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National Day of Silence

DOS_2012_avery_stickerAdrienne Rich, from “Cartographies of Silence”

3.

The technology of silence
The rituals, the etiquette
the blurring of terms
silence not absence
of words or music or even
raw sounds
Silence can be a plan
rigorously executed
the blueprint to a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence

Romans 8: 26-27: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

I recently led a chapel event kicking off the Day of Silence[1] at a local Episcopal high school. I found it ironic that I was being asked to speak – for a few reasons. For one, well, I’m a talker. Big time. In high school, I had a group of friends bet me that I couldn’t keep quiet for two hours – the reward would have been a Blue Bell Rainbow Popsicle – quite possibly one of the best inventions of all time. Or, definitely the best frozen invention of all time. It’s like an all-in-one frozen adventure – you get layer after layer of tasty frozen goodness – all in one popsicle. If you, like me, have a hard time choosing your favorite flavor of popsicle, this treat is for you – because you don’t have to choose – every flavor is there. It’s like a frozen version of every-flavor jelly beans, but without all of the gross flavors that none of us want to eat. You start with cherry at the top, then orange, then lemon, then lime; and, well, you get the point.

My love of Blue Bell Rainbow Popsicles should have been enough for me to win this bet. It should have been in the bag. Well, to make a long story short, let’s just say that I bought my own Blue Bell Rainbow Popsicle that day.

I think I made it about half an hour before I broke my speaking fast and said something.

So, yeah, like I said – I’m a talker.

Also, it was ironic to speak because, had I known about the Day of Silence when it started almost 20 years ago (my junior year of high school), I probably wouldn’t have participated.

It’s not that I wouldn’t have been supportive of the idea of the Day of Silence – it’s likely that my 17-year-old-self would have been on board in some way. I wouldn’t have participated because I would have been afraid that, in participating, I would’ve been unintentionally outing myself. My silence, you could say, would have said a lot more than I was ready to share.

The Day of Silence is a student-led national event that brings attention to anti-LGBTQ name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools. Students from middle school to college take a vow of silence in an effort to encourage schools and classmates to address the problem of anti-LGBTQ behavior by illustrating the silencing effect of bullying and harassment on LGBTQ students and those perceived to be LGBTQ.

Though the conversations about LGBTQ people have changed a lot in the last twenty years, current statistics tell us why the Day of Silence is still an important and necessary event. Four out of Five LGBTQ students nationally report having been harassed in the a recent year. 80% of transgender students report that they don’t feel safe at school. LGBTQ youth are over 4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their straight peers, or to have skipped a day of school in the past month due to feeling unsafe. Even more troubling, because of the overwhelming lack of support many LGBTQ students feel, they often don’t report it when they are harassed.

That kind of silence – the kind that keeps someone from reporting it when they’ve been harassed or feels unsafe at school – is a forced silenced. Silence that is initiated from shame or fear is life-threatening. Life can be hard, and can be especially hard for those who feel alone, or whose voice has been taken, whether through force or fear.

The silence in which you participate in the Day of Silence, the silence of solidarity – chosen and intentional – is life-saving. It is the kind of silence that allows us to know that, though things are difficult, at times even unbearably so, we are not alone. It reminds us that hope is not a futile endeavor.

In “Cartographies of Silence,” Adrienne Rich refers to silence as a plan, rigorously executed, and cautions us against confusing it with absence.

In a similar way, in Romans 8, Paul talks about the Holy Spirit helping in our weakness, interceding with sighs too deep for words. The Spirit comes in the space that transcends language, or even our ability to give voice to our desperate longings. When we haven’t the words for the depth of our despair, the Spirit is there, breathing in life and hope to even the most barren places.

There are times we might see silence as a sort of void, which it can be. However, it’s important that we not confuse that with absence, or fall into the mistake of thinking that it is in some way inactive. The silence we practice on the Day of Silence is active and life-giving.

I didn’t participate in the Day of Silence until years after I graduated from high school, until a chapel service at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of it – maybe two of the people in the room were part of the LGBTQ community. But, there I was in a chapel, surrounded in the silence of a room full of people.

That day was a good lesson for me about the power of allies. The people in that chapel service didn’t have anything to gain from being silent that day – as far as I know, their voices had never been silenced because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And yet, there they were – silent on behalf people who had been silenced through bullying or harassment – or violence, because they either were, or were perceived to be, part of the LGBTQ community. In all honesty, I still felt awkward being silent – even in a room full of people who knew me and loved me and were standing in solidarity with me. Their silence empowered me to be silent. It also helped empower me to find my voice.

By participating in the Day of Silence, we are acknowledging silence as an active force, and trusting that in that silence there is a deeper Spirit moving among and within us. It is a spirit of connection, of solidarity, of hope, and of support.

For people who identify within the LGBTQ community (whether or not anyone knows it) and are participating in the Day of Silence: take the silence of allies – recognize it , feel it, hear it , see it! And know that you are not alone.

For those of you who identify as allies, and are planning to participate – thank you. Know that your silence speaks volumes, and offers the space of safety and care to your classmates in the LGBTQ community. Your silence can save lives. And it can be just the thing that someone needs to find their voice.

[1] http://glsen.org/participate/day-of-silence

Making Space

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time a teenager asked me if they were going to hell.

LogoI’d been in my job as the Youth Programs Director at ROSMY for a few months, working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth, and was visiting a local high school’s gay-straight alliance to tell them about ROSMY. My goal was to let youth know about our support groups and our leadership program. And, I mentioned in passing that I had been to seminary and that I was in the process of becoming a pastor – so, the youth could talk to me if they had any questions about things they may have heard in the church.

Without realizing it, I had sold myself as someone who had the authority to answer questions about the state of their eternal souls.

While I believe without a doubt that people are not condemned to hell for their identity, I was totally taken off-guard by the question.

I wish I could say that this first time was the only time someone has asked me about hell. I wish I could say that I’m even surprised to hear it anymore.

To put that kind of question out there takes a lot of courage.

I know this because it’s a question I never had the courage to ask.

Like many queer youth today, I spent my high school years trying to navigate a system that was constructed for someone else. School dances were exclusively male-female couples, girls wore makeup and talked about their crushes, bathrooms and locker rooms were spaces where gender norms and expectations were reinforced. Though I never really felt like I was betraying any aspect of my identity by doing all of these things, it wasn’t until years after I graduated that I recognized how much the shame and fear I carried about my identity kept me moving forward – taking the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach to life. I thought that if I could try hard enough, work long enough, at being the right kind of girl, then eventually, I would be.

One of the places I did feel safe to be myself – even within the relatively limited confines of my personal closet – was church. It was at church that I learned that it was ok to ask questions, that it was ok to be my goofy, awkward self. I learned what it was to be cared for by adults who weren’t my parents. I was challenged and taught to live into my beliefs as it was shown to me in the lives of the people who took the time to teach Sunday school, direct youth choir, to lead trips.  The people in the congregation took the time to listen, to ask tough questions – they showed me what it was to be loved.

As a teenager, I was hard-working, did well in school, had a core group of good friends, active in all of the typical extracurricular activities. On the surface, I played the part of the typical American teenager very well.

Underneath, I carried a deeply-buried sense of shame over my identity.

The funny thing about shame is that it’s very easy to hide.

So, while I could smile through just about anything, I can remember thinking that I would rather be dead than have anyone know I was queer.

IMG_2112I carried that shame and fear with me even when I started seminary. I had been out for years by that time, but I still stood in a closet of my own fears about what a theological education would bring. I stood in a space somewhere between exhilaration and terror, excited about all that I would learn, and afraid that once I began digging into biblical texts I would find that my fears were right – that my queer identity relegated me to the margins of grace at best or at worst, outside the bounds of grace all together.

Imagine my surprise – and delight! – when I found the opposite. I didn’t find condemnation in the texts of my tradition, but a message of hope and liberation for those who’d been told they were impure or outcast. The issue wasn’t the texts – the issue was with the ways they’d been misused, utilized to reinforce structures that made very clear lines between who’s in and who’s out. Those boundaries that are so often set between ourselves and others, the clean and unclean, the holy and the damned – they are human-made, not divinely constructed.

In the summer of 2011, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination of which I am a part, ratified changes to their constitution, which made it possible for LGBTQ people to be ordained. As you might suspect, many people left the denomination when it became possible for LGBTQ people to fully participate in leadership roles – including 75% of the members of my home congregation. Among this 75% was the bulk of the people who had been most formative in my faith formation.

The same people who taught me what it was to be loved by God, and who showed me the love of a church community, left the denomination because LGBTQ people – people like me – could be ordained.

Though I started working at ROSMY in 2013, I interned there during my final year of seminary – the same year the PCUSA changed its ordination standards. The same year my home church split up. It seemed especially poignant that the place that I’d found the most comfort as a teenager – even while I was never able to fully be myself, was breaking up as I was beginning an internship working with teenagers, many of whose stories from church were far more damaging than my own.

So, while I heard second-hand stories from home about things people said – about LGBTQ people being an abomination, fundamentally impure – or about the terrible move the denomination was making in offering space for queer folks in the leadership of the church – I was also hearing stories from the youth I met who’d been told they were going to hell, or that they were an abomination, or were kicked out of their homes, cut off from their families – all in the name of God.

Though there was no direct overlap in these communities, it was almost as if the youth I met had had the ground pulled out from under their feet, and the people who taught me what it was to be church were the ones pulling it out from under them.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never had my heart broken by the church.  There are some days when I feel as if it might crumble under the weight of the things said and done in the name of God. In these times, it is easier for me to give in to the hurt and weariness that comes with the things that have been lost, with the struggles ahead, and the feeling of futility that we might be able to live authentically in community with one another.

In the same way, there are times when I get bogged down with the work I do at ROSMY, with the struggles the youth face and conversations about suicide, or bullying – with the frequency with which teenagers ask me if they are going to hell. The distance between where we are and where we need to be is just too much. The work is too hard.

It always seems that on those days when the burden of it feels particularly heavy, that I am reminded of the awesomeness of the job I get to do. Sometimes it’s in a call or text message from a youth telling me that their paperwork is done and their name is legally changed, other times it’s in a youth who’s been busy and unable to come to group for a few weeks, stopping in because he felt homesick. Some days it’s in having a pastor of a local church call because a youth in their youth group has recently come out, and they want to know how to make sure they are educated and the space is safe for that youth.

I could focus all day long on the 75% of people who left, or on the overwhelming circumstances many LGBTQ youth face. However, in doing so, I am turning my gaze away from the connections made, from the love that is offered and shared, from the investment people make in themselves and in their community. I risk missing the excitement shared by the 25% who have remained in my hometown congregation, who have banded together beautifully to work and love, and who are in many ways bonded more tightly because of the difficult times they have had to endure. They know the ground they stand on and who they want to be in the world.

In a similar way, many of the youth who come to ROSMY have bonded more tightly because of the difficult times they have had to endure. In the midst of a world that moves between antagonistic, indifferent, and complacently silent, ROSMY offers LGBTQ youth the opportunity many of them don’t have anywhere else: the opportunity to belong. Time and again, youth come to ROSMY and bloom, empowered through a process of self-discovery to open up to the world around them, building friendships with one another and serving as leaders and mentors for new youth who come in. The community that is built provides a foundation not only for individuals, but also for future leaders. They, too, know the ground they stand on and who they want to be in the world.

A few weeks ago in group, the youth designed symbols to represent who they are, and then attached the symbols to capes. At the end of group, they all donned their capes and stood together, proudly sharing their superhero identities, standing in their best superhero poses. There was nothing particularly profound about it – the capes were made of donated fabric, the mis-matched symbols kinda of clumsily cut and ironed-on. And yet, looking around at the room of youth wearing capes – it was almost magical. It was magical not because they were wearing capes, but because they were able, if only for a moment, to feel good as they are – to be seen as they are, and to stand proudly in that identity.

IMG_2113I often wonder what faith communities might be able to learn from places like ROSMY. What would happen if faith communities focused first and foremost on making a space where all people knew that they were welcomed, honored, and loved – where they could be fully themselves and know that it was safe to show their scars, to bear one another’s burdens? What if we celebrated our individuality, and saw it as the opportunity to be part of something more? What if we actually lived into the notion that we are all worthy to be loved – that we can be messy and unsure – that we don’t have to have it all figured out? Would giving each other the space to bring whatever we’ve got give way to empathy, trust, accountability, and community building?

Might we then realize that we are all, in our imperfectly beautiful humanity, superheroes?

Who Do We Crucify?

This year’s Paschal Triduum is launched. We have been at table. Now we are at the cross. The church is just now formally beginning to realize LGBTQ bodies have been denied, suffered, and killed in its name. Christ was killed by the institution of the Roman Government. Today, religious refusals and bathroom bills will legalize the denial, torture and or killing of queer bodies. They will be sanctioned by the institution of the U.S. Government. On every Good Friday, I question, I ask myself is, “Who do we as Christians crucify in the false name of God?” When we crucify others, we are also killing an important part of our self.

For the PC (USA), our polity no longer allows us to crucify LGBTQ people in ordination and marriage. This is a good thing. This should be celebrated. It is the beginning of a long hard road to reconciliation. However, today is Good Friday. Today is not a day to celebrate. Today is a holy day set aside in the holiest week of the Christian calendar to think critically on who we crucify.

LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, the poor,  women, and the environment are constantly being crucified. The church has a long way to go to care for the murders and suicides of trans people and queer youth. It is a well known in the LGBTQ community that homo and queerphobia is rooted in Christian fundamentalism. It is hard to hear. But we cannot heal what we do not name. The passing of marriage is not an end. As a queer person, one thing I hear frequently from straight people or from LGBTQ people with internalized queer or homophobia is “It’s not that bad”. Denial, is a part of crucifixion. To the straight person who sometimes feels that way, do not kill the ally in you. To the LGBTQ person who feels that way, love the queer in you and the non-hetero identities that you do not occupy. To attempt to kill any queer identity is an attempt to kill your self or others.

As a black person one thing I notice frequently is how it’s hard for many white people to be called white. Again, we cannot heal what we do not name. White privilege is real. The cost is black bodies being murdered by police or being five times more likely to be imprisoned than a white person for the exact same crime. To deny being called white, is to also deny white privilege. Denying white privilege perpetuates racism. Racism perpetuates crucifixions of people of color. To white people, do not kill a part of yourself by denying white privilege. Accepting white privilege, is the first step to racial reconciliation. Racial reconciliation is a form of God’s love. It stops crucifixions.

Intersectionality is about holding different identities in a single body. For me queer and black issues are not either or, they are always already both and. Last Sunday, I went to a DarkMatter slam poetry show and realized who I crucify. Dark Matter is a South Asian queer duo. During the show I realized how I pay so little attention to brown lives. My silence to brown lives contributes to the ongoing crucifixions of brown bodies. As I black person, my people group is given more voice and visibility than any other group of color in this country (which frankly isn’t saying much). My silence kills my integrity and a part of my humanity. It was also a reinforcement for me, to acknowledge how my cis privilege plays a role in crucifying trans people.

So church family who do we crucify? After all, we cannot heal what we do not name.

Resistant Readings as Holy Resistance

(Trigger warning: Explicit discussion of genitalia, hate speech, and sacred language.)

Our feet are still dusty from the Jerusalem Road. The palms that waved excitedly only hours ago now lay limply on the ground. We look around to see what is waiting. An upper room. A denial. A handing over. Our beloved Jesus will become a thing, an Other, an object of ridicule and abuse. We’ll see him nailed to a tree; we’ll journey to the tomb. Dank. Dark. Lonely. All of it awaits. And we who follow in the Jesus Way tread upon well-trodden ground.

 

But this year let us make it different. This year, let us see Holy Week as an opportunity to see the ways in which history is repeating itself. It is significant that this week features International Transgender Day of Visibility. Do we see the trans* persons in our midst? Do we see their struggles? Do we hear how our liturgical language can alienate them, can push them outside of the Beloved Community?

 

This past weekend I had the honor of both presenting a paper and moderating a panel at the University of Cincinnati’s TRANS Writ Large Conference. I gave a talk based upon a piece I published through mlp.org titled “Why Trans* Rights Should Matter to the Church”. The audience was comprised largely of graduate students and faculty members, each with an expressed interest in advancing Queer Theory within their respective disciplines. I was the only person at the conference coming from a religious perspective, and while I am used to speaking to strangers on matters of religion, I was somewhat nervous. Christians have done so much damage to the LGBTQ community, I made the conscious decision not to wear my clericals; my crucifix rested against my skin but under the cover of my shirt, tie, and waistcoat. The only sign of my over religiosity were the visible tattoos of a large Celtic cross on my right arm and two massive Jesus fish on my left. I knew that in order to help produce a sage(er) space, I needed to be aware of how important it is acknowledge privilege–gender, racial, religious–and to minimize triggers.

 

I began my explication of Genesis 1 and 2, pointing out the salient differences: Genesis 1 features male and female being made simultaneously by Elohim, a God that is both singular and plural, male and female. I argued that the creation of male and female is not definitive in that there is only male and female; rather, that these represent poles in between which gender can be expressed. (To be sure, this is not a perfect explanation of gender fluidity, but my desire is to provide a responsible reading of the text that will allow Christians, pastors, and church communities of developing a Biblically coherent approach to trans* inclusion.) I continued by explaining that Genesis 2, which most often is grist for the “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” mill contains an interesting detail: the female is made from the rib of the male; in other words, the female comes forth from the male. (In truth, the term adam means “human being,” but in our cultural readings of the  mythopoetic, “human being” has become synonymous with genetically sexed and gendered “male.”) Regardless, the myth sets forth a powerful notion: the “male” is contained in the female. If we movedto the story of the Virgin Birth, which features Mary, the theotokus, “God-bearer,” giving birth to a male Jesus without the touch of a man, we see a reversal of Genesis 2; in this myth, the male comes forth from the female. This, to me, seems a powerful statement: male and female exist within each other, actualizing themselves in different ways, but as equally part of God’s divine plan.

 

In my last article, linked above, I emphasized Galatians 3:26-28, which sets forth the idea that we are one in Christ Jesus. I still stand by this exegesis, but at the conference I took it a step further. I asked what is lost or gained if we begin to think about Jesus Christ with a vagina. I know that this is shocking; some may say sacrilegious. But in this #holyweekofresistance let us in the Church be resistant readers. What difference would it make if we pictured Jesus with an alternate set of genitalia? Would his work in the world and on the cross be less perfect? His sacrifice any less profound or significant? If we picture Jesus with a vagina, will we begin a more serious and deliberate conversation about how gender and sex assignment are not the same? Might we have an attempt to learn more about the differences between intersex and transgender persons? Might we be more honest about what makes us uncomfortable? Might we understand that some women have testes, and they are born that way? That some men have vaginas, and they are born that way? Might we understand the violence and oppression that has been perpetrated in the name of science against intersex and trans* persons? And that much of this has resulted from limited readings of Scripture to label such persons as “Other”?

 

For many Christians such as myself, one of the most significant things about Jesus is that he models for us how to live perfectly as one created in God’s image. Sadly, within the Church, that perfection has been less about actions and more about specific details: being a Caucasian, cis-male. To be sure, as a white male I have no shame about my race, gender, or sex. I understand that historically, Jesus most likely did not look completely like me. He was not Caucasian. He was a cis-male (at least, we culturally assume that he was); but is that important? Do we limit the work of God and Jesus if we make their identities inextricably tied to a specific race, sex, or gender assignment? Further, if we hold onto the idea that Jesus was the result of God implanting Jesus into Mary, at least on the level of the mythopoetic, we return to this notion that the male and female are contained within one another. I firmly believe that both gender and sex identity exist on a spectrum, and that this is supported through a reading of Scripture.

 

Let us do resistant readings of the texts this week. Let us resist so that we may include. Let us go against the grain because it will allow us to see the kin-dom of God as radically shocking and revolutionarily inviting to those on the periphery. As we gather at the cross, as we await the resurrection, may we put to death the ideas that postulate the “other.” Let us push ourselves to the thin places, to the areas in which we are uncomfortable. In so doing, we will see those who have been left out. We will see the faces, like I did, of students who came up to me with tears in their eyes. Persons created in God’s image who said, I wish there were more Christians like you. Or, Can I come to your church? I see the hope and excitement in them as signs of failure in us within the Body of Christ. Why have we, in the name of Jesus, helped advance feelings of alienation and self-disgust in trans* and intersex persons? Why have we settled into the idea that God is male, God is white, God is cisgender, God is heterosexual? We gain so much, at least in my mind, when we push away the boundaries, when we see God in the eyes of trans* and intersex persons. We who are not need to hear, just as much as do they, that we all are created in God’s image and declared very good. Any claim that we are not requires a resistant reading.           

 

MLP Statement Against the RFRA expansions

More Light Presbyterians represents over 200 Presbyterian Church, USA congregations nationwide. For over 40 years, More Light Presbyterians has worked for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), and in society. As a Christian organization that believes everyone should be treated as a child of God, the board of More Light Presbyterians stands opposed to laws, such as the recent passage of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that create a dangerous and broad religious exemption for private business owners, government employees, landlords and employers to legal protections for LGBTQ citizens given under state or local law.

 

As Presbyterians, our rules of law and order are as deeply ingrained in our faith tradition as the Scriptures and our sanctuaries. We practice a deep respect for the religious freedom we are granted by the U.S. Constitution as well as federal and state laws. However, our church laws have long affirmed that discrimination is not a Christian value. Our denomination’s constitution, the Book of Order, affirms that “In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person.” (F-1.0403)

 

Religious exemptions violate the spirit of this law, as well as a much higher law — Jesus’ commandment to love one another. Not all Presbyterians have the same position of acceptance toward LGBTQ families. Our rule of law allows for those differences, while offering the freedom for all kinds families to live as full and faithful Christians within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). Discrimination is neither an American value nor a Christian one, and Indiana’s religious exemption law, as well as laws that have been proposed in states nationwide, have the potential to foster discrimination, abuse and unintended consequences that will harm Indiana’s families, Christian and otherwise, for years to come.

 

Our communities and churches flourish when we can contribute our full selves to them. More Light strongly urges Christians and people of every faith tradition in Indiana, and across the country to demand repeal of this harmful law.

Betraying Bias: Time to Update PCUSA Social Witness Policy on RFRA

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

-Anne Lamott

A clarification of PCUSA social witness policy is in order at next year’s General Assembly after the recent passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (IRFRA), which opens the door for religious protections for anti-LGBT discrimination. PCUSA has long supported both religious liberty and civil rights; we must stand firm in both traditions and put to rest this manufactured conflict that cheapens claims of conscience and allows religion to be used as a false excuse for mistreating one’s neighbor.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has fiercely defended religious liberty and the separation of church and state for decades. In 1961, the southern PCUS General Assembly declared that the governing body “is completely in accord with the principle of separation of Church and State, and urges all members to be alert to legislative bills which violate the above principle and to be zealous in communicating with their legislative representatives to express their feelings” (80). In 1963 the northern UPCUSA “redeclares its conviction that church and state must be organically separate… “because organic entanglement of church and state inevitably deprives men and women of the full exercise of [religious] freedom” (185-197).

Building on decades of social witness policy, the PCUSA joined many other religious groups in vociferous objection to the 1990 Supreme Court decision upholding the Oregon Employment Division’s denial of unemployment benefits to someone fired for using peyote during a religious ritual. One of the responses to this decision was that the PCUSA’s Washington Office helped develop and advocated for the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed by Congress in 1993.

That’s right, the PCUSA was very much in favor of the federal RFRA, along with such varied groups as the ACLU and the Traditional Values Coalition.  When the federal RFRA was found by the Supreme Court not to apply to state and local governments, the 210th General Assembly (1998) doubled down, reaffirming the 1988 PCUSA statement on religious liberty (555-572) and calling presbyteries, synods, and congregations to advocate for state-level RFRAs “that restore the Compelling Interest/ Least Restrictive Means Test, that contain a broad definition of `exercise of religion,’ and which provide for the protection of the religious practices of all persons” (472-473).  In 2002 the General Assembly again affirmed the pursuit of such laws at the state level.

While moving aggressively for these rights, the denomination also maintained crucial internally imposed limits. The 1988 statement, “God alone is Lord of the Conscience,” includes admonishment against hiding frivolously behind religious liberty: “Claims of Christian conscience should not be lightly or cynically made, and should be tested to the maximum extent possible by the counsel of the Christian community.” Are we living up to this standard? Is the Christian community testing claims of conscience by florists, cake bakers, and restaurant owners refusing service to LGBTQ people in places of public accommodation?

Presbyterian social witness policy has an equally robust, decades-old record opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1978, the UPCUSA General Assembly declared, “There is no legal, social, or moral justification for denying homosexual persons access to the basic requirements of human social existence” and called for Presbyterians “to work for the passage of laws that prohibit discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations based on the sexual orientation of a person” (265-266). The 1993 General Assembly “unequivocally condemns all discriminatory legislation” (118-119) including  Colorado’s Amendment 2 and discrimination against gays in the military (926). In 2008 PCUSA members and representatives were called upon “to urge state legislatures and the federal government to apply the principle of equal protection to same-gender couples and their children” (48-29; 258-259).

So how are we to interpret Presbyterian social witness in light of the Indiana law? Does religious liberty include the right to harm others through discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or other category?

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance offer a history of federal and state RFRAs, noting  that some legal scholars argue that RFRA actually undermines separation of church and state by creating preferences for religion, and that after RFRA went into effect, there was an increase in requests for religious exemptions  from organized hate groups like Aryan Nations.

Some of the groups that joined PCUSA in advocating for RFRA, notably Americans United for Separation of Church and State, condemn current uses of RFRA to infringe on others’ rights, and are now calling for changes to the federal law as well as opposition to the new “super-RFRAs” like the one passed in Indiana, arguing that they contain

broader language than the  federal RFRA, making their meaning uncertain and their consequences even more far reaching.  As compared to the federal statute, these `super-RFRAs’ greatly reduce the burden necessary for an exemption and heighten the compelling interest needed by the government to justify its action.  This could potentially ensure that anyone claiming a religious burden—no matter how small, and no matter who else’s rights will be infringed—will get an exemption from that particular law.  With this broad language, super-RFRAs might be used to justify almost any type of discriminatory action.

With similar proposals in 15 states, this issue is not going away anytime soon. It is time for the General Assembly to speak once again to religious liberty and civil rights, and witness to our current time how a firm wall between church and state enables mutual respect for others’ rights, both religious and secular, in the public sphere. Presbyterians can agree that government has a “demonstrated compelling state interest” in prohibiting discrimination. As observant religious individuals, we must discern the difference between true religious freedom and faith-based pretext for prejudice.

Neither Religion Nor Freedom: Why the RFRA is Dangerous

It was less than twenty-four hours after attending an inspirational multi-faith meeting of local Ohio leaders about coordinating a response to the upcoming Supreme Court of the United States decision when I heard the news of Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signing into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. My optimism felt momentarily shattered; my Facebook feed filled with posts by friends who were angry, confused, outraged, despondent, and a whole host of other emotions. I quipped that the Act is filled with Orwellian doublespeak, as religious freedom has neither been lost nor restored. But sarcasm will only salve the savaged soul for so long.

Governor Pence continues to insist that the legislation is not discriminatory, but it is clearly aimed at LGBTQ persons. No reasonable person can deny this; however, Indiana has now embarked upon a very slippery slope. The language is vague; it is unclear what constitutes a “religious act or belief” or what an “undue burden” might be, the threshold for acting or refusing to act in accordance to one’s faith. While some people might have no issues will allowing citizens to deny services to members of the GLBT community, a Pandora’s Box awaits. Think about this: A person could deny service to a man who has shaved (Leviticus 19:27); a man could claim the right to ask a woman if she is menstruating lest he be rendered unclean by touching her or sitting where she sits (Leviticus 15:19-30); or demand that a person who has been shot but is tattooed be denied medical attention because he is an abomination (Leviticus 19:28). It does not matter that these requirements will have been ripped from their original context; there is no mandate that a person be a religion scholar and be able to defend his or her belief. All the person need do is say, “It is part of my religion” and is therefore free to make decisions that can literally have a life or death impact on another person.

After years of activism, which sometimes includes pushback even within congregations that I pastor or belong, I understand that some have decided that homosexuality is a sin and their opinions will not change. In my Facebook feed, I have friends who post about how marriage equality is leading to the normalization of pedophilia; I wholeheartedly disagree, and find the position offensive, but I remain friends with them. I sincerely believe that once we are in the Body of Christ together, we are commanded by God to continue to come to the table together in love and compassion, even when our disagreements are passionate. I find it odd that some want to invoke Christ to deny services and basic compassion to fellow human beings, but I also don’t want to descend into calling someone unChristian. We simply regard the Scriptures differently.

I write today to illustrate how dangerous a precedent has been set.There have been legislative efforts prohibiting the implementation of Sharia Law (an asinine undertaking in the opinion of this author), yet what we see in Indiana is a lived example of religious extremism masking as “freedom.” An individual now seemingly has the right to invoke religion within the public sphere to justify just about anything. And as most of us are not lawyers or legal experts, it does not matter if there are nuances in the law; think about how many people get their ideas about the Constitution from episodes of Law and Order. This legislation arms anyone to simply cry “Religious Freedom!” in their best William Wallace voice, and then watch as tragedy unfolds. What is a trans* person is beaten half to death in small town Indiana, and the only available doctor is a person who believes that transgender persons are sinful and that touching them will render him or her unclean? He or she now has the right to withhold services, even if the trans* person dies.

This is not hyperbole. This is where we are heading. As a pastor, a religious person, and an American, this legislation terrifies me. I’m asking all citizens of the country to pay attention to what is going on in their own legislatures. Similar efforts have been made in my own state of Ohio, and I fear that the recent signing by Gov. Pence might embolden lawmakers here. I plan to redouble my efforts to make it clear that religious freedom does not involve violating the civil rights of other citizens. In a social contract, we all have to make compromises.But no one should be forced to compromise his or her basic safety and pursuit of happiness because someone else is able to use religion as a justification for prejudice.

Nothing Has Changed, But the Change is Not Nothing

I keep telling people that nothing has changed.

Don’t get me wrong. When the news of the vote regarding Amendment 14-f began blowing up my Facebook news feed and emails streamed in from colleagues and congregants alike, I went into prayer and praise. I left comments on threads, liked posts, and fielded phone calls celebrating the decision. I was called by Why Marriage Matters Ohio to be a media spokesperson, and I happily agreed. But I stopped short when I read one (resurrected) headline:

PC (USA) Redefines Biblical Marriage 

In one regard, I guess it is true. There are no fewer than eight types of biblical marriage. But this vote, while historic, has done nothing to change what marriage means or what the Bible says. It has levied no requirements upon Teaching Elders or Sessions; it has not set forth a draconian or hegemonic policy that violates the conscience of our well-meaning brothers and sisters who object to same-gender and same-sex marriage. To be sure, it lifts the specter of denominational charges being levied against a pastor who sanctified such a union. This is reason enough to express joy, but marriages do not suddenly have God in them because of a human vote.

        I will boldly say that God was long ago sanctifying these unions. Our recognition of what God has already done does not shift anything in the cosmos; contrary to what objectors might contend, we who voted in favor have not cast the PC (USA) into the depths of hell. It gets dangerous when any of us claim that we have God on our side and others do not (I believe that there is a distinction to be made between claiming that God is “on our side” and proclaiming that God sanctifies marriages between two persons; reasonable people can disagree), the fact is I do not believe that those who oppose the sanctifying of marriage between two persons to be devilish, unChristian, or bound for hell. I passionately disagree with their position, but I remain just as willing to work together on myriad other issues as I was the day before the final vote came down. And God remains God, spreading love like leaven in dough or weeds in a garden.

        I have shared in a previous blog the thoughts I expressed when my own Presbytery voted, and now that the final decision is in nothing has really changed. I expect those who spoke against the amendment to remain against it; and I expect that those who were then willing to send couples to me will remain willing. I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to not only lovingly accept these couples, but to lovingly thank the pastors and Sessions that send them to First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs. But no damage has been done to the Gospel. And I will say–perhaps to the chagrin of those who share my opinion–no victory was won for the Gospel. It remains the same. The vote simply allows us, in full accord with our polity and roots as Calvinists–to interpret Scripture in accordance with our consciences. With that said, changes in the PC (USA) Constitution and the Book of Order can be regarded as big; for some, it is an affront to tradition; to others, like myself, it is a change a long time in coming and something to laud. Regardless, let none of us argue that somehow the Gospel is on our side and not on the side of others. Let us continue to respect one another in God’s love, not denying our fellow Christians their identities as members of the Body of Christ.

I write this post not to dampen the celebrations or to downplay the significance. What has happened is most certainly important, but I think that when we step back and look at the scope of things, we’ll see that the needs of people remain the same, and the call of the Gospel continues. We have work to do for justice, to increase people’s access to food and housing, to shine light where there is darkness, and we remain a people committed to being God’s hands and feet in the world.

Nothing has changed, but the change is not nothing.

What Marriage Means to LGBTQ Youth

I work with LGBTQ youth so, on the whole, I don’t hear a lot about marriage equality – at least, not at work. It’s not that marriage isn’t important to LGBTQ youth; it’s that marriage isn’t really a topic that’s important to teenagers. Getting a date for prom? Yes, that comes up (just came up today, actually). Being able to use the bathroom without being harassed? Yes, quite frequently. But, marriage? Not so much. It’s just not yet in their direct line of vision.

If marriage does come up, particularly marriage equality, most of the youth recognize that things are changing. There is a general understanding that things are changing – they are (thankfully) able to rest on the fact that, should they desire to marry someone of the same gender one day down the line, they will be able to do so without restrictions from the law.

One topic that does come up frequently, if not directly, is religion. When youth talk about religion,  it is often couched in a sentence like: “well, you know, they are religious, so they didn’t really want me around,” or: “you see, my family is really Christian, so they’re not ok with me being gay/trans/queer.”  In one of our weekly support groups last week, after hearing sentiments like this from several youth, I paused the discussion to ask if any of the youth have ever had a religious person unconditionally affirm their LGBTQ identity. The confused looks the youth gave me were answer enough. The silence that followed was deafening.

Just as many of the youth assume that they will one day be able to marry a person regardless of their gender identity, many of them still assume that Christians – especially straight Christians – who affirm the identities of LGBTQ people are a bit like Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street: though someone may assure them of their existence, most youth still believe them to be imaginary. Though the Church has come a long way with regard to acceptance of LGBTQ people, the experiences many LGBTQ youth have had in faith communities, particularly mainline Christian denomination communities, have been traumatic. I can count on one hand the number of youth I’ve met in the last year-and-a-half who’ve been part of a church that wholeheartedly affirmed their identity.

When I got news of 14-F passing on Tuesday night, I was in the middle of a group meeting. We were on a break and I stepped into my office to quickly check my phone and had texts from people delightfully sharing the news. I excitedly came out of my office and shared that my denomination had just ratified an amendment changing the definition of marriage. Again, I got confused looks – one youth asked if it had been changed to solidify that marriage is “between a man and a woman.” “No,” I said, “It’s been changed to define marriage as between two people! Just people! That means that folks all over the country – churchy folks – voted to recognize that marriage isn’t just between a man and a woman.”

“Wow.” They replied. “That’s pretty cool.”

The passing of 14-F is a really big deal. And not just for people who want to marry someone regardless of gender. It’s a big deal because it is evidence of a large-scale movement toward a new understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ identities. It shows people who’ve been hurt by their experiences in the Church that not all churches are the same. It is a huge affirmation that there are Christians who are open to new understandings of how we can be in relationship; and, by extension, how we can live into being God’s beloved children.

I recently asked a couple of youth how they would feel if I became a pastor.

“Would that mean that you could marry people?” they asked.

“Yes,” I said, “it would.”

“Yeah. That’d be really cool.”

So, maybe they don’t talk about it much, but I like knowing that if they are thinking about it one day, their marriage could happen and would be recognized in a Presbyterian church.

Semper Reformanda

Yet the church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The church affirms Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, that is, “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit.   F-2.02

In 2005 I attended a small and beautiful state-sanctioned wedding of two women in Massachusetts. Though not the first same-gender wedding in that state, it may have been the first officiated by a Presbyterian Teaching Elder. This was a moment of risk and of prophecy. Acting with the power vested in him by the state of Massachusetts, the Teaching Elder professed that God’s gift of marriage was for these two women,  and the community gathered that day joined in witness and committed to support the couple in their life together.

This was a private moment for the couple, their pastor, their family, and their community. It was not meant to be a challenge or a test case, and did not become one. It was at best unclear at the time how the Book of Order language that “marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man” would ultimately be interpreted, given that in Massachusetts, marriage had in fact become a civil contract between two people.

Less than a decade later the Presbyterian Book of Order now affirms that “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people….”

After decades of slow changes in the hearts and minds of Presbyterians regarding welcome and affirmation of LGBTQ people, it is in many ways remarkable that the PC (USA) has chosen to ratify these much-needed changes to the Book of Order, not only correcting statements of fact (marriage as a civil contract has changed in most states to allow two people to enter the contract regardless of their gender) , but also affirming marriage as God’s gift for the benefit of all humankind, not just heterosexual, gender-conforming couples.

Some look upon these changes and remark on how fast they are occurring in both church and society. However, this is the culmination of a much longer and hard-fought struggle for recognition of LGBTQ people and our relationships. Before Jane Spahr and the couples she married put so much on the line in their judicial cases; before this Massachusetts couple and their pastor took unknown risks to claim the full richness of their relationship,  there were the struggles of prior General Assemblies over civil unions, holy unions, domestic partnerships, and commitment ceremonies; and before that the struggle to keep body and soul together with a Christian sexual ethics based in justice-love. And well before General Assemblies would even talk about any of this there was the love, one person for another, a constant steady stream of what God had joined together, queering our understanding of ourselves and each other, of who God is and what church can and should be.

Today we celebrate all of this; it is not just in the victory, but also in this journey of struggle that we learn what it means to be Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda: the church reformed, always being reformed.

Where do we go from here? Our movement has witnessed extraordinary policy change for Ordination Equality and Marriage Equality in the span of five years. We know from our involvement with other social justice movements that policy changes are seismic shifts in communities that call us to live into the hope they produce. So we continue now as we began, in our local congregations and communities of faith, striving to be the church we wish to see in the world, striving to live into the ideals we have affirmed as a denomination, and striving to realize the promise of the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life, work, and ministry of the Presbyterian Church.