Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Lutherans Come Through: Why the ELCA Decision Matters

As many of you know, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America voted on Friday to remove impediments to ministry for gay church members living in committed long-term relationships. Openly gay ministers who commit themselves to celibacy have been permitted to serve for some time now in ELCA churches.

Predictably, almost all mainstream media coverage of this historic ELCA decision has overlooked the fact that the ELCA—and most mainline Protestant churches—created a second-tier, second-class system for gays in ministry only recently, and only after those churches began to face the fact that some gays in ministry would no longer remain in the closet as it became increasingly possible to come out in the culture at large.

In many churches, as gays in ministry became open (we have always been there, always ministering; the question is now whether we can be open about our presence in the churches and the ministry), churches responded by relegating gay ministers and ministry candidates to second-class status. Many churches added to their disciplinary regulations statements that gays choosing to enter the ministry had to do something not demanded of straight people entering ministry. We were asked to choose lifelong celibacy before we could serve in ministry.

This historical background, and the clear injustice of a two-tier system that relegates one group of human beings to second-class citizenship, are unfortunately nowhere to be found in most mainstream media coverage of what has happened in the ELCA this week. The mainstream media are predictably parroting the religious and political right in treating the ELCA decision as yet another concession to a gay pressure lobby demanding “special rights” in the churches, or as yet another sign that some churches are abandoning orthodoxy and the bible to condone immoral lifestyles.

What is overlooked in that kind of coverage, of course, is how very recently the longstanding “tradition” the churches are “abandoning” actually is. And what is significantly overlooked is that the choice to abolish a discriminatory two-tier system of qualifications for ministry is about justice and fairness—that is to say, it’s about choosing rather than abandoning core moral values.

Why should this story matter to LGBT citizens, regardless of their views about religion? And why should it matter to those who stand in solidarity with us, and to Americans in general, with our historical commitment to create a society in which equality and justice are core values? My e-friends Terry Weldon at Queering the Church, Colleen Kochivar-Baker at Enlightened Catholicism, and Michael Bayly at Wild Reed have all written (here and here and here) outstanding wrap-up commentary on the ELCA decision in the last two days. I offer the following remarks as complementary observations that echo their conclusions.

Why should the ELCA decision matter to all of us? In my view, it should matter because

1) it demonstrates that there is a powerful trend moving in the direction of full equality for LGBT persons in church and society; 2) what the churches do matters; 3) the ELCA decision will make it harder to scapegoat the Episcopal Church; and 4) the ELCA decision has important real-life practical consequences for LGBT persons.

The ELCA decision demonstrates that there is a powerful trend moving in the direction of full equality for LGBT persons in church and society.

The attempt to combat full equality for LGBT persons in both church and society is well-funded and supported by strong, highly placed interest groups who have the ear of the media, and who still largely determine mainstream media representation of the relationship between churches and the gay community. Despite the money these groups have spent and continue to spend to keep equality for LGBT persons at bay, there is an even more powerful impulse towards justice running through many churches and in society at large.

That impulse demonstrates the validity of Martin Luther King’s observation that, while the arc of the moral universe may be long, it bends toward justice. What is at work in churches like the ELCA—despite the huge amounts of money, the string-pulling, the lies and underhanded maneuvers of the political and religious right—is justice. And when faith communities place themselves on the side of justice and move along that moral arc, they can be forces to reckon with.

Within a short space of time, the Episcopal Church USA chose to move against well-nigh determinative forces both within its own communion and in the culture at large, to do exactly what the ELCA has just done: to strike down barriers to ministry by gay persons that were created exclusively for openly gay ministers, and which did not apply to straight ministers. Shortly after that, the Quakers opened the door to same-sex marriage, noting that their religious body could not refuse to recognize God’s presence and God’s work in gay people and gay relationships.

The ELCA joins a trend in what it has just chosen to do. And that trend will now become more powerful, though not ineluctable, since the opposition will grow more vociferous in direct proportion to the movement of some churches along the moral arc of justice. What the ELCA chose to do in the face of fierce opposition will give hope to those within the Presbyterian and Methodist churches working for justice. But it will also give renewed determination to those opposing justice for LGBT persons in those churches, who will step up their battle against full inclusion of gays in their churches—with the mainstream media’s complicity.

What the churches do matters.

Whether we like it or not, or whether we agree with their influence or not, communities of faith—churches, in particular, in the American context—continue powerfully to inform social attitudes about LGBT persons. This is precisely why the religious and political right are so fiercely determined to paint church decisions to treat gay persons with mere human decency and to accord gay persons equality and justice as abandonment of the gospel. When that whip can no longer be used to beat gay people and our families and friends—when the churches themselves take the whip out of the hands of the religious-political right—the battle to stigmatize gay people and use us as despised objects in unholy political games will largely have been lost.

The ELCA decision will make it harder to scapegoat the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church has taken quite a beating for its decision to ordain Gene Robinson and its recent decision to abolish barriers to ministry for those who are openly gay. Because of these decisions, the Episcopal Church has attracted the maleficent attention of strong, highly placed interest groups who have the ear of the media and who are intent on representing the Episcopal Church as the sole, marginal ecclesial representative of a handful of believers' capitulation to immorality.

Because it has taken courageous steps in the direction of justice, the Episcopal Church has been subject to relentless attack from the right (and in the mainstream media), with claims that it has uniquely and single-handedly departed from an orthodoxy all other churches cherish. Claims have been made that the Episcopal Church has doomed itself by doing what is right, when it comes to justice and equality for gay persons.

These slanders will be harder to sustain now that both the Quakers and the Lutherans have followed suit. The Lutherans are particularly important as a symbolic group, since they represent the Protestant impulse itself in the popular imagination. They are the “original” Protestants, if you will. Their decision will reverberate through many other churches, and will help put the lie to defamatory statements about the Episcopal Church in right-wing media outlets and in the mainstream media. The right and the media will now have to admit that those trying to depict the bible, Christianity, and orthodoxy as all about patriarchy and homophobia have an increasingly steep climb as they try to make that argument.

Most of all, the ELCA decision has important real-life practical consequences for LGBT persons.

Whenever churches create or support discriminatory two-tiered systems that relegate one group of human beings to second-class status on the basis of inborn traits over which those human beings have no control, people suffer. Real people. Real people with real hearts, real lives, and real bodies. Who live someplace in the world.

Those turned into second-class citizens suffer when they experience such injustice. Their families and friends suffer.

The churches have caused (and, in some cases, continue to cause) manifold suffering among gay persons. One of the reasons I began this blog and continue blogging here through thick and thin, whether I feel like writing or not, is because I myself and a life partner whom I dearly love have experienced that unique, exceedingly painful form of suffering the churches impose on the lives of gay persons. Just because we are gay.

When churches create a second-class system for a select group of persons, they lay the groundwork for treating those persons—even within the house of God and within church-owned institutions—cruelly, unjustly, and capriciously. Because we are theologians and have been called to that particular teaching ministry within the churches, but because we also happen to be gay, a couple, and unwilling to apologize for this, Steve and I have experienced life-altering discrimination within church-owned institutions.

I have chronicled some (but not all) of those experiences on this blog. I won’t repeat those chronicles here. What we say about our experience could equally well be said about many other gay believers, with a few alterations depending on the unique circumstances within which those persons live.

It’s time for this cruelty done in the name of God and in the house of God to stop. It’s time for churches and church institutions to stop firing people solely because we are gay, to stop making gay people’s lives living nightmares when we work hard, achieve much, but cannot keep jobs because of who we are, to stop making us feel as if life itself is a burden because we are out of work and have no way to contribute and to give, to stop placing us outside health-care systems because we are unemployed, even as the churches themselves proclaim that they want to see everyone having access to health care.

One of the persistent refrains of some delegates who spoke against the ELCA decision to abolish unjust barriers to ministry for partnered gays is that abolishing those barriers would create suffering for these delegates, their churches, and their families. I can appreciate the struggles of Christians who have become convinced that orthodoxy hinges on keeping the gays at bay as many of their fellow Christians move along the arc of justice. I can appreciate that, when one's theological imagination has been shaped by such erroneous presuppositions, it is difficult to move in new directions.

What baffles me, however, is the apparent blindness of those same Christians to the considerable suffering they have been inflicting for years on their brothers and sisters who happen to be gay and lesbian. We who are gay or lesbian have gone to church meeting after church meeting like the recent ELCA meeting, had our hearts broken, and have been expected to go home and mourn and let the church go about its business without hearing of our pain. Where were those brothers and sisters then, as they expected us to walk away in silence, bearing our pain?

That expectation is not adequate for those who follow the gospel. It is not a Christ-like expectation. As the ELCA social statement on human sexuality notes, though Christians may validly disagree about the morality of homosexuality, it is impossible to call ourselves Christian—and to profess to be church—when we do not welcome, affirm, and love everyone. Regardless. Because God makes everyone.

The ELCA decision will make a world of difference to many LGBT Christians, in many churches, who continue to experience unjust and cruel treatment within their churches. It will also make a significant practical difference in society itself, since what the churches do in this arena has important reverberations throughout society.

When the churches choose to untie cords used to bind selected groups of people and lift yokes used to keep those people in painful subjugation (Isaiah 58:6-8, Matthew 11:30), what a light can sometimes shine forth in the world. And that light will be fearsome perhaps only to those who, for whatever reason, prefer darkness to light.