Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sojourners Again: Questions about Coherence and Integrity in the Struggle for Justice

I'm continuing to find the story of Sojourners and its prejudice-driven refusal to take sides in the struggle for justice for LGBT persons in society and faith communities instructive.  The narrative line that catches attention here: it's a parable about how people of faith who profess to be committed to justice nullify this when they refuse to practice justice in some area in which, right before their eyes, the struggle for justice is being played out in a conspicuous way.

I recently received an email from Sojourners asking me to donate to them.  I immediately replied, of course, with an email telling Sojourners that there’s no way in hell I intend to give any money to a "progressive" and "justice-oriented" faith group that refuses to run an ad by Believe Out Loud asking Christian churches to start treating LGBT people like human beings.  Real human beings with the same human rights other human beings have.

This week, Sojourners emailed me back.  I have no way of knowing whether their email was crafted to reply to my concerns uniquely, or whether the organization has gotten other emails like mine, and this email was therefore sent to all those who refused to donate for the same reason I did.  I tend to think the latter is probably the case.

I appreciate the reply, whether it’s a personal reply to me alone or to a group of people disenchanted with Sojourners’ recent statement that it cannot take sides in the struggle of LGBT people for justice in society and faith communities.  At the same time, I’m hardly reassured by Sojourners’ response to my concern.  It’s long on "listening and reflection," on "dialogue and civility."

And it’s short on action.  It’s short on precisely the same kind of action Sojourners espouses in the case of other groups of people subjected to injustice and oppression—the economically struggling, working people, people of color, women, and so forth.  Its message—and this is consistent with what Sojourners has long said to LGBT people, and intends to keep saying—is that those who are gay and lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, are a case apart from all other people who experience injustice and oppression.  They're a case apart from all other people, period.

And they need to recognize this, and stop complaining.  Stop the uncivil calls to communities of faith to practice the same justice in the case of LGBT people they claim to practice in the case of poor people, working people, people of color, women, etc.  Start listening and reflecting—on the gospel message Sojourners and like-minded people of faith proclaim to their gay brothers and sisters.  A message that places those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered in a special category of people whose humanity is not equal to that of everyone else, and who therefore do not have the same rights that everyone else has.

Or the same claim on the conscience of people of faith engaged in the struggle for justice, so that the denial of the full humanity and full range of human rights that those people of faith offer to LGBT people does not, we’re asked to believe, undercut people of faith’s proclamation of justice for other marginalized groups.

Sojourners’ email to me directs me to an FAQ composed, the email tells me, to answer the many critical questions directed to the organization after it refused to run Believe Out Loud’s ad.  And here's what I find when I visit that page:

1. Sojourners is claiming that it decided not to run Believe Out Loud's ad because the group's campaign for justice for LGBT people "includes advocacy for gay marriage in the church."  And this is a matter about which "Sojourners has intentionally not taken a position" because Sojourners "encourages civil dialogue within the church."

2. Sojourners describes itself as "a welcoming organization," and claims that "we have welcomed openly gay and lesbian people on our staff and will continue to do so."

3. Sojourners denies that it doesn’t take sides on LGBT issues, and says that it "supports full civil rights for LGBT people and equal protection under the law," and has repeatedly done so in various circumstances.
4. Sojourners has been asked whether its refusal to "take a stand on this" [on what, precisely: gay marriage? the Believe Out Loud ad?] is because of its "work to build coalitions on poverty."  And the organization replies that this is, indeed the case, since it works with faith-based groups seeking justice for poor people who do not support the struggle of LGBT people for justice.  And so, "Not only is taking a stance on gay marriage in the church outside of the purview of our mission focus, we feel it would hinder our ability to build these coalitions."

Take a close look at Sojourners' rationale for not taking sides in the LGBT struggle for full inclusion in the human community and faith communities, and quite a bit does not hang together.  With regard to claim #1--that Sojourners did not run the Believe Out Loud ad because Believe Out Loud advocates for gay marriage in the church--as Jamie Manson recently pointed out in National Catholic Reporter, the ad Sojourners turned down makes no mention of gay marriage.  It's an ad in which various people of faith ask the churches to begin treating LGBT people as full human beings.

With regard to claims #2 and 3--that Sojourners is a "welcoming organization" which has unambiguously sided with LGBT people in their struggle for justice--as I've noted in previous postings on this blog (the first link in this posting points to one of those), I happen to know someone who has long been interested in working for Sojourners, and who has strongly supported Sojourners' ministries.  He also happens to be gay, partnered, and in a long-standing committed relationship.

Twice in the past several years, he has seen openings at Sojourners and has contacted the organization to find out whether Sojourners offers benefits to partners of gay employees.  Both times he's been told that the organization would discuss his request.  And each time, the reply has been, No.  No, we don't offer partner benefits.

Something may have changed since the last time my friend asked Sojourners about this issue.  I'd like to think that's the case.

But if not, what can the claim that Sojourners is "a welcoming organization," and "we have welcomed openly gay and lesbian people on our staff and will continue to do so" possibly mean, when a heterosexual couple working for this faith-based organization is able to receive partner benefits, but a same-sex couple is not?  This is a shell game that people of faith and their organizations have been playing for far too long with the humanity and the lives of LGBT people: we welcome you.

But please don't expect to be treated equally.  As if your humanity counts in precisely the same way that the humanity of everyone else counts.

As if your demand for justice matters in the same way that the demand for justice by poor people, working people, people of color, or women matters.  Because it doesn't.  You belong to a special category of people whose humanity is not precisely the same.

And so we can claim to be welcoming and justice-oriented while not really welcoming you.  And while actively discriminating against you.  And it is uncivil of you to point out that our behavior contradicts the wide-ranging claims we make about justice and human rights in every other area imaginable.

Though its FAQ implies otherwise, Sojourners did say, by the way, that it cannot "take sides" in the LGBT struggle for justice when it refused to run the Believe Out Loud ad.  And its feet need to be held to the fire about this refusal by anyone who cares about the integrity of faith-based communities' witness to justice in the world today.  This is, in fact, precisely why many people of faith are holding Sojourners' feet to the fire now.

With regard to claim #4--that Sojourners can't really take sides with LGBT people because its mission to work for justice in other areas, and its coalitions to serve that mission, prohibit such taking of sides--Jamie Manson has eloquent rejoinders in the NCR article to which I link above.  As she notes, Sojourners head Jim Wallis has persistently answered questions about the status of LGBT people and their claim on the conscience of Christian communities this way:

[D]ebates over LGBT issues "have not been at the core of our calling, which is much more focused on matters of poverty, racial justice, stewardship of the creation, and the defense of life and peace. . . . Essential to our mission is the calling together of broad groups of Christians, who might disagree on issues of sexuality, to still work together on how to reduce poverty, end wars, and mobilize around other issues of social justice."

But as Manson notes, Elie Wiesel writes, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."  And in the case of LGBT people,  Manson reminds us, "there are soul-shattering repercussions" to the refusal of people of faith to stand unambiguously for justice.  There's the active unwelcome that many LGBT people of faith experience within communities of faith.

And there are further troubling facts that Manson can document from her hard-earned experience living in a committed same-sex relationship: there's the fact that she and her partner, both with academic backgrounds in church-related schools (Manson has an M. Div. from Yale Divinity School) not only sometimes find themselves made unwelcome in some church communities.  But, in fact, when some church groups find out that Manson is in a partnered gay relationship, they rescind invitations to her to speak about various issues.

There are, in short, significant real-life consequences to the refusal of Sojourners and other "progressive" communities of faith to take a stand for justice for LGBT people.  Those consequences are written across the lives and relationships of the people these communities continue to place in a special category of human beings--a sub-class of human beings whose human rights and struggle for justice matter less than do the human rights and struggle for justice of other groups of human beings.

But the consequences of the refusal of communities of faith to support LGBT people in their struggle to justice are also increasingly grim for those faith communities themselves.  As the culture at large reaches a tipping point at which increasing numbers of people recognize the full humanity of LGBT persons, churches and other religious bodies radically undermine their claims to be committed to justice, when they continue to treat LGBT people as a case apart, as human in a different (and inferior) way.  

What begins to happen as a cultural tipping point occurs in this area is that churches' call for justice increasingly appears to be incoherent, when these communities ask LGBT people to live on a special, sub-human reservation within the churches, while they urge us to recognize the humanity of other marginalized human beings.  And the integrity of those crafting this two-tiered system of humanity--one tier for heterosexuals, another for those who are gay--is also called into question.
Jamie Manson raises an important question, for instance, when she asks whether Sojourners' refusal to take sides in the LGBT struggle for justice is driven by economic considerations.  "Progressive" people of faith often refuse to stand in solidarity with LGBT people in their struggle for justice because they fear the loss of donations and financial support from their anti-gay coalition partners if they take sides with LGBT people.
The homophobia of faith-based "progressives" comes with an increasingly high price tag.  It increasingly undercuts the claims of faith-based groups like Sojourners to be about justice at all.  It exposes the justice-oriented message of these groups as incoherent, since that message cannot recognize the claims to justice (and humanity) of a significantly oppressed group right in the midst of these people of faith.  And it raises critical questions about the integrity of those behaving in this way.

So that now, when the Jim Wallises of the world write about the dangers of male-entitled misogyny, no one listens carefully.  Because misogyny and homophobia spring from the same male-entitled heterosexist roots.  And one cannot challenge one without challenging the other.  Not if one expects to be credible.  And one cannot speak credibly without acting, without acting to do justice for all of those excluded from networks of power and privilege--of humanity itself--by men who imagine that being male and heterosexual grants one an ontological status denied to those different from oneself.

No comments: