Are You Ready for This?
As my father grew older and his four children found ways well into adulthood to dishevel the order that he seemed to crave for his family, we came to the wise conclusion that “the only constant in life is change.” Of course if he was talking to one of his children he’d add in the parental warming, “so you better be ready for it!” Now I’m not advocating for change, for change’s sake; nor am I saying that all change is good and or healthy. However, history bears out the need for the Church to change as we Christians have continuously misappropriated scriptures and created “atrocities” that harm (or worse) others. I particularly like the way Mark Sandlin expresses this in his article: Clobbering “Biblical’ Gay Bashing:
“We have used the Bible to support, promote and act upon some pretty un-Christian things: slavery, holocaust, segregation, subjugation of women, apartheid, the Spanish Inquisition (which, no one ever expects), domestic violence, all sorts of exploitation and the list could go onand on… More times than not, these atrocities are the result of trying to play God, pretending as if one group of people has complete knowledge of God's will and is more blessed or chosen by God. Not surprisingly, the people who see the world this way are always exactly the people who also happen to belong in the group they believe to be the uber-blessed. Time and time again, Jesus made it clear that we should not put ourselves in the place of playing God and that, unlike far too many humans, God welcomes and loves us all equally. Period.”
When the Church realizes we are harming others for the sake of our own perceived righteousness it’s time to discern how God might be leading us to change – and do it. We need to take action, or the harm continues! I know we are often reluctant to consider changing our traditional views of where God might be leading us and our understandings of scripture. However, if we remain faithful to allowing God to lead us, rather than trying to fit God into our boxes, then holy change and leadership are possible. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, “with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice."
Yet change is exactly what has been occurring all around us in the United States. Even within the religious communities the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) persons. The most rapid change has been the growing support for marriage equality. In fact, the change has been so rapid as of late that an interactive map from the Washington Post (“The Changing Landscape of Same-Sex Marriage”) two weeks ago is already 3 states behind due to DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) laws being overturned by the courts.
A Study from "PRRI"…
Last week, I attended the release of a study by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) – A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues. I arrived early, looked over the provided materials, and immediately went to the section on “Same-sex Marriage and Religion” (pgs. 18 – 22). What became very apparent is that there is an obvious reality gap between what people actually think and what they perceive their religious group believes about same-sex marriage. The study reveals more than just changing attitudes towards LGBTQ persons between 2003 and 2013, but also the changing nature of religious belief - “Nearly 6 in 10 (58%) of Americans agree that religious groups are alienating young people.” Millennials (ages 18 to 33) may be the most telling generation in that those “who no longer identify with their childhood religion, nearly one-third say that negative teachings about, or treatment of, gay and lesbian people was either a somewhat important (17%) or very important (14%) factor in their disaffiliation from religion.”
The real perception/reality gap for United Methodists comes through exploring what individual Americans believe and how they perceive different religious groups. While 53% of Americans support gay and lesbian couples being able to marry (a Gallup poll has those who believe same gender loving relations to be morally ok at 59%) and “White mainline Protestants” polled at 62% supportive; “Hispanic Protestants” at 46% supportive; and, “Black Protestants” at 35% supportive… Americans believe that “Non-evangelical Protestant Churches” are only 33% LGBT friendly. Sadly, “Non-evangelical Protestant Churches” are perceived as the most supportive of the religious groupings. I wonder, in light of the recent publicity around church trials, how United Methodists might be perceived if a poll were done to break things down to the denominational level?
The Dramatic Change…
One other very important factor the study shows us is that in 1993, only 22% of Americans said they had a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian. In 2013, 65% of Americans have a close friend or family member that is gay or lesbian. This dramatic change isn’t due to any percentage shift in the number of gay and lesbian people within the US population. According to a major Gallup study, “among states, the highest percentage (of openly LGBT persons) was in Hawaii (5.1%) and the lowest in North Dakota (1.7%), but all states are within two percentage points of the nationwide average of 3.5%.” Could it be that as people in the US are becoming more willing to talk about issues of sexual orientation, that we are actually getting to know people as people and that is making the most significance in changing attitudes? Maybe The United Methodist Church should revisit how its current policies have contributed to the silencing of truly holy conversations around human sexuality for the purpose of discerning where God might be leading us on these issues.
The Reality Gap of State Laws and the how the Supreme Court might bridge the gap…
What do Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kansas have in common? Texas and Oklahoma are just two of many states where state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage (DOMAs) have been declared federally unconstitutional. Arizona and Kansas are two of several states where the state legislatures have tried to enact “right of refusal laws” for business owners and in some cases, public servants, would be able to refuse service to people based on their sexual orientation. If one of these “right of refusal laws” actually passes, it will surely be headed, like the state DOMAs, to the Supreme Court. While there is no way to determine how this Supreme Court will rule, my hope is that the “right of refusal laws” will be struck down on the basis of their attempt at segregation based on sexual orientation. The question of whether marriage is a federally protected constitutional right for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation; is the unfinished question that Supreme Court kicked back to the states last summer when it struck down the federal DOMA and marriage Prop 8 law in California.
The Reality Gap abroad and how the exportation of prejudice and hate might teach us that we are really a global village…
Russia now has the highest annual number (overtaking Jamaica) of those in the US seeking asylum on the basis of being persecution as LGBT persons. Combined with increased criminalization laws in numerous countries (like Uganda and Nigeria – 80 countries total), we are most likely coming to see a dramatic increase of LGBT asylum seekers. This is more than a prediction, as the State Department and new organizations like The LGBT Faith and Asylum Network are preparing for what is already happening.
Raising more Questions than Answers…
The Reality Gap in The United Methodist Church has broad implications beyond a narrow understanding of discipleship and church membership – These contemporary political discussions lead to some questions about The United Methodist Church:
- Will we continue to operate under a system of punitive measures and trials when we are in disagreement as to how we are discerning God’s will for The UMC at this point?
- Will we allow for Annual Conferences (the basic unit of The UMC) to have some regional flexibility around their understanding of LGBT persons and their role in the life of The UMC, or will we continue to water the seeds of schism that may be taking root?
- Now that the Book of Discipline is being turned into a “Global” rule book (¶101) for the UMC, will we start holding Episcopal and denominational leaders accountable for speaking out against anti-LGBT laws in the US and around the world that violate civil and human rights (something we strongly request all United Methodists do – ¶162J & ¶164A)?
- Will the UMC be a place in which faithful Christians who are LGBTQ or who have LGBTQ friends and relatives be welcome to fully participate in the life of the Church and to be disciples of Jesus Christ who seek a transformed world?
I think I’ve created more questions than answers (as preachers often do), but I will leave you with some advice for the journey ahead: “the only constant in life is change, so you better be ready for it!” However, I would add: Remember that if we remain open to the presence and leadings of God, the change we create, might become something precious and holy.
Rev. Steve Clunn serves as the Coalition Coordinator for the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Clergy in the Upper New York Annual Conference, Steve's work at MFSA focuses on coordinating United Methodist caucus groups in their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the Church.