Sunday, June 21, 2009

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.