Howdy, y’all, from down here in Nashville! I’m attending the United Methodist Association of Communicators’ Annual Meeting (about which I will say more later), where this blog, that’s right, this very one, has been awarded Best in Class for non-fiction in the local church category.
No pressure there.
So, on to being relevant. Today, my inbox was overrun by emails and celebrations about Bishop John Shelby Spong’s Manifesto (linked at the Reconciling Ministries Network). In it, he lifts celebration that “the time has come” to move on from the battle about homosexuality. Bishop Spong writes that he believes the battle is won, and that he will waste no further time in debate on the matter:
I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is “an abomination to God,” about how homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle,” or about how through prayer and “spiritual counseling” homosexual persons can be “cured.” Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy.
I have mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, I feel this way a lot. As I wrote earlier, I wrestled greatly with how to respond to extreme positions like those of the Westboro Baptist Church, and I decided in the end that ignoring violent language and hate speech was not something with which I could live. Still, I resonate with the idea that some arguments are not worth the waste of breath, or the anger and bitterness they generate in me. When I find that I am becoming more negative and bitter as a result of a conversation or debate, it’s time to walk away. Actually, it’s past the time to walk away. I frequently give myself sanity breaks from such debates on the umcommunities website for that precise reason. It’s not worth the breath. It’s not worth the poison that seeps into me in the course of the debate. It’s not worth it–never worth it– when I feel more distant from God as a result of a conversation.
In this matter, I do think the handwriting is largely on the wall, and that Bishop Spong is right when he says that we as church are only making ourselves more irrelevant by our continued focus on sexuality rather than on ministry:
The world has moved on, leaving these elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance. They no longer talk to anyone but themselves. I will no longer seek to slow down the witness to inclusiveness by pretending that there is some middle ground between prejudice and oppression. There isn’t. Justice postponed is justice denied.
He is right, and as a church we certainly do great harm to ourselves, not to mention to the witness of Christ, by fixating on sexuality and sexual orientation.
But I push back on two points:
First, while the tide may have turned, that doesn’t mean a battle is over. In this instance, I’m not yet prepared to walk away and dismiss anyone’s words as outdated or irrelevant or as the death throes of a position. They are still hurtful words and positions that I think must be countered. If the battle is over, there is many a GLBT person in my pews who doesn’t know it yet, and until they can let words roll off their back like water, I’m not prepared to ignore them– the words or the ones wounded by them– either. While I applaud Bishop Spong’s optimism, I don’t want to (totally mixing metaphors here!) declare ‘mission accomplished’ and pull out, leaving troops still in the trenches to be wounded and maimed.
Second, I maintain that there are many people out there, even a majority of people out there, whose positions about homosexuality in the church differ from mine, who are faithful Christians to the best of their ability and to the best of their understanding. I resent it when my opponents in a debate disregard me as “unchristian” or “liberal whacko” or whatever, rather than have to live together in difference with me. I can’t in good conscience do the same, disregarding not only their positions, but their theological frameworks, their gifts to the ministry of the church, and their human struggle to understand and serve Christ as best they can. To do so is in a way to deny the Christ in them, however hard it may be at times to see it, just as I’m sure it is sometimes hard to see the Christ in me.
Debate is, I’ll admit, fun and challenging, and often helps clarify one’s own point, but it can also be a forum for relationship growth and reaching out across differences. Wrestling together with our differences, even and especially such stark and emotionally charged ones, can in fact be a huge opportunity to grow and change. And while I’m not naive (or, I hope, arrogant) enough to assume that I can change the hearts and minds of the world, I do kind of have persuasive rhetorical speech as part of my job description, and I do therefore harbor a hope that some positive change might come from conversations I have with others. Like Jacob, wrestling with an angel in the night, we grapple with each other in the dark, each a wanderer, each an angel, and I for one don’t want to let you go until we both receive blessing.
There are some things about which I cannot compromise, and some places where I am not open to changing my mind. I cannot abide violence. I will not compromise with hate speech. I can’t imagine conceding that anything made and beloved by God is abhorrent. I reserve the right and the need to walk away from poison and mutually assured destruction in argument. I also want to declare the joy of living in the already-not-yet promise of God’s kin-dom of radical love. It’s here, in part and in glimpses! The snippets of grace and glimpses of living together in the tension of our differences, when they shine through, are enough to keep me hopeful and focused on the joy.
And yet, I still wade into the battle, to the wrestling match, because the ones with whom I wrestle are often sisters and brothers, are sometimes angels, can teach and transform me even as I hope to teach and transform them. I’m not ready to give up on them just yet.