Jack Crum Conference on Love Our Neighbors

I came home from the Jack Crum Conference on Prophetic Ministries in Durham this evening both encouraged and discouraged. I was encouraged by the prophetic voices that spoke and encouraged us to keep on in the struggle to make the United Methodist Church live up to its motto. I was discouraged that in spite of weeks of publicity and promotion, only 63 people (not counting speakers and guests) showed up. I think it is indicative of how the progressive arm of the United Methodist Church is struggling to find traction in the recalcitrant majority of clerics who are fearful of their careers and unwilling to take risks if it involves their retirement benefits. We have a sympathetic Bishop in North Carolina who is restricted by the legal authority of her position to uphold the Book of Discipline, and who even advertised the meeting on the NC Conference web site.

The fact is the Methodists are dragging their feet on LGBT issues in comparison with the other mainline denominations that have moved on to other issues.   Some of the clergy present acknowledged that they have moved on to other denominations where they serve as ordained elders without fear of reprisal or intimidation. Such is the hypocrisy of the United Methodist Church that clergy who lie or wink can be ordained, but those who are truthful or honest cannot. That was the traditional practice 50 years ago, but it is an abomination today.

I also was struck by the fact that the majority of those in attendance at the conference were allies rather than gays or lesbians. That is only a reflection of the obvious fact we as a group have either never been a part of an organized church or have left because we were unwelcome and regarded as second-class members. The church will take our money, but we can’t serve in leadership positions or be openly recognized, particularly if it involves our spouse.

A friend and I discussed the criticism that he has received for remaining as a member of the church that is so backward in its polity.   Why doesn’t he just leave and go to another denomination that is more relevant to the needs of today’s society? It’s simple. We were born and raised Methodists, and that not only reflects our common belief, but also is the home and source of our support in spite of what the official policies of the church may be. We are in communion with others in our congregation, and that is where we feel at home.

The church is SO distracted by the issue of same-sex marriage and unthinking of the idea of evangelism to the disposed that we risk the hazard of becoming irrelevant in the face of an increasingly secularized society. Are we presumptuous to claim that (LGBT) people are the new face of the civil rights movement in America, and that it is being fought not only in the legislatures but also in the churches? I think not. Today the parallels between homophobia and racism were again brought clearly into focus. We have not resolved either issue, and it is a long road ahead that deserves our best energies and efforts.

 

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Religious Freedom Restoration Acts

A lot of news coverage recently has focused on discriminatory laws in Indiana and Arkansas restricting services to legally married same-sex couples and pending legislation in other states. Most reports have ignored the fact that LGBT people can be denied employment and housing in the majority of states. Gays and lesbians can be fired simply because of their sexual orientation without any protection from discrimination. Federal legislation, dubbed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), has been pending since 1993 that would add LGBT as a protected class similar to the other classes of people cited prior laws.

In common practice, fewer gays and lesbians are being fired in spite of the fact that is legal to do so because businesses and other organizations have found that to be damaging to their images if they discriminate. It’s simply bad business practice if you want to recruit and keep good employees, including many straight allies. But that doesn’t excuse the practice that still exists among some companies, and particularly churches, who still discriminate based solely on sexual orientation. Some church-related colleges recently have been in the news because of their discriminatory practices. They claim their religion protects them from claims of discrimination because of their belief that homosexuality is a mortal sin and therefore all homosexuals are unworthy of employment. Of course, some people go even further and say that all LGBT people are worthy of death, imprisonment, or at least physical and mental abuse.

In those cases where such acts of violence occur, some states are including LGBT people along with race as a categoryin their hate crimes laws. Basically those laws impose additional punishment if the motive to a crime can be proven to be the result of a person’s hate of another individual and not just a crime of passion. Such situations are very hard to prove in court and probably offer little protection or deterrence. So-called “bullying” laws against abuse of LGBT youth have been much more effective in that they impose responsibilities on teachers and administrators to act when bullying occurs rather than to ignore it.

Some would say that all this proves the point that you can’t legislate morality, and where discrimination and abuse exist in the name of religion you simply have to wait until time brings about the change in the public’s beliefs and perceptions about homosexuality. Public opinion is changing along with the laws that have decriminalized homosexuality and legalized same-sex marriage, but the radical right is still a holdout in the cultural changes of recent decades. Their hatred of Obama because of his race is re-enforced by his support of LGBT issues. The politics of fear mongering has been successful through the ages, and as long as you continue to tell the big lie it works. It only unravels when the lies are revealed. The radical right group LGBT people with Muslims and Jews and other people they hate and justify their hatred in the name of religion. Their religion, however, is the antithesis of Christianity and everything that Jesus preached. In reality what they want is a theocracy similar to Iran when the majority can impose their religious beliefs and practices on everyone so that there is no freedom of religion and the state and the church are one. Our founding fathers learned from the abuses in Europe of those practices and set America on a course to separate the two. Thus we have the hypocrisy of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.

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A Gay Cure

The recent release of the movie “I am Michael” again has raised the question of whether sexual orientation can be changed. I haven’t seen the movie, but the storyline is that of a man who comes out of the closet and then goes back in again. The premise of the religious right is that sexual orientation is a choice, and with proper treatment and prayer it can be changed— although no one has ever claimed to make a straight person gay.

Let’s start with a few definitions: gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual expression are not synonymous. Gender identity is how we view ourselves as male or female. Transgender persons suffer cognitive dissonance in that their psychological identity does not match their physical characteristics, and so they undergo physical and psychological treatments to change their gender. They are not gay.

Sexual orientation was perhaps best explained in the Masters and Johnson’s historic study on human sexuality in which they surveyed hundreds of people to discover that only a small percentage is exclusively gay or straight. Most fit in the bell curve and have some gay and straight inclinations and/or experiences, which seems to explain the concept of bisexuality. For years gays thought that bisexuals were simply closeted gays, but experience has shown that people can respond to a variety of sexual stimuli and/or experiences. While we may be inclined in one direction more strongly than the other, circumstances and social pressures can influence our decisions and behavior. Prison is a good example. For decades, most gays got married to “pass” for straight, had children, and lived so-called normal lives. The experience varied widely, and some were more successful than others. Most eventually came out as gay, but they might or might not get divorced.

Sexual expression is how we express our sexuality. For gays that is primarily masturbation (mutual or otherwise) or anal intercourse. The “kinky” sex of sadomasochism or leather appears to appeal to both straight and gay, and seems to reflect an early experience of conflicting pain with pleasure in creating arousal. People can choose to remain celibate and repress their sexuality, but that frequently results in distorted personality and psychological problems such as pedophilia.

Conversion therapy was practiced for decades in the US and is still legal in some states even though it has been banned in a few. All of the professional organizations have disavowed the practice as creating more problems while still not creating a cure for homosexuality. In most cases, the regimen simply uses aversion therapy to repress sexual feelings. The largest group, Exodus International, closed its doors two years ago and apologized for misleading people that it could provide a cure.

Opponents of gay civil rights claim that because a gay gene has not be proven, then gays have a choice and can change since it is not genetic. On the other hand, you can’t prove a negative so there is no proof that is not genetic. Clearly the trait does tend to run in families, but life experiences also can determine how it is expressed. Because of the changes in social attitudes in our society, many people are now coming out later in life as they have learned how to lift their repressions and to be able to more fully express their inner personality and true self.

Homosexuality is not a disorder nor is it criminal behavior. That has been settled by professional organizations and the Supreme Court. The continuing debate is whether or not is a sin. Those who proof text the Bible claim that it is a sin, and others who interpret the Bible differently claim that references refer to prostitution and sexual domination. In ancient times male rape was the ultimate form of submission.

The issue has been debated endlessly, and it probably will continue to be depending upon your assumptions.   If you make certain assumptions, then you can make a case either way. Unfortunately, the continuing debates lead to more suicides, violence, and discrimination based on homophobia.

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Gay Christians

For decades public opinion assumed that if you were gay you could not be Christian, and if you were Christian you could not be gay. The two were mutually exclusive. Theologians, authors, psychotherapists, and religious advocacy groups have challenged that assumption in recent years. In prior blog posts, I have cited several authors and written reviews of their books telling their personal stories of how they reconciled their sexual orientation with their faith.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources in 2009 and again in 2013 published “Building an Inclusive Church: A Welcoming Toolkit 2.0” with the support of eleven different denominational organizations. It provided an outline for Protestant Churches to provide a more open and receptive relationship with their LGBT members, and in some case to make a formal statement to that effect in their policies and publications.

This past fall, the Reformation Project, headed by Matthew Vines in Salt Lake City, hosted a conference at the National City Christian Church in Washington, DC that drew a star group of speakers and leaders and several hundred in attendance. Just this week in Portland, OR, Justin Lee with the Gay Christian Network, headquartered here in Raleigh, led several hundred evangelical leaders in a conference titled “Together at the Table.” Most of the denominational organizations cited above also host periodical national and/or regional conferences. The Reconciling United Methodists of North Carolina hosted one in Winston-Salem in 2013 and another in Greensboro in 2014. They are affiliates of the Reconciling Ministries Network that is headquartered in Chicago.

For several years the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, has had a full-time staff member for faith partnerships for reaching out to churches and faith communities. Many Reformed Jewish congregations and some individual Catholic Churches have organized connections with the LGBT community, and the new Pope has taken a much less judgmental view of LGBT people. So the gap between the two is closing both from the approach of gay activities and from the religious leaders. The radical right wing of the Republican Party and the Southern Baptist Convention are the two remaining holdouts that still use homophobia as both a political weapon and a judgment against all homosexuals.

The media seems to have been focused exclusively on same-sex marriage and the controversy that has risen in the past five years and the rapid reversal of state laws regarding the issue. The number of cases that have reached federal appellate courts has with only a few exceptions struck down state laws banning same-sex marriage, and the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to finally consider the issue even though it has declined to the review the decisions of appellate courts in recent years.

In the United Methodist Church, the media has focused on the church trials of ministers who have conducted same-sex marriage in violation of official church policy and how the regional administrators, who in this church are called bishops, have conducted those trials. There has been less publicity about the wave of congregations across the country that have openly stated their willingness to welcome LGBT people as members in full standing. The international legislative body of the United

Methodist Church, known at the General Conference, has debated the issue of the role of homosexuals in the church every four years since 1972 without any movement. This is in contrast with the other mainline Protestant Denominations who not only welcome LGBT people as members but also have ordained them as clergy.

For too long the debate centered on the interpretation of seven verses in the Bible that supposedly address the Christian theology about the practice of homosexuality. Some people have even said that it is OK to be homosexual as long as you do not act on that orientation and remain celibate, so that splits the hairs even further. Fortunately, the discussion seems to have moved more to whether or not LGBT people are to be accepted rather than condemned and not to focus so much on church dogma and the literal interpretation of a few scriptures. More LGBT advocacy groups are becoming less anti-religious, and more faith communities are becoming less hung-up on gay sex so the breech is narrowing.

 

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Loving my (LGBT) Neighbor

Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor: Being Friends in Grace and Truth (Moody Publishers), by Glenn Stanton, staff member at Focus on the Family.

I got interested in this book by reading the book review in the Dec. 5th issue of Christianity Today by Karen Swallow Pride: Christianity Today Book Review

I won’t “review” her review, but I will offer comments of my own. The author makes a big point of his cordial relations with opponents on the issue of Christianity and homosexuality and how they have appeared numerous times to debate each other.   Through that they have developed friendships and come to know each other as individuals, not just as stereotypes. Which, of course, is how people come to change their opinions, attitudes, and beliefs on the issue.

The one point where he will not budge is that evangelicals stand on the authority of the Bible, while his opponents have no standing in how to interpret the Bible. This is the first of his many false choices. Evangelicals appear arrogant when they assume they are the only ones who know how to read the Bible. He stands on their interpretation of the Bible, and there are as many interpretations as they are Protestant denominations.   That is one of the primary reasons why the Protestant church is so fractured, although history, tradition, local social customs, etc. also played a significant role in how the church continued to divide over time.

He ignores Jeff Chu, Jason Lee, and Matthew Vines, who as fellow evangelicals have published very different interpretations of the Bible. In his history of homosexuality he ignores John Boswell, who wrote the most authoritative book on the subject. So he either chose to carefully select his sources or was not aware of these.

He starts off by saying that same-sex marriage cannot be a true marriage because it does not create life. If you follow that logic, the heterosexual couples who are infertile and have sex are living in sin. Where does adoption come into the equation? Paul doesn’t mention adoption in the Bible, except in a very different context. Glenn cites a couple of authors and quibbles with their interpretations of a few of the key texts in a very patronizing manner.   He says, “God is unmistakably clear in these texts,” but there are other theologians who disagree with him. One example is Jack Rogers, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, USA. Somehow he skips over the historic fact that polygamy was the traditional practice in Biblical times and nowhere is it condemned in the scriptures although in modern practice it is considered a sin.

He claims that it is not the sexual orientation that is a sin; it is only acting on it. That is the fallacy of many of the evangelicals who focus on condemning people’s actions rather than focusing on what’s in their hearts, which is what Jesus instructed us to do. He gives a quickie orientation on the doctrine of original sin and for the call to obedience to God in that we must confess our sin. But that makes the giant assumption that homosexuality IS a sin, which he has not established logically. It is only a matter of church traditions.

He claims that sexual orientation or gender identity are not comparable to race or ethnicity offering only limited evidence to support that broad claim. He cites a few studies claiming that sexual orientation is not genetically based, but you can’t prove a negative. The fact is that science is inconclusive at this point and new research may prove that it is genetically based. And there’s the rub. If it is comparable to race in that is how God has created us, it is only wishful thinking to believe that we can change who we are. Yes, we can suppress our desires and our actions, but that only creates more internal conflict and psychological trauma as evidenced by the “cure” techniques that have been widely discredited as fraud.

It certainly is encouraging that a representative of an organization that for a decade preached hate of homosexuals to assume a more measured tone of judgment, and he states that we should disagree in civil tones and be respectful of each other. Obviously, I agree that abuses have occurred on both sides, and threats have been made. But I don’t know of any evangelicals who actually have been killed by a homosexual for their beliefs, and I do know of homosexuals who have been murdered by those on the radical right.

His discussion about whether or not homosexuality is a choice missed the point that 40 years ago the American Psychological Association determined that it is not a disorder and is merely a variation from the majority and that homosexuals can live a perfectly normal life. Of course, that doesn’t address whether or not it is a sin, which depends upon your theological point-of-view.

The false choice of being celibate condemns people to a lonely, unhealthy life in which they never are truly complete. The Catholic Church didn’t claim that prerogative for its clergy for a thousand years, and it’s still a false choice for the laity.

Chapter 4 relates the accounts of several people who have formed friendships in spite of strong opposing view on the issue of homosexuality, and these are encouraging examples. I fear that they are merely the exception to the rule, and I hope that I am wrong. Chapter 5 is about possibilities and limits of evangelicals forming friendships with homosexuals with reasonable suggestions. Chapter 6 is OK. In chapter 7 he states that the LGBT people claims special rights rather than the ordinary civil rights that everyone else has, which is another one of his false choices. I won’t debate the same-sex marriage issue simply because it is too complex to go into here. Federal discrimination laws cover race, gender, ethnicity, and age and now include sexual orientation. If you discriminate against an African-American (or any of the other protected classes) because of your religious beliefs, you cannot legally do business. Why separate out sexual orientation as a special privilege to discriminate based on religious beliefs? I agree that making a big fuss over gender-neutral bathrooms is more of an issue of sexual politics than mere practicality.

I don’t usually give such a lengthy, chapter-by-chapter book review, but I found myself debating the points the author made as I read the book. I couldn’t help myself, therefore this lengthy post.

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Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church Webcast

I just finished watching the web cast of the panel of eight bishops, and I was disappointed just as I was in the book of that name that was published by the Council of Bishops last spring. (Find my review of the book in my blog post of June 20th.) I found the talk of unity disingenuous since the reality is clearly that the church is not united on this issue.   One of the Twitter commenters stated that he didn’t like being described as an “issue” rather than a human being and noted there were no LGBT people on the panel discussing the issue of homosexuality.

I suppose the two webcasts and the book are efforts to fulfill the Wesleyan quadrilateral, but I felt they lacked the spirit of his intentions. His method involves scripture, tradition, experience and reason as four different sources of theological or doctrinal development. The current buzzword is to pray for discernment. The Roman Catholic Church for centuries emphasized tradition and official established church doctrine as the only sources, with very few options for personal beliefs, insights, or enlightenment. Wesley formed the Holiness Societies to not only study the scripture but also to discuss them in the light of their own experience, to reason together as to how they would be most applicable to the circumstances of their time, and to be accountable to each other. The Methodist Church must be held accountable for the damage this long debate and the resulting animosity have caused.

The Evangelical tradition of some Protestant Denominations has placed the scripture as the sole source of doctrine or dogma, and declares that it has been fixed in place for 500 years without regard to translations, exegetical research, original manuscripts, or other issues related to the intended meaning of the actual words in the King James English translation of the Bible. “It means what it says it means,” except of course the 16th Century English that was archaic at the time does not have the same meaning as contemporary English today. The purists claim that progressives are heretics who diminish the true intention of the Holy Scriptures by interpreting them in the context of our modern culture. Of course, they choose to ignore the context of the culture in which those scriptures were originally written down. The writings were compiled after centuries of oral traditions and were not established as the canon until hundreds of years later. (So much for the difficulties of reading and interpreting scripture.)

I still get the feeling that Jesus must have felt in discussing the law with the Pharisees and the Sadducees who claimed that all that was necessary to a good life was to fulfill the law as prescribed by Moses. Jesus taught that we are required to understand and to apply the heart as well as the letter of the law.

And so for 42 years we have been haggling over the wording in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, which is the official dogma of the church. The legislative body of the church, the General Conference, has debated this wording and modified some sections but still retained the principal condemnation that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Political camps have maneuvered every four years with little progress.

The devotees of the status quo claim that because the majority have voted at General Conference, then in the urgency of unity we must all obey and observe that dogma if we are to maintain the integrity of the church and the sanctity of the scriptures. We don’t have people calling out publicly that homosexuals are going to hell or that homosexuality is a sin anymore, but it is clearly implied by our policies.

So why do we get so hung up on seven deadly scriptures that are cited to use the Bible as a club to attack and condemn people rather than to use the Bible how we can best learn to live together in charity and to reach out to everyone to bring them to Christ no matter who they are?

Any church that is preoccupied with maintaining the status quo, regardless of the issue, rather than reaching out in its primary mission of evangelism is doomed to failure. If nothing else, it eventually becomes irrelevant to the needs and concerns of society and becomes defensive in self-perpetuating itself. When dogma has been revealed to not only be damaging to individuals but also to the grace of the church itself, what justification can be given of the primacy of the need to maintain unity? Am I suggesting the United Methodist Church separate as it did over the “issue” of slavery? No, but I do believe the endless dialogue is not productive if it leads to no resolution.   The Jews love to debate the Midrash, but that is not the Christian tradition of how we understand the scriptures.

 

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Where have I been?

Why has there been a 7-week hiatus in this blog?   I had a series of appointments with a variety of doctors, resumed my weekly Bible Study group, attended several political rallies, and went to the annual Gay Pride parade and festival in Durham in Sept. I posted photos of the parade on Facebook. In Oct. I’ve spent the month recuperating from hip replacement surgery. I spent 3 days in the hospital, a week in re-hab, and 2 ½ weeks at home. I really haven’t even read much and have survived just performing the usual activities of daily living plus daily exercises. I’ve pretty much just slept most of the past month in dealing with pain and weakness. I’ve fed the daily email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, but that’s been the limit of my activity online. So much for excuses.

In the meantime, North Carolina has achieved gay marriage through a recent court ruling, the airways have been saturated with negative political ads, and ISIS and Ebola have stoked the national panic. We’re now one of 20 states offering that recognition. The Raleigh LGBT Center hosted its annual awards banquet with recognition of several outstanding volunteers and activists. The HRC hosted its annual awards dinner in Washington, DC with lots of national press coverage. Within the past week, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has upheld the re-instatement of the credentials of Rev. Frank Schaefer, and the North Carolina and Western North Carolina chapters of the Reconciling Ministries Network hosted a successful conference in Greensboro. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend so can’t offer a first-hand report and didn’t get to see Bishop Talbert speak.

So while I sat on the sidelines, the worlds of gay rights, equality, and action have boomed with significant advances in many fields. So is there anything to hinder this burst of optimism? Yes, the radical right continues to propose reactionary legislation, media pundits and preachers still make ridiculous homophobic public statements just to gain notoriety, and the mood of the nation is generally cautious about our economic future. It’s like the economy is on hold until November 4th.   I will be glad the daily panic email appeals from the Democratic Senate Congressional Committee finally will cease, and that I will be able to turn on the TV without Thom Tillis and Kay Hagan attacking each other continually. We still don’t have any employment non-discrimination legislation in North Carolina or in the Congress, and it appears unlikely to come up before 2016.

I hope to be back to driving again this week and more engaged in the community and to become more of a participant rather than just a spectator.

 

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