« The Will to Hear »

Flicker cc by Amanda Slater - edited

As I’ve experienced conflict in the community in which I live, I’ve reflected on Stanley Hauerwas’s comment that we need to tell one another the truth—but perhaps even more—we must want to hear truth. I appreciate both of you for speaking truth and I hope I have the will to hear it. We were asked to begin with the ways we agree with one another, so I’ll start with that.

Points of Agreement

Thank you Weldon for retelling your journey at Seattle Mennonite toward becoming welcoming and affirming. My church is currently making its way through the book of Acts, and your telling of God’s work seems like its own set of Holy Spirit inspired “acts.”

This last week we looked at the Jerusalem council’s decision (Acts 15) to set aside the law concerning circumcision for the Gentiles. I think it is telling that when James cites Scripture to back up the decision he says, “‘the words of the prophets agree with this,’ not ‘this agrees with the words of the prophets’” (Gaventa, 218). Seeing God at work, by help of the Sprit, is a key to truthful discernment. Scripture plays a key role in checking what we perceive the Spirit to be doing, but this is not as simple as we are sometimes led to believe.

In Acts 15 James cites a Scriptural passage that is not a simple proof text. It is a remix of Scripture meant to help the community locate itself in the story of God and affirm the work that God is doing. As I noted in my last post, there was good Scriptural support for the idea that Gentiles should be circumcised. The Covenant of Circumcision was an “everlasting” one (Gen 17:1-7) and other passages see Israel blessing the Gentiles as it teaches them the law (Isa 2:3, Mic 4:2)—which would have been understood as requiring circumcision. But James, by using Amos and throwing in snippets of Jeremiah and Isaiah and some words of his own, claims that the prophets foresee the rebuilding of Israel so that “all other peoples may seek the Lord” (Acts 15:17). Interestingly, he uses the Septuagint, rather than the Hebrew version of Amos 9:11-12, because the Hebrew (which suggests that God was rebuilding Israel so that they could grab Gentile territory) would have subverted his point.

Given that this is the way the Bible narrates the faithful use of the Bible, the story you tell of God’s mercy and love being preeminent, and the subsequent personal and congregational discernment of what that looks like in relation to LGBT Christians, is compelling.

I also want to appreciate some of the many truth nuggets you intersperse throughout your essay.

 

  •  “Grace, arising from God’s limitless love, is the central theme of the Bible… Mercy is just grace in action.” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation - 1/30/16)
  • “The truth of faith is made good in the living of it or not at all . . .” (McClendon)
  • “I made a covenant with God that I will seek to be present with people in pain without adding to their pain, especially from a place of privilege and power.”
  • “True Christians are absurdly happy, wholly committed, and almost always in trouble.”

 

For those of us who try to tweet truth, this essay is a goldmine. There is so much of what you say that I agree with, especially (since something like this was my opening line) that “church members [should] truly engage with sisters and brothers who are LGBTQ” [italics in the original].

Chris, you also echo this sentiment when you say that you “encourage . . .  parishioners to listen to the stories of LGBT people, especially those who have been raised in the church.” There is much more in your essay to which I say a hearty “Amen!” So many conservative Christians minimize or ignore the pain caused to LGBT people by the church. Thank you for your acknowledgement that “Persecution, while considerably lessened . . . still exists . . . it is also brutally, often murderously present in certain societies.”  

As an Anabaptist, I applaud your determination to teach that there is a Christian vision of marriage that is far more robust that than offered by our society.

I’m also concerned about how LGBT affirmation will affect people’s view of Scripture. What needs to change is the way we understand the nature of Scripture.  The whole LGBT question is an opportunity to move beyond a simplistic, modernist view of Scripture in which the Bible is a divine morality hotline. But I know that some people, as they move towards the affirming side, will be tempted to dismiss Scripture out of hand rather than seize the chance to examine how to best interpret Scripture.

In spite of your assertion that “the implications for how the church engages with the LGBT community are profound” and the subsequent reasons you offer for why this topic is important, I wonder if you believe that this question has become more central than it deserves to be. When you write that “When we look the other way in the cases of heterosexual adultery, divorce, and pornography use while condemning same-sex relationships, we come off as the worst kind of hypocrites,” I couldn’t agree more. What do you make of my main point? This is an important topic, but ultimately a non-essential that has become essential in the minds of many Christians.

Points of Concern and Disagreement

I’ll begin with the points of concern I have about Weldon’s essay.

As you note, “Biblical people search the scriptures to ground and guide all we do.” In light of this, it is important that you explain why you bracket the seven texts that seem to speak most directly to same-sex relationships. Why is the “way of Jesus” not found in those texts? I realize that for those of us who have been in this conversation for decades, it may feel like those verses have been adequately addressed time and time again. But if we are to hear our brothers and sisters concern that “we take Scripture seriously,” then you need to provide a rationale (perhaps just a paragraph or so) as to why you think they can be set aside.

My second concern is that the call for justice not obliterate the calling of the church to be (in Scot McKnight’s phrase) a fellowship of differents. Given my own difficult history of growing up in the conservative church, I’m sympathetic with the drive to provide a “safe,” affirming place for LGBT Christians. But I don’t think “safe” means “comfortable.” Safe means something like, “A place where we are all allowed to speak the truth as we see it, and we can all try to hear it, because we know ourselves to be—above all—beloved by God. Safe means a place where truth is spoken and welcomed.”

It is hard to say all that needs to be said at once. I care deeply about justice and passionately wish that the church did better in its advocacy for all kinds of people: immigrants, racial minorities, prisoners, the sick, the poor, and LGBT people. The fact that the church doesn’t do more for the marginalized is symptomatic of a disastrous unfaithfulness that is repugnant to God, guts our witness to the world, and desecrates our own humanity.

But there is also a danger in being “right” about justice issues. Just as conservative Christians can feel self-righteous about their stance on “sexual holiness,” so too, liberal Christians can feel self-righteous about getting the LGBT question “right.” And this religious game—of claiming to know right from wrong and thus feeling superior to others—is its own disastrous dead end. Such self-righteousness is odious to God, divides the church, and distorts our souls.

I say this after experiencing years of conflict in my church. We’ve worked hard at reconciliation and we’ve come to a place of appreciating each other across differences. Although I may disagree with others on many topics, I’ve come to believe that I need their perspective. I’ve come to see the profound wisdom of philosopher David Hume’s observation that “Truth springs from an argument among friends.”

This may feel like a frustrating critique. It sounds like you have hung in with the Mennonite church in spite of what must have been a strong temptation (at times) to leave it behind. Perhaps I’m just asking you to elaborate on your vision for persevering with non-affirming Christians.

Chris, I’d like to engage your argument that, in taking a welcoming but not affirming stance, you are standing in solidarity with the Global South. This argument is sometimes made with the implications that a) while LGBT people have been historically marginalized, the Bible is more clear about God’s preference for the poor and thus siding with the majority world is more Biblical, b) the poor are close to the heart of God and therefore have special insight into this matter, and c) the Global South’s strong opposition to LGBT affirmation reveals that this issue is one of bourgeois affluenza and can therefore be dismissed.

I feel like I could write a book just on this topic, but here are three short responses:

a)     There are confounding cultural factors on both sides, that make this a fraught issue. My Old Testament professor Ellen Davis tells the story of teaching a seminary class in South Sudan. The topic of homosexuality came up and her students expressed their inability to understand permissive Western attitudes toward same-sex relationships. She then asked them, “How many of you think polygamous marriage is acceptable?” About half the hands went up. She responded, “Westerners find that incomprehensible.”

Having lived in Uganda as a kid (and having visited as an adult), I became sympathetic towards some of the arguments for having more than one wife. The cultural context is so different, that in certain situations, it seems like the most humane thing to do. I believe that if those in the Global South understood the way we construct same-sex relationships, and the intense loneliness of people in our fragmented society, that they would be more sympathetic toward same-sex relationships.

b)     LGBT people within traditional cultures are sometimes the most marginalized. When I was working on the AIDS ward at San Francisco General as a nurse, I once had a patient who didn’t speak. He was Latino with a wife who was HIV+ and he had kids. The doctors couldn’t figure why he couldn’t speak, so they called for a neuropsychology consult. The consulting doctors reported that there was nothing physiologically wrong with the man: he was so profoundly depressed that he simply couldn’t talk.

While I don’t know for sure, I suspect he was on the “down low”—having sex with guys—and that he gave the HIV virus to his wife. In a macho culture, he felt himself to be the lowest of the low. If our concern is for the poor, how can it include people like him? It would be easy to say that “he made evil choices.” But, if he already thought himself to be scum (given his culture’s opinion of homosexuals) I can understand his compulsion to seek acceptance and love through sex with guys.

c)     The Global South seems posed to repeat some of the destructive church divisions that have taken place in the West. Although in places like Uganda public opinion is solidly against LGBT affirmation, there is a growing group of LGBT advocates and an increasingly visible population of sexual minorities. Eventually the church, in places like Uganda, will have to face the same questions we’ve faced.  

And so the important question is, “can we find a way to live together in peace on this, or is division inevitable?” If we can find a “third way” then I think we will have done the hard work that might serve our brothers and sisters from the Global South. And if not, then I suspect that like us, they will experience the same damnable rupture of unity and love.   

Chris, the second point that I’ll respond to is your contention that “Changing our understanding of marriage and sexuality, however, touches on core understandings of creation, the fall, redemption, and even the doctrine of God.” To adequately respond would probably require a couple of books. I’ll make a couple, inadequate comments.

While I know you don’t believe the Acts account of Gentile inclusion is analogous to the question of LGBT inclusion, there are some compelling points of similarity. If anything, ever, in the history of theological teaching, was grounded in creation it was Sabbath. Sabbath-keeping is embedded in the ten commandments and Israel’s law. Yet passages like Romans 14 and Galatians 4 seem to put Sabbath-keeping aside in order to include the Gentiles. If such a foundational understanding of creation was put aside to include us, shouldn’t we hesitate a little at insisting that LGBT people need to follow a heterosexual norm because it is grounded in creation?

Just because something doesn’t follow God’s design, it doesn’t automatically mean it is a sin. If someone is born colorblind, we don’t say, “Well, since you can’t do it as God designed, you probably shouldn’t try to see at all.” So too with a same-sex orientation, I think it is possible to say, “Well, it is not God’s ideal, but love sexually as you can, and enter into the beautiful Christian story of faithful covenant keeping.” With this perspective I think we can still affirm “core understandings of creation, the fall, redemption, and even the doctrine of God” without condemning LGBT Christians who chose to commit to someone of the same sex, with a steadfast and costly love.  

Conclusion

Weldon, I appreciated how you bathed your entire narrative in God’s mercy and grace. I’m reminded of gay Christian W.H. Auden’s assertion that “I know nothing, except what everyone knows—if there when Grace dances, I should dance.” It seems to me that you accepted the invitation.   

Chris, I know a little of how difficult this topic has been in the Anglican communion. Given the exhaustion that tends to accompany that experience, I’m pleasantly surprised that you are willing to participate in this conversation. Thank you for the vulnerability in sharing your story, and your willingness in hope that further dialogue might yield goodness. That too seems to me grace-full.

I respect you both already, and this exchange has only served to deepen my appreciation for you. As we enter into lent, may we offer up our little attempts at searching for truth in the hope that God will make them live.

Ash Wednesday, 2016

 

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