GLBT Persons in Church: The Case For Full Inclusion– Identifying Threats
I have mentioned the late H. Richard Niebuhr’s dictum for moral discernment that, before asking the question, “What must I/we do?” we should ask “What is going on?” In my mentor, Glen Stassen’s lectures on ethical method (and, no, I am not saying that Glen agrees with my conclusions on “homosexuality;” When last we discussed this issue, which is not a frequent topic between us, he held to a “welcoming, but NOT affirming” position and may do so still. But it was Stassen who alerted me to the Manchester U. dissertation on Matt. 19:11-12 and he SEEMED to be reconsidering based on this–or at least open to doing so), he draws attention to the perception of the situation that precedes and informs our moral reasoning (biblical interpretation, etc.). Certain “critical variables” (like variables in an algebra problem) have major influences as to how we perceive any given moral situation. We have already talked about the variable of differing loyalties and interests that we bring to bear: Richard B. Hays’ loyalty to his deceased gay friend and that friend’s rejection of pro-gay Christian arguments; loyalties to certain understandings of biblical authority or certain approaches to biblical texts; others have loyalties to gay relatives or friends or interests for or against changes in the church’s moral stance.
Another critical variable in perceiving the situation we face with “the issue” of “homosexuality,” (and, once more, I understand why gay or lesbian people don’t want to be treated as an abstract “issue” and apologize) is the threat that is posed or that people perceive. For example, if we were talking about capital punishment/the death penalty, one could easily see that if someone were threatened by the idea that innocent people might accidentally be executed, such a person would perceive the issue very differently than someone who is threatened by the rate of violent crime.
In the case of sexual ethics and the church (with special reference to GLBT persons), some see a threat to the (heterosexual and nuclear) family. Any redefinition of “family” by either church or society, we are told by many, will weaken the family, lead to more divorces and children raised by one parent only with a knock-on series of ills for society. It may surprise some of my more conservative critics, but I also see the nuclear family as threatened in our culture: I just don’t think gay or lesbian couples have much to do with the real threats. What are some of the real threats to (heterosexual, nuclear) family life? How about the fact that we live in a culture which teaches us to commodify everything and treat all people and values as “market values,” and thus to use even our intimate loved ones in a utilitarian fashion? All day long our consumer culture teaches us to ask, “What’s in it for me?” and far too often this carries over, usually unconsciously, to our home lives.
Or take the threat that economic strains in a globalized capitalism place on families: Even in middle or upper-middle class families, there is the threat of having one’s job outsourced at any time to cheaper labor elsewhere in the world. To keep that from happening, the 40 hour work week has been replaced by 50-60 hours, with work brought home and less time with spouses and kids–and more stress when interacting with them. If one is poor or working in a job without health benefits and has a sick kid, the strains become worse. In periods of heavy unemployment or economic insecurity, the divorce rate soars–as do the rates of spouse and child abuse. (Country music, as the music of the white working classes, is filled with songs of cheating and broken homes–because these songs reflect the strains that impact the working classes first!)
Or take the “Hollywood” obsession with “celebrities” who cannot seem to commit to any relationship for more than 20 minutes. The glamorization of their empty lives of self-indulgence is a huge threat to the nuclear family.
Others see the threat concerning GLBT inclusion to be a threat to the church’s faithful discipleship. I can understand this: Throughout most of its history the church has been profoundly unfaithful to Christ in one dimension or another–with some periods shockingly so. I know that one of the reasons it took me 10 years to come to a welcoming and affirming view of GLBT persons in the church was that I didn’t want to jump on any faddish bandwagons.
There are real risks here. But I think the greater threat to the church’s integrity is its failure to look with compassion and identify with the outcast and the marginalized. If we place concerns about purity ahead of matters of compassion for the outcast and ahead of dignity for all people, we will be far more unfaithful than if we risk changing the church’s sexual ethic in this area and turn out to mistake God’s will. When I stand before the Last Judge, I would rather be able to say that I erred (if I did) on the side of standing with the marginalized than that I erred on the side of purity.
The loyalties and interests and threat dimensions are joined by the critical variable of one’s attitude toward social change. During the Civil Rights era, some people who were theoretically strong for racial justice were nevertheless strongly opposed to the Movement–because they believed social change should be slow and ordered and come through calm deliberation of laws or customs, not from the agitation of a mass movement. They did not share Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of the now.” One can easily make the analogy regarding current attempts to change laws allowing same-sex civil marriages in the U.S.–and the way this spills over into electoral contests where the main issues seem to be other matters.
(After this series is over, I need to blog more extensively about ethical method.)
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