Thursday, July 4, 2019

America's Values: A Fourth of July Meditation

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

These are America's founding values, which we celebrate today. As we understand them now, they do not apply only to men. They affirm that all people have an equal moral worth and have a claim on equal basic rights, and that this moral standing is derived not from any government or law but is an original endowment.

While Jefferson invoked the language of "Nature's God" to describe the Creator of this original endowment--a reference to his Enlightenment Deist philosophy--I understand this Creator in Judeo-Christian terms. Others have different understandings. Jefferson and other founders later affirmed their commitment to this freedom of religion in various ways

But what I want to meditate on here is the idea that equality and basic moral rights precede any government or nation-state. This basic moral standing, enjoyed by all human beings without exception, determines when a law is legitimate and when a government has exceeded its authority. Our country was founded on the idea that the equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness isn't something we have because we belong to a society that grants this to us. On the contrary, our society is obligated to honor and protect it because we already have it.

We were born with it. We possess it because we are human.

Not because of our race or gender or political party. Not because we are Americans. We have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because we are human.

That means that we distort or even betray our country's founding values if we hold that they only apply to Americans.

To be an American is to believe that all people everywhere were created equal.

To be an American is to believe that all people everywhere have the inalienable right to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness.

And it is to believe that if any government--including our own--makes laws or pursues policies that violate these rights toward any person, American or otherwise, that government has acted wrongly.

This is why Americans have never been able to get uniformly behind isolationist policies. If these values at the heart of America are about all people and not just Americans, then we should care about what happens to people elsewhere in the world. That doesn't mean we should always intervene. It certainly doesn't mean we must always try to impose our will coercively on other people. But it does mean we have to pay attention to the plight of those outside our borders, care about that plight, and take that into account when making decisions.

This is why Americans have never been able to get uniformly behind the idea that being an American is about blood or birth. By blood and birth, all human beings have the same inalienable rights, whether they were born in Nebraska or Nicaragua or Norway or Nigeria. Being an American is most fundamentally about allegiance to this ideal and commitment to civic participation in a society committed to it. For all its history, despite forces of opposition born from the human tribal impulse, America has continued to welcome new Americans into this noble experiment, this effort to build a country based on values opposed to tribalism.

What all of this means for our immigration policies today is a difficult question that I don't want to try to answer here. Our values must contend with an array of realities, including resource limits, when it comes time to decide specific policies. But some general principles are clear. We must care about those beyond our borders. We must care about those who are not American citizens. And with respect to migrants at our borders, any policy that fails to honor their equal human right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is in violation of our founding values.

All human beings are created equal, not just Americans. All have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not just Americans.

To think otherwise is un-American.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

It's About the Hate: Targeting Religious Worshipers

Christians targeted during worship by violent extremists in Sri Lanka.

Muslims targeted during worship by violent extremists in New Zealand.

Jews targeted during worship by violent extremists in the United States, in Pittsburgh this fall and today in San Diego.

In all cases the root evil is an us/them ideology of hate. The in-groups and out-groups that the ideology latches onto may be different, but that's ultimately incidental. What matters is the hate.

The agents of hate aren't made that way by some feature of the wider faith tradition, ethnicity, etc., with which they identify. Hate always has a cover story, but the hate comes first. If the hate springs from someone who wears Christianity as a label, you can be sure that the ugliest verses in the Bible are lifted up and the call to love explained away. If the hate springs from someone who wears Islam as a label, you can be sure that the ugliest verses of the Koran are lifted up and the calls for decency and respect across differences explained away.

Hate isn't motivated by anything about its target, but it needs a target. And it needs vindication, some "purpose" that the agents of hate can give themselves over to, so that they can see themselves as foot soldiers in a cause greater than themselves. They want to indulge in the most evil of human impulses, but want to do it with a clean conscience. They want to glory in violence and death while experiencing pureness of heart.

And so they make a class of people into monsters, and they conceive themselves to be noble warriors fighting for a chosen group--a group destined for greatness or happiness by virtue of their intrinsic worth, but kept down by the very existence of the monsters.

And so they tell themselves that every death and defeat of those they consider the Children of Darkness is a gain for the Children of Light. They indulge evil in the name of good, declaring themselves heroes, laboring to build some imagined Utopia out of the corpses of the innocent.

In my first book, Is God a Delusion?, I distinguish between religion and religionism. The former offers a way of thinking about the world and a way of living life, something around which communities can form. Religionism is about using religious differences in the same manner that racism uses racial distinctions and nationalism uses nationalities: as a way to divide the world and set us against them. It is about hate above all else.

In fact, it is hard to disentangle this species of hate from others. Is anti-Semitism about religion or ethnicity? Is Islamophobia targeting people because of their faith tradition or because of middle-eastern origins? The answer is that, for the person infected by an ideology of hate, it doesn't matter. Because the point is to have a group to hate, someone that is worthy of hate regardless of who they are and what they do or what kind of life they lead. Automatic, easy hate, hate that can latch on without needing to investigate the actual character or life of the person being hated.

Whether it's religion or ethnicity or race doesn't much matter, and typically an ideology of hate uses more than one thing. Ideologies of hate are vague and ecclectic in who they target, precisely because what matters is to be able to hate someone.

This is why Jews become afraid when Islamophobia is nurtured, why African Americans feel less safe in church when a Mosque has been recently targeted. Because it's about hate. And hate breeds hate.

Such ideological hate, described beautifully by Sartre in his short book, Anti-Semite and Jew, is a demon. It possesses human beings. It is a demon that thrives and spread best under a distinctive set of conditions: when empathy is restricted to people like ourselves, when building walls matters more than building bridges, when communities become insular and polarized, when fear displaces hope, and when security for "us" matters more than compassion.

Christianity is just one faith tradition that urges us to love. All over the world, in different ways and with different words, that call can be heard.

And yet, all over the world, people find ways to put limits on the scope of that call. The more we do the latter--the more we justify limits on love and the less we aspire to love every single other person (even when we fail, as we inevitably do)--the easier it becomes for ideologies of hate to take root.

And here's the thing: we can't control others' commitment to loving widely. We can only choose in our own case, and invite others to follow our example. And as hateful rhetoric becomes louder--as it finds its way into more prominent places--love has to become louder, too.

When hate spreads, we must look for ways to amplify the voice of extravagant love.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Death's Persistent Sting: Meditation for an Easter Monday

"O death, where is thy sting?"

I woke up Easter morning to the news of terror in Sri Lanka: hundreds dead, many hundreds more injured, in a series of coordinated bombing attacks on hotels and Christian churches. I blinked back horror...and then I got up, dressed for Easter services, and went on with my day.

I felt the sting, but it was a small one: a remote horror, the death of people I do not know on the far side of the world. It felt insufficient, this little sting, as if my compassion were too weak to reach across the miles.

Where is your sting, death? It is here, here in the news of hundreds killed. But it is too small.

"O death, where is the sting?"

For Easter services I put on the cream-colored silk jacket that I inherited from him after his death. It is the jacket he's wearing in one of my favorite pictures of him, the picture that was the centerpiece at his memorial service and that depicts him as I most remember him.

It was his favorite jacket for special occasions. In the last decade or more of his life, if the occasion called for dressing up, this jacket was what he'd put on. And I'd joke: "That jacket is mine when you die."

I rarely wear it, because I want it to last. And when I do take it out I see my father and feel afresh his absence. Sometimes it feels like a kind of treason that it doesn't hurt more.

Where is your sting, death? It is here in this pale silk and the memories it evokes.

"O death, where is thy sting?"

I have friends who are staring down the inevitability of death in a way that most of us do not. Confronted with a terminal diagnosis, the truth of human mortality intrudes on their living and in dark moments threatens to paralyze them, to steal away what life they have left--a kind of death before death that they must continually fight against: "You will not take this, too, o death. This day is yet mine to live."

The rest of us know this struggle in a weakened form: the anxiety over strange symptoms or impending storms or trips where so much could go wrong. We hide from it as best we can, but sometimes the inevitability of death rears before us and for a few heartbeats we can't escape it, the sense of a consuming dark. The only question is when: today, tomorrow, thirty years from now?

Where is your sting, death? Here, here in the universal dread.

There are some for whom the dread has faded in the face of something worse: the monotony of lonely hours. Death has taken too many beloved companions, and it's creeping harbinger has stolen away the skills and powers that make living rich and vibrant. And so they sit, reduced to waiting and remembering. Life is something in the past, something gone with the beloved. The fear of death has been replaced by the lonely horror of feeling nothing worth living for.

Where is your sting, death? Here, here in this living death, where death has stung so deep that its victim has come to see death as a welcome escape rather than the architect of the intolerable.

All around us, death stings and stings. And in defiance we lift our voices and say with Paul, "O death, where is the sting?"

We treat it as a rhetorical question.

As if the answer were that it's sting is gone.

As if we didn't feel its sting every day in different ways.

As if the muting of the sting were born of our faith, our capacity to grasp the deeper truths that assure us that death is weaker than life, when in truth it is born of sin, of our failure to care enough.

And yet we lift our voices in defiance and triumph, an exercise in holy pretense. We cry it into existence, this self who has no fear of death--that has lost its fear not because of despair, not because of insufficient compassion, but because we have seized upon a joy more powerful than death.

The joy eludes us. Death keeps stinging us. And yet in heroic, sacred, audacious hope, we keep reaching for that world where death has lost its victory and joy will have no end.

"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" 1 Corinthians 15:55

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Buttigieg vs Pence and the Politics of Misconstrual and Deflection

Rising star Pete Buttigieg, the gay Indiana mayor who's running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has recently spoken publicly about former Indiana Governor and current Vice President, Mike Pence--most recently in reference to Pence's well-known anti-LGBT commitments, which Pence (like many Evangelical Christians) roots in his religious beliefs.

Earlier today, Pence replied with the following remark: "He's said some things that are critical of my Christian faith and about me personally. And he knows better. He knows me."

What I struggle with here is what Pence is actually referring to. There are two possibilities that I'm aware of. The most obvious is the most recent, since it happened just days ago.

Here's what Buttigieg said, at a Victory Fund speech on Sunday: “Speaking only for myself, I can tell you that if me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. And that's the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand. That if you got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” (You can check out the video here.)

This is a rhetorically effective way of making a point that many LGBT persons have made about their own experience of themselves: their sexuality (for LGB persons) or gender (for trans persons) is not something they chose for some reason or another. It is something they discovered about themselves. It has the kind of givenness that, for LGBT persons of faith like Buttigieg, immediately invokes the thought of divine intent: "If I was made by God, and if this part of me is sewn into my fibers in a way that seems not only a given but a fixed and unchangeable truth about who I am, then it appears as if this is part of God's original design plan for me."

What this comment doesn't do is say anything derogatory about Mike Pence's faith or character.

As someone who recently wrote a book making a Christian case for same-sex marriage, I am well aware than many Christians think all same-sex relationships are morally wrong. I am also well aware that many of these people are persons of deep faith. I don't question their faith. What I question is the accuracy of the moral conclusions they have reached.

It is possible for people of faith to disagree, and to disagree quite strongly, on which moral teachings fit best with their faith tradition, its Scriptures, and its creeds. Such disagreement does not imply any person attack on someone's faith or character.

And so, if this is what Pence was responding to, his response is a kind of non-sequitur. Worse, it is a deliberate misconstrual of Buttigieg's words to make it sound as if Pence were being attacked as a person rather than having the soundness of his views called into question. 

But maybe this recent comment by Buttigieg wasn't what Pence was responding to at all. A little bit of digging shows that this was not Bettigieg's only mention of his state's former governor from the stump. A month ago, Buttigieg had some more extensive remarks about Pence at a town hall in Austin. According to Politico, here are the key elements of those remarks:
...he previously trusted that Pence “at least he believes in our institutions” and did not consider him to be “personally corrupt.” 
“But then how could he get on board with this presidency?” Buttigieg said. 
Buttigieg said that while his understanding of the Bible was rooted in "protecting the stranger and the prisoner and the poor person," Pence's reading of the Gospel "has a lot more to do with sexuality" and "a certain view of rectitude." 
“But even if you buy into that, how could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency?” Buttigieg added. 
“Is it that he stopped believing in Scripture when he started believing Donald Trump? I don't know.”
Here, Buttigieg opens with an impression of Pence that he formed before Pence became Vice President, an impression that for Buttigieg has started to crumble--because of Pence's role in the Trump presidency.

That Trump has little respect for (or even understanding of) American institutions and is prone towards kleptocratic corruption may be controversial claims among Trump's fans, but for others it seems beyond self-evident given his record. Buttigieg is clearly among the latter. And for the latter, it is surely deeply perplexing how someone who actually respects US institutions and has a sense of personal moral rectitude could function as the kind of uncritical voice and cheerleader for the Trump administration that Pence appears to be.

The reference to "porn star" presidency, of course, is a glancing way to reference the well-known fact that Trump had adulterous sex with porn stars and paid them off to keep them quiet--something that speaks to how deeply Trump defies basic standards of personal ethics to which conservative Christians like Pence cleave.

And even if Pence's version of Christian ethics focuses more on sexuality than on "protecting the stranger and the prisoner and the poor person," the latter must still be something that Christians like Pence care about if they claim to take Scripture as their guide.

To me and Buttigieg and many others, it looks as if many of Trump's policies are sharply at odds with those values--most notably his policies for dealing with poor refugees who have made a desperate trek to our borders in search of a better life. Even if we must as a nation care about security and the rule of law, the rhetorical and literal harshness of the Trump administration's approach to these desperate human beings defies the heart of what Jesus and the Jewish prophets preached. There are ways of securing our borders and upholding the rule of law that don't involve ripping babies out of their mothers' arms and creating concentration camps for refugees and refusing to consider taking in desperate refugees from war-ravaged Muslim-majority nations.

Of course, the Trump administration is hardly the first to be implicated in policy decisions that Christians ought to have trouble with. Both Democratic and Republican administrations before this one have made choices that, from the standpoint of Christian values, warrant concern or even outrage. And Trump is hardly the first president to fall short in terms of Christian standards of sexual fidelity in marriage (Bill Clinton, anyone?).

But it seems to many people today that the current administration has lifted things to a new level, especially when it comes to issues of immigration. And when one listens to the way Trump talks about his political opponents and the poor refugees who have stumbled and struggled hundreds of miles to seek a better life, there is a difference in tone. If one listens to the rhetoric of Obama and Bush and Clinton and Bush Sr. and Reagan and Carter, one would often hear expressions of compassion even in the face of hard policies justified by the perception of political necessity. One would be hard-pressed to find words that sounded gleefully cruel.

But sometimes, unless I am staggeringly misreading him, Trump appears to take a kind of pleasure in responding to the desperation of refugees with a curt dismissal like, "Our country is full." (And as Wayne Cornelius recently noted in a Chicago Tribune commentary, "The reality is quite different.")

The point is this: such a tone is one I could not imagine Mike Pence ever using. Pence calls himself a devout Christian, and he is right now the second-most-powerful politician in the United States. While the separation of church and state means Pence shouldn't use this power to, say, favor Christian churches over other religious institutions, the separation of church and state does not prevent our political leaders from having a conscience and being informed by that conscience as they make decisions. And Pence's conscience is a Christian one.

And yet, based on the publicly available evidence, Pence has been nothing but a bulwark of uncritical support for Trump and his policies.

Buttigieg's perplexity makes perfect sense to me. What does it look like for a man of deep Christian faith to find himself as vice president to Donald Trump? I guess my answer is the same as Buttigieg's: "I don't know."

But if these remarks are what Pence was responding to when he said, "He's said some things that are critical of my Christian faith and about me personally," then one would really hope for something more in response than, "He knows better. He knows me." Because Buttigieg was asking questions. Buttigieg was asking, "How could you?" To treat such questions, rooted in an apparent dissonance between Pence's outward behavior and his professed faith, as nothing but a personal attack is like...

...well, it's like when devout Christians confront atrocities that bring home the magnitude of evil in the world and feel the dissonance between the pervasiveness of such horror and the message that the world is the creation of a God of love. "How could you, God?" they cry. "How could you allow such things?"

That's not a personal attack. And even if it might be fitting for God to answer such a question from the whirlwind with something like, "You're too small to understand," Mike Pence isn't God. He's just a human being like Pete Buttigieg.

Maybe, just maybe, Pence meant something different by his response than, "How dare you attack my faith and character?" Maybe he meant to say, in some subtle way, that he was doing more to minimize the harms of a Trump presidency than it looks like to the public eye. Maybe he was saying something like, "You know me, Pete. You know my character, and so you know there is a reason why things look the way they do, even though you can't see what it is." Maybe, in other words, his comment was intended as a small bit of reassurance: "It looks bad, but I'm doing what I can."

Or maybe it was just a strategy of deflection: to push aside Buttigieg's questions and the dissonance that gives rise to them. If he pretends that Buttigieg's remarks amount to nothing more than a personal attack, he doesn't need to answer the questions or account for the perceived dissonance. He can just be indignant.

But there are many people for whom Buttigieg's questions seem like real questions that call for more than indignation. I, for one, would like to hear Pence's answers.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

LGBT Acceptance and the United Methodists: A Case for Civil Disobedience

Note: What follows has been modified in the light of feedback.

At a special General Conference of the United Methodist Church this week, delegates voted down a plan (the "One Church Plan") that would allow individual congregations to decide for themselves whether they would embrace openly gay clergy and perform same-sex marriages. A majority of the delegates favored, instead, the "Traditional Plan," which doubled down on the marginalization of LGBT members of the United Methodist church.*

Back in 2005, the ELCA made a similar decision. At the time, I responded by walking away from my home congregation in the ELCA and becoming a kind of Lutheran in Exile, driving two hours every Sunday to attend church at the nearest open and affirming congregation to where I lived. While that decision was the right one for me, many progressives in the UMC are in a very different place than I was. And for these brothers and sisters, I want to suggest seriously considering a different path.


I care about all of this for several reasons. First of all, I recently wrote a book--The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic--in which I argue that allegiance to the Christian love ethic calls for Christians to support same-sex marriage and abandon the traditional condemnation of same-sex relationships. So these events speak directly to my scholarly work.

But I care about these events for more important reasons than that. Some are personal: I know LGBT persons and allies within the UMC who are in anguish over this decision. And although I identify as a Lutheran today, I grew up in a UMC congregation, and some of my fondest childhood memories feature that red brick UMC church in upstate New York, the youth group canoe trip in the Adirondacks, and those UMC pastors and lay leaders who shaped my faith. I care about this community and the decisions they make, because a part of my heart remains Methodist.

Most of all, I care because I've listened to my LGBT neighbors with sustained, compassionate attention, and I've studied the research on how growing up in these "traditional" religious communities affects children who come to discover that they have a sexual orientation that puts them at the margins. These effects include more broken family relationships, more depression, more substance abuse, more suicidal ideation, and more dead bodies.

I care about this decision because, put bluntly, it is will mean more dead bodies.


Of course, not everyone agrees. While there are some who support the traditional view from a place of homophobia, I prefer to believe that the majority are simply trying to be good people the best they know how. They see such things as the "One Church Plan" as a concession to secular culture or a weakening of constraints on sexual indulgence. They support the "Traditional Plan" not because they want to drive the next generation of young sexual minorities in the UMC into the closet of suffering and possibly to suicide, but because they think their stance aligns with God's truth.

I think they're wrong, but this post will not focus on developing the case for that. Anyone who's interested in that case can find it laid out with care in The Triumph of Love, and in less detail elsewhere. What I want to focus on here is a different question: What does allegiance to an ethic of love look like in the face of such sincere and trenchant disagreement?

What does it look like for Christians who are progressive on LGBT issues to love traditionalists, and to aspire towards maintaining loving fellowship with them, while those traditionalists are dictating policies that not only strike progressives as intolerable, but which we think we have to oppose if we are to love our LGBT neighbors in the way that Jesus modeled?

For those who share the moral conviction that I have, one option is clearly not on the table: acquiescence. We cannot simply agree to abide by policies that, in our experience, bear deeply poisonous fruits. To do that is to be complicit in the suffering and sometimes death of people we are called to love. So what are the alternatives?

One alternative is schism. As a Lutheran, I belong to a church that was born out of schism. I would not be a Lutheran if I did not believe that, sometimes, schism is the best choice given the options. But one of the fruits of that historic schism and the Protestant movement that it helped to birth is this: a proliferation of schisms. In some ways, it has become all too easy for churches and denominations to split when they disagree, rather than to struggle and wrestle and cry and weep their way fitfully towards some kind of unity in the midst of division.

It's certainly possible for progressive congregations to leave the UMC in protest, either individually or collectively. It's also possible for the UMC to plan a peaceful parting of ways between its conservative and progressive congregations, working together to create two new denominations. This option will require the collaboration of both sides of the conflict, and so may not be available. Some form of schism, however, is likely to be an option. But given its gravity, I think it is important to think seriously about the alternatives. And if acquiescence is not on the table, then what remains is civil disobedience.

In an earlier version of this post I unwisely commended civil disobedience to my UMC brothers and sisters--but as an outsider to this struggle, I have no right to urge anyone down a path so fraught (as we will see) with peril and hardship. To do so is to rightly invite the rebuke, "Easy for you to say! You're not the one who'll be defrocked or lose his church home."

These hard decisions are not mine to make. But as someone who has studied civil disobedience as well as issues of Christian love and same-sex relationships, I may have some insights about these hard decisions that could be of use to those who, in the UMC, now find themselves forced to make them. So, I offer these reflections not in the spirit of telling my UMC neighbors what they should do, but in the spirit of providing a perspective that may be of use as they decide what to do.

Civil disobedience is different from cutting ties. Civil disobedience takes place within the community whose policies you find morally intolerable. Civil disobedience means refusing to act against conscience even when your community demands it, and then accepting the consequences that the community imposes for such refusal. In the current case, it means refusing to follow the UMC's anti-LGBT policies. It means continuing to ordain partnered, open LGBT clergy. It means continuing to perform same-sex weddings and continuing to recognize same-sex marriages within congregations. It means doing these things without leaving the UMC.

The key point here is this: the practitioners of civil disobedience refuse to act against conscience and refuse to sever ties of fellowship. They know full well that those in power may force them out of fellowship, but they resist the urge to be the ones to initiate that break. Martin Luther King, Jr., stressed that nonviolent civil disobedience involved a willingness to suffer the violence done by others, by the perpetrators of injustice. In fact, civil disobedience is often a trigger for such violence.

And this brings us to the question of cost.


 Given the policy norms that seem to have prevailed with the victory of the "Traditional Plan," clergy in the UMC who practice civil disobedience--who enter into and are open about their same-sex relationships or who officiate at same-sex weddings--may be defrocked. I've had clergy friends in the UMC that this has happened to. When that happens, civil disobedience means that supportive congregations stand by those clergy, continuing to treat them as their pastors and continuing to pay them their salaries.

For progressive clergy who do not have supportive congregations, the costs of civil disobedience are going to be much higher and felt much more personally. The burdens of civil disobedience are always heaviest when it is practiced by just a few, and become lighter when more participate.

Congregations that join in civil disobedience may be kicked out of the UMC. And the costs of that might be high. They may lose the church buildings they have called home, losing not only money but tangible connections with previous generations, symbolic links to their own heritage as a community. These potential costs are diminished to the extent that leaders within the UMC join the civil disobedience by refusing to impose such costs on their neighbors and fellow Methodists who are sincerely pursuing their conscience. But when such leaders practice civil disobedience, they risk being stripped of their leadership roles.

Civil disobedience can provoke those with coercive power to wield it in costly ways. This is why King saw civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent direct action as ways to unmask the covert violence of unjust systems. When good people defy unjust laws, the agents of injustice are driven to overtly coercive and destructive measures to enforce their unjust policies.

They bring fire hoses to bear on nonviolent protesters.

They strip people of their livelihoods and kick congregations out of their spiritual homes.

They impose weighty financial burdens on those who insist on loving their LGBT neighbors as themselves.

They use coercive measures to drive away those they are called to love as themselves, all in the name of being able to continue to exclude or marginalize their LGBT neighbors...and more, being able to continue to force all who belong to their community to exclude and marginalize them as well.

Civil disobedience can unmask this impulse towards Othering, exposing its ugliness to the light of day in a way that can stir the hearts of bystanders and move the consciences of the undecided. But it means, as King testified, a willingness to endure suffering. King drew on his Christian commitments to argue that this suffering could be redemptive. Those who take up nonviolent protest and civil disobedience invite the powers that be to heap suffering on them in response to their act of conscience. They do it anyway because they have decided that bearing that cost themselves may, in the longer or shorter term, help to bring the injustice they are fighting to an end.

In the case at hand, the deep issue is this: If progressive and traditional Methodists split, sexual and gender minorities will not magically end up being born only in the progressive denomination. They will continue to be born in the traditional one. They will continue to grow up immersed in the messages that cause such anguish. They will continue to face the choice between leaving their faith family in order to live authentically or endure the closet or fruitless ex-gay gyrations in order to stay with the faith community they know and love. They will continue to kill themselves at higher rates.

Those who choose the path of civil disobedience invite the institutional and social forces that inflict such harm to focus on them, to heap costs on them, not simply to be martyrs alongside their LGBT brothers and sisters but in the hope that doing so as a symbolic act of conscience will have redemptive and transformative power.

As I said, this approach is not for everyone. There are both psychological costs and more practical ones. Self-protection and self-care are important. The practical realities of being able to live one's life are important. And, to put it simply, when I faced a similar choice fourteen years ago I chose to leave.

When the ELCA voted against more inclusive LGBT policies in 2005, my family chose to walk away. We did it for complex reasons, but some of those reasons had to do with our own self-care. We became exiles for four years, driving 70 miles each way on Sunday mornings to attend an open and affirming congregation, until the ELCA revisited these issues in 2009 and changed its policies.

Perhaps, had we belonged to an ELCA congregation that was committed to practicing civil disobedience, or had there been one in the vicinity that was so committed, we would have stayed within the ELCA and joined in the challenges of fighting for change from within. But our home congregation offered few ways to express our conscientious opposition to the ELCA's ongoing pattern of marginalization, especially given that we weren't a gay family. Had we stayed, this could readily have been taken to mean that we didn't find the status quo so bad after all.

Sometimes the only realistic way to express one's conscience is to walk away. But in our case, we didn't merely walk away because it was the best way to communicate a message of conscience. We did it to take care of ourselves. Sometimes the weight of struggle within a community is so heavy that staying in that community feels like staying on the battlefield. The wounded may need, for their own sanity and survival, to look for healing somewhere else.

That was the case with us. And that, apart from any practical or financial costs of the sort that might be confronted by clergy and congregations who opt for civil disobedience, was enough to motivate us to leave rather than stay and keep fighting in the face of our pain and disappointment.

The same will be the case with many in the UMC.

But for others, civil disobedience is a real option. For some congregations, there may be a the kind of solidarity of will and community resources that make it possible to confront the challenges that civil disobedience imposes. They may be positioned so that their civil disobedience will do some good. They may have the will and the way to be a voice of protest from within. For those congregations, civil disobedience may be the best choice.


There are some who wonder why progressives can't just shut up and agree to disagree with their traditionalist neighbors--why they can't just accept the decisions of the majority and continue worshiping alongside traditionalists, accepting that they lost a policy dispute. Why are they such sore losers?

In other words, why can't we all just get along, and experience fellowship together despite our differences?

The reason is because the traditional policy is about who gets to experience fellowship on equal terms with the rest of us. It is a policy that, as we see it, shunts our LGBT neighbors to the margins, turning them into second-class citizens. Love for our LGBT neighbors calls us to stand in solidarity with them.

In The Triumph of Love, I talk about my decision to leave the ELCA in terms of a metaphor that can, I think, be helpful here. Here's how I put it:
Let us use the language of a dinner table, set for a feast, to explain my decision. For me, the feast the church offers should be radically inclusive in its invitation. Basic safety might impose some regrettable limits, but the feast we offer is not ours but Christ's, who died for the sins of the world. The feast is the feast of God, who gave life not because we deserved it, but as a free gift.
While I belonged to the ELCA, it was my table. And for me, love requires that I welcome my LGBT neighbors to my table on an equal footing with my straight neighbors--for all the reasons I've talked about here. I could not justify inviting them to anything less than the full feast. In walking away from the table, my aim was not to withhold my welcome from those who chose to stay, but to find a table I could call my own that fully welcomed my gay and lesbian neighbors. I walked away not because I was closing off fellowship from those I was leaving behind, but because I wanted to extend welcome, an openness to fellowship, that was wider and more inclusive than what I could honestly offer so long as I remained at that other table and called it mine.
If I'd had the power to extend an unconditional welcome to my LGBT neighbors at my home ELCA church--if I'd been the pastor of an open and affirming congregation ready to face the challenges, and so had the option to practice collective civil disobedience by celebrating together the same-sex weddings of our LGBT members and in other ways opening this small table to full inclusivity--I might have done that rather than walk away. I don't know for sure. But I do know that being a mere lay person without the power to determine the terms of welcome at my home congregation, I needed to find a church whose terms were as expansive as those my conscience required.

But there are pastors and congregations in the UMC right now who can extend that radical welcome to their table, despite the policies of the broader communion, through thoughtful civil disobedience to the UMC's policies. They are like a table in a banquet hall, where the leadership in that hall refuses full service to its LGBT members, requiring each table to withhold part of the feast. While they could choose to march out of the banquet hall and set up a table elsewhere, they can also say, "We will not break fellowship with those who share this hall with us, but we will also not give anything less than the full feast to those LGBT persons who sit at our table. If the owners of the banquet hall kick us out for this, so be it. But we will not be the ones who exclude."

There are circumstances in which something less than such radical openness to fellowship is necessary--for self-protection or the safety of those one loves, or for reasons of financial necessity. But when and where it is possible to refuse to walk away and to refuse to just agree to disagree, this option does the most to extend the hand of fellowship and sustain bonds of welcoming love.


Some critics may argue that progressive UMC clergy have no right to practice civil disobedience, because by their ordination they made a commitment to represent a communion broader than themselves. If the clergy person can no longer represent that broader communion's collective commitments, then the proper thing for them to do is resign and walk away, not practice civil disobedience.

Again, this is something I take up in The Triumph of Love. What I say there is worth repeating, because it highlights the complexity of these decisions:
When it comes to issuing mandates to clergy, we need to keep in mind that clergy have voluntarily adopted a role that makes them an agent of a broader communion. They have agreed to represent the values of that communion in their role as agent. This fact means the broader communion does have the authority to establish rules and impose requirements on clergy acting in their role. If they cannot in good conscience follow those rules or meet those requirements, they are free to leave that role. But a decision to stay but defy the rules through civil disobedience can also be a choice that displays integrity--if the decision is rooted in continued allegiance to the community's deepest values combined with the pastor's conviction that the rules do not reflect those values.
If a clergy person or a congregation is convinced that anti-LGBT policies are at odds with the most fundamental values to which the United Methodist Church cleaves, then civil disobedience may well be the act that is most in keeping with their commitment to act as loyal agents of the UMC. Perhaps the majority has, unwittingly and without a full understanding of what they do, voted to enact policies that are at odds what the UMC is about at the deepest level. If so, loyal agents of that communion who see this truth have a responsibility both to refuse to abide by those policies and to try in their refusal to make this truth apparent.

In short, they are called to be prophetic voices that challenge the majority, calling them to repentance. One cannot be such a voice if one conforms to the very policies for which one thinks repentance is required. And so, a refusal to abide by these policies is essential. But a prophetic voice from within rings louder than one on the outside. And so, when it is possible and realistic given the circumstances, civil disobedience can be a more powerful prophetic act than walking away.


Perhaps the following outcome is possible. Perhaps the current UMC, with its conservative and progressive regions and congregations, can agree on a road to schism in which progressive congregations and clergy become part of a new Methodist denomination that is open and affirming. Individual congregations could then vote on which denomination to belong to, bringing their clergy and resources with them. In that scenario, progressive clergy and congregations can act on their consciences without disobeying institutional policies and without risking the loss of their jobs, their pensions, their church buildings, etc.

If this could be done, there is reason to take this option seriously. Living by an ethic of love means loving everyone who is affected by these choices. That includes those who, without a mutual parting of ways, would be forced to choose between ignoring their consciences and risking their jobs, their church homes, and other resources. A solution that avoids putting people into such agonizing circumstances is, all else being equal, the most loving solution.

The One Church Plan would have been such a solution, but it failed. Perhaps the next-most-loving option is an amicable divorce.

If so, does that mean that conscientious objection is just a kind of fall-back position, something to be pursued only if such an amicable divorce can't be obtained? Maybe so, but there are a few questions that those confronting these choices may need to wrestle with before reaching a definitive answer.

First, what are the costs of divorce? Even the most amicable divorce has consequences that can do serious harm. While the alternative of staying together may be worse, a consideration of these harms is crucial before making that decision. Some of those harms have already been mentioned. I can only imagine the anguish and struggle that many congregations will face if they have to decide which new denomination to belong to. Most importantly for me, what about the next generation of LGBT children, some of whom would be born into the conservative branch of that new Methodist world?

With the progressive voices gone to their own denomination, there will be no strong alternative voice within their community to challenge the dominant message. When, in adolescence, they come to struggle with the tension between their budding gender or sexual identity and the teachings of their faith, the path to integration of these crucial dimensions of their identity will be much harder to navigate. They are more likely to be convinced that, in order to be true to their religious community and Christian faith, they have no option but to suppress their sexuality, to live in a closet, to confront every day the agonizing choice between hiding who they are from those they are supposed to be closest to and being rejected by them.

Those of us who have listened with compassionate attention to our LGBT neighbors know what immersion in such a community can do. We know the legacy of poisoned fruits, the psychological distress, the lonely misery, the self-loathing, the brink of despair--the bodies that lie in ruins when we look over that brink. We know that this is a false teaching, immersion in which can kill. That is why we are fighting for change. That is why the UMC has faced a burgeoning challenge to its "traditional" stance. Because progressives have loved their LGBT neighbors enough to pay deep and sustained attention them, and to internalize the lessons.

The costs of divorce, even an amicable one, aren't trivial. That doesn't mean the costs of other options aren't worse. There are no good options here.

But this leads me to my second question. Even if an amicable divorce can be achieved--with two new Methodist denominations, one progressive and one conservative, rising out the ashes of the UMC--is there a way along that path to keep pushing forward with the long, slow, painful effort to promote change? Does conscientious objection play a role in that--for example, among congregations that are torn over which new denomination to choose? Could there be room for a congregation rich in progressive voices to choose to remain with the traditionalists? Could it make sense for some to stay behind, to face the challenges of being a minority voice within that polity and risk the punitive repercussions, for the sake of the next generation?

And if not, how can progressives not only escape the thrall of policies that defy their conscience but do the bigger, more daunting and comprehensive work that conscience demands?

If there is an amicable divorce, and if a new progressive Methodist denomination is born, the right choice for many if not most progressive Methodists would be to become part of that denomination and help to make it the most vibrant and soul-enriching Christian community it can be.

And maybe that's enough. But I remember what my friend Don once said, about why he became active with Soulforce.** He told me he had escaped the closet of his youth and made his way to a faith community that was open and affirming. But one day he looked around and thought, "This is just a much bigger and much more comfortable closet. Beyond these walls, the world still condemns who I am and has no place for me. I need to step out of this closet. I need to share who I am, share the truths I know, with those who do not understand them."

If there is a schism, and if progressives do form a new Methodist denomination, I invite my progressive Methodist brothers and sisters to wrestle with the question that Don's words evoke: How do those who have made their way into an open and affirming community make sure that it isn't just a much bigger and much more comfortable closet than the ones within which our LGBT siblings in conservative communities still painfully languish?


* "Doubling down on marginalization" is not the wording that traditionalists would likely choose. They are more likely to speak of standing firm for holiness in the UMC or taking a stand for biblical values. But the stand they are taking means that a minority group within the UMC is excluded from privileges and opportunities made available to the majority. That's the very definition of marginalization. They may argue that the marginalization is justified, but they can't deny that it's marginalization without making some easily-refuted false claims about the nature of sexual orientation.

**Soulforce is an organization committed to using the nonviolent methods of Gandhi and King to confront the discrimination, marginalization, and suffering inflicted on God's LGBT children by churches and other faith communities.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

For the Love of God, Don't Baptize Evil

The other day, a Facebook friend posted a Twitter snapshot that seems to be making the social media rounds, at least among some people. He posted it with the caption, "Some Gods deserve atheism." I saved the image under the name "Terrible Theodicy." Here it is:

In case something happens to the image, here's what it says: "Abused as a child? God ordained it. Suffered a miscarriage? God ordained it. Lose your job? God ordained it. Robbed? God ordained it. Cancer? God ordained it. Rest, Christian. Every trial, every moment of suffering was ordained by Him who saved you. SDG." (The SDG probably stands for "Soli Deo Gloria," or "Glory to God Alone.")

This Twitter post captures a particular conception of God, one popular among many (not all) Calvinists, which lifts up God's sovereignty over all things, presenting it as the most important divine attribute. What we see here is that this conception of God is offered as a distinct way of "solving" the ancient and persistent problem of evil.

In brief, the problem of evil is the problem of making sense of why an almighty and perfectly good God would permit all the evils that we find in this world: all the child abuse, the miscarriages, the poverty, the criminality, the disease and the natural disasters and the wicked actions of our fellow creatures.

In the discussion that follows the posting of this tweet, the tweet's link to the problem of evil becomes clear. Most commenters (probably reflecting the dominant theology of those friended to the one who posted it) were horrified by the way the post seemed to make God responsible for the evil in the world, but a few brave defenders of the post rejected this take. Their view, which I suspect reflects the view of the original Twitterer and those who find comfort in his post, is basically that God ordained all these things for a good reason that we mere mortals cannot discern.

In other words, those who favor the view of God expressed in this post address the problem of evil by doubling down on God's supremacy, God's perfect knowledge, and insisting that any apparent imperfection is really just a failure to see the perfection of it from our limited perspective.

The idea is roughly this: "God works in mysterious ways, and even when something seems awful, it is all part of God's great plan. There is a good reason for everything that happens, no matter how terrible or wrong it seems to us." This supposedly comforting thought explains why the original Twitterer, after affirming God's responsibility for each of the evils named, says, "Rest, Christian."

My friend who posted the tweet, like me, finds little of comfort in this idea. In effect, the vision of God put forward here strikes him (and me) as unworthy of our worship because it sacrifices God's goodness at the altar of God's power. Better to be an atheist than to embrace such a God whose actions defy our most basic conceptions of what is good and right.

Of course, the defender of this theology will insist that it is not God who is evil but our conception of good and evil that is misguided. I find such a response deeply unsatisfying, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. But before I do that I want to step back and say something important: There is more than one "problem of evil." The one described above is what we might call the philosophical or theological problem, but there's also the existential one: How do we live with evil. At least some people find a comfort that I don't find in the image of God presented in the tweet above. In other words, for some people this image of God helps them live with the tragedies of life.

I don't want to trivialize that. But I do want to invite those people to consider whether the same resources for comfort might be found elsewhere, in a conception of God that has fewer troubling implications.

With that in mind, let me talk about why I think the implications of this approach to evil are so problematic.

My friend's caption for the post--"Some gods deserve atheism"--reminds me immediately of Simone Weil. Weil was not an atheist, but at one point she described atheism as "a purification." The idea is that to discover the true God, we need to purge ourselves of the gods we invent or construct and cling to so firmly that they fill up the space into which divine reality might enter.

I think the problem of evil, and the form of atheism that springs from moral revulsion to certain solutions to the problem and their accompanying God-concept, can be purifying in just this way.
But one needn't become an atheist to experience this purifying effect. What one does need is to hold onto a healthy skepticism towards "solutions" to the problem that baptize evil--in other words, solutions that, in an effort to "defend" God, urge us to set aside our most basic horror at the most terrible wrongs and insist in defiance of our moral conscience that they're really good in some mysterious way.

Once we make that move, we have silenced our moral sense so thoroughly that we are dispositionally cut off from the Good Itself and so from the kind of openness to the true God that is required to have an actual encounter with the divine.

At least that's how I see it. Any solution to the problem of evil that asks us to ignore our clearest moral intuitions based on some vague invocation of God's mysterious ways asks us, in turn, to shut down that part of us that is most directly linked to the divine. That, in turn, imposes the most final impediment to experiencing and connecting with God--with the truth that transcends our understanding, as opposed to our particular construct.

All of this is true, I think, even if we concede that our moral sense is fallible. What that concession forces us to do is be open to having our moral intuitions proven wrong in the light of a more encompassing perspective, not to develop the habit of ignoring our moral intuitions based on the bare theoretic assurance (offered by some preacher or theologian) that the more encompassing perspective, which we don't know anything about, really does defeat our moral intuitions (as if we know at least that much about the unknowable).

We are closer to God if we rage against God's apparent injustices, arguing with God or crying out "Why, God? Why?", than we are if we baptize the horrors we face and invoke the view that none of these horrors are really evil after all, that our moral sense is not to be listened to, that our conscience and our compassion and our heart should be set aside or put away in the name of vaunting God's glory.

When we harden our hearts against the evils in the world by calling them good in defiance of our instincts, we harden our hearts against God.