Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Mighty Wind: Lutherans Vote for a Welcoming Church in the Midst of a Storm

I blogged yesterday about the assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America now taking place in Minneapolis. My posting focused on the story of what happened at Monday evening’s gathering.

As I noted, one recommendation before the ELCA assembly would allow individual churches and synods to call gay members in partnered relationships to ministry. On Monday, those opposed to that recommendation sought to impose a supermajority requirement when the recommendation is voted on tomorrow—a requirement that it pass by a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority.

My posting notes that ELCA assembly delegates would vote on the ministry recommendation and another, a “social” recommendation entitled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” on Friday. As I noted, because it is a social recommendation, the latter proposal requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

It turns out the vote on “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” actually took place yesterday. And the recommendation passed—by a vote of 676 (66.67 percent) to 338 (33.33 percent). I’m indebted to Elizabeth Kaeton’s Telling Secrets blog for the information that the vote occurred last evening.

As the ELCA news site’s summary of the story notes, prior to the vote on the recommendation, members opposed to it sought to pass an amendment that would have replaced the document’s recognition that some Lutherans conscientiously support church recognition of lifelong monogamous same-sex relationships with a statement condemning the “practice of homosexual erotic behavior as contrary to God's intent.”

What “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” has to say about lifelong committed same-sex relationships is actually very middle-of-the-road (chapter IV, pp. 14-19, lines 588-675). The statement recognizes that Lutheran consciences have come to different conclusions about the morality of same-sex relationships, and that there is room in the ELCA for both those who support and those who reject same-gender relationships and marriage. Where the church is and must be united, if it is true to the gospel, the document notes, is in opposing hatred and discrimination against LGBT persons:

While Lutherans hold various convictions regarding lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships, this church is united on many critical issues. It opposes all forms of verbal or physical harassment and assault based on sexual orientation. It supports legislation and policies to protect civil rights and to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, and public services. It called upon congregations and members to welcome, care for, and support same-gender couples and their families, and to advocate for their legal protection.

As the document also notes, the church recognizes that “it has a pastoral responsibility to all children of God.” This includes those who are gay or lesbian. The church invites these children of God to avail themselves of grace and pastoral care. These insights—that churches must “welcome, care for, and support” same-gender persons and their families, that churches have a pastoral responsibility to such people, and that churches must offer grace and pastoral care to LGBT persons, are grounded in “the foundational Lutheran understanding that the baptized are called to discern God’s love in service to the neighbor.”

Christians may differ in their conscientious assessment of the morality of gay sexuality and gay people’s relationships. Christians may not waver, however, in what is “foundational” to the Christian life, and in what constitutes a Christian church: churches are called to welcome, affirm, love, reach out, offer grace, do what families everywhere do—make room for everyone, even when one family member bickers with another or disappoints everyone else.

You’d think that would be self-evident, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, it’s not. Take a look at the thread of reader comments appended to Jeff Strickler’s Star-Tribune report about the ELCA vote yesterday, and you’ll come across one remark after another echoing reader “hansen1234”:

I'm constantly amazed at the lengths people will go to in order to get where they are not wanted or welcome simply to get there because they are not wanted or welcome. Choose another denomination and move on. The opponents of this will.

Why do you gays and lesbians keep wanting to go where you are not welcome, and where you know you are not welcome? Move on. Find another church. Go where you’re wanted, someplace like the Episcopal church, which, as everyone knows, is falling apart because it has opened its arms to you.

There’s nothing new in these comments—in the ugly use of the Episcopal church as a whipping boy in arguments about welcoming gays and lesbians, in the ugly insinuation that gays and lesbians should not be welcome in Christian churches. Anyone who follows these discussions on blogs and in the mainstream media will be thoroughly familiar with these maleficent suggestions by now.

What is striking about such observations, though, is how spectacularly they miss a point that believers in Christ cannot miss, without doing a fundamental injustice to everything he stood for. In contrast to “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” many Christians appear willing to argue that churches can be churches and can call themselves Christian, even when they deliberately, intentionally exclude a whole set of God’s children. When they deliberately and intentionally set out to make a whole group of God’s children not welcome but thoroughly unwelcome.

How has it come to this, I wonder? How can the churches of the United States have failed so dismally in their catechetical obligation to teach people what church, Christ, gospel, is all about?

Part of the answer to that question, surely, is that many churches have not effectively challenged the persistent tendency of the mainstream media to represent church welcome of gay and lesbian persons as the abandonment of orthodoxy and morality. As I’ve noted again and again on this blog, that message is deeply embedded in mainstream media reporting on religion and gay issues. It’s embedded there because deep-pocket right-wing funding groups have bought that story. They pay for the “religion experts” who continue to convey homophobic poison to the media.

So it’s not surprising to discover that the popular understanding of these issues is decisively molded by media messages that, after all, command far more power, when it comes to transmitting messages that shape our consciousness, than churches do—even in the lives of committed churchgoers. And in this light, it’s fascinating to note what the media are doing with the fact that yesterday’s ELCA deliberations coincided with turbulent weather in Minneapolis.

Again, this is a sneaky but powerful little subtext that media reports almost always exploit, when churches or social groups move towards greater acceptance of gay and lesbian persons. Not long after same-sex marriage began in California, I noticed reports cropping up in the AP about “unprecedented” lightning strikes in that state, and devastating wildfires said to have been caused by those lightning strikes.

And—as though the two are designed to work in perfect tandem—immediately right-wing Christian blogs picked up the story and ran with it. God punishes California for gay marriage! Here’s what you can expect when you disobey God. Thunderbolts and flames! Even the secular media sees a pattern.

You get the drift.

Given how this apocalyptic subtext adopted from the Christian right informs mainstream media accounts of gay issues, I wasn’t surprised to discover this morning that the AP story about last evening’s ELCA vote talks about—you guessed it—storms that blew through Minneapolis yesterday. Patrick Condon’s AP report, which is now being picked up (as gospel truth) by mainstream media outlets across the nation, concludes with a note about how severe storms passed through Minneapolis as the delegates debated, damaging the steeple of a Lutheran church across the street, and how a few “jokes” were made about God’s wrath.

And, predictably, the right-wing Christian blogs are already running with the story. John Piper’s account cites an unnamed source who was “an eyewitness” but who also apparently “drove down to see the damage” that had occurred before he arrived on the scene as an “eyewitness.” In breathless real-time detail, the “eyewitness” spills the beans about what he saw.Never seen anything like it; baffled the experts; right in the city; Minneapolis.

Curious. It’s coming downtown. 2 P.M. ELCA convention schedule says discussion of the statement on human sexuality, which is about “whether practicing homosexuality is a behavior that should disqualify a person from the pastoral ministry,” is to begin at 2 P.M.

The first buildings the curious, misshapen tornado heads to are . . . the convention center and a Lutheran church! Well, you see where this “eyewitness account” by someone who doesn’t even know what was being discussed at the ELCA assembly and is apparently recounting what he saw post-factum as a real-time “eyewitness” story, is headed:

Jesus Christ controls the wind, including all tornados [sic]. . . . Conclusion: The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin.

You have to wonder why people keep bothering with this tripe, why they keep bending over backwards to find some untoward weather event, any untoward weather event, and then try to correlate it to acceptance of gay and lesbian persons—when thousands of unfortunate weather events are happening every day across the globe, which surely have nothing at all to do with acceptance of homosexuality, and which strike the righteous as well as the unrighteous.

And you have to wonder why people are willing to open the bible-says can of worms when it comes to such events, since that can of worms only serves to demonstrate even more conclusively than ever just how fatuous their highly “biblical” arguments against loving and accepting gay people, which strain the gnat to let the camel through, really are. You can make just about anything you want of the bible. And you can find just about anything you want to find in the bible.

As Nancy Kraft’s Inside Nancy’s Noodle blog notes, if we’re going to run around looking for bible texts to correlate the weather with the ELCA vote yesterday, why not pick the very apropos story of Pentecost from the book of Acts, which says (Acts 2:1-4) that following Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, his followers were all gathered together in one place, when “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven,” and they were all filled with the Spirit.

As Nancy Kraft notes,

Or maybe it was like the rush of a mighty wind on the Day of Pentecost, because after we were all sequestered in the meeting room because of the tornado, the direction of the conversation that seemed so stuck seemed to come together. Not too long after that, when we did our little happy dance, celebrating the passage of a statement of our church that includes and affirms the experience of people in same gender relationships for the first time in our history, we looked outside... and the sun was shining.

When you read other, non-theological AP stories about that same “curious” storm of “misshapen” winds that baffled weather experts and headed right for a Lutheran church and the convention center, you have to wonder about why these folks keep bothering with this malicious meteorological augury that’s all about whipping gay folks, not about loving God or revering the real meaning and core values of the scriptures.

As those reports indicate, this weather system ripped up buildings, uprooted trees, and overturned vehicles all over the Midwest. Were all those who experienced damage Lutherans? Were they all Lutherans of the decadent gay-loving variety, being sent a warning by the Jesus who controls the weather?

There were tornadoes yesterday evening in Davenport and Stanley, Iowa, and in Mankato and Hastings, Minnesota, as well as in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. In addition to that Lutheran church and the Lutheran assembly to which the “curious” “misshapen” storm headed, at least 40 houses in Minneapolis suffered damage. Schools were chewed up, windows in businesses blew out.

Were all those folks Lutheran? Were they Lutherans of the gay-loving variety? Or does the Jesus who controls the storms just get a little careless sometimes and mess up the lives and property of a few righteous folks as he conjures storms to punish the wicked?

Why don't you fellows just stop with the mean-spirited meteorological-theological mumbo-jumbo? Because in all likelihood, a storm is going to head your way one of these days: the weather has a way of affecting everyone, and you're not exempt. And when it does, and if it causes you grief, you may have forfeited your right to concern by your malicious attempt to blame bad weather on love.

And maybe, all things considered, the folks you've worked so hard to sensitize to the God-storm correlation will one of these days conclude that God sent that storm yesterday to shake the churches up a little bit, because they need shaking when they choose hate over love and exclusion over welcome. The bad weather didn't deter the delegates from voting, after all, and it didn't stop them from voting for what churches have to affirm: that all are welcome and all are wanted.

And then when it was all over they shared bread and wine. And they sang and danced a bit. As Christians are wont to do, when they gather and let the Spirit move them.