Turn the Other Cheek?: Jesus on the space between passivity and “stand your ground” – Sermon for February 23, 2014

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48

If you have ever gotten into a discussion or a debate about religion, you probably know what it’s like to have a bunch of soundbites from the Bible thrown at you. I’m always interested in how people who mostly seem uninterested in church or faith seem to know how to quote the Bible when it supports their argument. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. “Those who don’t work don’t eat”. “”Wives be obedient to your husbands.” Spare the rod and spoil the child”. (Actually that last one isn’t even in the Bible.)

The point is, we hear certain phrases over and over, and we are told they come from Scripture, and we internalize them without really knowing the context or where they come from or what they might really mean. And in doing so we go down this dangerous path where the Bible is the book full of one-liners that we can pull out when we need them, and not a book about a man who changed everything. And today’s lectionary reading is no exception.

Today’s Scripture passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a series of teachings Jesus gave after he was baptized. And this sermon contains a lot of the phrases of Scripture you may know: the meek shall inherit the earth. Be perfect as your Father is perfect. Blessed are the peacemakers. Our Father who art in heaven.

And it contains this phrase that I’m sure you’ve heard before. Jesus starts this passage saying, “You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Turn the other cheek. You’ve heard that before, right? Maybe as a kid you got in a fight with a brother or sister and your parents told you to be the bigger person, to turn the other cheek? It’s come to mean “brush it off” or “ignore it” to us. And maybe that doesn’t sound half bad sometimes.

But sometimes that line gets used in some dangerous ways. Once years ago I was doing some pastoral care with a woman who was being abused by her husband. And when I would ask her what her plan to get out of this abuse was, she would tell me “well, Jesus says to just turn the other cheek”.

At its worst his passage has come to mean a sort of passivity in the face of what is very wrong. An acceptance of being mistreated and degraded. Even a sort of self-destructiveness…you’ve hit me once, so hit me again.

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus ever meant it to be. A Biblical scholar by the name of Walter Wink talked about this passage in his writings and he clarified the context a bit. He talked about how for those who were slaves, who were considered to have less rights than others, those in authority would strike them when angry by hitting them with the back of their hand on their right cheek. They wouldn’t hit them with a fist, or on their left cheek, because they wouldn’t even hit them directly. Even the manner of violence suggested that the person being hit was less than human.

And so when Jesus says, “turn the other cheek” he’s saying something powerful. It’s not “let them hit you again”. It’s, “make them see that you are their equal, and that if they are going to hit you, they have to at least acknowledge what they are doing. It’s a powerful way of changing the conversation. The one who is seen as subhuman refuses to be seen that way anymore. In the moment of attack, they claim their whole humanity.

And that is a big part of what Jesus’ message was. His followers were generally not powerful people. Some of them were people who had been oppressed their whole lives. They didn’t have much. Some were slaves. Some were very poor. All were subject to a brutal Roman regime and corrupt religious authorities. These were the powerless. These were people who knew what it was like to be struck on the right cheek.

What Jesus is saying is that you are not lesser anymore. Maybe you cannot change the way that the authorities treat you. At least not yet. But you can claim your whole worth as a beloved child of God, created as equal as anyone else. This is not a divine call towards being a doormat. This is a divine reminder that you are God’s creation.

It’s a pretty radical message when you think of it. It’s one that subverts everything, and changes the game. I think of the woman I counseled. I think of the children I saw when I was a hospital chaplain who were brought into the ER after being abused by parents. I think of people who have been treated as lesser for any reason, and I hear “turn the other cheek”. And now I know that it’s not Jesus saying “take it”. I know it’s Jesus saying, “refuse to take this anymore”.

Now, I want to be clear about what this is not. This is about claiming your full humanity and not being mistreated. But this is not “stand your ground” Jesus. This is not Jesus saying escalate the situation. This is not Jesus saying choose violence. Jesus does not tell his disciples, “if anyone hits you on the right cheek, deliver a stiff right hook to their left.”

See, Jesus is better than that. And Jesus wants better than that for us. He preceded the line about turning the other cheek by saying “you have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and then he presents “turn the other cheek” as an alternative. We love quoting “an eye for an eye” in our culture. We want to see the one who hurts others get theirs. But Jesus himself says, “wait…there’s a better way”.

Walter Wink calls this “Jesus’ third way of nonviolent resistance”. He cites many examples of people from Ghandi to Desmond Tutu to Martin Luther King as examples of this. They all refused to embrace the ways of the people who oppressed them and saw their people as lesser. But they all also refused to extract an eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.

What Dr. Wink calls “nonviolent resistance” I simply call refusing to stoop down and claim the ways of the bullies and abusers and oppressors of the world. I call it claiming the image of God in ourselves. We are not to be abused, and we are not to become abusers of God’s creation either. We are better than that. And we have to find better ways of responding.

When I was a junior in college, 20 years old, very early one morning the phone rang in my dorm room. My roommate answered and I could hear across the room that my mom on other line. And my roommate said, “Hang on, hang on…she’s right here.” And when I got on the phone my mom sounded scared to death, and she said, “Were you in the bombing?”

In the middle of the night, at a gay club only a few miles away, a bomb had gone off. I had known before that moment that there were people who hated people like me. But until that moment I hadn’t really understood that some of them wanted us dead.

In the aftermath I’m sure there were a few hot-heads in my community who wanted to retaliate with violence. But their voices didn’t win out. And there were those too who wanted to hide, and who thought that they would be safe by never going back out. But here’s what most of us did. We went and stood in vigil as close as we could get to the site of the bombing.

And that night we went to all the other gathering places of our community. We gathered in larger crowds than I’d ever seen before. We gathered to say that a bomb planted in cowardice in a dumpster would never make us too afraid to claim our humanity. Refused to be treated as lesser. But refused to stoop down to the level of those who hated us too. Had we, it would have done us more harm than good in the end.

I tell you that story as an example. Because I think things like that bombing still happen everyday. Sometimes on that level, with that amount of news coverage, and sometimes not. Sometimes we never hear about them, but they blow lives apart just the same.

Our job as Christians in the world is to see everyone as a child of God, as a part of God’s creation. And it is to stand with those who are being treated as anything less than that. That means people who are being discriminated against, yes. But that also means people who are living with violence. Children who don’t have enough to eat. Teenagers who are being bullied. Elders who are being neglected. Young people fighting addiction in our Valley, and there are many, who are being targeted by heroin dealers. The ones who are constantly in life being struck on their right cheeks.

Our job is to make sure, first, that we are not the ones doing the striking. And then, to stand in solidarity and to turn the other cheek and say “you don’t get to treat people like that anymore”. You don’t get to do that because they are children of God. And, and maybe this is what they need to hear the most, you don’t get to do that because YOU are a child of God. And God created you for something better.

This week I’ve been watching the news coming out of the Ukraine, and there have been a few images that have moved me profoundly. Clergy of both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions have been out in the streets, praying with both sides, and anointing the dying. They’ve been opening sanctuaries for those who have been wounded. And, most dramatically, in one situation they stood between protesters and armed forces, refusing to let the unarmed be hurt. They literally risked life and limb to make others see the true humanity in one another. They turned the other cheek, and they taught others how to do the same.

So, how are you going to turn the other cheek? First in your own life, but then as a person who lives in a larger community. How are you going to help turn the other cheek when you see something wrong happening? How are you going to turn the other cheek and demand the full humanity of all of God’s children? How are you going to turn the other cheek and change the game for everyone?

Christ himself has called us to nothing less. Because Christ himself has prepared a better way for us. We need this. Our community needs this. Our world needs this. Let’s get ready, and let’s follow him.

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.

Flying Out Over Boston: Some Thoughts on Marriage Equality and the End of DOMA

We are flying out today, over Boston, the city where marriage equality got its start. We are flying out over Old South Church, the place where we were married. We are flying in to California, a place where yesterday morning our marriage wasn’t legal. And we are flying to General Synod, the biannual meeting of the United Church of Christ, the church that recognized our marriage before the federal government ever did.

Our marriage certificate from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is packed in my bag. I don’t know why. I know it’s not rational, but I just want to keep it close this week.

Yesterday morning it sat on our coffee table as my wife and I did what we have been doing on many mornings for the last two weeks. With MSNBC on the television, and SCOTUSblog pulled up on the laptop, we sat next to each other on the couch holding hands and praying.

When the decision on DOMA came in, it took our breath away and we broke down sobbing. In a good way. I have never cried for joy harder than I did yesterday morning. My father texted us: One down.

It took seven months and nine days after our wedding for the federal government to recognize our marriage. Every day was a day too long, but we are so aware that we were some of the lucky ones. Couples we know who have been married for years felt the full weight of discrimination for so much longer. And then there are the couples we have known who had at least one partner who didn’t live to see federal marriage equality. We mourned for them yesterday.

Yesterday I thought about all the same-sex couples whose marriages I have officiated as a pastor. I thought about two of our closest friends who were married in Massachusetts and who are welcoming twin boys in a few weeks. Their sons will never know a country that does not recognize their moms’ marriage as equal.

I thought about two other friends from Maine who had to be married in Massachusetts because their state did not yet recognize equal marriage at the time. And I thought about two men I married from California last month who will now return with a marriage that will be honored.

And I thought about all those couples from the South who have flown to Vermont in order to have a legal marriage that they knew would mean very little in their home states. I thought about friends I grew up with back home. They are still waiting, and we won’t forget them.

Last night, as I do many summer evenings in Vermont, I went fly fishing. There was a group of high school students swimming nearby. They were celebrating the end of DOMA and talking about what it meant.

When they got close I told them that my wife and my marriage had become federally recognized that day. They smiled and cheered and congratulated me. And they told me that for most of their friends and classmates, equality is a no-brainer. As one young man told me, in fifty years we are not going to believe that we had to debate this.

That gives me hope, because I can’t imagine having a similar discussion during my high school years. I know the world is changing.

Yesterday my wife and I began to jokingly call each other “Federally Recognized Spouse”. As in, “Federally Recognized Spouse, are you coming back downstairs?” We talked about needing to file an amended 2012 tax return. We then spent the rest of the day working on our gay agenda of doing laundry and packing for our trip. But, lightheartedness aside, when we went to sleep last night we did so a little more equal than we had woken up that morning.

Today, flying out with her at my side, I know that we are only traveling towards a more equal future, and that God’s love is there and that it has been with us all along.

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The End of Exodus International is Not the End of the Ex-Gay Movement

imagesAlan Chambers, president of prominent ex-gay ministry Exodus International, made headlines this week with his public statement of apology and announcement that his organization will close. The closure of Exodus has elicited celebrations from the LGBTQ community and allies who have long known the harm being done in God’s name by groups like this. And while there is indeed cause for rejoicing, we must also remember that the struggle is not over.

Exodus was probably the most well-known reparative therapy ministry in the country. Exodus taught that gays and lesbians could either change or repress their sexual attractions through a process of prayer and counseling. So its disappearance is a major change in the ex-gay ministry landscape.

But in the cities and towns of this country, the ideas behind Exodus’ ministry continue to thrive. In my own community there are churches that teach that gays and lesbians can change their sexual orientation. Or, they argue that being gay is like having an addiction: you can just choose not to partake in the thing that causes you to “sin”.

Even fairly mainstream groups like “Celebrate Recovery”, a resource created by Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church that is used in many churches and billed as a Christian alternative to Twelve Step programs like AA, teaches that gays and lesbians can change. Exodus may have closed, but their ideas are still going strong, and they may even be thriving in your hometown.

In some ways, this is even more dangerous than Exodus International. While Exodus remained in business, those of us in the LGBTQ community could point to them as a clear example of dubious practices. Their assertions that being gay was a choice, or the result of childhood trauma, or distant fathers, were fairly easily disputed. Their practices of teaching gays and lesbians to put rubber bands around their wrists and flick them when they experiences a same-sex attraction were ridiculous. In a way, they were so public and so easy to dismiss that they did those of us who believe ex-gay therapy is deadly a huge favor. They were their own worst press.

Now reparative therapy has gone underground. But it hasn’t gone away. Not yet, at least. But it needs to, or else it will kill more LGBTQ youth and young adults.

One of the favorite quotes of those who believe in reparative therapy is that God “loves the sinner but hates the sin”. The idea is that God loves the gay or lesbian person, but hates their “sin” of acting on their same-sex attraction. So, a gay or lesbian person who engages in relationships with others of the same-sex are much like an alcoholic who continues to drink. God may still love that alcoholic, but God hates their drinking.

It has always struck me as an odd analogy. Because when I think about the best comparison between gays and alcoholic it is not between an active alcoholic and a gay person who accepts themselves. Instead it is between an active alcoholic and a gay person who is doing everything they can to reject themselves. In both cases the person is doing all they can to destroy who they are, and to bury their true selves.

Recovery comes in many forms. And that’s why true health, and truly living into God’s love for us, comes when we stop trying to destroy ourselves, through addiction or through a refusal to accept ourselves, and instead come out. We come out of addiction. We come out of the closet. We come out of the secret places where we have been kept, and come into a world where we are no longer kept captive by fear or addiction.

This is the business of “change” that I wish more Christian churches would claim as their work. Instead of the pastor telling the gay high school kid that he just needs to pray harder, what would it look like if the pastor instead affirmed them and talked about loving themselves enough to make healthy relationship choices? Instead of pressuring the young woman who felt attracted to other women into a loveless marriage that will end in divorce, what if Christian counselors instead supported a marriage to which she could actually commit herself? And instead of telling the parents of a gay kid that there was hope because their son could change, why not tell them that there is hope because they have a kid who knows who he is in the world?

When I was 18 years old I walked into the office of my college chaplain expecting nothing but judgment. The fact I expected judgement is not surprising: I had grown up just outside Orlando, the headquarters of Exodus International. But when I told him I was gay the first thing he did was tell me that he affirmed me, just as I was, and that God still loved me. All these years later, I know that first time coming out to a Christian clergyperson made all the difference in my journey. I have often thought about what might have happened had I walked into a different clergyperson’s office. I’m thankful that I didn’t. And I mourn for all the LGBTQ people who did, and who ended up at places like Exodus.

We can’t let this happen anymore. One giant of reparative therapy may be gone, but the movement is not. Now the struggle has come close to home, and you and I are on the front lines.

An Undesirable Role Model Prays for the Boy Scouts (And Does Their Paperwork)

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My own experience of local Scouting organizations has been very positive. The church I pastor is a charter organization for two Boy Scout units, a Boy Scout Troop and a Cub Scout pack. The parents are great, the kids are enthusiastic, and the leaders are hard working. And I know a lot of them disagree with the current national stance of the Boy Scouts of America.

Every year, though, that policy hits home for me in a particular way. There are forms that each adult leader must fill out in order to be an official volunteer. As the pastor of my church, the chartering organization, I have to sign off on each one attesting to their moral fitness to serve as Scout leaders or badge counselors.

But the funny thing is that while the Boy Scouts trust that I have the moral fitness to determine the moral fitness of others, they do not trust that I have the moral fitness to be a Scout leader myself. The reason, simply, is because I am gay. And, as the Boy Scouts argued to the Supreme Court in 2000, “homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts”.

Does anyone else see the irony here?

My LGBT friends give me a hard time for being willing to work with the Boy Scouts. And, I get why. But, I also believe that for the boys and the young men of my area, this program has changed lives in positive ways. I do not wish to stand between the young people I know who love Scouting and the opportunities that Scouting offers to them. So each year I sign that paper and feel the bittersweetness of it all.

Part of the Boy Scouts resistance to leadership from gays and lesbians comes from the old, long disproven, idea that LGBT people will sexually abuse children. Despite all the scientific research to the contrary, despite the fact that most same-sex pedophiles identify as straight, and despite the fact that if that’s the real fear then lesbians shouldn’t even be a part of the discussion, the Scouts have refused to evolve.

Meanwhile, conservative religious movements and political groups have turned the Scouts into a political football, and celebrated them as their idea of a moral organization. But I don’t believe a moral organization would turn gay parents away from volunteering with their kids. And I don’t believe a moral organization would teach young people to work hard and then not treat them the same as everyone else. And I don’t believe a moral organization would make kids feel like they were second-class citizens. A lot of other people don’t either. But that hasn’t been enough to persuade the Boy Scouts. At least not yet.

And so, young men like Ryan Andersen, a Scout in California whose record is impressive enough that any Troop should be proud to claim him, finishes every requirement to be an Eagle Scout and then ends up being denied because he is gay. And young men like Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout with two lesbian moms, is forced to demonstrate the leadership skills he learned in Scouting by calling out his beloved organization over their policies. And in troops and packs across the country, boys and young men have to choose between hiding who they are in order to participate, or coming out and getting booted out.

The sad thing is that, at their core, I believe the Boy Scouts are better than this. I believe that because I have seen Scouting at a local level, and it is a positive movement. Which means that when it comes to the real moral issues of our day, questions of respecting everyone, ending bullying, promoting service to others, and building up community, the national leadership of the Boy Scouts could be drawing upon their core values to help lead the way. Instead, they have stopped fighting for young people and have instead been fighting for an old, outdated, and dangerous policy.

And in the end the Boy Scouts will either change, or they will become a hopelessly out-of-touch anachronism. The decline in national membership (42 percent over the past 40 years by some figures) might be a harbinger of what is to come. When you lose sight of the mission, when you lose sight of the fact that you exist in order to strengthen the lives of all the kids that you serve, you lose your legacy, no matter how storied it might be. The Scouts don’t have much time to either do the right thing and claim that legacy, or to lose it forever.

In the meantime, this pastor who in the world of Scouting “does not provide a desirable role model” will just keep doing the paperwork and praying for change.

Scarier Than Westboro Baptist: Confronting Quiet Anti-Gay Rhetoric in Churches

In the wake of the recent shooting in Newtown, the Westboro Baptist Church, perennial anti-gay provocateurs, reached a new low. The group announced their intention to picket at the funerals of the children who had been killed, and blamed their deaths on Connecticut’s legalization of same-sex marriages.

The nation recoiled at the group’s plans, just as we have when they have shown up to picket at the funerals of Marines killed in Afghanistan or those who have died of AIDS. What they do is, all but the smallest fringe of us agree, absolutely reprehensible. Even those who oppose full civil rights for LGBT people can agree that what Westboro does goes far past the pale of what is socially acceptable.

The Westboro Baptist Church is the closest this country comes to agreeing on something that is “wrong” in America. And I agree that they are absolutely detestable. But the ironic thing is, when it comes to anti-gay rhetoric from churches, I am far less afraid of the Westboro Baptist Church than I am of little-known congregations all across the country. Maybe even one that’s in the town where you live.

You see, Westboro Baptist Church puts their prejudice right out there. It’s up there on the vulgar signs and in the press releases. It’s stated loud and clear in everything they do. They don’t hide their contempt for LGBT people. It’s right there.

But imagine this. Imagine you are a LGBT person who is looking for a church that will accept you. And so you find yourself looking at the webpage of a congregation down that street that says they “welcome all”. Maybe you even go to the church and talk to the pastor and ask if LGBT people are welcome there, and the pastor says “of course! We love everyone!”

Now, there’s a chance that they really mean you are welcome. As in, welcome to come in and be who you are and be accepted and affirmed. That’s true of a growing number of Christian churches.

But there’s another possibility too. One that far too many LGBT people face. After being initially welcomed by a congregation, it doesn’t take too long for the truth to come out. They are still welcome to worship, but the church believes that their sexual orientation, their “lifestyle” or “choice”, is a sin.

In one-on-one counseling with the pastor they are told that their homosexuality is the same as an alcoholic’s addiction. They aren’t sinners for being attracted to others of the same sex, but they must learn to not act on those feelings, the same way an alcoholic may obtain sobriety. Maybe they’ll even be referred to so-called “reparative therapy” meant to change their sexual attractions. And all the while, they are told that the church loves them. That they are called as Christians to “love the sinner” but “hate the sin”.

In happens all the time. When a church not far from me moved to town they wrote on their blog that part of their draw to Vermont was that other churches here were “embracing liberal theology such as universalism and homosexuality”. Yet on the ground, this isn’t mentioned, even when they try to recruit LGBT people to attend their services with a “we welcome all” attitude.

And, unlike the Westboro Baptist Church, I believe that they really believe that they love gay people. And that’s why they’re so dangerous. Because it’s often the harm that churches do to gay people out of a misguided “love” that becomes truly dangerous.

Most of us can look at the Westboro Baptist Church and know that they are preaching a distorted Gospel. But when it comes to the gay kid being raised in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” church or the adult woman who finally works up the courage to talk to their “welcoming” pastor about being a lesbian, there is a real danger of pastoral malpractice with potentially deadly results.

I want my anti-gay preaching right out there in the open. I hate what the Westboro signs say, but I appreciate knowing that anyone who sees them will know exactly what they are dealing with when they see them. I want these churches that proclaim a “welcome” to gays and lesbians to be really clear about what the conditions of that welcome actually entail. I want them to tell the truth: we will never affirm who you are, we will never officiate at your marriage, and we will never accept that God made you who you were and wouldn’t want you to be alone. That’s just basic honesty, and that’s the least that one should be able to expect from our pastors.

For now, though, plenty of us who are pastors practice a sort of downstream ministry. Once the harm has been done by churches that claim to be welcoming, and once the people who they have harmed have recovered just enough to go out on the limb and try to explore faith again, we open the doors and say “no really…you really are welcome and affirmed here…just as you are.”

It’s amazing how long it takes until people who have been badly wounded by a church in the past actually believe it. But when they do, it often feels like coming home. I just wish more of them could find that home without being misled on their journey there.

How Not to Be an Ally: 5 Reminders for Christian Clergy Working for Equality

  1. You don’t understand.

This is not meant in a hostile way. It’s just a reminder. If you are not LGBTQ, you have not lived the reality of being LGBTQ. You may empathize, but that’s different than being LGBTQ. Here’s a parallel. I’m not African-American. I may work tirelessly against racism, and do my best to understand the African-American experience, but I will never fully understand what it is to grow up as anything other than white in this country.

You may be the best ally in the world, with all the LGBTQ friends you could hope for, but until you are the 13 year old kid who gets beat up for being gay, or the 22 year old who has to leave their church, or the 40 year old who is denied a marriage license, or the 50 year old who can’t afford top surgery, or the 65 year old who can’t collect a partner’s Social Security, you will never understand exactly what it is to be LGBTQ.

2. You will sometimes pay a price for doing the right thing. We pay a price everyday.

Yes, it’s true. Your support of us will sometimes cost you. You might not get the big steeple church. You might not be able to serve as a church official. You might even end up in jail from time to time. The blessing is that these will be occasional situations for you. They are daily realities for us. When something like this happens, it will feel tragic. But for perspective, put it in the context of the greater, even more tragic, reality of the inequalities in our country.

There’s a story about this. John Lewis once was working with a group of white clergy who were going to be arrested for civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement. His job was to bail them out immediately upon arrest. The ministers would then be heroically received. Except he didn’t bail them out. He decided to wait a while. He wanted them to truly understand their privilege and the fact that their jail cell was temporary. The jail cell of racism never opened. Remember that what you are doing is right. Maybe even brave. But it’s not heroic. Virtue is its own reward.

3. Let us define ourselves.

Please don’t put your labels on our reality. Two women who are together are not necessarily a “lesbian couple”. A man who has sex with another man may not identify as gay. Someone who is gender non-conforming might identify as trans. Or they might not. We might proudly claim words you don’t feel comfortable using: queer, butch, femme, etc. Those words come from our struggle and our reality. When you say, “oh, don’t call yourself that” we hear it as “I am not comfortable with you”. When you call our marriage a “union” we hear “separate but equal”. Words matter, and letting those who are not as privileged as you choose their own words matters more.

Here’s another example: When you lead worship, do you ever divide the voices up into the “men” and the “women”? Recently I attended a church with an active outreach to the LGBT community, and a few trans members, some of whom were still not out about the fact they were considering transitioning. When we were asked to sing along gender binary lines, some of them were put on the spot in a highly uncomfortable way. Try not to box us in using your understanding of sex and gender. Talk to us. We’ll tell you what works.

4. Whenever possible, listen…don’t talk.

Which leads me to my next point: listen. We have spent much of our life not being able to speak our truth. Now that we can, please let us do it. That’s not to say that we don’t want to dialogue with you or listen to your journey about how you became an ally. It’s just saying that we are often the best ones to speak to our realities.

Recently I was sitting at a table with clergy members, all of whom were allies. One ally was talking about what LGBTQ’s wanted around gay marriage (mainly just civil benefits). Not only did I not agree with him, but most LGBTQ people would not. Another ally graciously interrupted and pointed out that since there was a LGBTQ person at the table, perhaps that person could speak to what marriage meant to us better than an ally. It was a great moment of grace that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

5. Remember we are not a monolithic group

There are so many different identities in the LGBTQ alphabet. There’s a beauty in that diversity that doesn’t come out when one person is chosen to represent us all. A gay man does not understand what it means to be a lesbian. A lesbian does not understand what it is to be trans (unless they are trans themselves). A trans person doesn’t understand what it is to be bi (again, unless they are themselves). Each group has specific concerns and realities. Resist the urge to lump us together as one.

Likewise, remember that we don’t always have the same ideas on how the LGBT community should achieve our goals. Many clergy allies proudly show me their HRC t-shirts and equal stickers, for instance. I really appreciate the fact they are trying to visibly show their support, but I wonder if they realize that many LGBT people, particularly trans folks, would rather gnaw off their right arms than give to HRC? Other LGBTQ folks love them. But ask us who, and what, we would support, and why. It will tell you more about our community.

Finally, remember we love you. Every civil rights movement needs allies, and we are grateful for you. I only mention these things because there are times when well-meaning allies can become roadblocks on the path to the full equality of LGBTQ people. They’re principles I try to put in practice when I advocate for groups that I am not a member of, and they’ve served me well. I hope they might serve you as well. Until all children of God are equal, peace be with you.

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.