Friday, June 5, 2009

Candace Chellew-Hodge on David Gushee's Welcome of Gays to Churches: When Welcome Doesn't Mean Welcome

I wrote yesterday about Mitchell Gold and Mindy Drucker’s important anthology of first-hand testimonies re: growing up gay in churched America, Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America. My posting notes the Christian Century review of Crisis written by David Gushee.

As I noted, Gushee’s review is important, both because it’s in a widely circulated mainstream religious publication, and because Gusheee is professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer, a Baptist university in Georgia, and is an ordained Baptist minister. I found Gushee’s conclusion encouraging: he concludes that the churches must repent of their anti-Christian crusade against gay persons, and ask forgiveness from gays and lesbians.

Today, I’d like to take note of an equally important critique of Gushee’s position by Candace Chellew-Hodge at Religion Dispatches. As I do, Chellew-Hodge applauds Gushee’s “impressive and impassioned plea for Christians to ask for forgiveness from the gay and lesbian community.”

Chellew-Hodge notes, however, that Gushee published an opinion piece about the place of gays and lesbians in the church last year in the Associated Baptist Press, in which he proposes “that accepting gay and lesbian people into the full realm of the church would mark a certain cultural surrender of the church's true beliefs . . . .” In Gushee’s view, “A church that is in the process of abandoning basic tenets of Christian sexual morality has no credibility as a moral voice in culture.”

Gushee’s Christian welcome of LGBT persons comes with a big price tag—for those who are gay, that is, exclusively for those who happen to be gay. As Chellew-Hodge notes, Gushee maintains that “[t]o be accepted, we have to be viewed as morally ‘less than’ our heterosexual counterparts who have achieved God's ‘gold standard’ of marriage.” Chellew-Hodge concludes that Gushee’s understanding of how gays and lesbians are to be welcomed by churches “only perpetuates the mistreatment of the community he decries in his [Christian Century] review.”

Candace Chellew-Hodge is absolutely right. In “welcoming” gays and lesbians to Christian communities, Gushee is articulating (in his ABP op-ed piece, at least) a position that makes gay and lesbian church members second-class citizens: in the very act of “welcoming” gays and lesbians, churches continue the stigmatization that their Christian welcome should seek to overcome, if it is genuine.

It is interesting that Gushee hangs the church’s entire encounter with culture on the question of how gays and lesbians are to be fit into God’s plan and church life. If I am not mistaken, there are many signs of the brokenness of creation running all through church life. Gays and lesbians alone hardly comprise the entire story of sin in the world.

All the churches with which I am acquainted contain ample numbers of straight folks living together without benefit of marriage, of divorced and remarried folks, and so forth. I daresay not a few Christian communities today welcome, and even turn a blind eye to the moral failings of, an adulterer here or there.

I can’t think of any church with which I’m acquainted that asks bankers charging usorious interest rates to repent of their heinous sins, before the church welcomes them. In fact, most churches I know welcome bankers with open arms, despite James’s injunction to give the best seats in the church to the poor rather than the wealthy (James 2:2-3). Militarists? Makers of weapons and those who use them to target innocent people in unjust wars? Those who benefit economically from the production of weapons used to kill innocent people? Racists and sexists?

All the churches I know are pretty much silent about those folks, when it comes to welcoming people into the Christian communion and asking them to repent of their sins, because their sins break the communion of the body of Christ and undermine the church’s effectiveness as it calls the culture to hear the gospel.

Somehow, gays and lesbians have ended up today being the sinner, the unique embodiment of all sin, whose welcome is problematic. Gays and lesbians are, for the churches today, the sinner on whose sin everything hinges. Let those folks inside—let them in without demeaning them, putting them in their place, and asking of them what you ask of no one else—and everything will fall apart.

The church will find itself unable to call the culture to accountability if it welcomes gays and lesbians without asking them to repent and then repent again—to observe standards of sexual propriety demanded of no other members of the church.

Something is very wrong with this argument about the churches, the obligation to live countercultural lives, and the problem of gays and lesbians. As I’ve noted in my critique of the similar argument of some United Methodist clergy who also maintain that the church can “welcome” gays and lesbians while singling them out as uniquely sinful and very problematic human beings, the argument that the church caves in to culture by accepting gays and lesbians spectacularly overlooks the manifold ways in which the church’s stance towards gays and lesbians is part and parcel of the very culture that needs to be called to transformation through the gospel.

In singling out gays and lesbians as unique icons of sexual sinfulness, while remaining totally silent about straight people living together without benefit of marriage, or adulterers, or those who are divorced and remarried, the churches simply mirror social standards. Churches long ago learned not to make an example of heterosexual people straying from strict Christian moral norms, just as the culture at large tends to eschew moralizing condemnation of those violating strict faith-based moral norms for heterosexual behavior.

And the church is wise in minding its business here: the business of the church is to preach the gospel, to offer the gospel to all, and then to leave judgment to God. While the churches can and should certainly point to moral standards they expect all members to strive towards, it is probably not pastorally helpful (or even fully Christian) for churches to point the finger at particular people and particular groups of people, to make those particular people and their lives a unique problem for churches as they welcome sinners.

(And when one thinks of how the churches almost never point the finger at the real sinners, those who oppress the poor, deprive families of bread, ignore widows and orphans, and gladly go to war, while the churches chastise a handful of sexual sinners, one begins to wonder even more about the lack of wisdom in many churches’ current anti-gay pastoral strategy . . . .)

Welcome means welcome. It does not mean welcome, but—one doesn’t qualify a welcome if one really intends to welcome. People are either welcome or not.

Identifying an entire group of human beings as a problem to be solved rather than as one among many groups of God’s children seeking the divine embrace does not constitute welcome, but continued condemnation—condemnation that keeps the doors of the churches tight shut against LGBT people, while affording Christians the smug satisfaction of having offered “welcome” to some poor sinners who, unfortunately, did not avail themselves of the offer of welcome.

If the churches expect to be believed when they preach the gospel to culture, they have to set—for their own lives and practice—a standard higher than that of the culture, not one that simply mimics cultural practice at its least admirable. Otherwise, those seeking role models for the life of virtue will turn elsewhere, to individuals and groups within the culture that model a really transformative ethic, a way of living that is authentically redemptive.

That transformative and redemptive model is just not to be found in many churches today, not when gays and lesbians come knocking at the door. And it won’t be in evidence until the churches stop singling out LGBT human beings as a uniquely problematic, uniquely sinful group of human beings, and start listening to our stories and greeting us as human beings—and recognizing that those stigmatized as particularly noisome wrongdoers sometimes bring the most powerful gifts to the community that has cast them out.