This is not about one man

I am angry.

I am angry for the pain survivors, male and female, of sexual assault have been subjected to.

I am angry that the majority has stated in no uncertain terms that no woman’s word is ever enough.

I am angry that we’re being shown politics has no place for empathy.

I am angry that those in power have weaponized the pain of a survivor to silence her voice.

I am angry that people assume “believing” a survivor but believing she is wrong is anything more praiseworthy than destructive gaslighting.

I am angry that the hurt and fear and grief and trauma of so many survivors are finally starting to be seen, and yet the majority cares more about quickly confirming a judge than hearing their voices.

I am angry that so many still think it is OK to say with one breath that I believe her and in the next say it doesn’t matter because there is no proof.

I am angry that the majority would conflate the “trauma” of not being seated on the supreme court with the trauma of sexual assault.

I am angry that the majority does not see or simply does not care that they are silencing countless future victims by their complicity in rape culture.

I am angry that so many survivors feel hopelessness, isolation, and shame for the crime committed against them, and the majority has done nothing but reinforce that narrative.

I am angry at the insinuation that this sexual assault allegation is a product of partisan strategy.

I am angry that lies about when survivors report, what survivors remember, and what perpetrators look or act like are not only unchallenged by the majority, but even spoken directly by them and the president.

I am angry that so many don’t realize or don’t care that, intended or not, fair or not, what is happening right now is a referendum on the significance of female pain set against male power.

I am angry that at the highest levels of government belligerent, aggressive, authoritarian voices are valued over compassion, vulnerability, or healing relationships.

I am angry anyone could even unintentionally imply that believing a woman’s pain enough to withhold a vote would be “legitimizing the most despicable thing” in the midst of an “unethical sham.”

My anger isn’t about the results of today’s or a future vote. It isn’t even about whether or not people believe that Dr. Ford’s words are true. I am angry because so many voices are belittling, ignoring, or outright attacking the pain of so many survivors of assault by treating the multitude of stories that are finally coming to light as irrelevant. Responding to the voice of pain is not a partisan issue. Creating the space for healing and wholeness has nothing to do with partisanship and everything to do with creating the kind of world I desire for our children.

This moment is not about one man.

This moment is about what we are saying to the 43% of women and 23% of men who have been or will become victims of some form of sexual violence over the course of their lives. This is about every person in our lives who will know by our words and actions whether we will be an ally or an enemy if they are ever victimized.

I am angry that I see so much pain and I feel like I can do so little, but I will do everything in my power to prioritize the experience and healing of survivors. I can think of no better way to fulfill my life’s call.

I believe survivors.

I believe those who have no one else to listen.

I believe those who speak up against power.

I believe those who have the courage to speak up in a world that cannot hear a painful story without raising an angry fist.

I believe, even if all I can offer in return is to listen.

There may come a day when we, as a nation, err too far on the side of the accuser over the accused. But that day is not today.

That day will not come before those in power are taught to value survivor’s lives and voices as much as their plans for those who are accused.

That day will not come before emotion, empathy, and relationship are considered as valuable as wealth, power, and control.

Someday, perhaps, we will find a way to ensure that the vast majority of sexual assault survivors do not continue to carry the weight of trauma alone.

Until that day comes, I believe you.

A Modest Proposal for ChrisTexans

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through the expanses of our state’s grand and glorious sanctuaries, when they hear a dearth of appropriately patriotic and spiritually enriching music. An anthem appropriate for the great state of Texas has never shared the ubiquitous appeal in our churches of a tune like the classically belted God Bless the USA.

To rectify the situation, I propose a new anthem become a standard tune in all American churches on the Sunday on or just prior to Texas Independence Day (March 2nd). Before following the link below to hear the proposed anthem, please consider the richness of its lyrical genius that sets it apart as a theologically nuanced classic for ChrisTexans (and Americans) all over.

1) 2nd Samuel 6:5 – David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

Said anthem encourages the practice of dance as a sign of thanksgiving and praise to God. We too often neglect the bodily celebrations of greatness in the American church, preferring only to love God with our minds. Reclaiming a message of hope and celebration through dance is pivotal for the revitalization of our churches and our spirits.

2) Isaiah 51:6Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be for ever, and my deliverance will never be ended.

Said anthem encourages all eyes to look heavenward. Doing so will not only reveal the beauty of creation, but also brings forth the influence of those who have gone before us. That great cloud of witnesses is present in our lives today, empowering faithfulness and freedom if we but turn our gaze in the direction of God’s never ending salvation.

3) Genesis 2:2-3And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Said anthem encourages the practice of sabbath rest. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we need consistent reminders that even God rested and blessed the practice of rest so that we might refocus our selves and our energies on God through that disciplined practice.

4) Acts 13:26My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent.

Said anthem encourages the embodiment of the apostolic tradition by the incarnational reality that it was created by one who has been sent. We do not take our call to spread the message seriously enough in the church and would be well served by the example the artist has embodied.

5) Mark 4:22For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.

Said anthem encourages mystical ruminations on the mysterious nature of God’s divine plan. When we take for granted that we have a perfect understanding of what God has done in our lives and world, we miss out on the hiddenness of God’s splendor that is more beautiful than we can even imagine; the hiddenness God seeks to reveal to us in Christ.

And finally, hear the sounds and words that will forever change and shape your practice of worship by clicking here.

/s

#teamtryANYthing

I’ve reached the point where I have to say something to advocate for a less violent future. It is way beyond time to try something, ANYTHING to end the senseless tragedies of mass casualties in our schools. What I desire for the future is an end to all the violence; but right now I’d happily settle for a world in which no student ever shows up at a school with a gun and the intent to kill as many others as possible. Restricting sales of assault rifles may limit damage. Adding armed guards and metal detectors may enable a faster response. Neither has anything to do with preventing an armed student from showing up in the first place.

There is no more time for mere words; it is time to demand that we and our leaders try absolutely anything to prevent armed students from showing up in the first place. I have my thoughts about good and bad ideas, but the time for being picky was around 15 years ago. I now just want us, as Americans and humans, to try ANYTHING so that this does not have to be the new normal.

I hear it said all the time that it’s a people problem, not a gun problem. Fine. Here are 13 things that might make a difference by teaching people or holding them accountable. None would take away a single gun from anyone who can currently own one. I’m open to any other ideas anyone comes up with to ensure no student ever shows up to school with a gun and the intent to kill as many others as possible. I’m all in for #teamtryANYthing

  1. Demand mental health funding for:
    1. research into understanding the specific cause(s) of these particularly heinous crimes. If we don’t understand all the factors that lead to these acts, it will be that much harder to prevent another occurrence.
    2. providing easy access to mental health resources for every parent and child involved in public schools. Therapy, trauma counseling, and training in coping skills, for example, ought to be a staple offering for every parent and child BEFORE tragedy strikes.
    3. having trained counselors in every school who see every child at least once a year. Call it a check in or an evaluation or whatever you want – have someone on every campus who visits with every student and offers scientifically and therapeutically tested assistance to anyone who needs it.
  2. Develop school programs on family violence and healthy relationships –
    1. Bullying is not nearly as involved in the lives of school shooters as media coverage implies, but it would be perfectly reasonable to fund and develop far more effective ways of training students how to cope with and ultimately stop bullying.
    2. Domestic violence is incredibly common and affects at least 25% of the population. A priority should be placed on training students in how to recognize abusive relationships and what to do if they notice patterns of abuse in their families, friendships, or dating relationships.
    3. Lack of family togetherness gets blamed often for violent behavior. We could create the expectation or even specific programs for paid time off to be spent with families.
    4. Free family therapy or relationship counseling could also go a long way to strengthening bonds at home. This could be mandated in every insurance plan and/or offered by all school districts as part of the student’s learning resources.
  3. Create societal media expectations that restrict the potential for the notoriety that some criminals desire. We could start with never printing a shooter’s name or photo. We are complicit in future crimes every time we give in to the desire to know everything we can about the perpetrator, thus making crime seem more glamorous for the next shooter.
  4. Remove all real or perceived barriers to researching gun related crimes and specifically earmark federal and state funds to do such research. We cannot accept being overall more worried that research might be done that might get results that might imply causality that might lead officials to take action that might restrict access to guns than we are that children are dying.
  5. Create nation wide laws to:
    1. hold gun owners accountable for the safekeeping of their guns. Some sort of minimum standard of safety – maybe a locked door or a safe – could be required for storage purposes. Those not in compliance could be held liable for what happens if the guns are stolen or used without permission.
    2. hold gun owners partially responsible for crimes using their weapons if they gave access or permission to the perpetrator. We may all have a right to own guns, but no one has an unrestricted right to lend it to someone else. A right to own guns should mean a responsibility to ensure they are not used illegally.
  6. Require better records for gun purchases:
    1. Create a federal background check system for gun purchases that can be easily accessed by any authorized seller. Ensure quick and easy ways to verify a buyer’s identity and any criminal history that may disqualify them from that purchase.
    2. Make a national purchase records database and require any transaction involving a firearm to be registered there. We could require a broker for all person to person gun sales or hold individual gun sellers accountable for ensuring they record sales of personal guns.

I don’t care if you like these ideas or have your own. Get out. Advocate. Push. Argue for whatever you want, but for the love of all that is holy don’t stop until we try something, ANYTHING as a country to stop the violence in our schools. Maybe it isn’t about the guns, but it damn sure is about something.

#teamtryANYthing

The cycle connecting abuse, racism, and sexual violence

There are at least two cycles that happen often in abusive relationships. One is well researched and is being endlessly repeated before our very eyes on a daily basis. The other is perhaps less obvious and less defined by research but certainly no less harmful, problematic, or uncommon.

The second cycle happens when the abused expresses a negative feeling about the abuse to the abuser and the abuser expresses that they are hurt that the abused would express being hurt by the abuser. A healthy person in a relationship knows that when someone expresses hurt feelings, the natural order of response is to listen first, apologize second, and work out any related issues or mutual hurt thereafter.

Part of the reason abusive behavior is so insidious and harmful is because abusers are so skillful at gaslighting victims into assuming that the abuse they have suffered is actually a response to their own actions and a source of pain for the abuser. When the reality of who is actually being harmed is called into question, victims often begin to blame themselves and find it all the more difficult to leave the abusive relationship. To seek outside advice is often to be reminded that both sides have contributed to the harm. While mutual harm is almost always present in some regard, the conflation of a broken nose with the bruised hand that broke the nose is a particularly cruel form of whataboutism.

This same dynamic is present in societal discussions of racism and sexual violence. Historically and systemically oppressed people groups are saying that they are hurt and the groups historically and systemically responsible for that hurt respond by saying that they are hurt that the hurt people are expressing their historical and systemic hurt. It is a pernicious form of societal gaslighting and abuse that we so often refuse to listen long enough for others to feel heard and valued, much less safe enough to fight through to the attainment of something resembling healing or justice.   

In our current moment, the historically and systemically oppressed have finally stopped backing down when the desire for change has been met by accusations that claims of being hurt are in themselves hurtful to those causing the harm. The day may come when phrases like #blm or #metoo elicit more compassion and change from the powerful than fear and retaliation, but we are not nearly there yet. If long term change is ever to become a possibility, one of the starting lines is for us white men to break this cycle that is born out of the fragility of our collective ego. Mistakes are a part of life – learning to grow and heal requires that we embrace the power of vulnerability rather than lash out when our self perception is challenged.

Sexuality, incoherence, and the need for theological imagination

I’ve never said much publicly about how I approach the issue of homosexuality and the church. Primarily, that is because I believe there are no issues, there are only people. And secondarily, I am committed to the covenant relationship of the United Methodist church and believe that fidelity to that covenant is a vital and necessary part of fulfilling our part of God’s mission through the church. I won’t break the covenant relationship, but I also think it is a deep theological error not to engage in conversation about what the covenant says and how we are to be most faithful to the gospel message going forward.

Aside from these two foundational convictions about how I live and work and speak about the Christian faith, I haven’t chimed into many conversations because I find those conversations to be mostly incoherent yelling matches. One value, often faithfulness to a strict reading of scripture and tradition, is placed against another, often a broader understanding of love and a compassionate acceptance of differences, and the stalemate between the two has only grown stronger over the years. It should be clear to anyone paying attention that a more creative theological imagination is going to be necessary if the church is to learn how to have substantive and meaningful conversations that lead to a renewed sense of church unity instead of a whole new set of denominations and/or isolated congregations.

Put as succinctly as possible, the arrogance of modern individualism without a proper notion of or appreciation for repentance inevitably leads to the impasse at which we find ourselves now. It is not scripture or love that are pitted against one another – it is our reliance on failed concepts of modern reason that make our attempts at debate devolve into practical atheism. Our blind acceptance of modern (ir)rationality leaves us with the inability to see the world through God’s eyes and prevents us from finding the theological imagination to see past our insecurities and egos.

I hope to add to the voices seeking a way forward by offering four fundamental convictions that I find to be crucial to any avenue for substantive theological conversation regarding human sexuality. I don’t know that I’ve heard any of these four convictions taken seriously as part of the ‘debates’ surrounding sexuality in the United Methodist Church, but I would welcome any guidance toward resources where these have come up. Taken together as a foundation for theological imagination, these and other such Christian convictions are necessarily implicated in the ‘debates,’ even more so than the conflict between “scripture/tradition” and “experience/love” that is usually seen to constitute the intractability of the arguments.

The precise meaning of each conviction is debatable within different strands of the tradition – my point is not to suggest everyone must agree with my characterizations. The point is to say that when we are unable to agree (or even notice disagreement) on these foundational elements, we never wind up having the fight we think we’re having about a church stance on homosexuality.

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Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

These words of Jesus apply to more than just Sabbath; this is a succinct reminder that fulfilling the law is a means of finding abundant life. Jesus healed on the Sabbath not because it doesn’t matter if we break the law, but because the law is a tool to empower life, not to restrict healing and wholeness. The Christian goal in moral restraint and order is to be guided toward the new life Christ is and makes possible – not to fall into a dead legalism that treats the law as an end in its own right. To understand the kind of life toward which the particular instances of the law guide us, we must be willing to take a more holistic view of what the law says and how we can be faithful to it. At least these three areas of human life and law are at stake before we can consider any LGBT arguments.

1. Human sexuality in general. We (United Methodists) have broad statements about dignity and intimacy that vaguely point toward the gift of sexuality, but that is where positive discussion stops. There is no more than a common sense implication of answers to questions like a) what counts as sex/sexuality, b) what are the practices of sexuality that best embody Godly sexuality, c) is anything sexual off limits for a married Christian couple, d) what is the goal of sexual experience (intimacy, babies, enjoyment, etc), e) how do we respond when we fall short (adultery, premarital sex/pregnancy, etc.), and f) how should we cope when we are survivors of sexual abuse and any of a variety of violations of our bodies (rape, genital mutilation, molestation, etc). Nothing meaningful is ever said about these topics (and probably a variety of others), which means that we have no meaningful language to discuss how/whether LGBT choices, desires, and/or practices fit within the umbrella of Godly sexuality. Until we have said something meaningful and with practical implications, it will always be a vapid conversation about ‘normal’ vs ‘not.’

2. The historical contingency of moral judgments. It should go without question that there is some element of historical contingency in the ways the Judeo-Christian tradition has embodied its moral convictions. Two examples that ought to be relatively uncontroversial:

a) The way the sacrificial system changed once there was no temple in which to make sacrifices. Those laws were not disregarded once the temple was torn down, but the meaning and implications of having those laws on the books is quite different, for both post temple Judaism and Christianity. It’s not that there is no meaning or direction from the law, but that what it means to be faithful to the tradition of those laws changes depending on the historical reality in which God’s people find themselves.

b) The status and role of women. For modern United Methodists at least, there is no theoretical or theological distinction whatsoever between the status and role of men and women. Because we have inherited and still inhabit a culture and history, within Methodism and our world in general, in which a strong separation of gender roles was valued, our lived reality does not perfectly reflect this ideal. But any notion that there is a proper distinction between men and women in leadership is an historical accident at best. No matter how clear you believe Paul’s letters are about submission and teaching, we don’t order the life of the church or relationships in the same way that they have been ordered in prior generations.

Suggesting how deep the above contingencies go or how exactly we are supposed to relate to these scriptural commandments is not my concern here. I merely reference them to suggest that no reasonable reader of scripture and history can think that there is no element of historical contingency in how we always read and implement even the clearest words of commands. Accepting that premise, there are at least three realities of the world we now inhabit that are relevant to human sexuality and represent a complete break with the world of scripture.

a) The role of children in family life – Through much of civilization, children played a vital role in the survival of a family and in the care of related adults in a family system. The exact importance is certainly debatable in a variety of situations, but it seems quite evident that modern American life has no assumption that children will live in the same region as parents, much less in the same home, and there are increasingly close to no jobs in existence that invite, much less require, the employment of someone from the next generation of the same family. At one point, children were needed to comfortably live to an old age, now that’s not the case at all.

b) The need for children in the general population – as recently as 1800, people were almost as likely to die before the age of 5 as they were to survive. Now, there is a roughly 95% chance of survival. This is but one small stat pointing to the reality that the having of many children was once vital to the survival of humanity – and now having too many children may threaten the survival of life as we know it.

c) The role of women in the workforce – The more industrialized and, now, information driven the workforce becomes, the less sense gender roles make in the workforce. To think we can compartmentalize work from the rest of life is one of the many deficiencies of modern life – the ability and availability of women to take part in every aspect of work life has implications in every aspect of how we view the status and role of women throughout society. During a time when women had to have a greater number of children for reasons a) and b), it made an entirely different kind of sense to need one man and one woman in a marital relationship. There were, at least many years ago, things women could not do by virtue of being the ones that gave birth and nursed the children.

Taken together, these three realities imply that it is at least plausible, if not likely, that heterosexual marriage may have been almost necessary for human survival, both as a species and as individuals, in the world inhabited by the bible. The relationship of sexuality and marriage to the having of children and the societal roles of women are now so fundamentally different that we need to dramatically rethink the function and meaning of sexuality and marriage today, even if the bible really does say about sexuality what a plain reading seems to imply that it says. Put more succinctly, at one time in history heterosexual marriage may have been a moral requirement for reasons that no longer exist. We can’t say that the law of scripture is the law if we cannot have a broader discussion of what the law is for and thereby what our rules on sexuality imply about life in the world we actually inhabit.

3. Heterosexual marriage and the language we use to describe it. I cannot think of a more vacuous and less Christian topic than the romanticism that underlies virtually all conversation regarding marriage. Popular rhetoric speaks primarily of the ‘right fit’ for marriage, of ‘soul mates,’ and of ‘happy ever after.’ These concepts could not be more irrelevant to the Christian definition of what makes a marriage significant. Marriage is significant precisely because it is the covenant in which what is different and divisive between two people is not permitted to rise above the tie that binds our hearts together. To the extent that the covenant of marriage is representative of God’s love for humanity, it is so precisely because God continues to love us when we fall short – not because our relationship is smooth sailing. To the extent to which we have lost the ability to speak of marriage as a uniting of that which is different, we have lost the ability to say anything about why homosexuality in particular might not be capable of embodying Christian marriage.

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Christ died for us while we were yet sinners

The language of our communion liturgy should not be construed to imply that we are any less ‘sinners in need of God’s grace’ now than we were when Christ died for us. We constantly rely on the grace of God to guide our thoughts and actions. We constantly rely on the grace of God to empower our lives to witness to the life and love that God is. But too often and too easily a discussion about morality and human action devolves into practical atheism. I’ve elsewhere said at length what I mean by practical atheism; below is a brief attempt to work out how practical atheism plays out with regard to our ‘debates’ about sexuality.

For this argument, I ask that you take it for granted that 1) homosexual practice and, therefore, marriage are explicitly forbidden by a plain reading of scripture; and 2) the weight of scripture challenges us to love all children of God, even the people who are explicitly enemies (the shape that love takes is obviously debatable, but, here at least, I only ask that you accept that we are never allowed to not care about the pain, abuse, or harm done to another child of God).

Accepting these two premises means that we cannot ignore the practical, lived reality of any particular group of people. We have to be willing to look at the reality others face if we are to find the space in which to admit when we fail, and embrace the times we learn to more fully embody God’s love. To not look or to pretend the lived reality of others doesn’t matter is already a failure – to not look is to assume that it is within human rationality to know the rules of the game of life and how to play that game appropriately. Nowhere in scripture or church history is it suggested that humans are capable of either and it is very reasonable to suggest that the very first sin in the garden was that very assumption; namely, that we should be able to know good and evil on our own.

To look at the treatment of LGBT children of God paints a very troubling picture. Research suggests that a disproportionately high 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT and 68% of those identify family rejection as a significant factor in homelessness. LGBT youth are between 2 and 10 times as likely to attempt suicide as the general youth population. LGBT people have become the most likely targets of hate crimes in America. Violence against transgender people is particularly horrifying and may be increasing, as expressed in a 2015 report. 5 of the 9 nationally reported hate crime murders in 2007 were motivated by sexual orientation bias – as many as 17% of all reported hate crimes are motivated by sexual orientation. These are just a few revealing stats about the ways in which LGBT persons are mistreated.

Regardless of how you think about causality in this case or how the church is supposed to relate in general to those who don’t conform to its expectations, it is undeniable that people who identify outside the ‘traditional’ definition of sexuality are harmed by others because of that identification and they experience greater personal struggles with their own sexual identification. It is also undeniable that the incompatibility of LGBT thought and action with church teachings (regardless of whether incompatibility is seen as a rejection of personal choices, in-born characteristics, or actual personhood) plays a non-negligible factor in creating the culture in which stats such as these become reality. I have no interest here in determining how much blame ought to go where. I am also not suggesting that sincerely held belief should never cause harm. My point is exactly the opposite.

Every belief and moral we embrace will have some negative consequence for someone, somewhere in the world. The brokenness of humanity runs deep enough that there is no one, right, correct, eternal interpretation of any belief or rule for life that does no harm and has no unintended consequences. To assume that there is or could be one is to reject our need for God’s grace to overcome our brokenness and guide us to deeper faithfulness. We cannot say that God’s Word requires us to reject alternate forms of sexuality in isolation from the fact that the church’s rejection of such forms of sexuality helps create the culture in which LGBT identifying persons are physically, mentally, and sexually harmed because of that identification.

Note that I am not saying stats on LGBT persons are obviously significant enough for the church to change its current language and expectations of sexuality. What I am saying is that there is no neutral ground on which the church can claim to be ‘just following God’s Word.’ We are always choosing whether to assign greater value to the way we currently read scripture about sexuality or the call to care and respond when other children of God are harmed in the world. To hide from the impossibility of making a perfectly right choice is to pretend that we can conquer sin without God – it is to be practical atheists.

If we are not willing to come face to face with the brokenness our choices cause, we will never let God get past our arrogance and transform our lives. There are always multiple competing goods involved in every choice we make and every belief we hold. To take sin and grace seriously enough requires us to admit that even if alternate forms of sexuality are in some sense sinful, it may be not only possible but required of us to ignore that fact in order to reject the more pressing and impactful evils of abuse and hate that we unintentionally justify by our words.

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Salvation is an act of God’s grace, not human ingenuity or faithfulness

At least two results of continuing to draw a line in the sand regarding homosexuality’s incompatibility with Christian teaching are deeply relevant.

  1. An untold but certainly non zero number of people, some identifying as LGBT and other sympathetic to LGBT persons, will lose their faith because of the perception that the church is unwelcoming to LGBT person. Regardless of how the church thinks it is portraying its stance, the perceived harshness of the rhetoric means that people will never be willing to entertain the gospel message.
  2. A significant number of people will cross the line from not accepting LGBT practice in the church to actively abusing LGBT persons. You can easily argue that it is their fault for crossing the line from thinking something is a sin to hurting a sinner, but it would be impossible to deny that incompatibility language partially facilitates the thoughts and actions that lead to outright abuse and harm.

It is argued in conservative circles that to accept a sinful lifestyle is to consign others to hell. In this case, if the practice of homosexuality is a sin, then to not call for repentance is to forego the possibility of salvation. Put differently, too bad for 1) people, but 2) people are forgiven anyway. But such a simplification is a radical departure from the historical emphasis that salvation comes through the grace of God and not human righteousness. A straightforward reading of scripture even tells us that the salvation of the whole world came precisely through our greatest act of sinfulness, the crucifixion of the Son of God.

It is certainly the case that God’s grace is big enough to forgive those who cross the line and cause harm. But to deny that God can forgive those who come to believe and act the wrong way about sexuality is to place a firm limit on the grace of God and to treat salvation as at least as much an act of human will and intention as an act of grace. Put differently, if God can conquer death, then God can overcome any wrong stance the church could take on human sexuality. We can no more stop the grace of God from fixing our mistakes than we can stop a hurricane.

Is it not better to fall on the grace of God for being too sexually permissive than for contributing too much to the culture of hate and abuse? I can’t answer this question on behalf of the church, but I firmly believe that there is no scenario in which the outcome of any debate regarding human sexuality does not give a concrete answer to it. To think that we can make a decision in which a wrong answer eliminates the possibility of salvation for anyone is to fundamentally reject our need for the grace of God.

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We are members together in the body of Christ

The identity we have is not separable from the traditions in which we are born nor from the relationships we have with one another. To treat ‘human sexuality’ as a topic separable from the historically, geographically, and biologically contingent ways we live and relate to each other is to buy into failed portions of modern thought and morality. Sexuality is neither a choice nor is it an identity. Every action and practice in which we are involved either witnesses to the life of the whole body or tears that body apart. Who we are as children of God is more basic than who we are as individual agents capable of acting or deciding anything.

To take this claim seriously is to require us to reject notions of justice and sin that place the emphasis on personal action and punitive justice. Instead, God’s justice guides our imagination toward the reality that in and through Christ all is set right and all creation is infused with the life Christ makes possible. God’s justice does not mean universal salvation is guaranteed or even likely, but it does mean that any notion of individual fate or action is only definable and meaningful in the context of the life Christ empowers and not the other way around. We are rejecting the unity of Christ’s body and the limitations of human reason and imagination if we think that any aspect of human belief, behavior, or identity is separable from any other.

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Where does all this leave the church’s debates regarding sexuality? Simply put, I don’t know. I offer these convictions as a way to say that I’m convinced our current UMC ‘debates’ aren’t even talking about what they want to talk about. Our lack of appreciation for tradition and the contingencies of any particular argument have guided us into a place of incoherence in the way we talk about scripture and life.

To reclaim a foundation upon which Christian argument could actually happen requires a dramatic shift in learning what it looks like to keep the main thing the main thing. I’ll close with four far too brief and incomplete principles, 1 based on each conviction above, that I would offer to begin to more faithfully shape conversation.

  1. Life, not law – Conversation must be primarily focused on how to embody the kind of life God makes possible, not what are the rules we can’t break. Repentance is a call not primarily to turn from sin, but to turn toward Christ. That kind of turn ought to be reflected in our priorities and expectations for Christian thought and action.
  2. Embrace tragic action – We are not God. We cannot rid the world of wrong belief and action any more than we can save ourselves. We have to be willing to face the reality that any attempt at faithfulness carries unintended consequences and those consequences are an integral part of any decision about how to faithfully live.
  3. Grace, grace, grace – We are still not God. We cannot create the kingdom of God any more than we can be perfectly righteous in every way. We have to emphasize our deep reliance on God’s grace in every decision and belief, not just give lip service to the idea of grace.
  4. Body, not self – We are part of a story we didn’t create and over which we don’t have control. Every principle, rule, and consequence we derive out of that story must be in service of uniting the body far more than punishing a member. Unity does not mean blind acceptance as much as it means healing and wholeness.

The Cycle

1280px-Cycle_of_Abuse

If you add “Refusing to respond to the overt harm someone else causes” to number 2 of the cycle and remove “apologizes” from number 3, you have a pretty good summary of the presidency so far. To understand why his leadership is so destructive and yet so hard to specifically call out for some, I can’t think of a better framework than this cycle. Replace “of course racism is evil and the KKK is repugnant” with “of course I didn’t mean to hit you and I never will again” and you get a sense for how the (news) cycle plays out. Having someone like him in power is so insidious because most of the worst acts of violence that actually affect people don’t look anything like the ‘stranger danger’ or the ‘foreign terrorist’ that we’ve been taught to fear; they look exactly like what we see every time he takes just about everyone who isn’t like me on a ride around the cycle of abuse. Intelligent, well meaning adults can disagree about all kinds of policies, priorities, and prerogatives – we cannot abide an abuser-in-chief.

On txac17 and the GC Amendments

This is a post on the (lack of) discussion that took place at our annual conference session this year in regard to a few proposed amendments to the Book of Discipline. I don’t tend to look for all possible concealed motives or confusion within the language of General Conference voices, which means I was rather caught off guard by the way the discussion went with regard to Amendment 1 copied here in its entirety):

“As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of women’s and girl’s equality and well-being.”
General Conference-approved rationale for the amendment notes that the constitution contains a paragraph on racial justice but not one on gender justice.
“The language of this petition is parallel to the language of Article 5 on racial justice already in our constitution,” the rationale states. “It is an affirmation that, as part of our core foundational beliefs, this church will forever stand against any actions, organizations or individuals that discriminate or dehumanize women and girls anywhere on this planet.”

Perhaps it should not have surprised me that the variety of speeches against the amendment all revolved around the “confusion” and “ambiguity” regarding God’s gender. Jesus is a man, the arguments went, thereby it is at least confusing if not outright wrong to say that “it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female…” At least one argument dove fully into complementarian thought and proof texting literalism, which have their own problems that I’ve commented on at the links.

I stated previously that infidelity is the only analogy through which I can make sense out of where we’ve arrived; seen here in our ability to take such an important and needed statement about rejecting the abuse of women and girls and turn it into a referendum on human sexuality and all gender related disagreements. I don’t know that any argument would be helpful/convincing in our present climate, but I feel compelled to offer below what I would have liked to say in response to what I heard on the floor of conference.

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I can respect that it may seem to be a troubling matter of “confusion” or “ambiguity” to assert that God is not male or female given what we believe about Jesus. Anytime I try to speak directly about the nature of Trinity, confusion and ambiguity are close at hand. But even granting the necessity of saying that Jesus is male in no way suggests the sufficiency of that label in reference to God. This may seem to be quibbling over words that are unrelated or irrelevant to the amendment, as one speech against it suggested, but our language about God deeply affects the actual lives of actual people every day. There may exist a world in which we could assert that God is a man in such a way that did not directly result in the abuse of women and girls throughout the world, but we do not live in that world.

Assertions of God’s exclusive masculinity and the correlative assertions of male authority/headship/gender roles lead very directly to the dehumanization, discrimination, and abuse of women and girls. If speaking of God as a man did not lead to the dehumanization, discrimination, and abuse of women, there would be no need to concretely remind the church that male and female are not sufficient categories for God. The wording of the amendment does not come to us in a vacuum – it comes to us in a world in which our fallen, inadequate, and misunderstood labels for God are weaponized against women and girls all over the world.

Making a clear and concise statement that no one should be discriminated against or dehumanized on the basis of gender is FAR more important than stealing yet another stage to hash out our incoherent yelling matches regarding sexuality, gender, and biblical authority/interpretation. I am deeply ashamed that we cannot even set aside our talking points, soap boxes, and mistrust to remind the world that dehumanization and discrimination against women and girls is never OK and never justifiable on the basis of the Christian faith or the nature of God.  

The fight we keep having is not the fight we need to have and if we don’t even trust each other enough to make a clear statement against abuse, we have little hope of making the substantive changes needed to ensure a vital and fruitful future for our church.