Emory’s Controversial, Not-So Gay Friendly, Award

UnknownEmory University has a history of opening its doors to voices of faith strongly in favor of LGBT equality. Visiting professors like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Jimmy Carter have talked on campus about why they believe all should be treated as equal by the church. The university has also housed an LGBT Life office for over twenty years, and was the first in the South to offer same-sex partnership benefits. As Emory has evolved from a small Georgia college into a world-class university, they have been quick to point out their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

But now Emory is facing a bit of a problem with that image. Because this fall they have made the controversial decision to grant a Distinguished Alumni Award to the Rev. Dr. Eddie Fox. Dr. Fox is better known in United Methodist circles as the man most responsible for making sure that Methodist doctrine continues to state that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching”. Despite a strong push to acknowledge differences of opinion on the matter several years ago, Fox led a fight to retain the language that precludes the full inclusion of LGBT people in his church.

Which means that Emory is having a bit of a identity crisis. On the one hand, they are the incredibly diverse academic institution that was just ranked number twenty in the country by US News and World Report. And on the other hand, they are the school that is saying a man who has consistently tried to stand against LGBT inclusion is one of their most distinguished alumni.

To be fair, the award is being presented by the Candler School of Theology, Emory’s graduate school of theology which is affiliated (like the university) with the United Methodist Church. But because Candler is a part of Emory, this means that Emory is also putting its seal of approval on the award. For Emory’s many LGBT alums and their allies, who come from the many schools which comprise Emory (including Candler), this is deeply troubling. (Full disclosure: I am one of these alums, having received my undergraduate degree from Emory University.)

When the Dean of Candler, Dr. Jan Love, was asked to reconsider Dr. Fox receiving this honor, she decided that the award should be awarded as planned. But she also wrote, “Candler not only adheres to all Emory University policies on inclusion but we also fully welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons into our community as we do any other students, staff and faculty.” Which, naturally, must feel a little confusing to not only the LGBT students at Candler right now, but also to those of us who are a part of the wider Emory community. Because I’m not so sure how you fully welcome LGBT people while you simultaneously call a person who has gone to great lengths to deny them full inclusion one of your most “distinguished” graduates.

And so now Emory must decide. Are they comfortable with one of their schools honoring someone who has made life a whole lot harder for LGBT Methodists? Or are they the university that lives out the values of inclusion in which they take so much pride? And if they choose the former, are they aware of the message that will send not just to LGBT people at Candler, but also to the gay alum who gets a fundraising letter, the straight ally considering a professorship at Emory, or the out teenager weighing their undergraduate acceptance letter?

My hope is that Candler will reconsider. Not because Dr. Fox is a horrible man. He’s not. Not because he is not a good Christian. I’m sure he is. But because his actions have disenfranchised members of the community which bestows this honor. And because you can’t have it both ways: you can’t be a community which simultaneously respects diversity and bestows its highest honors on those who do not.

But if Candler does not reconsider, I hope the entire Emory community calls upon it to do what is right. Many incredible people have passed through the halls of Candler and gone on to give all of God’s children respect, dignity, and a place at the table. Candler, and Emory, should understand that those are the people who have truly already honored Emory’s values. Now it is time to honor them.

When Pride is Not a Sin: The Season of Ending Gay Shame

In 10th grade my history teacher insisted we memorize the Seven Deadly Sins for an exam. Unlike most of the other things I tried to remember at age 14, years later I can still list them all: pride, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, sloth.

In high school I thought those sins must have come from some sort of Biblical list. Years later I found out that the development of a listing of the Seven Deadly Sins was actually a gradual, fairly random, process across centuries of Christian thought. Like all traditions handed down through the centuries, they have taken on a life of their own and, for many, become an accepted, unquestioned part of Christian tradition. We caution those who are “too prideful”, labeling their actions un-Christian.

It was the Seven Deadly Sins that made the budding theologian in me question my first gay pride parade at age 18. I wasn’t questioning the morality of LGBTQ people and their relationships. I was questioning the claiming of “pride”, a sin that, if Christian tradition is to be believed, is the root of all destruction.

Of the Seven Deadly Sins pride has sometimes been called the worst. It is often seen as the root of the six other deadly sins. Even the 20th Century mainline theologian Paul Tillich, sometimes criticized as “too liberal” by conservative Christians, wrote that pride was the occasion for all sin. As I queued up for my first march in a pride parade I wondered, “Shouldn’t we find another name for this? Solidarity, maybe? Celebration? Something not on a “sin” list?”

Years later in seminary I though more about the “sin” of pride. I was reading Tillich and responses to his work. I was also taking Greek, a requisite for ordination. The wonderful thing about learning Greek was that it allowed seminarians to go back to the original sources of Christian thought, the Scriptures, and read them as they were first written. It made us go deeper and learn the contexts of the traditions we held onto hundreds of years later.

I learned that what the Seven Deadly Sins calls “pride” is actually more correctly “hubris”. In Greek the word for hubris has less to do with feeling good about one’s self, and more to do with shaming another through abuse and violence. Hubris is arrogance brought about by the shaming and victimization of another. It is, rightfully, named as sinful.

Applied today to the status of LGBTQ people in this country, hubris is not demonstrated in the pride parades held across the country each June. It’s not in the waving of a rainbow flag or marching with a banner. It’s nowhere to be found in the crowds gathered to proclaim their pride in who they are and in those whom they love.

Instead it’s here:

It’s in the pastor who preached in North Carolina that gays and lesbians should be rounded up, placed inside an electrified fence, and held until death.

It’s in the parents who taught their child to sing a hateful song about LGBTQ people at a Maryland church that included the words, “ain’t no homos going to make it to heaven” and then broadcast it, complete with the cheers of their fellow parishioners.

And it’s in the clergy who condemn committed LGBTQ relationships as they hide the sins of other clergy against children. Or who preach a Gospel of hate that encourages the bullies who force LGBTQ kids to the point they feel life has no hope.

These are sins. And they are deadly.

Paul Tillich’s insistence that pride was the root of all sin was later challenged by a growing field of women who were theologians. They pointed out to Tillich that for those who have been traditionally oppressed, pride is not an occasion for sin. Instead, the absence of pride, the failure to see one’s self as a good creation of God, was the real occasion for sin. The shame that kept one from doing the things God was calling them to do became sinful.

I want to be careful there to not label those who are mired in the shame created by an often homophobic world as sinners. They are not. Rather, the culture that creates that shame in young people growing up LGBTQ is, and that must be changed. A culture whose hubris comes from making LGBTQ people second-class citizens, who makes criminal in some states the very mention of the word “gay” in the classroom, who allows so-called reparative therapy practitioners to keep their licenses, is a sinful one because it is a soul-destroying one. It must be challenged. It must be changed.

And this is how LGBTQ people and their allies change it: they claim their pride. They claim it in parades. They claim it in front of wedding officiants. They claim it in the face of bullies. And they claim it on everyday that God has given to them.

43 years ago this month, at a bar called Stonewall, a group of LGBTQ people who were being attacked claimed it. After years of systemic degradation, violence, and victimization at the hands of hubris, they refused to live in shame anymore. That’s why each June we who are LGBTQ gather in their honor, and in memory of them and of everyone else who has ever stood up and refused to be ashamed anymore.

It is a good act. It is a holy act. And it is an act of faith. An act of claiming the life and the future that God has created for us. And when one is trying to live into the calling God has given them to live, and to resist those who would deny that calling, it can never be called a sin.

Opening Devotional for the Vermont State House, April 6, 2012

Friday, August 6th, was LGBTQA Advocacy Day at the Vermont State House. It was also the 20th anniversary of the passage of Vermont’s first civil rights protections for gays and lesbians. As part of the celebration, I was honored to be asked to give the opening devotional to the House:

Good morning.

This week is Holy Week in my tradition, the Christian faith, which means for clergy it’s the busiest time of the year. We never seem to run out of things to do this week, and it can feel like one’s work is never done.

I imagine it feels like that to those of you who work here in the State House too. Particularly when you’re in session. And I’d imagine that you rarely have a day when someone doesn’t want a minute of your time.

And today gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Vermonters and their allies have come to ask for that time. They’ve come to tell their stories to you.

Now I believe stories are sacred. And I believe God is there in everyone’s story. So when I listen to someone’s story I take it as an opportunity to listen to see what God has done in them, and in the world.

I’ve learned a lot about God and faith by listening to the life stories of LGBT people. I’ve learned what it is to trust the love of God over the fear of the unknown. I’ve learned about telling the truth about who you are, even when it’s unpopular, because the truth will set you free. And I’ve learned about the capacity to be resilient in the face of rejection, condemnation, and bullying.

I believe those stories are testimonies of faith. Far better testimonies than anything I could say up here this morning. And so I invite you to open your ears, and your hearts, and listen for the voice of the divine in the testimonies you hear today.

There’s a motto we who are Vermonters know. It’s our state motto, “Freedom and unity.” To me it means that we are free to be who we are, and that we respect the freedom of others to be who they are as well. And it also means that no matter who we are, whatever our differences of belief and opinion, we are called to be united in community.

Unity doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens when we open our hearts to one another, respect one another, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Your neighbors are here today. And they have stories to share. As we prepare to open our hearts up to the holy in one another, will you pray with me please?

Good and gracious God, we give you thanks for being a part of all of our stories. We give you thanks for the ways we meet you both in our own stories, and those of our neighbors. Bless us today as we seek to live as a people who embrace both freedom and unity. Bless us as we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. And bless all Vermonters, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. God, bless the work of this body, and God bless Vermont. Amen.