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.