Friday, October 31, 2014

A Life Lost and the Problem of Heteronormativity

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 7:12

Julie Wood, a United Methodist from North Carolina made a touching video about her son Ben, who grew up in the United Methodist Church and was active in his youth group until he told the group that he was gay. Not long after that, the youth pastor told him that he would go to hell and yelled at Julie and her husband for raising him. The youth pastor encouraged members of the group to stay away from him. Ben never went back to church after that, and he committed suicide in 2013.

When I was ordained a Deacon in 1973 the major issue at our Annual Conference centered on the charges brought against a clergy colleague for marrying two gay men who were students at Harvard Divinity School.

We have been debating the place (or lack of place) of LGBTQ persons for a long time. We have been discussing and debating since before anyone used the terms LGBTQ or LGBT or even gay.

Back then, “they” were “homosexuals,” and “we” were . . . normal. And we did not realize how much pain we inflicted simply by casting the debate in that context. I did not realize the harm done even by those of us on the “right” side of that issue.

This fall, in the course of a panel discussion on diversity, there was a controversy at Duke Divinity School when a student asked a question about how the school was combating the problem of heteronormativity. The dean of the school responded (accounts vary about the exact sequence of events) by reading a passage from the United Methodist Discipline which asserts that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

We will pause for a moment to consider the irony of the dean’s response.

In the debate following that incident, one of the recurring themes was that those supporting a “traditional” view and upholding the Discipline were being bullied by those who categorized such views as hateful and bigoted. The traditionalists lamented the fact that the discussion could not be more respectful and civilized. The problem, of course, is that what the traditionalists call respectful and civilized actually inflicts great pain on LGBTQ persons.

The video made by Julie Wood is a painful reminder of what real bullying looks like, and of the harm it inflicts.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Second Best Time to Change Your Mind

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Isaiah 43:18-19

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

David Gushee, a leading evangelical ethicist, has chosen the second best time to change his mind. Jonathan Merritt, in a column for the Religious News Service, writes that Gushee recently announced that he has changed his mind on issues relating to homosexuality and Christian faith and he is now an advocate for the full inclusion of LGBT Christians within the life of the church.

In an address planned for a training event to be hosted by The Reformation Project on November 6-8, Gushee will declare his change of heart. “I do join your crusade tonight,” According to a draft of the speech obtained by RNS, Gushee will declare that, “I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be.”

Gushee is clear that he should have changed his mind sooner, “It took me two decades of service as a married, straight evangelical Christian minister and ethicist to finally get here,” he told the group. And then he apologized for that long delay, saying, “I am truly sorry that it took me so long to come into full solidarity with the Church’s own most oppressed group.”

He identifies four factors that led to his change of heart.

His work on environmental ethics and torture brought him into contact with many gay evangelical Christians who were working on those same issues. Their witness led him to reconsider what he thought the Bible said about homosexuality, and that Bible study convinced him that the Bible did not say what he had thought it said. (For a review of the biblical issues, see my post on Sexual Orientation and the Bible.) Gushee recognized, as many others have, that the Bible has been misused to justify oppression and injustice in the past, on issues like slavery, women’s rights, segregation, anti-Semitism, and torture.

In addition to the witness of gay Christians and his reconsideration of the biblical basis for his position, he had an experience much closer to home. Merritt writes that “in 2008, his younger sister, Katey, came out as a lesbian. She is a Christian, single mother, and had been periodically hospitalized for depression and a suicide attempt.” This convinced Gushee that “traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure it.”

And finally, he was influenced by the overwhelming body of scientific research which says that sexual orientation is not a choice, it is a natural form of human diversity. All of this led him to begin his theological and ethical reflection from a new starting point: the suffering of LGBT Christians.

Gushee’s defection is important. He is a leading evangelical ethicist. His book, “Kingdom Ethics,” written with the late Glen Stassen, is a staple of courses on evangelical ethics. Gushee has written a book about his journey called “Changing Our Mind: A Call from America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church,” which will be released by David Crumm Media prior to the speech. He hopes that his new book, like his previous work, will become a basic resource for evangelical Christians and that it will provide an opportunity for other Christians to reexamine their views on this issue.

The book, and Gushee’s affirmation of solidarity with LGBT Christians, mark one more step in a long journey. He is not the first evangelical Christian to change his mind on this issue, and he will not be the last. One hopes that United Methodists who continue to exclude and condemn their gay sisters and brothers will pay attention.

Gushee knows that former friends and colleagues will be swift to condemn his epiphany, but he maintains that he does not worry. “I still love Jesus and read the Bible and pray every morning, and I don’t really care what they say,” he said, according to Merritt. “I’m willing to let God and history be my judge.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Thank God for Janet Yellen

Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of the manna as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.
Exodus 16:16-18

In biblical economics, a core principle is that there should not be a great gulf between those who have the most and those who have the least. The Bible is deeply suspicious of wealth. Jesus told his disciples that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. But Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all rich by ancient standards, and the New Testament tells of disciples who used their resources to help others and support the early church. The biblical ideal is not economic equality, but an economy in which those with the least have enough and those with the most do not have too much.

We can (and should) debate the meaning of “enough” and “too much,” but there can be little doubt that the current widening gap between rich and poor does not fall within acceptable biblical parameters.

Last week, in an historic address at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen spoke about the widening gap between rich and poor.

She began her remarks by noting that “The distribution of income and wealth in the United States has been widening more or less steadily for several decades, to a greater extent than in most advanced countries.” She went on to make an important declaration followed by several significant observations:

“The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then. It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

When the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board says that something (anything) “greatly concern(s) me,” that is important. And the widening gap should concern all of us.

Her suggested solutions are neither radical nor particularly biblical. She is not about to sing with Mary about casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. She does not suggest that the hungry be filled with good things or that the rich be sent away empty. But she does offer a place to start.

One of her most important insights is that the widening gap between rich and poor is incompatible “with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.” Technically, she doesn’t make that as a statement, she poses it as a question, but I’m guessing that is what she thinks.

Her proposed building blocks of opportunity are hardly groundbreaking: early childhood education and support, access to higher education, business ownership, and inheritance. She talks about how budget cuts have decimated the funds available for education and weakened the safety net, but she does not propose a graduated tax to offset the losses and fund those programs. And she does not address the ways in which reductions in the marginal tax rate and other government policies have exacerbated the problem. But it is a beginning.

Naming our demons is an important first step in confronting and defeating them. When Janet Yellen names the demon of increasing inequality, it makes a difference. She is by no means the first person to say that the widening gap in income and wealth inevitably leads to inequality of opportunity and undermines a core common value for us as Americans, but when the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board speaks, people listen.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Problem with Prayer

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8:26-27

A few weeks ago a friend posted a link to an article titled “Why I Hate Prayer,” by Jim Mulholland, a former pastor who now maintains a web site called “Leaving Your Religion,” which offers “guidance for becoming non-religious.”

I was not surprised that someone hated prayer. The idea is common in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. The prophet Amos proclaimed God’s hatred of prayer and worship without justice. And Jesus had harsh words for those who made a show of their prayers.

But I was surprised by the idea that anyone needed help in “leaving your religion.” In my experience, folks seem to make that transition without any help at all. As witness the joke told in one variation or another in every denomination. It begins with the question of how to rid the church of mice and ends with the punchline: “We just confirm (or baptize) them and they never come back again.”

Mulholland hates prayer first because he grieves for those who pray desperately in horrific circumstances and face the pain of unanswered prayers. But his second reason is that the celebration of “answered” prayers can inflict even more pain on those whose prayers have not been answered.

He writes, “Perhaps the more graphic examples of this cruelty happened in one of my last years of ministry. One Sunday, a woman stood to announce that – after several months – her prayers had been answered and she was pregnant. Everyone was excited and happy for her, except for me and one other. As I looked out on the congregation I saw the crestfallen face of a woman who had recently shared with me her long depression over her infertility. It wasn’t enough that she would never have children. Now she had to struggle with why her prayers went unanswered.”

When Christians celebrate “answered prayers” as a sign of faithfulness, they imply that the reason why the prayers of their sisters and brothers have not yielded similar results is because they lacked faith. If we add in the folks who, often innocently, celebrate answers to trivial prayers, for a parking space, or a trip without traffic, or sunshine on a picnic, or the victory of their favorite sports team, it becomes even worse.

So Mulholland declares emphatically, “If there is a god who answers the prayers of some men, women and children, but ignores the prayers of others, I have no interest in such a god. That god would be source of inequity and not a god of justice. I would hate a god who answered trivial requests while ignoring the pleas of the parents of starving children.”

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”

In a FaithLink article called “Prayer in a Postmodern World,” Alex Joyner begins with a reference to the movie “Gravity.” He describes poignant scenes of the astronauts “floating in space talking into the void in the hope that they will be heard.” The lead characters, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are set adrift when flying debris strikes the space shuttle on which they are working. They do not know whether or not anyone can hear them, but hoping that ground control might somehow pick up their transmissions, they tell their story in great detail.

“Later,” writes Joyner, “Bullock’s character intercepts a radio signal from Earth, and though she can’t understand all that is being said, she pleads with the staticky voice to pray for her.” She feels compelled to explain, “I’d pray for myself, but I’ve never prayed. Nobody ever taught me how.”

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he tells us that the astronaut is not alone. No one knows how to pray. We don’t know what to say and we don’t know how to say it. Prayer would be impossible if it were not for the intervention of the Spirit of God within us, which prays through us.

In a sermon on this passage, Paul Tillich writes, “This may help us also to understand the most mysterious part of Paul’s description of prayer, namely, that the Spirit "intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Just because every prayer is humanly impossible, just because it brings deeper levels of our being before God than the level of consciousness, something happens in it that cannot be expressed in words. Words, created by and used in our conscious life, are not the essence of prayer. The essence of prayer is the act of God who is working in us and raises our whole being to Himself. The way in which this happens is called by Paul "sighing." Sighing is an expression of the weakness of our creaturely existence. Only in terms of wordless sighs can we approach God, and even these sighs are His work in us.”

Karl Barth said that “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the the disorder of the world.” It is a rebellion against the chaos and an affirmation of the Spirit. The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever. The gift of prayer is that we open ourselves to that loving heart.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Something Worth Remembering

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Exodus 20:4-6

Everyone knows the saying about the “sins of the parents being visited upon their children,” and not just children, but grandchildren and great grandchildren.

It’s one of those biblical ideas that has faithful people scratching their heads, and the more secular among us pointing to it as one more place where religion gets it wrong. It seems wrong in spite of the fact that we know it to be true. We know that the bad choices of one generation often affect succeeding generations. We have studied the ways in which the treaties imposed at the end of World War I set in motion the forces that led to World War II. We know about the legacy of slavery.

But the second part of that passage is often overlooked. Righteousness endures to the thousandth generation. In other words, forever.

It is a remarkable concept. When we bend the arc of history away from justice, it is serious, and it makes a difference that may last generations. But when we bend the arc toward justice, that act is never lost. Human beings may forget, but the moral universe is changed forever.

George Shuba died last week in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, at the age of 89. Shuba played seven seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had a smooth stroke at the plate and was called Shotgun because of his ability to spray line drives around the outfield. He played in three World Series, including Brooklyn’s only World Championship in 1955.

I knew who George Shuba was from reading about the glory years of the old Dodgers, but I did not know what Paul Harvey liked to call “the rest of the story,” until I read Richard Goldstein’s obituary in the New York Times.

What he accomplished in the Major Leagues was minor, compared to the legacy of one game in the Minor Leagues in 1946. On April 18 of that year Shuba was playing left field for the Montreal Royals. He hit three home runs in that opening game of the season, but that wasn’t what makes the game memorable. In the third inning, Jackie Robinson, playing in his first game organized baseball, hit a three run homer. When he crossed home plate, Shuba, who was waiting on deck as the next hitter, stepped up and shook his hand.

The handshake would have been nothing special if Robinson had been white, but in the hyper sensitive context of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, it was a huge moment. And it was captured forever in that iconic Associated Press photo at the top of this post.

After retiring from baseball, George Shuba returned to Youngstown, raised a family, and worked as a postal clerk. When he went to schools in the Youngstown area to talk about racial tolerance, he always carried a copy of that photo with him. His son Michael remembers that when he came home from school with a report of racial bullying, his rather would point to the old photograph and tell him: “Look up at that photo. I want you to remember what that stands for. You treat all people equally.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bigotry and the Bible

We are not competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

II Corinthians 3:5-6; 4:7

Monday night, while I was waiting for the start of the Patriots game, I watched part of the debate among the candidates for Governor of Massachusetts, and I found myself meditating on those verses from Paul’s letter.

When I first encountered those verses it was in the old Revised Standard Version. In that translation, it says that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” To me that sounded rather elegant. I did not know what an “earthen vessel” was, but it sounded ancient and sacred. The New Revised Standard Version put my reverie to rest with the more accurate, “clay jars.” Nothing special. Completely ordinary. Maybe less than ordinary. Like tin cans, or plastic bottles.

Paul’s insight was that Christian faith grew not because of the competence of its proponents, but in spite of them. In an earlier letter, he pushed the Christians in Corinth to think about this in terms of their own lives. “Consider your own call,” he wrote. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (I Corinthians 1:26-28)

As a pastor and a church leader, I have always found Paul’s insight comforting. And obviously true. I am sometimes amazed by the church’s ability to survive inept leadership.

But as I listened to the gubernatorial debate, I found myself wondering how far Paul’s insight might stretch. We can (and have) survived incompetence. But can we survive mean?

I tuned in as independent candidate Scott Lively was answering a question about the state’s spending to repair its decaying infrastructure.

It took me a few seconds to remember why his name was familiar to me. He is a pastor. And a well-known activist against gay rights. He played a role in helping Uganda to frame its now infamous anti-gay legislation. And he wrote a book called, “The Pink Swastika.” That fact alone tells you almost everything you need to know.

Pastor Lively turned the question about roads and bridges into a question of what he called the declining “moral infrastructure” in the state and went on to speak of the state’s commitment to teaching tolerance as part of children’s education as the promotion of “sexual perversion to children in the public schools.”

The next speaker, Republican Charlie Baker, quickly affirmed the need to repair the state’s roadways and then said he wanted to use the remainder of his time to respond to Lively’s comments, which he called “a veiled reference” to gay people. "As the brother of a gay man who lives and is married in Massachusetts,” Baker declared, “I want you to know that I found that kind of offensive, and I would appreciate you not saying things like that from this point forward.”

Lively responded quickly, "I believe in the Bible, Charlie. I'm sorry that you don't.”

Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate, seconded Baker’s comment and then cited her own record in support of gay rights before addressing the question of infrastructure.

No one addressed Lively’s invocation of the Bible in defense of his bigotry. And that was entirely appropriate. It wasn’t supposed to be a theological debate.

But it worries me that statements like Lively’s so often go unchallenged. This isn’t unchecked righteousness; it is, to use the biblical word, unrighteousness.

In previous generations, Lively’s retort has been employed by supporters of slavery and segregation, and opponents of women’s rights, among others. But in those previous generations, the other side of the debate had a larger proportion of biblically literate Christians who were motivated by the great biblical themes of justice and egalitarianism, rather than focusing on what Paul called “the letter” of the law.

The truth is that Scott Lively believes six biblical passages at the expense of almost everything else. Nobody said that. In fairness, it would not have been appropriate and it would have opened the door to even more outrageous statements from Scott Lively. But it left his statement unchallenged. And for many viewers that statement will sum up what they have heard about Christian faith.