Grammy Weddings a Great Step

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Dr. King

Last night’s wedding at the Grammy’s was not just about showing same-sex couples getting married, it was also an opportunity to show the long arc of civil rights that began over a century ago with the Women’s Rights movement, and was carried forward half a century ago with the American Civil Rights movement, is now bringing forth a new harvest of Marriage Equality. An African American woman was the celebrant at a wedding for couples of a variety of backgrounds. Some of the pairing were same-sex, some of them were multi-ethnic, and they all were beautiful. The entire scene – not just the same-sex unions – would have been described as “blasphemous” and a rejection of “biblical values” by the fundamentalists and bigots of (only recently) by-gone decades.

The fight for marriage equality is not the “LGBT rights” movement, it is the continuation of a journey that has spanned generations, a journey to understand our faiths and our traditions in a way that liberates them from the prejudices, ignorance, provincialism, and ethno-centrism of our ancestors.

Having millions of people celebrate last night’s wedding wasn’t a victory, because we are not in a battle that can ever be fully won. It was, however, a reminder that we are one step nearer to that hope of beloved community, and bending ever closer toward justice.

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Regarding Ender’s Game

Ender's Game Movie Poster

Ender’s Game Movie Poster

The topic of boycotting the new Ender’s Game movie is generating considerable debate in the speculative fiction community right now, especially after Orson Scott Card’s recent plea for “tolerance” of his past intolerance.

1. Homosexuality in general – This comes up any time its germane even tangentially to the topic at hand. Bigotry against people in same-sex relationships is sufficiently destructive that you cannot avoid talking about its consequences when addressing related issues. As Card, and other religious fundamentalists apparently realize, the issue is settled and they are on the losing end of history on this one (as the segregationists were a couple of generations ago). This one is done, but it is still important that we don’t forget the injustices that gay, lesbian, and transgender people have endured in the past.

2. Enjoying the art of someone whose views we dislike/detest – This one, I think, is not absolute. Would I hang a picture on my wall painted by someone who worked for Monsanto? Probably not, but possibly. Would I hang a painting on my wall that was painted by Hitler? No. Would I hang a picture on my wall painted by someone who smokes cigarettes? Sure.  Distance in time and place make a difference. I’m sure that there are a lot of things in Sumerian culture I would find horrifying – but I still read Gilgamesh.

3. Financially supporting someone whose views we dislike/detest – This is somewhat different, especially when the person actively uses their fame or wealth to influence those issues which we hold dear. Personally, I try not to give money to people or organizations that use those profits for causes I oppose. Because of the incestuous nature of our corporate culture, and the fact that many corporations act in despicable ways, this is sometimes hard to avoid – but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable, general rule.

4. What happens when something becomes a cause celebre? – Sometimes how we spend our money becomes a political statement over and above its inherent value. This happened with Chik-fil-A, and is now happening with Orson Scott Card. At that point, sometimes there is value in simply joining your voice with the chorus making the public statement that some behaviors/ideas are despicable, and we repudiate them.

5. Orson Scott Card himself – In my interactions with him (only by correspondence) he has always been gracious and thoughtful. Perhaps in the echo chamber of religious fundamentalism he did not realize just how offensive his statements really are, or how out of step with mainstream Western culture (religious and secular) he has become. Perhaps also he did not realize that the SF community – likely because of the level of education of its members and the nature of the genre – has increasingly become even more welcoming and affirming than the general culture. I understand why some folks defend him (for who he is as a whole), and I understand why others vilify him (for the reprehensible things he has said). As with any kind of bigot, the question is “How do we love the sinner and hate the sin?”

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First Sunday in Advent

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel - Rembrandt

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel – Rembrandt

It was the First Sunday in Advent and the last in November. We were in the shadow of the end of a millennium, and – unbeknownst to me – the beginning of a seismic change in the direction of my life.  In the Lectionary readings, Isaiah reminded us that – flawed though we are – we are clay in the hands of a loving Potter.  Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of Mark, cried, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” And the Apostle Paul reminded us that we lack for nothing because our Savior strengthens us and God is faithful.

I let their voices roll around in my head as I made my way to Madison, Georgia. I had time to review my sermon, as it was more than an hour drive from our house in the city to the small, country church where I was the pastor. I often made that drive alone or in the company of our infant son. My wife Brigit worked most Sundays. Our son John-Francis heard his first homilies snuggled comfortably in the arms of any number of kind, older Southern ladies more than happy to sit with him on the back pew while I preached.

This Sunday, however, our whole family was together, and we made our way along the highway in the companionable silence of the early morning. The air had a hint of chill to it, but the sky was a cloudless blue against cleared fields and baled hay that shone a bright gold in the Georgia sun. If we looked closely, there were signs that winter was on its way, but for the moment we were happy to enjoy the last, gilded days of the South’s mildest season.

Advent, which begins the liturgical year for Christians around the world, is a season of hope. Often this hope is tied to the memory of the incarnation of Jesus, because the Christmas season is right around the corner, but the hope of Advent is even larger. In the four weeks before Christmas we remember that everyone and everything we know or value will someday pass away, and at the end of time our hope lies not in our accomplishments, but in the grace of God.

That is a more complex and subtle flavor of hope than the simple message of holiday greeting cards and Christmas carols. I had struggled with how to convey the texts’ messages of challenge and warning to my congregation, while also making certain to offer the hope that was at the center of the season and the gospel itself. I was not overly concerned. They were good sports.  Matriarchs, dairy farmers, mechanics, veterans, professionals – they had helped me grow into my calling while patiently teaching me to do the job for which seminary had given me the tools but not the workshop.

Normally I was the first to arrive, although the wife of one of our deacons would have come a couple hours earlier to turn on the heat. Today, however, I turned down the gravel drive to see that our aged white steeple presided over a parking lot full of cars. The congregation was over two hundred years old, and had once overseen a legendary revival that had prompted the citizens of a nearby town to rename their city “Newborn.” I wondered if a similarly great awakening was about to take place.

Brigit and John-Francis entered with me and found their usual spots for Sunday School while I went to my office to look over my sermon. I did not have much time to ponder the mystery of our increased church attendance, since the hour for Worship arrived swiftly. Our lector that day was the Chair of the Deacons, and his rumbling baritone proclaimed, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

“At least this Sunday,” I thought acerbically, “if you came down you’d find the pews filled.  I wish I knew why.” Still contemplating the sheer number of freshly-soaped faces staring at me intently, I launched into a lackluster but adequate sermon to begin the new Church Year.

I quickly realized something was very wrong. Anyone who has had the privilege to preach in a rural, evangelical congregation knows that we are well-trained. We can tell by the preacher’s inflections and facial expressions when we are supposed to laugh, and so we do – even if the joke is a familiar one or more than a little lame (and further hobbled by the preacher’s delivery). Church is a place where we remember not to take the world too seriously, and our shared laughter creates its own liturgy, honoring the joy that is at the heart of the gospel.

There was no laughter in the congregation that day.  For twenty minutes I tossed the crumbs of my sermon onto a sea of blank stares, and all that came back was a sense that something was coming and everyone knew it but me.  For the first time I felt the fear that is also a part of the season of Advent.  The axe was at the root of the tree, and I suspected the fire was yet to come.

When it did, it was during the announcements and in the whispered words of the same Deacon who had read from Isaiah, “Pastor, the Deacons would like a word with you if you have the time.”

We met in the Sunday School room that also served as the space for business meetings. The Chair stood and read a prepared statement which began, “Pastor, this is nothing personal…”

As with “This is not about you, it’s about me,” an introit like this invariably leads to a blow that is both deeply personal and carelessly brutal. This conversation would prove to be no exception. I was given the opportunity to tender my resignation (pastors are almost never fired), presented with a minimal severance check, and asked to leave and never return.

The church had called a meeting in the wee hours of the morning prior to my arrival that day. I was not invited. There was only one agenda item: my sermon from the previous Sunday.

On that day, the 21st of November – Reign of Christ Sunday – I had deviated from the Lectionary and preached from a selection of texts I had chosen to address an event on the minds of all our members. The previous week our state ecclesiastical body had expelled two congregations for the first time in the nearly 200-year-long history of their existence. The two Atlanta churches – both served by friends of mine – were clear and public in their advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. The rhetoric against those two communities of faith, especially in rural parishes like mine, had grown passionate and vitriolic.

I had entered the pulpit that previous Sunday terrified. I even brought two sermons with me, one from the lectionary that proclaimed the hope of unity in the reign of Christ, and the other from a collection of epistles and gospel fragments addressing pastorally the issue of homosexuality. My professional and prayerful opinion – then as now – was that any consistent, faithful approach to Scripture does not allow for the condemnation of homosexuality.

I didn’t want to say that to my congregation. I told myself that my reluctance was because they would not be able to hear the why of such a sermon because they would not be able to get past the what of it. Over the course of a sleepless night I realized that my real fear was losing a job I loved, a career path I was quickly ascending, and a paycheck that we desperately needed to pay our mortgage.

The writers in Proverbs remind us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” and ultimately that persuaded me which sermon to preach on the 21st. To this day, I recall the image that I could not shake – of me, standing before Almighty God, and God asking me why I refused to speak the truth from the pulpit. If even a single word I had ever proclaimed were true, how could I face my Creator and admit that the one time it really mattered I was more concerned with protecting myself than speaking for those on whom the Church had turned its back?

And so I had ended the previous liturgical year with the proclamation that the gospel included our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters just as they were. A week later, I started the season of Advent unemployed and unlikely to find a new congregation. My church, to its credit, had not been unanimous in their response to my sermon. Many had argued to keep me, but had ultimately agreed that the loss of an idealistic, big-city pastor was better for the church than the inevitable congregational split.

My colleagues were quick to offer their support. One – who had prayed during my ordination that God would take me, bless me, break me, and give me away – told me, “You were taken out for offering your very best stuff.  Don’t ever forget that.” I haven’t. Another simply told me, “They were wrong.  You were right.” Less helpfully, a number of them called to tell me “I wish I could have said what you said, but…” The pastors of both congregations that had been removed from our communion called to tell me I was part of their story too. I will always be honored that they counted me among their courageous number.

I also heard from a number of people whom I did not know. They told me how the Church had wounded them. They told me how painful it was to be told that they had to choose between the God to whom they had given their soul and the person who was their soulmate. I came to realize what a small price I had paid for the privilege of speaking on their behalf.

A part of me had known that a moment like that would come at some point in my ministry, but my ego had assumed that the stage would be larger and the consequences more far-reaching. A small, inconsequential church in a distant farming community hardly seemed worth the permanent sacrifice of my professional career.

But the gospel does not work that way. The riddle of Advent is that we are called to hope for a kingdom yet to come, while understanding that it will only arrive if we live as if it were already here. If we spend our lives waiting for that big chance to live out that hope, the opportunity for us to make a “real” difference, we miss the thousands of moments where we could have taken just a tiny bit of hate, anger, bigotry, or ignorance out of the world and replaced it with a little kindness, grace, or wisdom. Sometimes, the price we pay for that little bit of faithfulness or courage seems exorbitant, but – as anyone who has faced despair will tell you – that is nonsense. Hope is priceless.

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Chicken Sandwich with a Side of Shame

Little Rock Integration Protest

Little Rock Integration Protest (source Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday a right-wing,  fundamentalist preacher/politician/media personality urged his fans to go to Chick-fil-A to show their support for the company’s opposition to LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.  Purchasing a chicken sandwich, or refusing to do so, became a political statement leading to some of the most heated discussions I have ever seen erupting on Facebook.  I watched friendships end in rather dramatic ways, and I read vitriolic remarks of astonishing potency on both sides of the conflict.  Although I weighed in on plenty of these discussions in bits and pieces, I wanted to put all of my thoughts in one place:

It’s not about Freedom Of Speech

One aspect of the rhetoric that initially astonished me was the claim by many of the Chick-fil-A supporters that they were going to the restaurant to support Dan Cathy’s “First Amendment Rights” which – apparently – they thought were under attack.  If I understand their argument correctly, Mr. Cathy exercised his freedom of speech by publicly espousing his support for “biblical marriage” and the media response to his comments was an attempt to squelch Mr. Cathy’s right to speak his mind.

Mind you, no one told Mr. Cathy he could not say the things he said or had no right to say them.  No one refused to publish his comments.  In fact, they were reproduced in every possible media outlet.  They were tweeted and facebooked, they were mentioned on television news, and journalists reprinted them in print and online.  No one said Mr. Cathy should not be allowed to say or think these things.  No one challenged his First Amendment rights.

But “I’m supporting Chick-fil-A because I believe in Free Speech” is much more palatable than “I’m supporting Chick-fil-A because I oppose same-sex marriage.”  Hiding their true agenda like this is not a new tactic for the Far Right.  They already try to claim that opposing same-sex marriage is about protecting “family values” and “defending traditional marriage.”  Of course, the reality is that keeping people who would make great parents from adopting children is not supporting family values.  Similarly, keeping two people who love each other and want to make a lifetime commitment to each other from marrying is not protecting marriage.

In a similar vein, telling someone that something they said is bigoted and ignorant is not opposing Free Speech, it is using Free Speech in exactly the way the freedom was intended – to hold an idea up to public examination and critique in a way that allows for all sides of an issue to be considered.  Dan Cathy has a right to say any ignorant thing he likes, and we have a right to point out all the flaws in his statements.

The heart of the matter is that support for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights is rapidly becoming the norm in the United States and in the Western world.  Even Chick-fil-A realized this with their hastily-published attempts to back out of the debate.  Opponents of same-sex marriage realize that they have to cloak their rhetoric of hate behind innocuous or falsely positive language.  Otherwise, they will quickly be dismissed as ignorant, bigoted fundamentalists trying to hide a political agenda of exclusion behind empty religious claims.

Yes, this is Bigotry and Hate

All it takes is a quick look at what’s at stake, however, and it becomes clear that their arguments are just that.  I have already discussed how the claim by opponents of same-sex marriage that they are just being “biblical” is disingenuous at best and – more accurately – theologically indefensible.  I’ve also discussed why I insist on using the term “bigotry” when talking about those who oppose LGBT rights, but I am happy to elucidate further.

The only argument against LGBT rights (adoption, marriage, protection from discrimination) is one drawn from a particular interpretation of certain sacred texts, an interpretation is not even the normative one among mainline religious scholars.  When a person uses a selective, minority interpretation of sacred texts to withhold rights from another person, that is bigotry.  We saw this happen with slavery in the nineteenth century.  We saw this happen with religious opposition to women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century.  We saw this happen with the American Civil Rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century.  In fact, fifty years ago religious claims were frequently used to argue for sustaining the laws forbidding “interracial” marriage.

The pattern is the same every time.  When our understanding of biology, psychology, human nature, sex, gender, or ethnicity changes, the only way to sustain the superstitions of past generations is to argue from the religious texts written during those times.  Eventually, of course, even those arguments fail, and in hindsight future generations identify them as exactly what they were:  prejudicial ignorance.  I see absolutely no way in which the debate over same-sex marriage differs from the debate over two people of different ethnicities marrying, and so I label opposition to same-sex marriage as what it is:  bigotry.

That does not, necessarily, mean that it is hatred.  Sometimes prejudice can be well-intentioned in  its cruelty, rather than intentionally hateful.  And yet, many of us have charged that Chick-fil-A funds “hate groups” with their profits.  David Badash in the Huffington Post offered an explanation for why we make this claim.  His citations from GLAAD itemizing the comments from the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and Peter Sprigg give ample reason why the Southern Poverty Law Center considers FRC a “hate group.”

It is one thing to say (however erroneously) that “my religious beliefs require me to oppose same-sex marriage.”  It is another thing entirely to dedicate millions of dollars to spreading malicious misinformation about your fellow citizens in an attempt to deny them access to the same rights and freedoms others enjoy.  The former is simply ignorance, superstition, or bigotry.  The latter is hateful.

What Else Did that Chicken Sandwich Buy?

Our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, parents and children, teachers and warfighters and public safety workers, bosses and employees, friends and neighbors cannot help but hear it any other way.  For those of you who proudly purchased  a chicken sandwich yesterday, what message were you sending them?

Yesterday you told my two friends in California (who are legally married there) that they aren’t real mothers to their brilliant, charming, beautiful son.  You told them that they shouldn’t be allowed to have or raise children, and that it is biologically impossible for them to do as good of a job as opposite sex parents.  I have seen how they parent with wisdom, intentionality, and love. You are wrong.

You told my dear friends, one a professor and the other an artist, that their relationship of over thirty years is somehow inferior to the opposite-sex marriages we see falling apart all around us.  You said that their love, commitment, and sacrifice for each other – in the face of the additional hurdles of prejudice – don’t matter and aren’t worth the effort.  You have said that their love should not be honored, and that their values don’t support strong families.  I am in awe of the depth and maturity of their relationship.  You are wrong.

You told my various gay and lesbian friends who are pastors openly serving congregations that they have no place in the pulpit, and that their communities of faith are not welcome at your Eucharistic table.  You have said that the Sunday afternoons spent in hospital rooms, the 2 a.m. phone calls, and the lifetime dedicated to study, prayer, and service in answer to God’s call are meaningless and a source of shame to the Church.  You are wrong.

You have supported every parent who threw their child out of the house for their “sinful lifestyle choices” or shipped them off to be “re-programmed.”  You have supported every charitable group that fired a leader or denied a volunteer because their love for another person contradicted the organization’s “values.”  You have sided with the hospitals who have blocked people from sitting beside the deathbed of their lifelong partner.  You have joined your voice with the chorus of people who, through actions large and small, have insulted, wounded, marginalized, and excluded our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters.

You are free to do so.  Likewise we are free to point out that such behavior is shameful and has no place in twenty-first century society.

Final Thoughts

Dan Cathy, Mike Huckabee, the Family Research Council, and all those who supported their prejudicial policies of exclusion and ignorance yesterday are on the losing side of history.  They know this, and that is why they are trying to hide their reprehensible “values” of intolerance behind empty and irrelevant rhetoric of Constitutional freedoms.  We must look past the innocuous-sounding language to the actual consequences of their policies.  The reality is that anti-LGBT laws and practices destroy families, break hearts, scar souls, deprive children of loving parents, block hard-working professionals from experiencing the fruits of their labors, and in every way make us weaker, poorer, and less healthy as a society.  It is our duty as citizens, and as neighbors, to correct that shameful injustice by consistently and unequivocally standing against bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head:  in the classroom; in the legislature; in the pulpit, bima, or minbar; and yes, even in the fast food line.

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Why I Use the Word “Bigot”

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans (Wikimedia Commons)

So why do I refer to people who deny full inclusion to LGBT persons in their communities as bigots? This is actually a fairly common question raised by those who comment on my various writings and Facebook posts. Here is my response.

After fifteen years as an ordained member of the clergy – during which I have consistently advocated for LGBT rights, even at the cost of a very traumatic firing from the pulpit – I now hear anti-LGBT comments with the same visceral response that I have when I hear people use racial epithets.

Thankfully, we have reached the point in educated, polite society where it is as unacceptable to make anti-LGBT statements as it is to make anti-ethnic or anti-woman comments. That is to say, people still do so, but everyone – even the bigot speaking – knows that you are not supposed to.

The one place where there seems to be an exception to this is the Church, or at least in certain expressions of the Church. This is due to a widely-held attitude that religious beliefs are not accountable to the same standards of critique as other ideas. I find the preposterous. Some beliefs are – quite simply – stupid. Others are ignorant or ill-informed. Some beliefs are nonsensical or incoherent. Some beliefs are patently and obviously wrong. I will not pretend otherwise because certain folks want to shield their otherwise-unacceptable beliefs behind the veil of “theology.”

Religious ideas should be critiqued, analyzed, and – sometimes – mocked using the same criteria we apply to any other idea. Using religion as an excuse for treating LGBT persons differently is bigotry, whatever the justification. Denying ordination to women is bigotry, whatever the justification. Seeking to impose medieval or ancient social customs on the modern legal system is bigotry, whatever the underlying theological claim.

Frankly, if we cannot shed bigotry and superstition from our religious systems, one of two things will happen: either religion will become irrelevant as humanity moves into the future or, more terrifyingly, the culture as a whole will be unable to move forward because a narrow interpretation of religious beliefs held us back.

I value the work of my colleagues in fostering the dialogue that will bring us forward. My role, I think, is to make sure that bigotry does not hold us back.

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