Where I’m At
May 11, 2012
I had a very important discussion last night with both my wife and my good friend Richard. I’ve had a lot swirling around my head the past few weeks, mostly centered around the treatment of LGBT people in America and – by extension – the United Methodist Church, the church I call home. These thoughts kicked off with the UMC’s General Conference, which decides policy for the international church, being unable to agree that they disagree on how LGBT people should be received in the church – a turn of Onion-caliber satire that would be hilarious if it were not harming and disenfranchising actual human beings.
The UMC took steps back. North Carolina took us back even further, by pulling the ultimate Dick Move and “affirming” that the sacred, traditional definition of marriage – now a hoary 45 years old – remains sacrosanct, even though it’s already illegal for anyone else to get married in the eyes of the state. Like I say, Dick Move.
Finally there was Obama’s evolution, or whatever you want to call it, where he made the significant gesture of being the first sitting president to support marriage rights for all. Lots of discussion about whether this gesture was token, calculated, a ploy, or something he was forced into – but honestly, who the fuck cares? Politicians don’t act until they’re backed into a corner, that’s what happened here, and no one is more aware of that than LGBT people. This one was a win. This is not another leg of the horse race to them. This is their lives being discussed here.
So I’m proud of the president, and even more so of Joe Biden. I’m sorely disappointed by North Carolina, but what they did was a meaningless gesture and hey, won’t it be great explaining to our grandkids why we were all such complete idiots? Voting to take away rights (or to just reaffirm that those rights can never exist) has never, ever worked in this country; has never withstood the test of time; has never been anything but the craven, cowardly lashing out of lizard-brain savagery. It’s a barbaric piece of work and a staggering display of the evil men can do. But it won’t last.
No, I’m more disappointed by the UMC, even though my home church – Northaven UMC – is a reconciling congregation that openly embraces its LGBT congregation. That reconciling stance is a big reason I joined in the first place. As I told pastor Eric Folkerth before I officially joined, “I’m shopping around, but I’m really only looking in one store.”
Nonetheless, the broader UMC’s steps backward pissed me off. There’s a very real resentment toward the UMC right now, and it’s well grounded, and it goes something like this: we pay our apportionments, we put in the volunteer hours, we follow the Greatest Commandment, we often go above and beyond our neighboring churches because that’s what we’re called to do. We fund church plants, mission work, disaster relief, and do it all gladly – because that’s what we’re called to do.
And our reward is to be treated as less than worthy. As inherently sinful, above and beyond the sin that every person carries and is constantly at war with. So the question becomes, why do we pay in, if we’re not going to be treated the same as everyone else? Why are we expected to do our part if we are not afforded the same grace and love as every other member of the church?
I know how angry this issue makes me, even though as a straight white male, I have nothing personal at stake. (Well, there’s the well-being of my loved ones at stake, but you know what I mean.) So I cannot imagine the fear, hurt and fury of LGBT people (and their family members) who live under the very real possibility that the tantrums of emotional and moral dinosaurs could very well destroy their homes and families. That is a monstrous kind of terrorism, an expression of ugliest Empire, and a black mark on the legacy of the Church (all the churches, in all parts of the world, in all stripes) that should never be forgotten.
So my conversation with both Allison and Richard was this: do I just say “fuck it” and go? Because honestly, life is too short to spend time reasoning with people who will scream “faithful living” when they mean “dogma” or, worse, “fear,” and who are gladly murdering a generation of potential families right in the crib because that isn’t how things were when I was a young man/woman. So why not shed the intellectual rot of outdated ideas and old thinking and get on with doing some righteous, forward-thinking work?
Or do I stay, because dammit, this is my church too? I have as much a claim to this legacy as anyone else, so why should I cede ground to the people who do not seem to know they are killing the very thing they love because they believe they have nothing left to learn? Why abandon ship to go where people may end up, when I’m already where people are?
In short, should I stay, or should I go?
This decision is not easy for me. I’ve strayed from the church for awhile now because I have core issues with denominational belief, and with all religion in general – namely, the belief (whether explicitly stated or merely implied) that significant revelation stopped for all time sometime in the past. That 2,000 or 500 or 100 years ago, we learned every major thing there is to learn, and now all there is to do is to memorize what came before and interpret that as rigidly possible and basically just wait to die.
Excuse me, but: that is not living. That is not using the gift of life to grow and to change the world. That is a recipe for calcification and division. For failure. For intellectual straitjacketing. It’s comforting, sure, to feel like all the heavy lifting has been done and all the big questions settled long before you were born, but no thanks. You shouldn’t commit to a religion because it’s the easy way out.
The term I know for what I am (or was, or may be again, or who even knows) is “postmodern Christian,” though I don’t know if that’s the correct or fashionable term anymore. In simplistic terms, that means I don’t really need the Bible to be factual to be true. If you follow me.
But I think even that stance is a little limp, a little noncommittal. I do not think you can know even the most basic facts of how the Bible was canonized and still believe it to be the inerrant word of God. I do not believe you can look at what we know of when, where and how Christianity was born and think that we, somehow, have a monopoly on redemptive living. (At this point you may no longer consider me a Christian, but the nice thing for me is that that call isn’t yours to make.)
More to this particular point, I do not believe you can look at the Greatest Commandment (and its companion commandment) and decide some horse shit passage in Leviticus trumps it. I do not believe you can hide behind “love the sin, hate the sinner,” because that requires you to think that homosexuality is an act and not an irreducible state of being, and basic biology’s not going to let you get away with that one.
I do not believe you can claim to be a “faithful” Christian who “believes in the Bible” because you have to know, you have to know, that you are already ignoring thousands of rules, proclamations, imperatives and commandments just to live the kind of life that enables you to read a fucking blog post. To claim otherwise is to plead ignorance or admit a lie.
None of us are literal believers in the Bible. And that’s a good thing. Because interpretation is always subjective. Leaving aside the massive complications of translations, missing fragments, imperfect interpretations, and this or that bishop exercising realpolitik to push one book over another at exactly the right time, and you’ll still never get any three people to agree on the meaning of any one chapter in any book in the Bible. We are not prisms through which the Bible is interpreted. The Bible is a prism to help interpret who we are and can be.
The Bible is, in a word, epic. It contains fierce truths, scalding imagery and ageless wisdom. It is a wonderful, transcendent and ultimately incomplete treatise on how to stop acting like complete animals to each other. That’s it. That’s all. Great truths can be gleaned from it at every stage in life, but the Bible is not the sum total of what human existence is and can be. To believe that is to endorse the stagnation, decay and collapse of the human spirit.
So you can’t hide behind your Bible. You can’t hide behind this or that piece of scripture. I’m going to put a radical idea up here: If a piece of antediluvian literature is telling you to treat your fellow man as abhorrent for being who they are; if you think you must ignore, twist or fight empirical science to keep believing what you believe; if you need to disengage from the world you are called to heal through church compounds, special colleges or insular communities, then your beliefs suck and they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on. Toss that shit out the window and start over.
I cannot for the life of me imagine Jesus Christ – or anyway, my subjective interpretation of a laughably imperfect portrait of a basically unknowable person, right? – honestly wanting us to value a cobbled-together book (an unrivaled tome of human experience and learning, sure, but bound paper with some ink on it all the same) over our living and breathing brothers and sisters who are in pain and need us RIGHT NOW. I do not think you can be an honest and clear-eyed adult with functioning critical skills and believe that Scripture is more important than people.
Richard and Allison both feel I should stay, not go. My local church is good, and so are the people in it. The UMC as a whole is not lost; as with any large group there are many people trying to do good who are feeling as hamstrung, voiceless and powerless as I am. I know that those who perform actions of bigotry are often acting out of fear, or ignorance. I know I am asked to reach out to them out of love – there’s that Greatest Commandment again, so pesky with its complete absence of caveats – and so I will try to do so.
Sticking with it is better than quitting. Please try to help me remember that.