace in separate cars, though we had a single car to drive in our time at this “welcoming” United Methodist institution. We now live with great anxiety, trying to cover a second mortgage we took out when the leader of this Florida United Methodist institution invited us to work with her, promised us jobs to our retirement, and then turned against us as the statewide church began to fight about LGBT membership in Methodist churches, under the leadership of a bishop who is a leader in the anti-gay movement in the United Methodist church.

Welcoming, despite exclusion from membership? I don’t think so. Open minds and hearts and doors? No, I don’t believe that’s the case. Not based on my experience at this United Methodist institution.

Doing the Lord’s work? No. Because the Lord’s work is welcoming others! Churches that make the lives of gay people miserable in manifold ways, anytime we brush up against their open doors, can’t justifiably call themselves welcoming places or places that are modeling the love of Jesus for all.

Ask us, if you really want to know. We’ll tell you.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thought for the Day: Chris Glaser on Church Talking and Church Walking (and the Difference Between the Two)

I did not believe they were "listening for the Spirit," "the One who enables strangers to view one another as compassionately as we might the misjudged Christ."

Chris Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Man’s Struggle to Serve the Church (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988): (p. 192).

Glaser is talking about his experience as a gay man in the church, hearing the claims of many churches that they are open to and listening to the Spirit, which are belied by the churches' refusal to welcome the stranger at their door--e.g., gay brothers and sisters. When we can't welcome the stranger knocking at our door, then perhaps we should stop talking about our eagerness to welcome God, who is the ultimate Stranger . . . .

Due Credit to the Obama Administration: Small Rapprochement with Gay Community

I believe in giving credit where credit is due. And I believe that, if I criticize, I also have an obligation to praise, where praise is merited. I have spent time the past two weeks offering abundant criticism of the current administration's handling of gay rights and gay people. Now I want to note some positive steps in recent days.

A number of sources (here and here and here and here) are reporting that White House officials Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina and Political Director Patrick Gaspard will hold a conference call with LGBT members of the DNC on Monday, that the White House is seeking ways to count same-sex couples on the next census, and that the Justice Department is going to meet with LGBT legal groups who had asked for a meeting prior to the DOMA brief but were rebuffed. And it appears that at yesterday's weekly press conference, the approach of Press Secretary Gibbs to questions about issues of concern to gay citizens and our supporters was more direct and respectful than has been the case for some time now.

John Aravosis, who has been pushing the administration hard in the area of gay rights, remains skeptical about whether these measures are too little, too late, and whether the administration really intends to cash in its major promises to the gay community.

And I appreciate the skepticism (and share it) even as I give the administration credit for trying to mend fences with a loyal, core Democratic (and progressive) constituency on whom it has been shitting from the outset of the new administration. As someone who has worked in highly charged political environments in church-related schools, I know how frequently leaders can promise to uphold high ideals that they belie over and over again through their behavior. I know that when leaders whose behavior does not match their rhetoric are pressed, they can often engage in machiavellian image-management maneuvers to make themselves appear engaged even as they continue their stonewalling.

I know what is possible. But I still hope. Even though I suspect that much of the turnaround is being driven by concerns about the drying up of gay dollars to DNC coffers as the upcoming DNC fund-raising gala with the gay community is tanking, I want to hold onto hope.

What else do we have, after eight years of Mr. Bush? At least we now have someone with intelligence and seeming integrity running the show, someone who knows how to talk about some of the core values that drive a democracy.

At the same time, blind hope is never effective hope, and blind citizenship, citizenship that turns a blind eye to the gap between rhetoric and reality, is negligent citizenship, so I continue to believe that, as we hope, we also need to watch. And to speak out. And to keep pressure on, particularly when political leaders seem prone to submit moral imperatives to ruthless pragmatic political calculation.

Last September in Dayton, Ohio, Mr. Obama told us that, if elected, he wanted us to hold him and our government accountable for living up to the promises of the campaign. I intend to keep on doing that, for my part.

A Moratorium on Whining

No, not for me. On the use of the word. It's so 1990s. And it has so been done to death that it's not helping our important 21st-century discussions.

Permit me to make my case: on blog thread after blog thread in recent days, as the fallout from the Obama administration's failure to move forward on (or even address) major promises to the gay community is reaching national attention, readers are logging in to accuse gays of whining (or whinning, as the case may be: neocon political ardor often appears to go hand in hand with orthographic handicaps).

A case in point: the series of article that Ben Smith has been publishing about this at Politico. Select any one of these (e.g., here) and slog through the numerous comments, if you have the stomach for it (and keeping in mind the tendency of those whining about gay whining to misspell the word they're whinning about). Again and again, you'll encounter the charge that gays are whining, gays are never satisfied, gays need to be patient and wait their turn as they belly up to the bar where the power boys of the center dispense the goodies, etc.

Enough. Enough with the whining about whining. The word no longer means anything at all when it's lobbed around as a bombshell in political discussions to defuse and delegitimize necessary critical discourse. The gays aren't going to go away, so dismissing our valid complaints as childish kvetching isn't going to shame or stop us. It's only going to make us fight harder.

The use of the term "whine" in this dismissive, stigmatizing way to marginalize the discourse of groups with valid complaints about their unjust exclusion from the center of power is fairly easy to track. The provenance of the term in its current political incarnation links to the blowsy anti-gay, anti-women, anti-African American, anti-immigrant fulminations of right-wing talk radio and t.v. commentators of the 1980s and 1990s.

For that group, who just happen to be almost exclusively white, and men, and ostensibly heterosexual men, everyone whines. Except themselves, of course. Because whining is not what real men do. It's what fake men like homos do. It's what women do. It's what children do.

Women and homos are children when they whine about their rights. As I noted in a previous posting, the patronizing rhetoric of those who counsel patience now as gays ask for rights harks back to the rhetoric I heard during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when the white Southerners among whom I was raised spoke of the valid demands of black citizens for rights, and rights now, as childish whining.

The term "whine" infantilizes, when it's applied to adults with valid adult demands. It's intended to infantilize. It's intended to dismiss. It's intended to keep the adults who are so characterized in their place, in their inferior place.

Inferior as in (its literal etymological meaning) beneath: beneath one core group in the social structure. Beneath men. White men. Straight (or straight-appearing) men.

Talk about women and gays and people of color whining worked for a while, as long as white, male, heterosexual posturing shock jockeys controlled our national political discourse. Now, they're being given a run for their money, and the terminology that group has used to try to keep critical insights and critical analysis and "inferior" voices at bay needs to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

It didn't get us far in the 1990s, and it's not going to get us far in the 21st century.

And don't get me started on the condescending pseudo-psychological use of the term "selfish" to marginalize gay critiques and gay persons. This use of the term "selfish" derives from long- discredited pseudo-scientific theories that gay men are half-adolescent narcissistic adult males who have never quite emerged from adolescence. We need to find some 21st-century language befitting 21st-century political realities. The reality is that the folks our previous rhetorical structures (structures invented largely by heterosexual men to benefit themselves) sought to place in confining, demeaning social spaces are refusing to live in the inferior places we've long told them to occupy.

And our language needs to catch up with that reality.

So, today, by the power vested in me by the Queen of the Universe as the self-appointed Linguistic Arbiter of Everything this day 20th June 2009, I declare a moratorium on the word "whining." If you wish to be querulous about this decree, please choose some other term to express your discontent.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tips for Searching Bilgrimage

As another week ends, it occurs to me to mention some tips for using Bilgrimage, if you're doing research or want to look back for information on various topics or themes. I'm offering these tips, in part, in response to a comment at a posting earlier today, suggesting that I have never ("not once," the comment says) addressed the broader injustices towards women within the Catholic church and other churches.

Unfortunately, the person making that statement appears to be ill-informed, since there is abundant--copious, in fact--material on this blog regarding the churches' (and society's) need to deal with injustice towards women, and what the churches stand to learn if they empower women and if male leaders of churches like the Catholic church cultivate "maternal" virtues. Because this poster may not understand how to use the blog's tools to research prominent themes of Bilgrimage, I'd like to offer some tips.

One of the first steps for locating material in previous postings is to use the search bar at the top left of the blog. Enter a term or phrase there (e.g., women's rights), click "search blog," and the search engine will bring up all postings in which the term or phrase occurs.

Please note that for many topics or phrases, there will be multiple pages of postings. After you've scrolled down one page to the end, if you click "older posts" at the bottom right of the column of postings on that page, it will bring you to a page with previous posts using the same term or phrase. You may find multiple pages of postings dealing with any one term.

If you want to search within any one of those pages for the term or phrase, simply use the "find" feature in your browser to find the word or phrase in each posting.

If you want to follow a theme--again, e.g., women's rights--in various postings, note the labels underneath each posting. Click on any label, and it will bring up all postings that employ that particular label--that is, all postings that highlight the particular theme described in that label.

For instance, if you click the "women's rights" label below any posting, you'll immediately see thirteen postings that use that label. Many more postings may contain a term or phrase for which you're searching, of course, since not every posting contains a comprehensive set of labels for all material included in the posting.

Note, too, that other commonly used labels on the blog may connect to the one you're searching. For instance, if you're searching the label "women's rights," don't forget about labels like "gender," "gender roles," "male-female complementarity," "male entitlement," "misogyny," etc., all of which link to the topic "women's rights" in various ways. For each of these labels, you'll find multiple postings on this blog using that label .

I hope these search tips will be useful to readers who want to follow themes or threads on the blog. Because I try to blog most weekdays and sometimes on weekends, there's an abundance of material on many different themes on this blog, for readers interested in exploring various topics.

Back to the Future: United Methodist Anti-Gay Backlash and Dearth of Leadership in the New Administration

I’ve talked recently (and a number of times previously) about the dynamics that cause societies on the brink of important forward-moving shifts in their moral minds to lurch backwards suddenly. I’ve noted that leaders who talk progressive change based on moral imperatives, but who then ignore their own moral imperatives and fail to deliver the progressive change they’ve articulated as necessary, are central to the backwards-lurching dynamic that can set in at such moments of promise.

When such a leadership vacuum occurs at a moment of critical social change pointing to morally-grounded progress, things can end up being much worse rather than much better, despite the insistence of a critical mass in the social group that change is possible and necessary, and now is the time for change. The inactivity of leaders who have come to power with the support of that critical mass, but who ignore these progressive supporters once the leaders have been elected, can open the door to backlash that moves the society further back in key areas than it was before it elected “progressive” leaders.

I also reported recently on the voting tallies, as United Methodist annual conferences are now gathering to consider an amendment to the church’s constitution that would open the door to gay and lesbian members—to openly gay and lesbian members. I noted that this amendment, which is being called the “all means all” amendment by its supporters, is being treated by some opponents as an attempt of the UMC in developed countries to impose its standards on churches of the developing world.

But I also noted that this rationale for opposing the amendment (which is being offered, ironically, by the same United Methodists who formerly opposed inclusion of people of color in their church) disguises what is really going on with the vote re: the “all means all” amendment: it’s a vote about whether gay people are to be welcome in UMC churches. It is astonishing to hear those voting against welcoming gays to their churches now arguing that they want to exclude gay members from Methodist churches because they are defending the rights of people of color.

My previous posting about this notes the correlation between the voting patterns on the “all means all” amendment and the 1860 presidential election. In states that voted against Lincoln in 1860—that is, in slave states that wanted to uphold slavery—voting tallies at annual conferences are running strongly against the “all means all” amendment. And in states that voted for Lincoln and against slavery in 1860, UMC annual conferences are upholding the “all means all” amendment.

United Methodist churches in the church’s heartland—the Old South—are as opposed today to inclusion of gays and lesbians in their church as they were opposed in 1860 to the abolition of slavery, and as they continued to be opposed to inclusion of people of color in “white” churches. until recently. UMC churches outside the heartland of Methodism in the Old South are, in general, welcoming of gay and lesbian members, just as they were welcoming of African-American members long before “white” Methodist churches of the South opened their doors to black members.

Since I last posted about this issue, more annual conference votes have come in. And as more votes come in, they strongly confirm the analysis I offered in my previous posting about the “all means all” amendment. Called to Witness, a website sponsored by Reconciling Ministries, recently added to its final counts of annual conference votes tallies from the annual conferences of New York, southwest Texas, the Rio Grande, and Tennessee.

The Tennessee annual conference voted with its Old South brothers and sisters—285 in favor of “all means all,” and 340 in favor of “all are not welcome.” New York voted 432 in favor of welcoming gay persons to United Methodist churches and 214 against such welcome.

The southwest Texas and Rio Grande annual conference votes are interesting. They suggest a trend (borne out by other vote tallies) away from the dominance of Old South exclusionism in Methodism, as one moves away from the Old South heartland to the west. Whereas the Texas conference itself voted heavily against welcome (704 vs. 398), as did northwest Texas (179 vs. 80), and the north Texas conference also held the line against gay members (385 vs. 295), southwest Texas was almost evenly divided, if marginally against welcoming gay members (370 vs. all means all, 333 for all means all).

And the Rio Grande conference voted for welcome: 25 vs. all means all and 92 in favor of all means all. One has to ask about the influence of Latino Methodist voters in these conferences. On the basis of these figures alone, it appears possible (in my view) that UMC churches with strong Latino populations are far more gay-inclusive than UMC churches under the sway of Southern exclusionism, which do not have a significant proportion of Latino members.

A previous update had added to the tallies the votes of my home state’s UMC conference, Arkansas, which voted (unsurprisingly) to toe the Old South exclusionist line: 363 vs. welcome, 196 in favor of welcome. The Troy, Vermont, conference voted just the opposite: 62 vs. welcome, 211 in favor of welcome.

Results that have come in since the last updating of the Called to Witness spreadsheet continue to confirm the trend discussed above. North Georgia has voted overwhelmingly against inclusion of gay members (958 vs. all means all, 544 for all means all), as has the Holston conference of east Tennessee and west Virginia, and northwest Georgia (629 against including gay members in UMC churches, 361 in favor of welcome and inclusion).

Why do I belabor these points? Why focus so microscopically on one intra-church conversation about the place of gay human beings in God’s plan of salvation? As I noted last year in a number of postings (e.g., here) about the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, in this nation with the soul of a church, the United Methodist Church plays a unique role as a bellwether of the attitudes of Main Street U.S.A. As go the Methodists, so goes the nation.

For those who are gay and lesbian—for anyone in solidarity with gay and lesbian persons, for anyone who sees the issue of gay rights as a neuralgic issue in a progressive political coalition—the votes now coming in from UMC annual conferences should be deeply troubling. Some of my Methodist friends are encouraging me to read these votes in a positive light, as a sign that their church is making progress re: welcome of gay members.

I must admit that I cannot see the current annual conference voting trends in a positive light. What I see is that, in the broad heartland of the United Methodist church, churches that prominently display signs proclaiming that their minds, hearts, and doors are open, are not open to me. I read the votes of annual conferences to tell me that some two-thirds of my UMC brothers and sisters in the Methodist heartland do not want me to belong to their church.

Many of my gay and lesbian friends who are former Methodists tell me I am reading these vote tallies exactly right. They tell me that they would not dream of setting foot again in their church of origin. The handwriting on the wall is very clear, they say, despite those open minds, hearts, and doors signs.

I am not a statistician, and I do not have strong data to back up what I intend to say now, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it anyway: I have the distinct impression, as I read the vote tallies coming in now about the “all means all” amendment, that United Methodists are sending gay and lesbian Americans an even stronger signal of unwelcome than they have in the past, when previous initiatives have been voted on within the UMC church. If I am incorrect with this impression and there are data to show me I am incorrect, I welcome the correction.

If I am correct, then something troubling may be happening in the American heartland, despite the hope and change promised by the Obama administration. And this shift may be genetically linked to the new administration and its lack of leadership re: the human rights of gay and lesbian Americans.

Make promises about progressive change based on moral imperatives and fail to fulfill them when you’re elected, fail to show decisive leadership regarding progressive change based on moral imperatives when you are elected, and you may open the door to strong backlash. And that backlash can set the progressive movement you claim to be leading further back than it found itself at the time of your election.

I have the strong impression that United Methodists in the heartland of Methodism in the United States are on the backwards curve now—and are moving along that curve decisively. This is not what we wanted to see happening, with a progressive new president promising rights to gay and lesbian Americans. Those with eyes to see need to keep a close eye on what is happening in the United Methodist church: we may see our future in these voting trends, the future to which we’re rapidly running back, with a dearth of strong leadership at the helm of the nation.

Martin Becoming Machiavelli: The Obama Administration as Failed Marriage

A few end-of-week wrap-up remarks about the growing concern among progressives (including many in the LGBT community) that the Obama administration is not exercising strong leadership in a number of areas, and that its lack of leadership in the area of gay rights exemplifies a lack of leadership in other key fields: Daniel Schultz makes the case at Religion Dispatches that Obama’s “common ground” religious advisors are responsible for the administration’s refusal to engage any issue it regards as a hot-button culture-war issue.

As I noted in a previous discussion of the “common ground” approach, Chip Berlet argues that some of Mr. Obama’s centrist advisors, particularly from faith-based groups, are seeking to frame discussions of key issues in a way that finds common ground with religious adherents to the right of center. Driving this movement to find common ground is a concern to keep independent voters on the administration’s side.

Schultz asks whether the common ground approach is a “terrible idea.” He suggests that the administration’s excessive timidity about engaging the right re: culture-war issues is resulting in a lack of leadership that will undermine its attempts to effect change in many areas. As he concludes,

Independents and even some Republicans are moving toward the Democrats on economic and social questions. Now is not the time to hedge bets. The Obama administration ought to be pressing its advantages and racking up some victories, not hemming and hawing and worrying about who it might lose when the inevitable fight comes.

And I agree. Wholeheartedly. As I’ve argued in posting after posting on this blog, the Obama administration’s handling of gay issues is proving to be paradigmatic for its handling of many other interconnected (since they are all rooted in human rights) issues about which the administration claims to have passionate commitments, from healthcare to financial reform. Joe Sudbay is absolutely correct when he notes at Americablog today,

The Obama administration's response [i.e., to the gay community] has been appalling . . . . Also, many of us were more than willing to cut the new president some slack so he could enact his top priorities, like health care reform. That's turning into a big mess, too. We need the president to lead -- and to remember why people voted for him.

The president’s advisors have given him horrendously bad advice about dealing with gay persons and gay rights. The DOMA brief was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. From the outset, the silence of this administration about promises it had made in this area prior to the election, and about the continuing struggle of LGBT Americans to live with dignity as the administration refused even to provide timelines for fulfilling those promises—and refused even to talk about our human lives and human struggle—began radically to erode its leadership, and the moral claims on which that leadership rests.

For many of us, what had been a moment of great promise when the Obama administration was elected has quickly turned into a nightmare. We have seen continuing discharges of gay soldiers under DADT, though the administration has told us DADT is discriminatory and needs to be abolished. We have heard talk from the administration about how it will be necessary to obtain consensus and legislative action about DADT, when the reality is that the president can abolish this discriminatory prohibition against military service by openly gay personnel with the stroke of a pen today, if he so wishes. And we have had to listen to this talk, along with talk about further studies of this program that the administration has already characterized as discriminatory, when polls indicate that 69% of Americans oppose DADT, and that this strong majority includes conservative and evangelical voters.

The Obama administration made a huge mistake when it decided to play ruthless pragmatic games with gay lives. And that mistake will continue to trouble the administration and undermine its progressive platform, until someone with sufficient clout within the administration to address this mistake begins to do so forthrightly and quickly.

When Stampp Corbin, who co-chaired Obama’s LGBT Leadership Council during the campaign, comes out and says candidly, “President Obama, your legal brief was clearly a mistake, a big mistake,” the administration is obviously in trouble. Mr. Corbin calls on the president we elected with such hope to lead—just lead: “Mr. President make a different choice. Choose to lead.”

And when someone like Andrew Sullivan, who has defended the administration’s careful pragmatism and determination to stay behind the curve as it makes decisions, calls on gay citizens to cut off the DNC’s money, something momentous is underway, a political rebellion by some of the administration’s staunchest supporters.

I hope those who care about this administration’s platform and its success listen and act. I am mystified by the decision to ignore moral imperatives and adopt a stance of ruthless pragmatism, with blowsy, misleading rhetoric about finding common ground, once this administration came into office.

My experience thus far with the new administration reminds me of a story a friend tells about her first, failed marriage. She says, I thought I was marrying Rhett Butler. And then I woke up the morning after the wedding and found I was in bed with Jethro Bodeen.

I feel something similar about the Obama administration. I thought I was casting my vote for Martin. Instead, I seem to have gotten Machiavelli. And I’m now wondering how to get out of the failed marriage, before it does more harm to me.