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.

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