For a while now, I've been pondering a question and lacking the nerve to raise it in public. But today I'm inspired by a courageous and thoughtful essay over at Leaning Toward Justice. In his "Comments on Moving Forward in the Church," Jeff (whom I don't know, except as a reader of his blog) courageously raises a question that, he acknowledges, "is bound to stir up a bunch of heated anger from my GLBT brothers and sisters." That's been the source of my hesitation, too: concern not just about the response of lesbians and gay men, but of the many courageous straight folks who have been very articulate supporters.
Here's the problem I have. I hear many important groups like Integrity and Claiming the Blessing argue that full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in our church is "a justice issue." And many of the people I value very greatly in our church also say "It's a justice issue."
But I don't get it. And I wonder: What memo did I not get that I still don't "get" this argument? (By the way, I also never got my own copy of the homosexual agenda, so – obviously – I'm not on the really significant mailing lists.)
It seems to me that the people of God should indeed be working for justice in the civil arena. Dr. King immediately springs to mind as a person who, working out of a deep spiritual base, called for greater justice in our nation's laws. When Christians work through legislative mechanisms for social policies and funding that are "just," I believe they are doing the work of our Lord. Some draw upon their spiritual resources to work on the "liberal" side, and some – drawing from equally valid depths of concern – work on the "conservative" side. [Thanks, TomF, for making me recognize that.] In such cases, the individual's spirituality informs his or her civic action. I understand that. And so I understand that many Christians should and do call for an end to legislation that deprives gay people of civil rights. As Jeff wrote: "I couldn’t agree more that the church needs to be on the front lines of justice."
Conversely, I am way beyond appalled when supposedly Christian leaders advocate the abridgement of civil rights. As people like Dobson and Phelps do in our country, and as Akinola is doing most egregiously in Nigeria. I see no difference between their work and the work of those passing Sharia laws in predominantly-Muslim countries. When church doctrine begins to govern civil society, we are in for nothing but trouble. But I digress . . .
It seems to me that when the Hebrew prophets like Amos and Micah called for "justice to roll down like mighty waters," they were calling for a society in which justice would prevail. Amen to them! Surely it is our call as Christians to see that the "least of these" are cared for. It is our job to see that the weak are protected and that dignity is afforded to all people, since all are created in God's image.
Then I turn to the situation within the church – and more specifically, within our own Episcopal Church. Jeff put it quite clearly when he wrote: "I do not for one minute think we should sit back and yield any of our equality. I just wonder whether or not the church is the right place to be talking about it in such black and white terms."
Let me cut to the chase: I do not see how it is "a justice issue" for this middle-aged lesbian to be allowed to serve as a crucifer or Eucharistic minister or member of the vestry. I don't see how it is a "justice" issue that gay men and lesbians be ordained as deacons and priests or consecrated as bishops. I don't see how it is a "justice" issue if I should find my beloved and seek the church's blessing upon our union. I believe it is a scriptural issue, a biblical issue, and a spiritual issue. But I still fail to see how it is a "justice" issue.
"Justice" is something I seek and which I hope to receive in the civic realm. It's a matter of governance and polity and "rights" and protection from oppression in the civic realm.
But my life within my church is not about "rights." In the church, I seek spiritual discernment and charity – not justice. If arguments are to be made – and they have been, and it appears that still more must be made – for allowing gay people to participate fully in the life and sacraments of the church, then should they not be made from scriptural and spiritual bases, rather than from claims of "justice"?
And it seems to me that such scriptural arguments have indeed been made. To Set our Hope on Christ made the arguments. So did the Claiming the Blessing Theology Statement. Authors and theologians like Peter Gomes and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have searched the Scriptures, and found no prohibition for full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in our church and in all orders of ministry.
Further, I think more and more people in our church have changed their minds after spiritual discernment and seeking. Parish by parish and person by person, individuals' perceptions have been transformed as they have become acquainted with faithful Christians who are gay and compared those lives with the Biblical record. They have rightly perceived the "fruits of the Spirit" in their Christian brothers and sisters who happen to be gay, and hearts and minds have been transformed and opened. I certainly have been blessed to see that happening even within my parish.
Paul makes a wise observation: "Fighting only keeps people where they are – it does not help move our agenda forward over the long term, even though it may yield short-term advances."
I'll close with a few other excerpts from his blog:
But the church is a place to build relationships, not tear them down. The next logical question, of course, is how we, as GLBT people, can build up our own relationships when we do not have full equality. What is our recourse when the church that is supposed to work for justice doesn’t do that?
Again, I think it is to work relationally. It is working for the long-term, laying the foundation for change and trusting the Holy Spirit to work within our enemies to embrace those changes over the long-term.
Yield equality? Never. God created all of us, and the church has a responsibility to work to ensure that we are all treated with justice. End the discussion and start acting? Not if it means that the foundation for the church–community and spiritual development for all, even those whom it is painful or inconvenient for us to accept–is diminished. But absolutely if it means acting in a Christian manner and finding a solution which can provide both community and justice– I believe that is the prophetic framework of the church that God intends for us to seek. We just haven’t worked hard enough at finding it.At the risk of making many people angry, I ask: What is the distinction between civil rights and the justice of scripture? And how do we solve such a thorny question within our church?
I expect many of you have thought more deeply about this matter than I have. I hope you'll help me understand the basis from which those who say "It's a justice issue!" are speaking within our church.
I don't mean to be "breaking ranks." But, like Jeff, I fully expect to catch some flak by asking this question.
Addendum: What kind of synchronicity is happening in the liberal Episcopalian blogosphere? Just after posting this piece, I read JM's latest post at Another Episcopalian Blog; JM has had a Solomonic dream. Let's keep talking.