Monday, April 24, 2017

This Is Going to Hurt

Robin Ridenour and Bishop Karen Oliveto
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:2

Last July the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church elected the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, formerly the Senior Pastor of Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco, California, as Bishop and assigned her to oversee the Mountain Sky Area. Dr. Oliveto became the first openly gay bishop to serve our denomination.

For those who dream of a more inclusive church it was a high and holy moment. In a letter to her “Sisters and Brothers in the Western Jurisdiction,” Bishop Oliveto wrote:
“I stand amazed at this new thing God has done, and give thanks to you, my dear sisters and brothers, at the careful and prayerful way we responded to the Holy Spirit and allowed our fears to fall away so we could joyously cross the threshold of this new thing together. I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of love I have received from around the world—it is more than my heart can hold.”
But even before the songs of celebration could echo their last chorus, other voices were raised in opposition. In a letter to the Mississippi Conference, Bishop James Swanson wrote: 
“. . . after a spiritually blessing and joyous jurisdictional conference concluded, we received word late Friday night that our sisters and brothers serving as delegates of the Western Jurisdictional Conference elected The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as a new bishop. Dr. Oliveto is identified as a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
“As a result of her election, The South Central Jurisdiction Conference, in seeking clarity around her election, voted to petition the Judicial Council for a Declaratory Decision concerning Dr. Oliveto's election. A Declaratory Decision is a ruling by the Judicial Council on the constitutionality, meaning, application or effect of an action taken. This is now in the hands of the Judicial Council.”
Just to be clear, when he says that they are seeking clarity, he doesn’t really mean that they are seeking clarity. He means that they want her election nullified. 

On Tuesday the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church will convene in Newark, New Jersey to hear oral arguments on the motion brought by the South Central Jurisdiction asking that the election of Bishop Oliveto be declared invalid. 

The contention of the South Central Jurisdiction is that since Bishop Oliveto is married to another woman, Robin Ridenour, she must be considered to be “a self-avowed practicing homosexual.” That would mean that she was in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline and therefore, they argue, she should be ineligible to be elected Bishop.

The Western Jurisdiction holds that since the election of bishops is the responsibility of the jurisdictions, the South Central Jurisdiction has no standing to challenge what the Western Jurisdiction has done. She was an elder in good standing and she was fairly elected. That should be the end of it.

Each side believes they have a strong case. But the Judicial Council, as constituted by the 2016 General Conference, is dominated by conservatives, so that gives the edge to the South Central Jurisdiction.

Whatever they decide, we can be certain of one thing: this is going to hurt.

If the Judicial Council decides in favor of the Western Jurisdiction (Lord, hear our prayer!), then the traditionalists will be more determined to split the church. And if the decision favors the South Central Jurisdiction then then traditionalists will still want to split the church and more of the progressives will agree with them.

At first glance, schism does not seem like a bad option. And it has historical precedent.

In the 1844 the Methodist Church split over the slavery issue. And it only took us a century to come back together.

If the division is done by conferences, then there will be many churches that find themselves out of step with their conference. Traditionalist churches will find themselves in progressive conferences and vice versa. And if the division is church by church it will be even worse. Most churches are far from unanimity on this issue. Those on the losing side of a vote may well feel betrayed by people they counted as friends. 

It will be ugly. And painful.

Of course, if we are honest about it, we know that the United Methodist Church has been an ugly and painful place for LGBTQ persons for decades. In the words of the old Confession, “We have not loved our neighbors as Christ hath loved us.”



Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Why Did Jesus Die?



He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Mark 8:34-37

The most common (most frequent and crudest) explanation of Jesus' death on the cross is that God sent him to die for our sins. Someone had to pay for the sins of humanity. Jesus suffered so that you and I don’t have to. He was perfectly sinless and it was a perfect sacrifice.

That is a caricature of what is called the theory of "substitutionary atonement." I have deliberately used the caricature to make a larger point. In spite of the fact that it's the theology I grew up with, and it's still the most common theological understanding of Good Friday, I am convinced it is wrong. 

It is wrong biblically, historically, morally, and theologically.

On Good Friday, Jesus was tried, and convicted, and tortured, and killed. It was a triumph for the powers of darkness, and there was nothing good about that Friday. Or so it seemed. 

But in his death he exposed the moral bankruptcy of the Empire and the shallow religiosity of the chief priests and elders who collaborated with the oppressors. Good Friday is the story of a collision between the goodness of God in Jesus, and the evil of a violent empire.

Before we go any further, we need to clear up two major misunderstandings:

  • The Jews did not kill Jesus; the Romans did.
  • He was not executed for blasphemy; he was executed for treason.

The Jews did not kill Jesus. 

We know this as an absolute fact because they did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment. We also know this because if he had been sentenced to death by a Jewish court, he would have been stoned to death. The Romans were the only ones with the authority to kill him, and they did.

We know that the Romans executed Jesus for sedition because they crucified him. 

Crucifixion was a death reserved for those who committed treason against the empire. It was a form of state terrorism designed to torture its victims and terrify the populace. The Romans did it often so that the people were kept constantly aware of the consequences of defying the empire.

So why did Jesus die? And what does it mean?

I don’t believe that God sent Jesus to die. I don’t believe that it was God’s plan.

That’s partly because I think that speaking of God’s plan is too anthropomorphic. It imagines God as some sort of supernatural version of a human being. But it’s also morally suspect. It suggests that somehow God was sending Jesus on a suicide mission.

Jesus died because he was completely faithful to God and his faithfulness collided with the sinfulness of humanity in the form of the Roman Empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as an alternative vision of how the world could be. Against the normalcy of violence, he proclaimed nonviolence. Against the normalcy of self-interest, he proclaimed self-sacrifice. 

The commandment to love our enemies is about as subversive of what passes for normal as anything could possibly be. And two thousand years later, those of us who claim to be his followers have a very hard time even imagining what that path looks like, let alone following it.

When he invited his followers to take us the cross, he invited them to follow the path of self-sacrificial love. And he promised that the way of self-sacrifice is also the way that leads to a faithful life.


Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


*A version of this post originally appeared on Good Friday in 2015.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Money Talks in North Carolina Bathroom Controversy


Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Romans 12:9-13

North Carolina legislators may not love what is good and hate what is evil as Paul admonished, but they do love money more than they hate their LGBTQ neighbors.

And in this case, that is progress.

Legislators have repealed HB-2, the controversial “Bathroom Bill,” in an attempt to reverse the outflow of businesses and the cancellation of concerts and sporting events growing out of a widespread revulsion at the discrimination and hatred embodied in the original bill.

As he signed the replacement bill into law, newly elected Governor Roy Cooper commented, "For over a year now, House Bill 2 has been a dark cloud hanging over our great state. It has stained our reputation. It has discriminated against our people and it has caused great economic harm in many of our communities."

In a classic understatement he called the new bill “not a perfect deal.” And to his credit, he said it was “not my preferred solution.”

The good news is the repeal of the most egregious part of the original bill, which required everyone to use the restroom conforming to the gender assigned on their birth certificate. The revised bill means returning to the previous norm by which each person chose the restroom corresponding to the gender with which they identified.

So far, so good.

But apparently fearing that goodness might get ahead of them, the legislators prohibited municipalities from enacting their own ordinances protecting the rights of LGBTQ persons. In other words, in North Carolina it will remain legal to discriminate against LGBTQ persons. You can be fired or denied housing because you are gay or transgender.

Whether the new bill will be enough to bring the NCAA back to the state remains to be seen.

Shannon Ryan, writing for the Chicago Tribune, notes that the NCAA has been waiting for the North Carolina legislature to address the issues of discrimination before deciding on host sites for 2018-2022.

NCAA President Paul Emmert said at a Final Four news conference Thursday that the site selection committees “have to wait and see whether or not the board of governors will determine whether or not this bill that was recently passed is a sufficient change in the law for the board to feel comfortable going back to North Carolina."

CNN reports that the NCAA listed four factors in its decision last September to move their events:
"North Carolina laws invalidate any local law that treats sexual orientation as a protected class or has a purpose to prevent discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals.
 "North Carolina has the only statewide law that makes it unlawful to use a restroom different from the gender on one's birth certificate, regardless of gender identity.
North Carolina law provides legal protections for government officials to refuse services to the LGBT community. 
"Five states plus numerous cities prohibit travel to North Carolina for public employees and representatives of public institutions, which could include student-athletes and campus athletics staff. These states are New York, Minnesota, Washington, Vermont and Connecticut."
The revised law addresses just one of those factors. And it enshrines discrimination by prohibiting municipalities from enacting their own anti-discrimination laws until 2020.

My hope is that the NCAA will see that the revision does not go far enough. It does not even restore the status quo.

The NCAA decision means $3.76 billion to the state over the four years from 2018 to 2020. The legislators may have no understanding of equal protection or of what it means to love your neighbors. But they apparently understand money.

The NCAA huge influence. 

And they should use it for good.



Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Monday, March 13, 2017

LGBTQ Civil Rights (A Lenten Lesson in Law and Grace)


Law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.

Romans 5:20

Through the mysterious algorithms of Facebook I was reminded of a blog post I wrote six years ago after testifying in favor of Marriage Equality at a State House hearing.


It had been in many ways the perfect Lenten experience.

I was at the State House for almost six hours before it was my turn to testify.

I spoke briefly (but passionately, I hope) about how I believed that God is always calling us forward as Abraham and Sarah were called to leave home and journey toward "the land that I will show you." We are working toward the Kingdom of God and we are impatient with the present because we look for a future that will be more just. And I believe that Marriage Equality is part of a more just future.

While I waited and watched, I had a lot of time to reflect and meditate. (A good Lenten discipline.)

As a Christian it hurts to hear the Bible (and Jesus!) misused to promote an unholy trinity of tradition, fear and ignorance. One woman lamented the fact that until her testimony, no one had mentioned “the sin of sodomy.” She assured us that a same sex couple cannot really teach children about sin because their lives are immersed in sin. She told us that “it grieves our Lord and Savior, and his Blessed Mother in heaven.”

The Bible has over 30,000 verses, and there are, in fact, six brief passages that condemn homosexuality. None of them are in the Gospels. Oddly, they only condemn male homosexuality. Each of the passages is problematic in one way or another. And not one of them is addressed toward a faithful, committed, monogamous same sex relationship. But listening to some of these folks one would think that everything from Genesis to Revelation was written just to condemn homosexuality.

At times I felt like I had fallen into the Bible Study from hell. No wonder that to many people outside the church it looks like Christianity is fundamentally about self-righteousness and condemnation. This was a weaponized Gospel. Devoid of grace. Abounding in judgment. It was painful.

In a post last month I spoke of ours as "a time when so many Christians seem to hate immigrants (and LGBTQ people, and people of color, and poor people) so much more than they love Jesus." That statement drew immediate and fervent response from several traditionalists. Just because they believed something was sinful, they argued, that did not make them haters.

As an intellectual argument, it sounds plausible. But in practice it does not work. Expressing the belief that homosexuality, or "the practice of homosexuality," is sinful is experienced as hateful.

And that night at the State House there were many Christians who seemed to hate gay people a lot more than they loved Jesus.

“But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

There were wonderful grace-filled stories told by parents about their gay children and by children about their gay parents. 

Partners told of their struggles to build a life together. 

A neuro-scientist talked clinically about studies of sexuality and the brain, and then introduced his brother, who is a pediatrician and cannot marry his partner.

Altogether it presented a very vivid illustration of Paul’s argument about law and grace in Romans. The more the traditionalists invoked the Law (Natural and Religious), the more “the trespass multiplied” by them against their sisters and brothers.

The Law was used as a club; in the apparent belief that if they could pound home their point with sufficient force, then they could make same sex relationships go away.

They are against Same Sex Marriage because they are against homosexuality, and they are against homosexuality, at least in part, because they do not believe that the Bible is a living Word. For them it is a dead letter. As Paul argued in his second letter to Corinth, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The dead letter of the Law can be used to wound, but it cannot heal and it cannot bring life.

We need to remind ourselves that we are called to be “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter, but of spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (II Corinthians 3:6)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Healthcare Is a Universal Human Right


Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
Ezekiel 34:2-4

Healthcare is a universal human right.


The libertarians will disagree, but from a Christian perspective there is broad consensus that the conclusion is unmistakable.


Healthcare is a universal human right and most Christian denominations would agree with the United Methodists that, “it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.”


The United Methodist Discipline states:

“Providing the care needed to maintain health, prevent disease, and restore health after injury or illness is a responsibility each person owes others and government owes to all . . . Like police and fire protection, health care is best funded through the government’s ability to tax each person equitably and directly fund the provider entities.”
In case you missed the meaning of that statement, we are talking about single payer insurance.

On the other side of the argument, writing for Freedomworks, Julie Borowski makes the libertarian case against the Affordable Care Act. “The dangerous philosophy behind the law,” she argues, “is that too many Americans now see health care as a human right rather than a good.”

“The Declaration of Independence states that we have an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That doesn’t mean that other people should be forced to sustain our life or make us happy,” she writes. “These legitimate rights do not place obligations on anyone except to not infringe on the rights of others.”
Of course, when you boil it all down, the issue is money.

On Vox.com, Matthew Iglesias characterizes critics of the ACA this way:

“They think it taxes rich people too much, and coddles Americans with excessively generous, excessively subsidized health insurance plans. They want a world of lower taxes on millionaires while millions of Americans put ‘skin in the game’ in the form of higher deductibles and copayments. Exactly the opposite, in other words, of what Republican politicians have been promising.”
“What they fundamentally did not like is that the basic framework of the law is to redistribute money by taxing high-income families and giving insurance subsidies to needy ones.”
This, they believe, is immoral. The ACA, they argue, was never about healthcare, it was about the redistribution of income.

Whether intended or not, the ACA does redistribute income as this chart from Gary Burtless and Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution shows, the Affordable Care Act enacts substantial income redistribution in the United States.




For those who care about economic justice and narrowing the gap between rich and poor, the redistribution does benefit the bottom two-tenths on the income chart. The bad news is first that it does not help a great deal. And second that as a percentage of annual income, the gains at the bottom come at the expense of the middle class. In raw dollars, of course, those at the top contribute the most, but the highest percentage is borne by those at the lower end of the middle class.


The ACA made some real gains in healthcare by making health insurance available to more than twenty million Americans who previously were uninsured. And it did modestly affect the distribution of income.

The plan presently being considered in congress will decrease Medicaid funding, throw millions of people off of insurance plans, make insurance more costly for those who are least able to afford it, and give tax breaks to those who need them least.


We can do better.




Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Making Vulnerable Kids More Vulnerable


People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs."
Luke 18:15-16

Recently the Trump administration rescinded the guidelines given by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education requiring that public schools allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and facilities corresponding to their gender identity.

This means that the students most vulnerable to bullying and harassment are given less protection.

Those already most vulnerable are made even more vulnerable.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, called it “a mean-spirited attack on hundreds of thousands of students who simply want to be their true selves and be treated with dignity while attending school,".

For decades, maybe centuries, transgender adults have been using the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. Most transgender folks dress and look like the gender with which they identify. And the rest of us don’t think very much about it.

The situation for transgender kids is more difficult. Before they understood their gender identity as different from their biology at birth, classmates may have known them as a different gender. The trans male may have been known previously as female, or vice versa. This makes them uniquely vulnerable to bullying and harassment.

The goal of the original guidelines, put forth last year, was to give kids protection at this very vulnerable time in their lives.

In rescinding those protections, the Trump administration presented the actions of the Justice and Education departments as simply affirming the rights of the states to develop their own guidelines.

"As President Trump has clearly stated, he believes policy regarding transgender bathrooms should be decided at the state level," the White House said in a statement. "The joint decision made today by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education returning power to the states paves the way for an open and inclusive process to take place at the local level with input from parents, students, teachers and administrators."

Although the directive was presented as the shared product of Justice and Education, the
initiative came from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Publicly, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was in agreement, but she was a reluctant participant.

She told Sessions about her reservations, but she was called in to the White House for a meeting with Sessions and Mr. Trump and was told to get on board.

"It was the President's decision," a source told CNN. "When the President tells you to do something you don't want to do, that is a hard spot to be in."

CNN reported that “DeVos reminded Trump that both of them had publicly promised to protect all students, and she felt that withdrawing the guidance ran counter to those promises. She was concerned that some people may interpret the action as removing protections.”

DeVos asked for clarification in the directive affirming that the rights of students would continue to be protected and assuring them that the Office of Civil Rights of the Education Department would investigate any complaints.

After the directive was released, Devos reaffirmed the Education Department’s responsibility "to protect every student in America and ensure that they have the freedom to learn and thrive in a safe and trusted environment.”

"This is not merely a federal mandate, but a moral obligation no individual, school, district or state can abdicate," she said in a statement. "At my direction, the department's Office for Civil Rights remains committed to investigating all claims of discrimination, bullying and harassment against those who are most vulnerable in our schools."

According to the Trump administration the guidelines protecting transgender students were withdrawn because the president believes that “policy regarding transgender bathrooms should be decided at the state level.”

In other words, the administration is claiming neutrality, which is another way of saying that they side with the bullies. 


As Bishop Tutu observed, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”



Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Please Be Prepared to Stand Up When the Time Comes

The Leadership of Rising Hope United Methodist Church

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:33-34

It is a small thing. Not much at all in the grand scheme of world events. And at first glance it may look more like darkness than light. But I believe that when the church stands up for the gospel, it matters.

This morning I received a letter from a United Methodist layperson in Virginia. His sister is a member of our church and he attends with her when he is visiting.

He enclosed a letter from the Alexandria District Superintendent, Rev. Jeff Mickle, addressed to the clergy of that district.

Rev. Mickle wrote to inform the pastors of what he called “a special cause for prayer and advocacy” in relation to the appropriately named Rising Hope United Methodist Church:

“On Wednesday morning of last week, February 8, as a group of homeless men left the Rising Hope hypothermia shelter at 6:45 a.m., a contingent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were stationed just across the street from the church to stop these men. The agents gathered the men (all Hispanic) and forced them to stand against a wall for two and a half hours while they were questioned. Many of the men had green cards, and no criminal warrants that would justify this kind of treatment. Eventually, about six men were arrested and taken away in vans.”
He went on to explain that he had participated in a prayer vigil and press conference held at the ICE Field Office in Fairfax County. Jim Wallis, of the Sojourners community, was one of the speakers, along with the Rev. Keary Kincannon, Lead Pastor of Rising Hope UMC, where the raid took place.

Rev. Mickle assured his colleagues that “Keary represented the call of Christ and the witness of the United Methodist Church very well.” And he reported an obvious but crucial point made by Jim Wallis, that "If the choice is between honoring a president’s campaign promise, or honoring the commands of Jesus, the Church has no choice but to follow Jesus, even if it leads us to stand up against the actions of the government.”

The District Superintendent went on to express his hope that “many of you can participate in solidarity with our brother Keary and in support of the ministry of Rising Hope UMC.”

“As you know,” he writes, “Jesus tells us that ‘inasmuch as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me,’ which specifies feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger.” When government agents stake out churches which are fulfilling the commands of Christ, it is important for other Christians to bear witness.

“Please keep the matter in your prayers in the days ahead,” he writes.

And then he adds:

“Please be prepared to stand up when the time comes.”

I guess if you are keeping score, the ICE agents won this one.

But for me it is still a sign of hope.

In a time when so many Christians seem to hate immigrants (and LGBTQ people, and people of color, and poor people) so much more than they love Jesus, I am thankful for Rising Hope UMC and the people who will stand up for the strangers who sojourn with us in our land.






Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.