Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Salvation Army, Homosexuality, and Gestures of Charity

One of the things many of us associate with the Christmas season is the appearance of "bell ringers" outside retail stores and other public venues--sometimes dressed as Santa, more often not. They have a little collection bucket next to them. As people pass by they fish in their pockets for loose change to drop into the bucket. A simple act of charity at a time of year that's supposed to be about love, but which too often becomes about supporting a consumerist culture.

A few years back when my son was three-and-a-half, he'd been collecting change for awhile in a homemade piggy-bank. Suddenly at Christmas time he decided that he wanted to "give it to the bell ringers." He brought all his life savings to the front door of our local Walmart and dumped it all into the red bucket with a noisy clanging.

For my son it was a gesture of giving. He wanted to help people who didn't have enough food--and the bell ringers were, for him, the most visible symbol in his small world of living in a spirit of generous love. When it came to what he should do with his money, he could think of nothing better than to align himself with such a spirit--with the clamorous noise of a year's worth of collected change filling up a red metal bucket.

Or are things really that simple? Most of these bell ringers--certainly all of them here in Stillwater, OK--belong to the Salvation Army. The change that goes into the red kettles goes to support the Salvation Army's Christmas ministries, which focus on providing tangible material aid to "needy families, seniors, and the homeless, in keeping with the spirit of the season" so that "the real meaning of the season is not forgotten."

But the Salvation Army also happens to be an evangelical Christian movement that ascribes to a conservative theology and a conservative view of Scripture. In a sense, the Salvation Army is a Christian movement born among outcasts--the fruits of the unconventional evangelism of William Booth, who reached out to the most impoverished, to prostitutes, to alcoholics, to those who weren't welcomed into the establishment churches of England in the 19th Century. But because of its theory about the Bible's authority and its interpretation of the relevant texts, the Salvation Army today perpetuates what I take to be a damaging teaching about sexual minorities, a teaching that contributes to their social marginalization.

And because I have so many friends and relatives who, like me, are working hard to end discrimination against gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities, I hear a lot about the Salvation Army at this time of year. Some of my friends would, I think, be scandalized that I let my son, as a wide-eyed three-year-old wanting to do good, pour his savings into a Salvation Army bucket.

Primarily their message is this: Don't give them your loose change. Don't support them, no matter how innocent those bell ringers might look and how good it might make you feel to drop your loose change into that little red kettle. It shouldn't make you feel good, because not only does the Salvation Army discriminate against sexual minorities within its own ranks, but it supports broader policies of social marginalization.

Sometimes, however, the message I hear is more strident: The Salvation Army is a hate group.

Sometimes its hard to be clear on all the facts amidst the rhetoric. Among other things, it seems pretty clear that the Salvation Army is attempting to pursue non-discrimination practices with respect to those it serves and its employees (at least those who aren't clergy). They've made a concerted effort in recent years to stress that they are not anti-gay.

That's how they see things, at least. But it is also clear that the Salvation Army endorses the traditional Christian view on homosexuality--namely that same-sex sexual activity is sinful. And as with so many other conservative Christian communities on this topic, it seems clear that the Salvation Army doesn't see a substantive difference between calling homosexual acts sinful and calling, say, drunkenness or prostitution sinful. You can still reach out to alcoholics, love them, care for them, if you condemn their drinking. In fact, that's part of how you show love for them.Why isn't condemning homosexuality the same thing?

In fact, it isn't the same thing at all, for reasons I've addressed at length elsewhere and so won't explore at length in this post. Let's just say that there's a big difference between putting the "sin" label on something that damages the lives and welfare of everyone affected by it including the person doing it, and putting the "sin" label on something that cuts to a person's very identity and prospects for fulfillment and love--essentially telling them that if they express who they are with integrity in loving and caring ways, building a relationship that is life-enriching and deeply meaningful, they are committing themselves to sin, and the resultant relationships really ought to be ended forthwith.

The message my gay and lesbian neighbors hear is this: "You should never form an intimate relationship with someone you are able to love romantically; and if you do it is bad, no matter how virtuous and committed and faithful and otherwise beautiful it seems. It should be ended, even if were the same relationship observed in a hererosexually married couple we would view the dissolution of it as a tragedy to be resisted."

But groups like the Salvation Army don't see this. Perhaps, with enough relationship-building and open communication, with more opportunities for "soldiers" in the Salvation Army to build relationships with openly gay and lesbian neighbors, all of that will change. But for now, they see homosexuality as a sinful life choice that is contrary to God's good plan--something that, as with alcoholism, can be opposed while still loving those who are "afflicted" by it.

If you think they are dead wrong about this, should you boycott their fundraising efforts--efforts that go primarily towards serving the needy? Should you refuse to drop that coin in the bucket...and then hopefully remember to give it to some other charity that doesn't ascribe to the harmful teaching? Should I have pulled my son aside and told him not to give his money to the bell ringers, and then tried to explain to a three-year-old why not? Should I have shattered his illusions about the bell ringers and their good intentions, and then gone through the symbolically less meaningful ritual of taking his money to the bank and writing a check for that amount to Oxfam?

If the Salvation Army were a hate group, then the answer to this question would be clear. I don't support hate groups. If there'd been men in white sheets and pointy white caps raising money for white hurricane victims, and my son had wanted to give, I wouldn't have hesitated in shattering his illusions. But even if the Salvation Army is wrong about homosexuality, that doesn't make it an anti-gay hate group.

My own direct experience with the Salvation Army is quite limited. The only real person-to-person connection comes from my own childhood, and it is bathed in a warm glow of fond memory. I was six years old and living in Norway. My parents were away for a weekend, and my sister and I were left in the care of a woman who was a friend of my grandparents. She was also a soldier in the Salvation Army. She wore her uniform proudly. I remember that she had a dog, a standard-sized poodle. It was a beautiful dog, gentle and smart. When we attended Sunday services the dog came with us. It rose when we rose, sat when we sat.

When I think of the Salvation Army, I think fondly of that dog. I also remember a weekend characterized by kindness.

But one nice dog, and a kind a babysitter, doesn't refute the "hate group" charge. Here's what does: A hate group is a hate group because its mission is fundamentally shaped by an ideology of hate. The group exists, at least in part, to oppose a targeting class of people, to oppress or marginalize or destroy them. Even a cursory look at the history of the Salvation Army reveals that this is not what it's about. The Salvation Army is a nonviolent movement aimed at spreading the gospel as they understanding it. It's about "saving souls." Think what you will of the theological beliefs underlying such a mission. You may find them thoroughly distasteful and unworthy of your support. But such a mission isn't one of hate--even if certain misguided beliefs lead to practices that do harm.

When you hear that bell and see that familiar red bucket--as you think about whether to fish in your pocket for loose change--a key question has to be whether the unambiguous good they will do with that money is outweighed by the harms that might flow from their errors.

And if your son wants to give, there are other questions, too--such as whether a principled refusal to support groups that perpetuate anti-gay teachings is worth derailing a small child's desire to align himself with the clearest symbol of generosity his young mind has found...whether it's worth destroying that symbol and introducing the specter of cynicism at a formative moment in his development.

More broadly, we live in a world where nothing is perfect--no individual, no organization, no movement. But we also live in a world with symbolic acts that stand for our better natures and our higher aspirations. For better or worse, the Salvation Army's bell ringers, their red buckets, have become a symbol during the Christmas season. We are urged to make a small gesture towards the reality of human need--fishing into a pocket--as we rush in and out of the big retail stores buying useless stocking stuffers for people who have more than they need. We remember, for a moment, that there are those who don't have enough in our world of excess. We are encouraged to give.

Those who stand behind that symbolism are flawed people with a sense of connection to the divine and a sense of mission. It is not a mission of hate--not a mission to marginalize and oppress those whose sexuality doesn't fit the norm. But they do have beliefs which happen to contribute to such marginalization. Does this fact mean they do not deserve to carry the symbolic weight of charity during the holidays that they have come to carry?

For me, there is no easy answer. I will say that I haven't thrown spare change into a Salvation Army bucket this season because I'm conflicted about what their views on homosexuality mean, or should mean, for me. But I am also deeply hesitant about encouraging a boycott, or about trying to destroy the symbol that evoked one of my son's earliest and most earnest gestures towards a spirit of charity. There's a sense in which the "bell ringers," by standing out there every December, have helped shape my son's moral development, making him, arguably, a better person than he might otherwise have been--a better person than he would have been had I talked him out of emptying his piggy-bank into that bucket.


  1. Agreed, simul justus et peccator extends to the Salvation Army as well as each one of us...

  2. As a Salvationist can I thank you for such a well thought out and thought provoking article, rest assured there are a growing number within the SA's working that are trying to bring about change and a more positive view of the LGBT community, but much like trying to turn an oil tanker this takes time and must be done with care less we cause a disaster, thank you (and the many others out there) who bare with us :)

  3. As a gay former salvationist, I appreciate your comments. I agree, your son should do what he feels is best for him at this stage in his life. He has plenty of time to observe the world and it's positions on issues such as the GLBT for himself, and form his own opinions. I do not believe the Salvation Amy has an honest/open dialogue yet with the gay community, but I pray they do soon with an open mind and heart.