Don’t Be Upset about Nashville

Tolerance of a belief ends when it leads to harmful action.

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In the midst of relief efforts underway in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released what they have called the Nashville Statement. Named for the city in which it was written, it’s a 14-point declaration on human sexuality.

If you know anything about the CBMW or the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission which hosted the CBMW at its annual conference, then you can probably guess what the Statement says. Naturally, it caused quite a stir on social media, and many friends and colleagues of mine have publicly spoken out against it.

But for those of us in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t be so upset about the Nashville Statement.

It’s nothing new.

The Nashville statement isn’t groundbreaking. None of the views it espouses are new teachings, or even new interpretations of old teachings. It required no theological discernment to write and doesn’t go into any depth (just like the Biblical interpretation that informs it). Many evangelical and fundamentalist churches hold to these same views. The Statement even acknowledges this lack of originality.

It says there are only two sexes (and that those “in between” physically must adhere to one or the other), gender is identical to biological sex, sex is solely for procreation, and cisgenderism and heterosexuality are the only gender identifications and sexualities created by God. Old hat, nothing revolutionary.

On many fundamental facts, it’s just plain wrong.

It’s based on a tired, shallow reading of the Bible. It also outright denies basic facts about humanity, sexuality, genetics, and science that have been known and proven for decades now. We know that in addition to visibly male and visibly female, there are people who visibly don’t conform to either side of the sex binary. There are XX and XY chromosome combinations (what we consider “female” and “male”), but also XXY, XO, and mutations that cause some XX to develop severely masculine features and some XY to develop female internal sex organs or features–all of which are associated with the term “intersex”.

The statement mischaracterizes the nature of homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, asexuality, queerness, genderfluidity, genderqueerness, and even heterosexuality. It relies on the “absence of evidence” informal fallacy in determining what is and what is not acceptable, which is a fallacy for a reason. It completely ignores decades of careful research around these questions. Frankly, the statement is not just narrow-minded in its understanding of theology, but also in its understanding of facts.

Finally, you shouldn’t be upset about the Nashville Statement because the ELCA accepts it.

Shocking, right? But go ahead and read Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, the ELCA’s social statement on… well, human sexuality. This is usually the statement cited when people talk about how awful the ELCA is (along with our horrible, terrible, no good willingness to work with the Episcopal Church). And in the eyes of many who signed the Nashville Statement, that sentiment is justified.

The ELCA’s social statement on human sexuality says many commendable things. It acknowledges that sexuality is for more than simple procreation. It recognizes that marriages can become so toxic, harmful, and dangerous that divorce must follow. It lifts up that some in the church recognize the validity of what it calls “lifelong, publicly accountable, monogamous, same-gender relationships”. It affirms a wider spectrum of sexuality and gender identity than the Nashville Statement. It supports birth control!

But have you read it? Then you know that it says this:

The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman.

And this:

We further believe that this church, on the basis of  “the bound conscience,” will include these different understandings and practices within its life as it seeks to live out its mission and ministry in the world.

Which leads to this:

On the basis of  conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that same-gender sexual behavior is sinful, contrary to biblical teaching and their understanding of  natural law.  They believe same-gender sexual behavior carries the grave danger of  unrepentant sin.  They therefore conclude that the neighbor and the community are best served by calling people in same-gender sexual relationships to repentance for that behavior and to a celibate lifestyle.  Such decisions are intended to be accompanied by pastoral response and community support.

The reality is that while some (few) parts of Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust are supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, it fails in two spectacular ways. One isn’t really the statement’s fault: social statements in the ELCA aren’t enforceable laws. They are teaching documents that guide policy, but they aren’t binding on anyone. Everyone is free to disregard them if they wish.

But the biggest failure is that Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust goes through all of this effort to carefully discuss sexuality, then explicitly and intentionally says that the harmful views of the Nashville Statement are not only found in the church, but should be honored and celebrated.

In theory, this sounds like a good idea. All viewpoints are acknowledged, our inability to agree is acknowledged, and there is a (tacit) commitment to continuing dialogue.

But this is what it looks like in practice: LGBTQ+ individuals routinely denied entrance to the candidacy process; LGBTQ+ candidates for ministry routinely denied interviews with congregations, or refused interviews by congregations; congregations refusing to allow their pastors to carry out the duties of their office for LGBTQ+ couples; LGBTQ+ individuals cast out of the community; all in the name of “bound conscience”. All of this is explicitly allowed in the church.

Tolerance of a belief ends when it leads to harmful action. And that’s what the ELCA allows. Our church explicitly allows discrimination against and the abuse of LGBTQ+ individuals because “bound conscience” protects not only attitudes, but actions that follow them. None of this is hypothetical–it happens, and the church condones it.

So yes. Continue the fight against the bad theology and science behind the Nashville Statement. We need to do better. We must do better. We didn’t sign the Nashville Statement. But it’s a little hypocritical to get too outraged by it when we allow its teachings in our own church.

Featured Image: “Flag Day” by Jglsongs is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Take Heart

And it’s important to call white supremacy out for what it is: evil. It’s important to call it out as absolutely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

1 Kings 19:1-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

For two days in a row now, I have walked around feeling very much like Elijah.

For two nights in a row now, I have gone to bed feeling very much like the disciples.

For 48 hours, I have been afraid. I have known fear. And so we’re going to talk about fear.

Fear is generally defined as a rational, unpleasant feeling that is a response to a perceived or real threat to a person. It is one of our most very basic emotions, a primal response to stimuli in our surroundings, that causes us to either try to escape from the danger, confront it, or freeze.

Rational fears help keep us alive by keeping us out of danger. Irrational fears are called phobias, and they are responses to stimuli that aren’t dangerous, but are still perceived to be. The fear of getting shot when someone is holding a gun to your head is a rational fear. The fear that your goldfish is going to hurt you is an irrational fear, a phobia: and it even has a name, ichthyophobia.

Fear permeates our scripture readings this morning. Elijah is running away because he’s afraid. It’s a rational fear: he has every good reason to be afraid. He has just executed as many prophets of Baal as he could, prophets loved by Queen Jezebel, who also worshiped Baal. And he has just received a message from the Queen basically saying, “I swear on my life: because you killed my prophets, expect that by tomorrow, I will have killed you, too.”

I don’t know about you, but if the leader of my country sent me a message saying that they were going to use all of their power and authority to have me killed by tomorrow, I’d be terrified too.

In response to this well-founded, rational fear, fear for his life, Elijah runs. He runs for over forty days, so far away that he ends up in the desert, at the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb, where God met the Israelites after liberating them from slavery and formed the covenant with them. Here, he hopes he can finally be out of reach of Queen Jezebel and her vengeance. Thinking himself the only person left in the kingdom faithful to God, he hopes that here, God will keep him safe.

The disciples, too, experience their share of fear. They have gotten into a boat, on a lake, and are caught in a storm. Now, I’ve never been in that exact situation—perhaps some of you have, and can attest to the horror of it. But my wife is a big fan of Deadliest Catch, and I’ve seen clips of their boats caught in storms, and it is the last place I’d want to be.

I once made a hobby of studying the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald—the real event, not the song. I know the names of ships like the Carl D. Bradley; or the Argus, and the Henry B. Smith, just a few of the 19 ships destroyed and 19 ships stranded during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, resulting in the loss of more than 250 lives. Being on the water during a storm is a terrifying experience, and a very rational fear.

It’s no surprise then that the disciples, caught in this perilous situation, think that the sight of Jesus walking towards them across the water is actually a ghost. And it’s no surprise that they cry out in fear. It’s a rational response to the danger they found themselves in.

Of course, we know that fear is alive and well in our world today. It’s been brought into sharp focus over the last 48 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia, so much so that I, too, am afraid.

Friday night, hundreds of white supremacists bearing torches, intentionally calling to mind images of hooded KKK members marching with their torches in the heyday of the Klan, marched on the campus of the University of Virginia. They shouted “Sieg heil!” and “Blood and soil!”, two slogans of the Nazi party. They shouted “White Lives Matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”. They fought with counter-protesters, and the police had to break up the fights.

They surrounded St. Paul’s Memorial Church, where the Charlottesville Clergy Collective held a prayer meeting and had set up a station to help care for people wounded during the protest, and the people inside held each other in fear that the hatred shouting and marching past their door would burst through it at any moment to attack those hiding inside.

Yesterday morning, hundreds more white supremacists marched on Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. They waved Nazi flags, the symbol of one of the worst perpetrators of genocide in modern history. They waved Confederate flags, symbols of an army whose sole purpose was to fight for the right of white Americans to own Africans and African Americans as property, as slaves. They came armed in camouflage body armor bearing assault weapons, claiming to be militias sent to “protect the peace.”

In an act of domestic terrorism, a car drove straight into a crowd of people opposing the white supremacists, killing one and injuring nineteen others. More than a dozen others were injured in skirmishes across the day. The governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, has declared a state of emergency so that he can mobilize state resources to deal with the crisis.

People are afraid. They are terrified. And they have good reason to be. The KKK used to wear hoods to hide their identity when they burned crosses on people’s lawns and lynched them. Now they and other white supremacists who share their ideology of hate walk and chant openly, spewing their hate and bigotry with pride. They have been empowered and emboldened to share their hate. And they are acting on it.

Like Elijah fleeing in terror because the one with all the power sought to use that power to hurt him; like the disciples caught in a storm that they alone couldn’t resist, the targets of the hatred of these white supremacists—of this evil—are afraid: genuinely, rationally, in fear.

And I am afraid–afraid of the truth that my own silence makes me complicit. That our own silence allows this to continue. That we as white Americans have a lot of work to do, and most of us are unwilling to do it.

Contrast that with the phobia—the irrational fear—of the white supremacists. A friend of mine, a deacon in our own ELCA, reported last night that one of his wife’s students in Ohio expressed that he was afraid of black people because he was taught that they were violent. He’s in the first grade. It doesn’t take long for the hate of white supremacy to take root when it’s being taught to our children.

And it’s important to call white supremacy out for what it is: evil. It’s important to call it out as absolutely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because white supremacy has in the past, and continues today, to be supported by perverted interpretations of the Gospel. Yes, people still use the Bible to justify white supremacy. When Christians do not speak up against hatred and evil like white supremacy, our silence speaks for us. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when we don’t want to offend. Even and especially when we’re part of the problem. Despite a supposed dedication to diversity, the ELCA is the second-least diverse church in the country. Thirty years after our formation as a church, we are still over 96% white. Why do you think that is? We need to speak out against sin and evil, especially when it’s this important.

And it is important. It’s important because, as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, which we read this morning:

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

The only way the good news of Jesus Christ will be heard is if we speak up. Is if we shout it. Is if we confront the ways in which it is warped, perverted, and twisted to serve sin and evil.

But why here? Why today? Why do we have to talk about it today? This isn’t Virginia. This is Wisconsin. We don’t have any connection to those folks over there, do we?

But we do. Just as Paul reminds us, “the same Lord is Lord of all”. We are Christians. We are part of the church that exists beyond our walls—which is where the vast, vast majority of the church exists.

We do, because the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

This is the same Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963:

“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevances and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of… racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say, ‘These are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ Yes, I love the church… but oh, how we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect.”

Because it is true, what the eminent theologian the Reverend Karl Barth once said about preaching: that it is done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, interpreting current events through the lens of Christ. And Christians need to stand up to white supremacy just as much now as they did when the Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonhoeffer did during the Nazi regime, and was martyred for it.

Because if we do not speak up and proclaim the Gospel, who will? If we do not speak to those living in fear, like Elijah and the disciples were, who will?

It is up to us. It is our responsibility. It is our calling to be lights in the darkness, to be the cake baked on hot stones and water that strengthened Elijah; to be the great wind, earthquake, fire, and sound of sheer silence that draws attention to God’s presence; to be the voices that calm the storm and remind those living in the grip of such terror that, like Elijah and the disciples, they are not alone; that there are other voices that stand with them.

…That God is present with them.

…That we worship the same Jesus who said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

…That following the example of Jesus Christ, Christians have spent millenia standing up to oppression and injustice, for just like preaching, what good is the Gospel if it doesn’t affect people’s lives?

And that’s exactly what people have been doing—affecting their lives by bringing the kingdom of God with them. As many white supremacists as there were in Charlottesville this weekend, there were many more people there to stand up to them, including hundreds of Christians, lay and clergy, from all across the country. They gathered there to dispel hatred and fear, to stand up to oppression. They prayed. They sang. They marched. They worshiped. They healed–literally, physically helped the injured get well. They stood between different groups of protesters to shield them from harm. They spoke.

They put the good news of Jesus Christ into action. They lived out what it looked like to be the kingdom of heaven here on earth. When we pray, “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven”, this is what we pray for. This is what we mean. Like a song by the Rend Collective goes:

“Build your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set your church on fire

Build your kingdom here.”

And you know what? The people of Charlottesville, Virginia–they heard. They saw. They heard the voice of God in the voices of hundreds of Christians as they sang and prayed. They saw God’s work in the hands of counter-protesters as they dragged the wounded out of the way, huddled with the afraid in the church, locked arms together to form barriers to protect those targeted by bigotry and hate.

They brought salvation with them this weekend. They proved that the ones in fear were not alone. They became angels, messengers of God, bringing word from all across the country that they were not alone. That thousands of voices—our voices—were with them. That our prayers were there. Our support was there. They brought comfort and peace to the heart of the storm.

Today, we too raise our voices in the name of peace. We too recall the salvation our Lord brought to the oppressed and the captive. We too stand in the way of sin and evil. We too acknowledge that we have a long way to go, and that the road before us is long, hard, uncomfortable. We too stand with our siblings in Christ as we proclaim to those in fear, all those in fear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Featured Image: “Congregate Charlottesville Contronts Unite the Right 20” by Stephen Melkisethian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. It depicts some of the counter-protesters, including clergy, who stood against the hate groups that were holding a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Prayfaithfully: The Resurrection and the Outcasts – Part 2

You never know how the Holy Spirit is going to shake things up.

“Prayfaithfully” is the prayer ministry website of the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I wrote the Daily Devotions for this week.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Text: Acts 2:17-18

“‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.’”

I confess to having a love/hate relationship with Peter. On the one hand, I can’t stand his pompousness, his smugness, his need to be right, his brashness, his betrayal, his denial, and his utter inability to understand a word Jesus says. Even when he accidentally stumbles on the right answer, such as declaring that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, he immediately blows it and gets chastised by Jesus right back. He’s probably the worst disciple of the lot—none of them really know what’s going on, but Peter always thinks he knows, especially when he doesn’t. Some days, I think it would be better to just put Peter in a room somewhere with a bunch of kiddie toys and not let him out until dinner.

But then you have days like Pentecost. On that day, around fifty days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit fills this misfit band of losers and dunces, manifested in the appearance of fire, and they go out into the streets. And Peter, the worst of the lot, the dunciest of dunces, gives a speech that includes the above text, itself taken from the prophet Joel. Peter is on fire; Peter is alive; Peter gets it; Peter is woke (well, mostly).

You never know how the Holy Spirit is going to shake things up. It’s easy for the church to do just what I did: to look down on people who aren’t totally “in line” with what our mental image of the church should be, to believe that people like “them” could never amount to anything. What an amazing surprise it is, then, when the Holy Spirit completely and totally upends our expectations, does something new and radical, and does it through the most unlikely people!

Let us pray: God of surprises, you took someone like Peter and made him a powerful preacher, teacher, leader, and evangelist for your Gospel. Mold us, imperfect as we are, as you see fit, to see visions, dream dreams, prophesy, and work for justice in a world just as imperfect as we are. In the name of your Son we pray. Amen.

Featured Image: “Jester Hat” by Ed Schipul is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.