Saturday, December 21, 2013

Salvation Army Bell-Ringers, Homophobia, and Christmas Plays

It's that time of year again. Salvation Army bell ringers are outside your local Walmart store. In a time of mad consumerism, of rushing around to buy useless junk to stick under the tree or into the stockings of people who have more than they need, the iconic red tripods with their metal buckets have become a symbol of an alternative spirit. Stationed at the door to consumerism's temple, the Salvation Army donation bucket reminds us that giving shouldn't be primarily about finding some useless trinket for everyone on our list. It should be about caring for those with urgent needs, lifting the spirits and feeding the bellies of those who are left out in the cold.

It's that time of year again. At least if you're like me--an advocate for gay rights with many gay and lesbian friends and allies--you've been getting those social media messages and forwarded e-mails reminding you that the Salvation Army is an anti-gay group and that giving to them is a tacit endorsement of bigotry. Some of those messages will quote the views of one of the more homophobic members of the Salvation Army, naming the person's military-style rank within the organization so as to make it seem as if this person is speaking for the Salvation Army in an official capacity. A few of the messages will conclude that the Salvation Army is a hate group.

I wrote about this last year, but this year these messages have become particularly jarring. The reason is the Christmas play I'm in right now: Robert Fulghum's "Uh Oh, Here Comes Christmas." It's basically theatrical storytelling, and one of the stories features the Salvation Army. It's about bell-ringing, about generations of fathers and sons standing outside a local Woolworth store--a tradition that began with a "Great Heathen" who had no use for church but who faithfully rang the bell every year, to his son's great puzzlement. It turns out that when the Great Heathen was a child, his family's house burned to the ground, and the Salvation Army came to the rescue.

After one evening performance, two Salvation Army members--in uniform--came up to the cast and thanked us for our performance. They said it brought tears to their eyes. I shook their hands. I chatted with one of them, a diminutive woman with a warm smile. To call her a member of a hate group struck me as, well, a bit hateful.

Or maybe just confused. The Salvation Army was born out of a commitment to reaching out to the socially marginalized in a spirit of inclusive love. A central part of that mission focuses on meeting tangible human needs. And that's what their Christmas Assistance program is all about. To put it simply, putting money in the Salvation Army bucket helps needy people. The money that goes in the Salvation Army bucket goes directly to locally-administered programs aimed at helping needy families in the community. None of it is used in financial contributions to anti-gay causes.

Westoboro Baptist Church is a hate group. The Salvation Army is not.

Let me be clear: The Salvation Army is a conservative Christian organization. Like other such organizations it persists in endorsing what I take to be a damaging teaching, namely that all homosexual acts are categorically sinful. It continues to endorse the view that it is possible to love our gay and lesbian neighbors while holding that faithful gay couples committed to one another are committed to sin, and that the relationships that give so much meaning to their live ought to be dismantled--the equivalent of holding that it is our moral duty to try to end a loving marriage and force the partners who have forged a life partnership to get a divorce (after all, that's what follows from thinking the relationships are essentially sinful).

I think this view is a serious failure to understand the implications of an ethic of love in relation to our gay and lesbian neighbors. No clear-thinking Christian, upon encountering a happily married couple who add richness and meaning to each others' lives, who love and support each other in good times and in bad, would think that trying to tear their marriage apart would show love for them. But what can it mean to hold that a monogamous life partnership is inherently sinful if that doesn't include the belief that it ought to be brought to an end?

And the Salvation Army, along with every other conservative Christian community, perpetuates this error. The Salvation Army, along with every other conservative Christian community, harbors within its ranks individuals who seize on the doctrinal teachings about homosexuality as an excuse for indulging their bigotry.

But as a community it has, in recent years, wrestled sincerely with the question of how best to express Christian love towards gay and lesbians--wrestled in a way that few other conservative Christian communities wrestling. They still don't get it, as is clear from the comments such as this one, from the Salvation Army's national community relations secretary, George Hood:
If we can all agree that we have a difference of opinion on the lifestyle issue and that's OK, then we start to talk about issues of discrimination and the steps we've taken to see that there is no discrimination.
Any gay or lesbian can tell you that this isn't just about a difference of opinion, and certainly not over a "lifestyle issue." Gays and lesbians want to be able to live the same lifestyle that heterosexuals are free to live without censure--a lifestyle that includes falling in love, standing up and making public vows together with the one they love, and then establishing a home and a family and intimate life partnership with the beloved. Because of their sexual orientation, gays and lesbians can only pursue this "lifestyle" (which heterosexuals take for granted) with someone of the same sex. The "opinion" of the Salvation Army is that gays and lesbians have a moral obligations to deny themselves the "lifestyle" that heterosexuals celebrate--that they have a duty to stand out in the cold while others seek the warmth of loving partnership.

They may not get it...but they're honestly wrestling. And they're sincere in their commitment to nondiscrimination in both employment and in distributing services. These are not characteristic features of a hate group.

They happen to ascribe to conservative teachings, but those teachings stand at the periphery of what they do. And what they do is try, with sincerity of purpose, to meet human needs. As with all organizations, there are bad apples. You can find mean-spirited souls anywhere. And even the best among us get things wrong.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

War on Christmas Naming Contest

With the War on Christmas once again upon us, I know that many brave warriors fighting in defense of this important holiday will be exhausted from their heroic efforts. Bone weary from their attempt to save all that is right and true from the deadly and remorseless assault of the "Happy Holidays" crowd, they may need a bit of a break.

But here's the problem: When you're caught up in a struggle of such magnitude, it can be hard to think about other things. Sometimes the best you can do is address the struggle from a different angle, one which doesn't drain you quite as much as the actual battle in the trenches.

Hence this War on Christmas Naming Contest.

Here's the idea: In recent years, American wars have been given names that reflect the true spirit of the conflict--names such as "Operation Desert Storm" and "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (just to name the ones featuring Saddam Hussein as the bad guy). I think the War on Christmas deserves the same kind of honor.

But what do we call it? My first thought was something like the following: Scattered-attempts-by-protesters-who-don't-matter-to-adjust-the-trajectory-of-the-Christmas-juggernaut-with-nothing-but-styrofoam-peanuts-while-the-season's-heroic-defenders-rage-against-the-audacity-of-it-as-the-peanuts-bounce-off-the-armored-sides-and-the-juggernaut's-wheels-grind-with-a-satisfying-crunch-through-the-keepsakes-that-the-protesters-were-trying-to-protect."


But I decided this was a bit too long. And the acronym was a bit hard to pronounce.

So I thought I'd see if anyone had a better suggestion.

Contest rules:

1. You may enter as many times as you like, unless your entries are boring.
2. While your entry needn't include the words "styrofoam peanuts," you get bonus points for working them in.
3. The contest deadline is whenever I randomly decide to end it. Late entries will be disqualified unless they're really good.
4. All entries must be submitted either as comments on this post or written in glitter glue on your bathroom mirror, photographed, and then sent to the North Pole (Santa has agreed to drop them in my Christmas stocking when he makes his rounds). However, if you submit through the latter mechanism, your entry will be disqualified if I decide to end the contest before Christmas Day. Unless it's really good.
5. Winners will be notified via blog comment. The prize for first place is the honor of being declared the first place winner. Other winners and honorable mentions earn the right to post comments on my blog for free (a right everyone else has, too, but didn't earn).

Monday, December 2, 2013

Those Pesky Protestant Progressives

Apparently, the Church of England's recent approval of a plan to raise women to the episcopate was something of a last straw for at least one Catholic priest.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, seemingly outraged by the General Synod's resounding vote in favor of women bishops, posted a strident attack on the "insidious, dangerous, and relentless" pursuit of progress within Protestant churches. Labeling Protestant progressives "bullies," Longenecker opines that once the progressive fight for same-sex marriage is won, a fight for "child sex" may be next.

(I hope he has the good sense to apologize for this last bit of rhetorical excess, if for nothing else. Obviously, the pursuit of equality for a minority group that has been systematically marginalized--however misguided he thinks that might be--is not a slippery slope to advocacy for child sexual abuse).

Longenecker's article is heavy on shrill put-downs (Protestant progressives are not merely bullies but "tyrants", "(i)nsecure, immature people with a persecution complex", and "like a teenager with a hissy fit"). Such name-calling is not exactly an invitation to thoughtful discussion about any ideas that might be hidden amid the verbal abuse, suggesting that Longenecker is more interested in attacking Protestant progressives than in discussing his ideas with them. Nevertheless, he may have ideas worth discussing.

So what are his substantive claims? There appear to be three:

1. Protestant progressives are driven to pursue change for the sake of change--regarding the new as good just because it's new, and the old as bad just because it's old. In other words, their pursuit of change is indiscriminate.

2. Protestant progressives' pursuit of "progress" is so relentlessly single-minded that they pay no attention to stability and peace and the welfare of countless people who do not want the changes foisted on them. Thus, their idea of progress is achieved at a high cost in terms of social division and bitterness.

3. This indiscriminate pursuit of "progress" is motivated by the fact that it is through the pursuit of "causes" that progressive Protestants find subjective meaning in their lives. Without a cause to fight for, they "prowl around restlessly", like a teenage rebel without a cause...until they find one.

Let me look more closely at each of these claims.

Claim 1: Protestant progressives are driven to pursue change for the sake of change--regarding the new as good just because it's new, and the old as bad just because it's old.

There are people who pursue change for the sake of change. And there are those who pursue change for the sake of charity and justice. You won't tell them apart by the fact that they keep finding new causes to pursue. Given human finitude, our institutions will always be imperfect--and those moved by a spirit of compassion and justice will always find places where improvements can and should be made. While a restless desire for change for change's sake is surely to be found in some Protestants, it is far from being Protestantism's defining element. And an ongoing commitment to making existing institutions better, more loving, more just, should not be misconstrued as an indiscriminate identification of the new with the good.

Protestantism began with Luther's fiery protest against abuses within the Church, abuses that had real victims who were damaged by them. The spirit of that protest was one of reform. And reform is about love for that which is being reformed. The "new" is sought for the sake of making the beloved "old" thing better.

I belong to one of the denominations Longenecker mentions as being "on the relentless progress train": I'm a Lutheran, and specifically a Lutheran in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). We're one of those denominations that recently changed its stance on the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian clergy. We've had women in the ministry for years. And recently, we elected a new Presiding Bishop: a woman.

Did we pursue these things just because they're new, and jettison the old ways just because they're old? No. Lutheran worship is shaped by ancient liturgies. We affirm and recite the ancient creeds of the church. We love old hymns. Lutheran clergy wear the kinds of vestments that have been worn by Christian clergy for centuries. Every week we say the prayer Jesus taught us to pay, and bow at the altar and participate in the sacrament instituted by Jesus some two millenia ago.

Gays and lesbians within the Lutheran communion have not sought access to marriage because they hate the old. Marriage is old. It's really, really old. They value this old thing enough to want it for themselves. Likewise for the priesthood. Likewise for the episcopate. It is love for these old institutions, appreciation for their value, that inspires a desire to make access to them broader than it has been before. You don't fight hard to expand access to something if you don't value it. Anywhere you see the pursuit of broadened access to an old institution, what you are observing is a reform movement in the true sense: A change to the old that is motivated by an appreciation of the old.

And progressive Protestantism has been defined most obviously by such efforts at broadening access to established institutions. Hence, to claim that progressive Protestantism is defined most essentially by the pursuit of change for change's sake, by the indiscriminate love of the new and disdain for the old, is to miss the obvious. Longenecker gets the heart of progressive Protestantism dead-wrong, even if he correctly identifies a worry that all progressive movements should be conscious of and guard against.

Claim 2:  Protestant progressives' pursuit of "progress" is so relentlessly single-minded that they pay no attention to stability and peace and the welfare of countless people who do not want the changes foisted on them. 

Here's the thing about reform: it's routinely resisted, especially by those who benefit from the status quo. And so efforts to reform the imperfections in old institutions for the sake of those who are harmed by them will inevitably generate conflict. Finding the best path through that conflict is hard. Nor is it easy to know when the costs, in terms of stability and social harmony, are worth the conflict...and when they're not.

Progressive Protestants are as imperfect as the institutions they seek to reform, and so are prone to make mistakes. Protest is sometimes done in ways more likely to produce reactionary hostility than transformative introspection. Reformers can get carried away, willing to take actions that needlessly hurt defenders of the status quo.

Insofar as Longenecker's claim serves as an invitation for reformers to reflect on their methods, it has value. Certainly there are those within progressive Protestantism who are guilty as charged, and all of us need to keep in mind the risks of being too goal-oriented to see the damaging ripple effects of our actions.

But I think it is too easy to see one's opponent's methods as relentlessly single-minded (or as "bullying") when in fact they are not.

I believe strongly in the methods of social change advocated by Gandhi and King--relentless nonviolent resistance that begins with efforts at dialogue and strives to rely on methods that never shut down the hope of reconciliation and community. Reform efforts that spring from love for the victims of the status quo--victims of its inevitable imperfections--must also express love for those who are afraid of change or opposed to it because they see things differently.

Loving your opponents is always hard.

Reformers must be conscious of their own fallibility not only in this respect, but with respect to their judgments about what needs reform. Some things need to change, but other things are better off left the way they are. We can make mistakes about which is which. Longenecker apparently believes that progressive Protestants are routinely guilty of this error. I think he and others are guilty of it--but erring the other way.

One of us is wrong. I think it's him. He thinks it's me. I'm pretty sure I'm right, He's pretty sure he is. In other words, one of us is confident he's in the right...when he's wrong. What do we do in a world where that is so often true? Suspending judgment means inaction, which amounts to favoring the status quo. If we let our fallibilism take us there, we have a recipe for unchecked injustice.

Suppose you are convinced, based on experience and sustained reflection, that it is wrong to systematically exclude persons with a homosexual orientation from participation in the bedrock social institution of marriage. Suppose you have heard the suffering of your gay and lesbian neighbors and seen some of them driven to suicide by the alienation and despair created by the status quo.

The mere fact of human fallibility shouldn't be enough to paralyze you into inaction. In all of our human endeavors, there are two ways to go wrong: we can mistake falsehood for truth and act in error; and we can fail to see a truth we need to act on, and so do nothing when action is urgently required. The most strident opponents of reform are often those who are so afraid of the first kind of mistake that they persistently fall headlong into the second. It's important for reformers not to do the same thing in reverse. But it's even more important to act on conscience.

When we do, we should seek dialogue with those who resist the changes we are trying to make. We should seek to understand the human needs and feelings that underlie that resistance. And where there is truth to be found in our opponent's concerns, we should integrate that truth into our reform efforts.

But sometimes resistance is so strident and entrenched that no such dialogue is possible. What then? Do we give up? Do we "wait" until the society is "ready"? Martin Luther King's words about "why we can't wait" resonate with authority for all who stand witness to grave injustice. But so do his words about nonviolence and love, about reliance on methods of pushing for change that do not shut the door to future dialogue, that do not shut out the prospect of the Beloved Community.

King was prepared to use methods that weren't "nice." They were confrontational. They imposed costs on those who opposed the goals of the movement. But they didn't rely on the use or threat of violence. Those who refused to give in found themselves without customers, or with more customers than they could ever hope for (but all from a group they were unwilling to serve). Eventually, they found themselves living in a society whose rules had changed--a society whose rules and leaders no longer officially sanctioned their preferred form of discrimination. But that didn't turn the participants in the civil rights movement into bullies or tyrants.

If you want to discriminate against women and gays, you aren't being bullied if advocates for equality win the day through nonviolent action and moral suasion, such that your community's policies no longer reflect or sanction your discriminatory wishes. And if, committed to your wish to keep excluding some people, you break away from the community to form your own separatist group, it is oversimplified to treat the reformers as so trenchantly focused on their cause that they are willing to tear the community apart in its pursuit.

Longenecker has a legitimate concern if he insists that reformers need to pay attention to community and stability, and hence should seek change only when there are important moral or pragmatic reasons for doing so, and then in ways that seek to preserve community in the midst of disagreement. And there is no doubt that all human efforts at reform reflect this concern imperfectly. But this is not a reason to abandon a commitment to reforming imperfect human institutions, or to stop reforming them after one or two victories. We don't stop--or shouldn't stop--trying to improve ourselves morally after we overcome one or two vices. Moral improvement is a lifelong endeavor. Likewise for our human institutions.

Claim 3:  This indiscriminate pursuit of "progress" is motivated by the fact that it is through the pursuit of such causes that progressive Protestants find subjective meaning in their lives.

This claim is something of an exercise in mind-reading. I can testify, as a self-defined Protestant progressive, that Longenecker has not read my mind accurately. And his sense of what drives Protestant progressives in general has little substantiation in my experience of progressive friends and relatives--suggesting to me that he is projecting his own biases onto his progressive brothers and sisters, rather than discerning what is there.

Admittedly, my evidence is anecdotal--and Longenecker can probably offer his own array of anecdotes that support his assessment. But at the very least, my experience leads me to conclude that his take on what motivates progressive Protestantism is way too sweeping.

My progressive Protestant friends and relatives have rich, meaningful lives apart from their pursuit of social causes. They dance and sing and play sports. They have jobs they love. They find joy in their children or their intimate relationships. When they find themselves standing in a protest line or writing a letter to the editor or joining a social justice movement, it's not because they are empty inside and therefore need to "prowl around restlessly" for some social cause to give them meaning.

Rather, it's because they have seen a suffering neighbor, heard a heart-wrenching cry, witnessed the way that some feature of the status quo has injured or alienated or left people at the margins. And their compassion has not allowed them to stand by and do nothing. At first they may focus merely on binding the wounds of those who have been damaged. But as the existing policies keep grinding out new injuries, they find themselves driven to change the system if they can.

They nail some theses to a church door. When that fails to inspire the reform-from-within they might have hoped for, they find themselves part of a movement to bring about change.

Consider, for example, my cousins: Phil and Randi Reitan. When their son, Jake, came out to them in high school, they were leading a happy, comfortable life in the Midwest. They were financially comfortable. They were active in their church, active raising four bright and talented children. Their lives were good.

But when Jake came out, they struggled to understand what it meant. What it meant for Jake. What it meant for them and their family. And in so doing they became progressively aware of what gays and lesbians go through every day: the peer rejection and abuse, the social marginalization, the prospect of permanent exclusion from participation in the social institution by which new families are established and recognized. Phil and Randi reflected on how their own unconsidered beliefs, formed primarily by the teachings of their church, helped to perpetuate the harms they witnessed. Out of love for their son, they found they had to oppose those teachings--and the bitter fruits they bore.

Their love for their son expanded outward, taking shape as an inclusive advocacy for sexual minorities. They wrote letters. They became active in Soulforce. They participated in civil disobedience. They got arrested. And as the astonishing social changes started to sweep across the country, as one state after another started to embrace marriage equality, they celebrated with their expanded family.

Did their participation in this struggle add meaning to their lives? Absolutely. But it added meaning because it reflected their deep and abiding values. It wasn't some cause they seized upon at random, just because they needed some cause to give purpose to their lives. It was a cause they were compelled to pursue, because the deep values that already gave purpose to their lives required it of them.

These are not "immature, insecure people with a persecution complex" throwing a teenage "hissy fit." These aren't rebels searching for anything they can find to rebel against. These are, rather, people acting with integrity and conviction, refusing to hide from hard changes when their principles demand it.

This is the problem with sweeping generalizations, especially caricatured ones. When we consider what is revealed by any sustained encounter with Phil or Randi or countless others, Longenecker's characterization of progressive Protestant motivations is so far off the mark--so jarringly at odds with the real human beings I know--that it would inspire laughter if it weren't so offensive.