Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Trailer for THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE

With copious assistance from my son and photo contributions from several friends, I was able to create a book trailer for the new book. Okay, to be honest, my son was able to create a book trailer. I simply provided a bit of violin playing and talked about the book on camera, solicited photos, and then handed it all to him, saying, "Can you turn this into a book trailer?" Then he worked his magic. Here's the result:

Monday, August 7, 2017


I did a short interview about my new book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic, for the press kit. I thought I'd include it here. The book is now available at a discounted rate from the publisher at the Wipf and Stock website, and will soon be available at most online book retailers.

1. What inspired you to write The Triumph of Love?

This book is probably the most deeply personal book I’ve written, because I have so many people close to me who are sexual minorities. For me, the “issue” of same-sex marriage isn’t some abstract intellectual question. It’s about people I love, about their experiences and the impact that their stories have had on my personal and intellectual journey. I wanted to write about that journey in a way that could answer a question that seems to genuinely puzzle so many conservative Christians: How can I, as a Christian, support same-sex marriage?

2. You are a philosopher by training, not a theologian. How does a philosopher approach these issues differently from theologians?

As a moral philosopher, I’m trained to think about concrete moral controversies in part by applying specific theories about the nature of morality. Christianity teaches that the heart of moral life is love, and that Jesus’ life is a model for what Christian love looks like. So what we have here is a distinctly Christian understanding of morality: the Christian love ethic. As a philosopher, I want to see what that ethic implies—in this case, for same-sex marriage. So instead of starting with biblical passages that talk about homosexuality or biblical themes about marriage and sexuality, my starting point is the love ethic, and my question is what love for my gay and lesbian neighbors demands.

3. But as Christians, we can’t ignore Scripture, can we?

Of course not. The love ethic flows out of Scripture, from the teachings of Jesus and the model of love He offered. And if we care about Scripture, we have to pay attention to that. If we try to draw moral lessons about homosexuality by interpreting isolated texts without considering what it means to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves, then we would be ignoring Scripture. If we don’t want to ignore this crucial dimension of what Scripture teaches, we should approach the interpretation of isolated texts in light of this attention to the ethic that, in Scripture, Jesus taught and modeled for us.

4. In addition to being a philosopher, you’ve also published short stories and won creative writing awards. How does that experience in writing stories affect your approach to this book, if at all?

It affects it a lot. I tell stories in this book. In fact, I think I have to, because a central thesis of the book is that love for our gay and lesbian neighbors requires paying attention to their stories. I could not do what I want to do in this book without sharing the stories of my gay and lesbian neighbors. And I didn’t set out to write an ivory tower book just for other philosophers and theologians. I wanted this to be a book that any educated reader can pick up and learn something from. Storytelling is part of that.

5. Do you think conservative Christian opponents of same-sex marriage will read this book? Should they?

I routinely hear conservative Christians ask how someone who claims to be a Christian could support same-sex marriage, given what Scripture says. Whether they agree with my conclusions or not, this book could answer their curiosity and help them to better understand why Christians like me reach the conclusions we do. More importantly, my aim in the book is not to bash conservative Christian opponents of same-sex marriage but to engage in a conversation with them. The love ethic calls us, straight and gay, to love our gay and lesbian neighbors, but it also calls us to love those we disagree with. That doesn’t always mean being “nice” or “gentle.” Sometimes love means calling out beliefs and practices we’re convinced are harmful. But in this book I’m trying to model loving engagement with those who hold opposing views. I hope that those who disagree with me will take up the invitation to discuss these matters in a spirit of love.

6. If there’s one thing you hope readers will take away from the book, what would that be?

Love begins with attention. We cannot love our neighbors as ourselves if we don’t pay attention to them: compassionate attention, empathetic attention. Whatever my readers think about the ethics of homosexual sex and same-sex marriage, I hope they come away convinced that they cannot love their gay and lesbian neighbors if they won’t listen with compassion to their stories and empathize with their lives and experiences. And this point goes way beyond gays and lesbians. Jesus especially challenged us to love our enemies and those who are lying beaten down on the roadside—in other word, those our society is most likely to treat as Other, those we are most culturally conditioned to ignore. If my book can inspire people to seek out and pay compassionate attention to someone from a group or community they’ve never really paid attention to before, I will think it a success.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

It's Here: The Triumph of Love!

THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE: SAME-SEX MARRIAGE AND THE CHRISTIAN LOVE ETHIC is now available for purchase from the Wipf & Stock website for $24.80. Amazon has created a page for the book, and you can buy it from other distributors through that page (Amazon will have its own copies to sell soon). The e-book should be out in a few months, and will be less expensive than the paperback.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Cover Reveal! it is. The cover of the new book! It should be out soon. Stay tuned for release date and more information.
Image may contain: one or more people and text

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What Business Does a Straight Man Have Writing a Book About the LGBT Community and Its Concerns?

"Are you LGBT? If not, why are you creating a book about us?"

Someone asked me this question the other day on social media, and it struck me as an excellent and important question, one that deserved a thoughtful answer. My forthcoming book--The Triumph of Love--aims to respond to those Christians who think that all Christian allies (not to mention LGBT Christians) are nothing but sell-outs to secular culture by explaining how and why I became an ally, and how and why my Christian faith and my Christian ethical commitments have become central to my support of same-sex marriage and LGBT equality.

But what authority do I have, really, to speak to the needs and experiences of my LGBT neighbors and the place of same-sex marriage in their lives? Do I think I can speak for them better than they can for themselves? Am I doing the straight equivalent of "mansplaining"? (God, I hope not.)

The answer I gave to my social media interlocutor seemed a fitting one to include here, and so I reproduce it (only slightly edited) below.

I think it is important for allies to speak about why it is important to be an ally. And within the Christian world, I think it is important for conservatives to hear from Christian supporters of same-sex marriage who can't be preemptively dismissed as just "defending their lifestyle."

I wrote this book, also, because there are people I love who are tired of being challenged to defend their most meaningful and important relationships, who just want to live and love without being targeted to defend their right to do so; and since my most meaningful and important relationship is not under attack I can draw some of that fire, offer some measure of the relief that I believe allies can provide.

And I write because I am full of an angry love that I feel compelled to voice.

And I believe I have an expertise about the Christian love ethic and it's implications that hasn't been clearly and fully voiced in the debates among progressive and conservative Christians (and those in between), a perspective that I believe may move that discussion in ways that will do some good for the most vulnerable.

And I write because my overarching message is not, "Listen to me!" My constant drumbeat-message throughout the book is that straight Christians cannot claim to love their LGBT neighbors if they do not pay compassionate attention to those neighbors--a message that, coming from another straight Christian, might inspire someone who doesn't pay attention to their LGBT neighbors (and so won't hear that message spoken by a sexual or gender minority) to look up from the pages of their Bibles and other books (including mine) and seek out LGBT voices.

I wrote this book because, tragically, we live in a world where it isn't obvious that love for someone starts with listening to them. We live in a world where too often Christians, who profess to live by an ethic of love, plug up their ears with Bible verses so they won't hear the anguished cries of the neighbors they are hurting (because hearing them might jar them loose from the certainty they need to sustain in order to continue to comfortably belong to their religious communities).

Because we live in such a world, I believe it can be helpful to have books that say, "Look up! Unplug your ears!" And we need some of those books to come from someone who isn't among those that the privileged are refusing to look at or listen to. A book by someone they are more likely to hear, but a book that points them to those they aren't hearing.

We live in a world where structural and ideological forces have invested some with privilege while marginalizing others. And because the privileged have power that the marginalized lack, they are capable of insulating themselves from the marginalized and their voices. But at least sometimes, allies enjoy access to the privileged that can help break down those insulating barriers. And I think that to the extent that they have such power, allies have a moral duty to use it.

I wish we didn't live in a world where that would be necessary, where some are so insulated from the marginalized others that it requires a voice from within their own circle of privilege to jar them from their insulation. But unfortunately I am convinced we do live in such a world. Despite all the advances that the LGBT community has made, we still do. And while it is the voices of the marginalized that will change that world, it is the duty of allies to say "listen!"

My book was born out of that sense of duty. My hope is that it will inspire someone, somewhere, to listen to their LGBT neighbors in a way they haven't before.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Proposed Script for THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE Book Trailer

So I'm thinking of doing a book trailer for my forthcoming book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. My proposed script for it appears below. Let me know what you think. Also, my son actually has some video editing skills, so I might be able to arm-twist him into helping me create something better than just a talking head. If there are any visuals that strike you as good supplements to me talking into the camera in front of a bookcase, let me know your ideas! 

So once when I was in college, a friend and I were talking to the woman who ran the cafeteria ID cards. When we told her we were Christians she snapped out, “Does that mean you think all homosexuals are going to hell?”

This was the late 1980’s, and as Christians we were used to getting push-back from secularists and “greed-is-good” materialists and classmates who just wanted to party and get laid. But this kind of moral indignation about Christian views on homosexuality? That was new to us.

Fortunately my friend jumped into the silence. “Of course we don’t think all homosexuals are going to hell.”

“What,” the woman said, “so you don’t think it’s a sin?”

It was at that point that my friend invoked the now-familiar saying, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” The saying wasn't quite so familiar then, certainly not to me. It sounded profound, and as my friend said it I felt this huge surge of relief: love the sinner but hate the sin! Yeah! I’m still a loving guy.

It wasn’t until I started making gay friends that I realized just how inadequate that response was.

Here’s the thing: Just because we can love people while condemning what really is a sin doesn’t mean we can take anything to be a sin and still love people the way we should. Can we love children the way we should if we think that it’s at all times and in all places sinful for them to play? What about loving our diabetic neighbors while declaring it a sin to use insulin?

And can we love our gay and lesbian neighbors properly if we condemn as sinful their most meaningful, loving, faithful, monogamous relationships? Can we love them if, convinced that homosexual acts are at all times and in all places sinful, we try to systematically exclude them from access to the goods of marriage?

Too often, Christians have used the Bible as a kind of weapon, extracting clobber passages and beating sexual minorities over the head. And then we use those same passages to plug up our ears so we don’t have to hear their anguished cries. Surely that can’t be the way to go.

Of course, Christians can’t ignore the Bible. But if we don’t seriously wrestle with what it means to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves, that’s exactly what we’re doing. If self-righteous certainty takes the place of compassionate attention, we haven’t been paying attention to Jesus. We need to listen to our neighbors in all their diversity, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transender, and beyond. We need to hear their stories—stories about how Christian condemnation has affected them, and what access to same-sex marriage means for their lives. And then we need to struggle with what that means for living out the law of love.

Only then can we hope to move closer to the one thing God longs for more than anything else: The Triumph of Love.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hypothetical Verdicts: Crutcher, Shelby, and Blame

Last night a jury in Tulsa reached a verdict in a high-profile case in which a police officer, Betty Shelby, shot and killed an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher. When she shot him, Crutcher was neither doing what she ordered him to do nor posing a clear threat (he was walking away from her with his arms raised, apparently putting those arms on the side of his car). Like so many other cases like it, the jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict.

I want to begin by saying​ something about this case that I think ought to be uncontroversial. What happened in this case is that a man with a drug problem who in fact posed no threat encountered, as part of a routine traffic stop, an officer who set out that day to serve and protect, not to kill people. And yet the officer shot the man, killing him. When that happens, something has gone terribly wrong.

What went wrong was not an "act of God." Crutcher did not die from an illness or a natural disaster. He was shot. And yet he did nothing that deserved death. He was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, and he wasn't perfectly obedient to the officers commands. But these are not the sorts of things that warrant death. And so something has gone terribly wrong.

That is the uncontroversial thing I want to l say. But now come the difficult questions. Suppose we accept the jury's judgment that the officer was not responsible for what went so terribly wrong. Who is, then? Is it appropriate to blame the man who died--blame him because in his confused state he wasn't absolutely and perfectly obedient, because he went to put his hands on his car in a move that trained officers (but not the man) have learned bad guys might use to grab for a gun? Is that the choice the jury was given? Blame the white woman in the police uniform, the one sitting in front of them looking earnest and just like them, a good citizen who means well; or blame the drug-using black man who is gone, who is nowhere in sight because he is dead, dead by a bullet lodged in his lung, a bullet propelled there by the twitch of that earnest woman's trigger finger?

Perhaps the jury had too few options. Perhaps when it comes to assessing responsibility for something that has gone so terribly wrong, juries are forced into a false dilemma.The jury was not given the option to  deliver, for example, the following hypothetical verdict: "We cannot convict you because the fault is wider than you and deeper than you. You were just there at that moment with the legacy of our cultural conditioning and our collective fears; you were there, and the systems and practices and norms of our society came together in you, pulling the trigger and making a man die, a man who posed no threat. But it could have been any one of us, and we would have done the same."

There was no option for saying that. Should there be?

Shelby and Crutcher were not alone in that moment. I don't just mean that other officers present and the helicopter whirring overhead. Social forces came together in that moment--including, perhaps, the white majority's collective fear of black men, a fear that we feed and perpetuate in all kinds of subtle ways. We feed it and perpetuate it in the unconscious minds of children who grow up wanting to serve and protect. And then one day an officer is afraid that she won't make it home alive--even though as a matter of fact the man was moving slowly away from her with his arms in the air.

Are we quicker to jump to threat scenarios when it's a black man than when it's, say, a white woman? To Shelby, it seemed like a vivid possibility that Crutcher, drugged and disoriented, might lunge through the car window to grab a gun, spin towards Shelby, and fire with deadly aim. It was so vivid, so live as a threat that she shot and killed this man whose hands were in the air, who had no gun, no gun at all. Would it have struck her as such a vivid possibility, such a plausible source of fear-- something demanding such immediate, fatal, and irrevocable action--if Crutcher had been a white woman? Also, would empathy and fellow human feeling have been potent in that case, acting to curb fatal mistakes by making them seem more dire?

I'm not talking here about overt racism. I'm not talking about deliberately discounting black lives because they are black. What I'm talking about are unconscious, implicit biases formed in us through social conditioning, biases we don't even know we have and which shape our perceptions in moments of crisis when there isn't time to make more steady, considered judgments.

Did the jury find her not guilty in part because they share the same fears, the same unconscious presuppositions that shape how they envision unfolding events? Did they identify with her and her perspective because they were subject to the same social conditioning? Was it especially easy for them, because of our shared culture, to understand why that unarmed man who was not engaged in hostile or aggressive action could appear to the officer in that moment as a deadly threat?

If this were a freakish case, an unheard-of anomaly in the American landscape, then we might accept the verdict, say "Whatever it was that went wrong, the jury looked at the evidence and decided it wasn't the officer's fault," and then move on with our lives. But we don't have that luxury, because this is not some unheard-of anomaly in American life.

If we accept the verdict, that means we must look beyond the officer to determine what went wrong, to discern what brokenness in our society needs to be fixed so that tragedies like this don't keep happening.

A guilty verdict would have said many things. Among them, it would have said to my black friends watching the trial with trepidation and a thread of hope that this time, in this case, a black life mattered. But a guilty verdict might also have said, "We've found the culprit, the source of the problem. It was this particular woman. The rest of us are off the hook." If we accept the verdict and we accept that black lives really do matter as much as white lives, then we need to ask why this sort of thing keeps happening and what we can do to fix it.

Maybe, in our current world, "not guilty" means "No one's to blame! We're off the hook!" while "guilty" means "That one person is to blame! The rest of us are off the hook!" Maybe there is no way, with the verdicts on offer, for any verdict to ever move us to ask what has gone so horribly wrong and what we can do, what we must do, to change things.

And so we return to my hypothetical verdict, a different kind of "not guilty" verdict: "Not guilty by virtue of the fact that we, society, are collectively to blame for the forces that came together in that tragic moment; not guilty because any one of us, conditioned as we have been conditioned and socialized as we have been socialized, might have done the same thing in that moment. Not guilty because we are all guilty, not guilty in a way that demands collective responsibility. Not guilty in a way that does not erase guilt but demand accountability."

And maybe that "not guilty"verdict needs to be paired with a different kind of guilty verdict: "Guilty by virtue of being an agent of something deeper than the individual, of social wrongs that found expression in this person at this moment but are not isolating to the individual; guilty in a way that does not let others off the hook but recognizes the deep roots of tragic wrongs and demands collective responsibility and broader accountability."

In our individualistic culture, we don't like those kinds of verdicts. Such verdicts would be a call to action, a call to social change. Easier to treat not-guilty verdicts as exonerating not only the individuals but also ourselves, and guilty-verdicts as heaping all the guilt on the bad guys so that the rest of us can feel cleansed.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bishop Oliveto, the United Methodists, and the Law of Love

A Personal Issue

On April 28, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church ruled that when the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC consecrated Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop, it violated church law. The law in question is an old one from the 1970's, one that precludes "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from serving as church leaders in the UMC. Bishop Oliveto, in case you haven't heard, is in a same-sex marriage.

Although I am now a Lutheran, I was raised in the Methodist Church: a mid-sized suburban UMC congregation in upstate New York. I was confirmed there and was active with the UMYF--the United Methodist Youth Fellowship--throughout Junior High and High School. One of my fondest memories from that time was an extended canoe trip through the Adirondacks with the youth group and the pastors of the church. It was a week of connecting powerfully to God's creation, and experiencing its beauty and power through the Wesleyan lens our pastor preached from his own canoe, a paddle in hand. Among the experiences that have given me a vivid sense of God's presence, this one ranks among the most formative.

I say all of this because I want to explain why these events in the UMC are personal for me. Although I am today part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was shaped by the UMC. When I picture a church, it is still that UMC church of my childhood that springs first to mind. And when I think about pastors who forged my faith in a God of love, one of the first to come to mind is Rev. Harrington, sitting in that canoe, his voice rolling along the river as he invited us all to take in the majesty of God's world.

Also, when I view the current turmoil in the UMC I recall the ELCA's struggles over these same matters, struggles I was personally involved with in numerous ways. I know first-hand what it feels like to be part of a church that's trying to find a way forward when it comes to inclusion of sexual minorities. At different times I was on both the losing and winning sides of the ELCA's fitful journey. Neither side was without its share of anguish. And so I look at the church of my childhood, and I share the pain.

Not Just an Issue

The controversy is so grave and difficult because it isn't about an "issue." It's about the fate of real people. It's about Bishop Oliveto but not just her. It's about Rev. Karen Dammann, who was put on trial and risked being defrocked for admitting to her congregation that she was in a committed relationship with a woman. It's about Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was defrocked for performing same-sex union ceremonies for members of his congregation. Closer to home, it's about Oklahoma pastor Kathleen McCallie, a friend of my wife who loved her work as a UMC minister but who faced the same choice as Creech, and in anguish chose to follow her conscience and so be expelled from the church and ministry she loved.

This is not an "issue" that members of the UMC can just agree to disagree about and then worship together amidst their differences. Why not? Because this is about the actual fate of real people within the worship life of the church. It is about who gets to perform which roles in worship. It is about which couples can get married in a church service, which ones can sit together in the pews without being labeled as sinners for it. It is about who can show up with their partners at an adult Sunday School class about building stronger marriages, and who will be told, "Your marriage should be voided, not made stronger, because your love for each other is a sin and the meaning and richness you find in life partnership is an abomination."

Love and Same-Sex Marriage

It's because of the persistent recurrence of cases like Bishop Oliveto's, cases that continue to cause so much turmoil and pain, that I felt compelled to write my forthcoming book on same-sex marriage and Christian love, The Triumph of Love. I cannot, in a blog post, do justice to all of the arguments in that book. But I want to sketch out a few of them here. In that book I argue that, if we want to love our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we should apply to them the same model of sexual restraint that has served heterosexuals through history: all of us should be urged to express our sexuality within the bonds of marriage.

Marriage, at its best, becomes a crucible for learning faithful love over a lifetime. Marriage is not just a source of joy but a source of meaning and growth in love. To withhold that from gays and lesbians, most of whom are as ill-equipped for life-long celibacy as their heterosexual peers, has substantial costs for their welfare.

But the cost goes deeper than simply losing out on something. The Christian tradition has long held that all same-sex intimacy, even in marriage, is a sin. If you think this, you think Christian communities should be structured accordingly. You think gays and lesbians should grow up being taught that their sexuality is fundamentally broken, that their intimate partnerships are an affront to God no matter how faithful and virtuous and life-enriching they might be. You think gays and lesbians should be systematically excluded from participation in the most foundational social and cultural unit. Not only are they forced to live their lives without the kind of love and companionship and lessons in Christian love that marriage brings. They are taught that, in a fundamental sense, there is not a place for them.

Because Christian communities have long been built around these assumptions, many gays and lesbians have been born and raised under these conditions. And so we know what it is like for them if we listen compassionately to their stories. I have done such listening, as have many other Christians who are, like me, progressive on this question. Like many others, I have learned some important lessons from that listening, lessons underscored by the corpses of those driven to suicidal despair by the conviction that they will never be acceptable in the eyes of God unless they close themselves off to their most intense yearnings for love and closeness. Countless witnesses reinforce a shattering message: traditional teachings on homosexuality can be soul-crushing for the sexual minorities who grow up in communities that teach it. While some break away, others just break.

Of course, much has changed in recent years. There are growing pockets of acceptance. Many sexual minorities have found peace and a place at the table within Christian communities. Instead of having to choose between their faith and their sexual/romantic selves--or having to live the lie of the closet--many are finding places where they can have what heterosexuals take for granted: the integration of Christian faith with their human longing for sexual intimacy and loving partnership.

To believe that all homosexual sex is sinful is to believe that such opportunities should be withdrawn and the closet door slammed shut. But that doesn't sound much like love to me.

Burying Talents

The current policies of the UMC perpetuate the marginalization of gays and lesbians. But they also diminish the church community itself. This is apparent in the current case of Bishop Oliveto.

In a statement earlier in the week, Bishop Oliveto made an interesting observation about the hearing that could decide her future as a UMC bishop: "What is fascinating about today’s hearing is that no one questioned the gifts and graces I possess for ordained ministry and specifically for the episcopacy. And no one has looked at my work and said my abilities for this task are lacking."

No one questioned this for the simple reason that her abilities aren't lacking. Had she been in a heterosexual marriage rather than a same-sex one, no one would have questioned her consecration. She felt called to the ministry. She felt called to the episcopacy. And according to friends of mine who are part of the Western Jurisdiction and who have met her, she is a person of grace, poise, wisdom, and competence.

When a class of people are excluded from church leadership even though they have the requisite gifts and have experienced a call, it is as if they are being forced to bury their talents. When Christ tells His parable of the talents, He concludes it by chastising the servant who chooses to bury the talent given him by his master. But Rev. Karen Oliveto chose to use her talents, not to bury them. She chose to use them on behalf of the UMC. The Western Jurisdiction chose to let her do so. If the UMC as a whole forces her out of the episcopacy--and the recent ruling is a clear step in that direction--then it is the UMC that is burying Oliveto's talents, and hence the UMC that must face Christ's censure.

Law and Obedience

The law of the UMC is plain enough, and the Judicial Council was probably right that according to that law, what the Western Jurisdiction did was unlawful. But this policy is the law of a human institution, and there is a higher law than that. The decision of the Western Jurisdiction to consecrate Bishop Oliveto despite church law was a case of civil disobedience. The purpose of civil disobedience is not to defy the rule of law. Its purpose, rather, is to seek to change an unjust human law based on a deeper obedience to a higher law.

Oliveto's consecration expressed Christian deference to a divine calling, one not beholden to the laws of a human institution. More importantly, it expressed allegiance to the law of love, the law that Christ lifted up as our most fundamental commandment.

Not everyone agrees, of course, that God would have the audacity to call a married lesbian to the episcopacy. Not everyone agrees that love for our gay and lesbian neighbors requires us to abandon the old teachings that have for so long been a source of so much suffering. But motives matter--and the motive in this case was not disdain for the rule of law but a sense of faithfulness to a higher law. One might disagree about what that higher law requires of us, but such disagreement does not change the motives involved.

Love Admidst Disagreement

But this brings me to the final point. The perspective I've articulated is hardly uncontroversial. I can already hear the clamoring questions: Doesn't it ignore what the Bible says? What about Church Tradition and Natural Law arguments? Isn't it clear from these things that God really does prohibit same-sex romantic love? And doesn't it follow from this that someone who makes a marital commitment to such love is making a commitment to sin? And isn't a commitment to sin incompatible with church leadership?

That is the conservative stance. I find it wholly unpersuasive, for reasons I explore in depth in my book. But I can't reproduce my entire book in a blog post, so let me limit myself to two points here.

First, the argument I've sketched out here, which challenges the conservative stance, isn't coming from secular culture but from the urgings of the law of love and my understanding of what that law requires. This is a Christian case for overturning the UMC's policies on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Even if you think that case is defeated by biblical arguments, it doesn't mean there is no case--a case that, if we trust what Jesus had to say, is rooted in nothing less than the most important commandment of all.

The second point is this: While defenders of the conservative view are sometimes moved by ugly motives such as homophobia, many are moved by sincere belief. Many are pained by the suffering of their LGBT neighbors and grieve the tragic frequency of gay suicide, but they have been convinced that the condemnation of homosexuality is God's word and that the solution to LGBT suffering must be found in something other than opening the door to same-sex marriage.

This is as true in the UMC as it is in other denominations. Those who defend the UMC's ongoing marginalization of LGBT Methodists cannot simply be dismissed as homophobes. Those who celebrate the Oliveto ruling are not all motivated by hate.

Perhaps they haven't heard, as I have, the litany of anguishing life stories, tales of suffering wrought by anti-LGBT policies of exclusion. If so, we need to invite them to hear those stories.

Perhaps they've listened to a handful of LGBT Christians who tell a comforting tale of becoming ex-gay (comforting, at least, if you don't want to find yourself standing opposed to the dominant teachings of your community and its understanding of the Bible). If so, we should invite them to consider those stories in a broader context that includes the many stories of hopeless efforts to "change," often followed by years of living a lie, a pretense of healing, and stumbling into unwise and ultimately tragic heterosexual marriages in a desperate effort to belong.

Perhaps they've been immersed in a theology whose views about the Bible make it seem as if there is no choice but to stand fast to the view that homosexuality is sinful, no matter what gays and lesbians may say about the alienation and despair that this inspires. There are those who think they would betray the very word of God if they shifted their stance, if they did anything short of continuing to endorse existing policies. And it doesn't matter how many talents get buried. It doesn't matter how many gays and lesbians are cast to the margins. The Bible is clear.

If this is what they think, we should dig into our understanding of what the Bible is and what it says. We should think together about the Bible's history, its context, the languages of the ancient authors, and the alternative ways of understanding how the Bible is related to the will and word of God. We should think together about which Christian approaches do the most to honor the incarnating, loving, sacrificing, redeeming God to whom the Bible testifies.

Those who stand witness to just how crushing LGBT marginalization has been must rise up in loving defense of the victims. Hearing what we have heard and believing what we believe, it would be unloving for us to do anything else. At the same time, we must strive to reach out in love to those who are sincerely convinced that God calls them to perpetuate policies of exclusion. Anger can be fitting, because there is such a thing as angry love. Painful honesty about the horrific consequences of their beliefs--honesty that pulls no punches in the name of "niceness"--can be appropriate, because love demands truth.

But we cannot descend into hate. We cannot resort to violence--either outward violence or verbal abuse or spiritual violation. We must remain open to fellowship when the terms of fellowship don't require complicity in perpetuating harm.

And if we wade into the fray--if we really wrestle with the conflicts and controversies--it can become very hard to sustain a spirit of love towards those we think are complicit in perpetuating harmful policies (or those we think are betraying the Word of God).

And so we need to open ourselves up to the grace that is beyond us, the transforming power of a divine love that can persist where merely human will must fail.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

On Wishing the Pilot (or President) Will Fail

Back in January, on the day of Trump's inauguration, I posted on Facebook a reflection on memes like this one: 

Image result for wishing for trump to fail meme

The post was quite popular, being shared and reshared many times through Facebook, but I never got around to posting it here. A friend just reminded me of that post, and it seems appropriate, after Trump's first hundred days in office, to revisit that reflection. So I'm posting it here now. Enjoy.

I have heard it said that wishing for President Trump to fail is like wishing for the pilot of the airplane you are flying in to fail. This is a fair point, but some things are worth noting about this analogy.

First, if the pilot is incompetent to fly the plane, what I'd hope is that this incompetence is made apparent by some early but reparable failures, so that the pilot can be ousted from the cockpit before crashing the plane.

Second, a lot hinges on what the pilot is trying to do. If the pilot of a plane bound for Denver is indifferent to the passengers' wishes and needs and aims to redirect the plane to Miami because it will earn him a boatload of cash, I hope someone catches on and stops him before he succeeds... although I'd rather he land it successfully in Miami than crash.

If a pilot has been paid off by villains to deliver a plane full of people to some remote island to be made into slaves, then I hope that the pilot will fail to realize that aim--and either be forced to land the plane anywhere safe or have control of the plane taken away and handed over to someone with more benign aims. But if the choice is between crashing and being sold into slavery, it would be a hard call.

But what if the pilot is planning to fly the plane into a crowded building in an act of terrorism? If I can't get control of the plane away from the pilot, I might in that case hope he's so incompetent that he crashes into a bog or lake, someplace where there is a chance of survivors.

And if it looks to me like the pilot is drunk when he staggers into the cockpit, I'm not going to "give him a chance." I'm going to do what I can to call his state to the attention of anyone who can stop him from taking off in that state. And if I fail at that, I'm going to prepare for the worst, maybe by trying to find out if any passengers know how to fly the plane and sharing my fears with them.

In short, a whole lot hinges on whether you think the pilot is sober, competent, and motivated to serve the passengers by bringing them safely and efficiently to the destination they've chosen. Likewise, what we think of Trump's competence and aims and temperament will influence what we hope for, as well as how trusting or vigilant we need to be.

But of course, this analogy is imperfect, since a president has a far more complex set of objectives than a pilot has. It's more about preserving and directing a complex set of social institutions in such a way that each of us can succeed in achieving our aims. If the president wants to dismantle an institution that I am convinced works well to help us achieve our aims, and has no clear plan for implementing something that works as well, I will hope he fails at that, and I may try to do what I can nonviolently do to secure that hope. At the same time, I might hope he succeeds at doing something else.

Of course, there are even more disanalogies between a pilot flying a plane and a president serving a country--disanalogies that came up in discussion on my original post. What disanalogies do you see, and what are their implications?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Homophobic Horror in Chechnya: An Open Letter to Vice President Pence

Dear Vice President Pence,

I haven't written you before, but recent reports of crimes against humanity in Chechnya motivate me to do so. I reach out to you as a fellow Christian, knowing that as Christians we are called to live out an ethic of love.

My concern centers around the purported detention and abuse of gay men in the Russian republic of Chechnya. According to a recent BBC report, "Gay men are fleeing brutal persecution in Chechnya, where police are holding more than 100 people and torturing some of them in an anti-gay crackdown, Russian activists say." While Chechen officials deny the reports, the US State Department has found them credible enough to issue an official statement on the matter:
We are increasingly concerned about the situation in the Republic of Chechnya, where there have been numerous credible reports indicating the detention of at least 100 men on the basis of their sexual orientation. Some reports indicate many of those arrested have been tortured, in some cases leading to death. We categorically condemn the persecution of individuals based on their sexual orientation or any other basis.
We are deeply disturbed by recent public statements by Chechen authorities that condone and incite violence against LGBTI persons. We urge Russian federal authorities to speak out against such practices, take steps to ensure the release of anyone wrongfully detained, conduct an independent and credible investigation into these, reports and hold any perpetrators responsible.
I commend the State Department for issuing this statement. Amidst everything that is happening in the world today, including the horrors in Syria, it may seem as if that statement is a sufficient American response. But I think there are reasons why you should speak out on this issue. One reason is that the voice of the Vice President carries more international weight than a State Department statement, and does more to convey the seriousness with which the United States views the matter. And this is the sort of issue that the United States and other countries should view very seriously indeed.

But there is a deeper reason. A more personal one.

It is no secret that you embrace the conservative Christian teaching that homosexual acts are always sinful (even when expressed in the context of lifelong monogamous fidelity and love). It is also no secret that I disagree with this traditional view--in fact, I have a book coming out in which I develop a Christian case, rooted in the love ethic, for embracing same-sex marriage. But Christians who hold to the traditional view, as you do, insist that there is no conflict between endorsing this stance and living out the love ethic with respect to their gay and lesbian neighbors. When it comes to same-sex intimacy, their position is summed up in the slogan, "Love the sinner, hate the sin."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that slogan captures your own position on the matter. In my experience, however, most gays and lesbians experience this slogan as at best insincere, and at worst an abuse of the language of love to cover unloving policies and practices. Too often, when LGBT persons cry out against Christian practices they experience as unloving, "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is thrown back at them as nothing but an all-purpose way to shut them up.

But there are Christians who use this slogan sincerely. They mean by it something like the following: "Even though I think that homosexual acts are morally wrong, I am committed to showing Christian love towards my gay and lesbian neighbors. I will strive to lift up and stand up for the dignity and humanity of LGBT persons, and to act towards them in a way that shows respect, compassion, and empathy for their struggles."

Whether this commitment can be successfully carried out while continuing to condemn every intimate expression of their sexuality is a matter I take up in my book--but let me set that aside for now. The point I want to make is this: current events in Chechnya provide you with a unique opportunity to model what it looks like for a Christian who thinks homosexuality is a sin to lift up and stand up for the dignity and humanity of LGBT persons, and to act towards them in a way that shows respect, compassion, and empathy for their struggles. It is a chance to show that "love the sinner" is not just a slogan to hide behind but a real human calling.

In other words, the situation in Chechnya offers you a distinctive opportunity in Christian leadership:  a chance to show what it looks like to be as committed to loving your gay and lesbian neighbors as you are to condemning their love.

Whatever we think about the morality of homosexuality, we should all agree on the moral egregiousness of a government targeting its gay population for systemic violence. Certainly all Christians who embrace Jesus' love ethic should agree. What is happening in Chechnya is an offense against the ethic of love. All Christians, whatever our views on the ethics of homosexuality, can and should stand together to repudiate the systemic marginalization and abuse of a class of people.

During Holy Week we remember the most central Christian model of what it means to love our neighbors. In the passion story we learn that Christ-like love is prepared to sacrifice even unto death for the neighbor's sake, even if the ones for whom we die are the ones nailing us to a cross. Speaking out against the abuse of our gay and lesbian neighbors in Chechnya is, by comparison, a small gesture of love.

But even token gestures matter. When the Vice President makes such a gesture, it has important symbolic resonance. And were you, Mr. Vice President, to make this gesture, your public commitments and stature among conservative Christians in America would transform your action into a model for something important.

If you are serious about loving your LGBT neighbors and not just about condemning them, this is a unique opportunity to show that love, and to invite others to do likewise. It is a chance to lead in an area where so many public Christian politicians lag; a chance to offer a public example of what it looks like to stand in loving solidarity with the LGBT victims of abuse, and thereby model for both conservative Christians and your LGBT neighbors what it looks like to actually love those who, within conservative Christian circles, often feel the most unloved of all.

Eric Reitan