March for Survival

September 19, 2014

Each of us can take steps to reduce our carbon footprint.  However, without changes made on the level of national and international policy, the level of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to rise to the point where less and less of the earth’s surface are hospitable to life- human, plant and animal.  No one wants this to happen.

Yet many of us feel immobilized by the scope and complexity of the problem.  We feel disempowered by a political system where key players on all sides are in bed with big oil.  It’s sort of like being on an out of control train, heading toward a deep ravine with no bridge.  We know disaster is coming.  We don’t know what to do to stop it.

Or at least…we didn’t know.  Next week, world leaders are meeting at the United Nations for a Climate Summit.  These are the folks who have the power to put on the brakes! In advance of the summit, there will be massive demonstration involving over 1400 different organizations and over 100,000 people in the streets of NYC.  Simultaneous demonstrations are planned around the world- including here in the Palouse, where the Palouse Environmental Sustainability Coalition (PESC) is planning a peaceful “March for Survival” on Sunday, September 21st.  (See www.sustainablepalouse.org for details.)

This is the moment when our bodies, our participation in these events, can make a difference.  Show up at the Quality Inn in Pullman at 2 pm and walk.  Show up at Friendship Square in Moscow at 6pm for a potluck, drumming, and speakers.  Help get the message across:  we want to stop this train, so that our children and our children’s children can have a future.

Things I Learned in Ferguson

September 4, 2014

Many people are writing and reporting on the events unfolding in Ferguson, MO. I am tempted to simply list some of the more accurate articles; after all, I am just a white chick who jetted in for the big Labor Day protest and jetted home again once it was over. However, I learned a ton while I was there. By writing about it, I hope to both help myself remember what I learned, and to share these insights with the folks who read my blog.

Lesson One:  Don’t believe what you see on television. I expected to witness chaos, devastation, and drama. Instead, I saw a community coming together to try to address deep systemic issues and individuals trying to get back to their normal lives. The looters got plenty of screen time; meanwhile, we haven’t heard or seen much about the local folks who shut the looters down, and protected local businesses with their bodies. Yes, many people are angry (see below) but things are not out of control. And the folks who restored order were, by and large, the people who live there – not the people with the badges, guns, tear gas and tanks.  

Lesson Two:  The protests in Ferguson are not just about what happened to Michael Brown. They’re not even about the outrageous, out-of-control militarized response to the initial protests.  Protesters are hoping to shine a light on issues that run deep.

I saw a lot of families on the march, mothers who point to the very long list of people of color wrongly profiled and killed by police, and the very short list of officers held accountable for their actions. One woman (a college professor) said, “It basically feels like open season.  If things don’t change, it could be one of my boys that gets killed.”  Another woman, a pastor, shared the story of her son who was shot while handcuffed, the wound on the right side of his skull even though he was left handed. Yet the police insisted it was suicide, and six years later, she still has no answers and no justice.

People invest a lot of energy into trying to prove that these victims were ‘thugs’ or somehow behaved in a way that warranted such a violent and permanent response.  (This ‘thugification’ is, in my book, abusive.  Can’t we let the families mourn?  Imagine losing a loved one and in the midst of your grief, having the entire nation weigh in and judge him.)  Folks on the ground know that it’s not just ‘thugs’ that get killed.  They also know that even victims who ARE involved in drug trade/crime/etc. are theoretically protected by policies and procedures that keep deadly force as a last resort…and they know that those policies and procedures are all too often ignored in real life.  This means that no one is safe, and people are scared for their kids. 

People were talking about The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  They were pointing out that the US has 6% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners, disproportionately people with brown and black skin. I learned about the specific ways municipalities in St. Louis County persecute and exploit people of color. In Feguson, with a population of just over 21,000 people, the police issued over 32,000 citations, mostly for traffic violations. Fees from traffic violation are the second largest source of income in the city’s budget. Most of these traffic violations are pretty minor- and people of color are, of course, stopped at a disproportionately high rate.  If you happen to be poor, and can’t pay your tickets, the stakes ramp up pretty quickly…higher fees, then warrants for your arrest.  This article in the Washington Post shares a disgustingly typical story:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/09/03/how-st-louis-county-missouri-profits-from-poverty/

Michael Brown’s story is one of literally thousands that have systemic racism as their root cause. As tragic as these deaths are, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Lesson Three:  While the entire black community agrees that these problems exist, different folks have different ideas on how to address them.  Some people seem to distrust not just police and the justice system, but community leaders, churches, and organizations. Others are trying to mobilize political power by encouraging people to vote. Still others propose specific policies (body cameras, independent review of all police homicides) to address specific issues.  It was awkward to watch this tension play out, especially as an ‘outsider.’

Attitudes toward the presence of white folks varied, as well.  Many people expressed gratitude to us for being there, and no one was unpleasant to me personally. However, it was also made clear that there were spaces where white people weren’t welcome. After watching some really unskillful behavior by a couple of folks, I really understand why. It’s so important for people who aspire to being white allies to understand that none of this is about us.  We are not at the center of the struggle, or at the front.  At best, we can be quietly supportive.  We can pray.  We can show up.  

The most valuable thing we can do is to have those difficult conversations with other white folk in our family or our social circle who perhaps aren’t as aware of the effects of systemic racism…so that black folks don’t have to.  We can choose to be learners, always listening and processing and, hopefully, becoming more skillful in our attempts to support the black community and work for justice and compassion within our own community. Then we can pass on what we’ve learned in a caring and compassionate way.

We’re looking at a big, complex problem, and there are no magic bullets or easy solutions. I know that shaming one another doesn’t help.  I know that denial doesn’t help.  I know that white folk tend to be intimidated by black anger, myself included, and yet I also know that black folk have the right to be really angry. It’s not fair to expect people to conform to cultural norms which require calm, rational discourse.  The pain is raw, and so the anger is raw.  

So we can also work on developing our capacity to be present to that rawness.  It doesn’t help to take it personally. It really doesn’t help to reinforce and perpetuate a sick stereotypes of ‘the angry black man’ or ‘the angry black woman.’ Yes, some of the folks I met were angry and upset.  They were also intelligent, insightful, and working really hard to figure out a way forward.  I encourage you to read this account of ‘the Crew’ by Pastor Renita Marie:  

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pastor-renita-marie-mdiv/love-always-wins_b_5757066.html  

I am still processing the experience, and there are new lessons being offered up almost every day.  Perhaps the most important is this:  

Lesson Four:  Change comes hard, and it takes a long time.  We need to continue to pay attention.  We need to resist the unrelenting push of the news cycle and stay focused.  And…we need to do the work of unraveling racism WHERE WE ARE, with the people we love and serve.  

This is “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

 

When the verdict came in for the George Zimmerman trial last summer (was it just last summer?) I became painfully aware of the way violence perpetrated against unarmed black teenagers taps into deep fear and centuries of pain. Trayvon’s death woke up memories of whip-scarred backs and people hung from trees by white men in white robes. My eyes opened and my heart broke.

Actually, I could write a very long list of other books, articles, trainings, and stories that opened my eyes and broke my heart. (Like this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/28/racist-preschool-suspensions_n_5627160.html and The New Jim Crow.)

Racism is a sickness that runs deep in our society, and I don’t believe any of us can truly be whole until and unless we admit that and find a way to heal it.

After Mike Browne was shot in Ferguson, the reports began streaming in about the police response. I watched video of tanks and tear gas and wounds from rubber bullets, horrified. I chose to pay attention, to keep my eyes open, and let my heart be broken again. It seemed the least I could do.

In the midst of the chaos, there have been moments of hope and optimism. I’m convinced this might be a turning point for us as a nation. There are ways forward that don’t involve killing more black teenagers. The Wall Street Journal (believe it or not) published this article on body cameras: http://online.wsj.com/articles/what-happens-when-police-officers-wear-body-cameras-1408320244. I’ve signed petitions asking for a demilitarization of the police force, as well as outside investigation for police homicides.

But when the police in Ferguson are claiming this is a “Race War” and when they are raiding churches (CHURCHES!) to confiscate Maalox, petitions aren’t enough. The call went out asking clergy to go to Ferguson over Labor Day weekend, and I am moved to answer that call.

Now, normally, when bodies are needed, I don’t consider my body a good candidate. My Lupus limits my energy, and I have a lot of people counting on me. But it shouldn’t just be black bodies on the line. I am hoping that my presence, my middle-aged, white body can somehow make a difference. I know a lot of people who would go if they could; I’ll carry their prayers and well-wishes with me. And I believe it will be powerful and transformative to bring stories of what’s happening in Ferguson back to my congregation.

My understanding of what it means to be human and on a spiritual path involves keeping mind and heart open, and then responding mindfully and with authenticity. I try to walk my path one step at a time, and I try to trust the ‘still small voice,’ even when I am afraid or unsure. The voice is telling me I need to go to Ferguson to stand with the people there who are insisting that black lives matter. Because I believe that black lives matter, too.

It would be powerful just to be in a worship service with thousands of other UU’s. But the quality of worship at General Assembly is just off the charts. Our best preachers. Our most gifted musicians. Liturgies that somehow make us feel ‘as one’ with those thousands of UU’s. It really has to be experienced to be understood. Each service is a peak experience. I think, “it can’t possibly get any better than this.” But then the next service comes along, and I’m just as moved.

The worships at this GA seem to be building on one another thematically in a more coordinated fashion than I’ve seen in previous years, and so the effect is cumulative. Though all the services are livestreamed, they are, of course, on East Coast time, and so it’s probably a little early for most of you. But tonight’s “Service of the Living Tradition” will be at 4:30 PDT, and Sunday’s worship is a little later (11 East coast, 8 am PDT.) Here’s the link so that you can watch if you’d like: http://www.uua.org/ga/virtual/2014/index.shtml

One of the challenges of attending General Assembly is that there are so many different workshops and programs, you can’t possibly attend everything you are interested in. Each of the program slots has literally 20 different options. So you can imagine the odds against bumping into Peggy Jenkins, the one other UUCP member able to attend this assembly in Portland. But that’s exactly what happened!

We both chose to attend a workshop led by “AWAKE Ministries.” Sponsored by the Annapolis church, this is a cross-denominational ministry that worships in a really compelling way. First of all, they have a praise band. yes, you read that correctly…a UU praise band, made up entirely of incredibly gifted African-American musicians. They were AMAZING.

In between rockin’ songs, there was a talk show type interaction, where they pulled someone out of the audience, spun a wheel, and when it landed on “hope,” had a little conversation about what that volunteer knew about hope. It was pretty cool. There was also a time when a long row of ministers stood up and people were invited to go, take the hands of one of the ministers, and be prayed for. There were a lot of tears.

The service closed with “We Shall Overcome” and “Lean on Me.” It was uplifting and emotionally powerful, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it was clear that some people had finally found what they are looking for. A young adult attendee commented, “Please, let this be part of the future of our faith!”

The Thursday evening service is the “Synergy” service. This is a bridging service for youth from across the nation. It seemed like about 100 of them were there. There was also a huge crowd of young adults welcoming them on the other side of the bridge. I had a vision of our congregation supporting next year’s bridging seniors in attending GA so that they can all participate. What do you think?

Talking about abortion

June 27, 2014

Brief break from the GA blog:

I got an e-mail from our local Planned Parenthood rep, asking me to respond to a letter to the editor written in support of pro-life demonstrators (http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2014/jun/25/unfairly-characterized/).

Here’s what I wrote:

I am responding to the letter by Leonard Johnson on June 25th. All of the labels typically used (pro-life, pro-choice, anti-abortion, pro-abortion) have been used as weapons, and as a result, many people carry scars. Johnson implies that the scars borne by those labeled “anti-abortion” by the media are particularly unfair.

However, the damage done to people walking into a clinic worries me far more. Women who are already making an incredibly difficult decision are frequently traumatized by graphic and disturbing images and bullying behavior. Protestors use shame and guilt and sometimes even physical violence, believing that their ends justify extreme means. Meanwhile, the medical professionals who are trying to support those women are also attacked.

The truth is that we are all pro-life. However, some of us believe that sometimes life is best served by terminating a pregnancy, while others believe that it never can be. Some us believe that the people best equipped to make these difficult decisions are the people most directly impacted. Others believe the government should have hard and fast rules.

We will likely never agree on these difficult issues. Might we, however, agree that all people deserve to be treated with kindness and compassion?

With General Assembly coming to Portland, OR next year, we are hoping to bring a large group from the UUCP. Of course, a lot of people have no idea what general assembly is! And so, I will blog several times to give you a window. You can also download the free GA app (go to the app store and search for “UUA General Assembly 2014″) or catch some of the highlights, which will be livestreamed.

Let’s begin with the basics: General Assembly is a national gathering of Unitarian Universalists from all over the world. There are literally thousands of UU’s here, which is a big part of the experience. We can often feel as is we are small, almost insignificant. But the tangible power of being in a huge stadium that is filled with people who are grounded in our values and fired up by our faith gives me a giant infusion of hope.

Before the thousands descend, the religious professionals gather. For me, that means the UUMA…the UU Ministers’ Association. The UU Musician’s Network, the Association of UU Administrators, and LREDA (Liberal Religious Educator’s Association) meet concurrently. Because of my doctoral work, I haven’t been able to attend GA for the past few years. Ministry days, then, offered me a chance to reconnect with friends from seminar days and beyond. We all have a lot more gray hair than we used to. As one colleague put it, “We are not the young turks anymore.”

I arrived at ministry days early in order to attend a training for Good Office Persons. GOP’s work with UUMA members who are in conflict with their congregation or the organization they serve, with one another, or with the staff members of the UUA. We accompany, advise, and, if the worst comes to pass, help to negotiate a separation. The training focused on NVC, intercultural conflict styles, and covenanting. However, for me, the most interesting part was a conversation with UUA leaders.

The director of ministry, the director of congregational life, the settlement director, and others generously gave us a good chunk of time and brought us up to speed about some pretty big changes at the UUA. The biggest is regionalization. For years, we’ve been organized into districts. However, scarce resources mean that each district has a limited capacity to support staff. By combining districts into regions, teams are formed, and members of these teams have a greater ability to specialize.

This sounds very logical…in theory. In reality, though, as part of the “Western Region,” our team is expected to cover everything West of the Rockies. The boundaries for the regions were based on number of congregations rather than geographical distance. I imagine it will be very hard on Western Regional team members to travel such huge distances, and so they’ll be forced to conduct most of their business via Skype, phone, etc. And personally, I think nothing takes the place of face to face interactions.

It feels like unequal distribution of resources, and suddenly, I understand where the Canadians were coming from when they broke off from the UUA. Meanwhile, it also had me wondering why there are comaratively few congregations on the Western side of the country. One colleague offered an explanation: many of our Western congregations were planted at a time when there were limited numbers of Unitarian or Universalist clergy willing to move to the “wild west.” Apparently, there used to be far more, but when the original clergy person moved on, no one was available to take their place, and so the Methodists quite helpfully stepped in. Huh.

On Tuesday, we typically have a keynote speaker followed by collegial conversations. Our keynote this year was Marshall Ganz, a community organizer and social scientist from the Harvard Kennedy School. He was fabulous, and gave us some tips on more effective advocacy. On Wednesday, we begin with the “25/50 Service,” which celebrates ministers who have completed 25 or 50 years of service. Each “class” chooses a speaker. The 25-year speaker was Victoria Safford; the 50-year speaker was Judith Walker-Riggs. This was the first year both speakers were women. And both speakers brought me to tears.

Wednesday afternoon brings the Berry Street lecture. This year’s lecturer was Lindi Ramsden, the minister who founded the California Legislative Advocacy Network. She also gave us some incredibly helpful ideas on how to be more effective in our social justice work. Weekend long trainings for activists on specific issues? What a great idea! A youth corps, like AmeriCorps, but just for UU’s? Even better! With a child considering options for a gap year, I thought that suggestion was particularly brilliant.

And then…the crowds arrived, including my family. I’ll share more in my next post.

So about a week ago, UU’s were buzzing about the article “Selling God” in Boston Magazine:  http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2014/05/27/unitarian-universalism-selling-god/

I chose not to share it because it made me pretty uncomfortable, and I felt like it required a longer and more thoughtful response than I could offer on Facebook.

The article describes an attempt to “re-brand” Unitarian Universalism with the help of professional marketing consultants. Pointing to a decline in numbers, the author implies that religion, itself, has become a ‘bad brand,’ and shares the attempts of recent seminary graduates to be religious in new, experimental ways, as well as the work done by UUA leadership to create a new logo and, perhaps, a new slogan for our faith.

Several other UU bloggers were faster off the starting blocks than I was. The Rev. Tom Schade at “The Lively Tradition” (http://www.tomschade.com/2014/05/the-thanklesstask-of-re-branding.html) and the Rev. Cynthia Landrum (http://revcyn.blogspot.com/2014_05_01_archive.html) both shared their responses and reactions. Sometimes I wait a while to see if what I have to say is going to be said by someone else. So far, I haven’t seen it.

Here’s the thing. I am an institutionalist, and will likely embrace whatever logo, slogan or ‘branding’ they come up with– mostly because I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference one way or the other. What drives growth isn’t advertising, or slogans, or cool logos. That might get people through the doors, but it doesn’t lead them to stay.

People stay when they find what they need.

Media coverage being what it is, I have hopes that the conversation which the article reports on isn’t really about marketing strategy, but an attempt by our national leaders to thoughtfully discern what people need from us as a faith. It’s good and appropriate for the folks at headquarters to be asking the question, “Who does the world need us to be” on a bigger scale. Meanwhile, every congregation needs to ask itself “Who does our community need us to be?”

The folks who have joined the congregation I serve in the past two years talk about appreciating the music, the sense of community, and the way we step up to the plate and work to make the town we live in better for everybody. They appreciate the fact that we give our plate offering away to local organizations, write letters to the editor, show up at demonstrations and forums, and generally live our values in the wider world.

My folks are proud of the way we accept a wide variety of beliefs and choices, and don’t judge one another. They like having support in being good parents and good people. One member says she comes on Sunday for her “hit” of good energy, inspiration, and love.

In other words, people are looking for places to be healthy, kind, human, and aware together. In a time when any number of things are falling apart, our job is to hold on to what is good and valuable in religion and the wider culture, and to lift those things up, sort of like finding jewels or time capsules in the rubble of building that is being demolished. The world needs us to be honest and real, and to respond compassionately and pastorally to the challenges of being alive in this era.

Several of the folks who have found a home at our congregation report leaving other congregations, unhappy about conflict, dysfunction, and having to deal with people who don’t practice what they preach. And yes, some have complained about former ministers; apparently, we have some mediocre ministers in our denomination. I believe that the folks at the UUMA are working hard to provide resources to help with that.

There is a strand of UU lay identity that comes across as, “This is a church where I can do whatever I want, and no one can call me on it.” This is not attractive. There’s an equally unattractive strand of UU clergy identity that is defensive and unwilling to do the work necessary to answer our calling with skill and excellence. I had to pluck that strand out of my own identity, so I know how difficult it can be. These are deep issues that won’t be impacted at all by the work with the marketing consultants. Until we address them, our numbers will continue to decline- so perhaps another question worth asking would be, “How do we hold both dysfunctional congregations AND mediocre ministers accountable?”

I say this as the (I hope) non-mediocre minister of a healthy congregation. We are not in decline; quite to the contrary, the place feels alive and vibrant, and we’re starting to have crowding problems in the sanctuary on Sunday. Not only that, but a large portion of our new members are Millenials, who seem to appreciate our fairly traditional protestant-type worship service. It’s not that I don’t appreciate experimentation and new forms of religious gathering. When it comes to healthy religious community, the more the better. But I am saying that it’s the function, and not the form, that matters.

We need to stop focusing on growth and just do church well. Do community well. Do worship well. Do religious education well. Do social justice work well. Do governance and stewardship well. Do fun well. Do church well, and people stick around. They want to be a part of something that works and feels good and makes a difference.

No doubt many faiths around the world and in Idaho have longstanding traditions of man-woman marriage rooted in scripture. But not all religions share the view that opposite-sex marriage is a theological imperative. In fact, some of the Plaintiffs actively worship in faiths that recognize and support their unions. To the extent Governor Otter argues that Idaho has a legitimate interest in validating a particular religious view of marriage, that argument blithely disregards the religious liberty of congregations active in Idaho. “By recognizing the right to marry a partner of the same sex, the State allows these groups the freedom to practice their religious beliefs without mandating that other groups must adopt similar practices.”

This is my favorite part of Judge Candy Dale’s ruling which struck down Idaho’s DOMA and mandated that marriage licences be granted to all committed couples. Why? Because it is proof positive that it makes a difference when we stand up as people of faith.

Hence, this, my latest letter to the editor:

The Idaho Defense of Marriage Act impinges on my religious freedom. I am one of the many faith leaders who feel the bible’s many references to justice and mercy far overshadow the seven, highly disputable passages that are used to attack the gay, lesbian and bisexual community. My own denomination (Unitarian Universalism) has been performing religious marriages and services of union for same sex couples since the seventies. I assure you, we haven’t seen any lightening bolts or other signs of divine displeasure.

We’ve also been providing pastoral care and support to people who have been bullied and abused because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We’ve walked (and cried) with people who have been shunned by their families. We’ve consoled people who have been banned from the bedside of the person they have loved and lived with for their entire lives because of the bigotry of the technical ‘next of kin.’ We’ve empathized with folks who have had to spend thousands of dollars to create and protect their family in ways that heterosexual families take for granted. We’ve borne witness to a tremendous amount of pain.

Because of that, I was elated when Judge Dale declared DOMA unconstitutional and issued the order mandating that marriage licenses be granted to same-gendered couples. And I am sick at heart and disappointed that the emergency stay was granted. I feel confident that eventually justice will win out; DOMA is basically legalized discrimination, which is contrary to our laws and our constitution. In the meantime, though, I bear witness once again to the pain of the gay and lesbian couples who dared to hope, only to be denied once again the 1,138 federal rights that come along with a marriage license.

Sincerely,

Rev. Elizabeth Stevens
UU Church of the Palouse
Moscow, ID

Can I be honest? I’m getting really sick of having to write these kinds of letters. But I’ll keep doing it until the day when my gay and lesbian friends and relatives feel safe and at home in this country.

(Below is a “Letter to the Editor” sent to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.)

What is religion for?

The word “religion” comes from the Latin root, ‘religare,’ which means to re-bind. The purpose of any religion, then, should be to strengthen the ties between people and their God and between people and their brothers and sisters. As we strengthen our ties to God, we deepen our faith, find strength and guidance in our living, and experience the deep peace and unconditional love that has traditionally been labelled ‘grace.’ As we strengthen our ties to one another, we practice compassion, kindness, and civility. We learn to love our enemies, embrace those who are different, and forgive those who have sinned against us. In fact, I, like many of the straight allies who advocate for Gay and Lesbian equality, am moved to do so by my faith.

I mention all of this because as an ordained minister, a “Christophile,” and a human being, I am deeply offended by the so-called “Freedom of Religion” act and some of the tactics and terms being used by its defenders. The biblical case against homosexuality is shaky at best, rife with incorrect translations and verses taken out of context. Even if one chooses to believe otherwise, there is simply no way to make the case that the bible teaches discrimination. Nowhere does it say, “Thou shalt not do business with people whose sexuality makes you uncomfortable.”

If people are advocating for the right to discriminate, I suppose they may do so. However, it would be more accurate to call the proposed legislation the “Freedom of Discrimination” act, or perhaps “Freedom to be Uncivil.” What happens between a person and their God is private. What happens in our bedroom is also private. In the public sphere, our national values are clear: all people are created equal, and deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness.

Luker Laws

February 11, 2014

Here is a letter I am sending off to Rep. Lynn Luker, with copies to Rep. Dan Schmidt, Rep. Lucinda Agidius, and Rep. Shirley Ringo.

Dear Representative Luker,

I am adding my voice to the hundreds of people of faith who are requesting…begging, really…that you reconsider your support of HB427. My primary concern is that it will undo the protections recently extended to my gay, lesbian and transgender neighbors by the Moscow city non-discrimination ordinance.

Many scholars believe that there is no biblical basis for homophobia, and that the homophobic lens is one that was superimposed over the text many hundreds of years after it was written. This is true in my tradition, but also in many others. I’ve studied with Catholics, Baptists, Protestants, and even Evangelicals who believe wholeheartedly that gay and lesbian love is as sacred and precious to God as heterosexual love. A closer look at the bible passages that people typically use to make a case for the sinfulness of homosexuality reveals an extremely shaky case.

The first passage is, of course, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The idea that God punished Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality didn’t enter Christian discourse until medieval times. In fact, there are several passages in the bible…one in Ezekiel, one in Jeremiah and one in the gospel of Matthew, that point to pride, excess, lack of care for the poor and needy, and lack of hospitality as the ‘wickedness’ that angered God- not homosexuality. The event described in the text is about as far from a loving, committed same-gender relationship as you can get: basically, we’re talking about gang rape. It’s a huge step to get from “God considers gang-rape a sin” to “God considers same-gender love a sin.”

The other passages that are frequently quoted are in Leviticus- 18:22 and 20:13 to be precise. A close reading of the text makes it clear that they are not referencing loving, committed same-gender relationships but designed to warn Israelites in exile against adopting the Canaanite practice of temple prostitution. Read in context, these two verses are part of a long list of rules that make up the ‘purity code.’ According to the code, adulterers and men who sleep with menstruating women are to be put to death, tattoos and piercings are forbidden, and all people should keep kosher. There are also rules governing the taking and treatment of slaves and concubines, and the passing along of widows to ensure a clear line of succession. To lift up just these two verses and to ignore the rest seems disingenuous, to say the least.

That’s it in the Old Testament. When we turn to the New Testament, we find absolutely NOTHING addressing same-gender love or sex in any of the four gospels. Paul has a few nasty things to say in Romans and First Corinthians, but again, careful reading shows that they seemed aimed at sexual excess and dishonesty (unnatural lusts) rather than committed same-gender relationships.

It begs the question how did people get the idea that the bible is ‘against’ homosexuality?

In the years leading up to the reformation, what is now the Catholic church (but which was then just ‘the church’ was full of corruption and nepotism. The way to get ahead, to get a desirable posting, was to have an affair with somebody above you in the hierarchy. In an act of blatant hypocrisy, the church launched what was basically a propaganda campaign, introducing anti-homosexual interpretations of the texts I just referenced, and imposing celibacy on priests. (Marriage among priests was common and accepted until 1129.)

Should a person disagree with these arguments, instead clinging to a belief that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God, it’s still a very big leap to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The teachings of the bible on how we are to treat one another are too numerous to list…think of the golden rule, the great commandment, and “As you do unto the least of these….” Jesus led by example. He broke almost all of the purity rules. He deliberately sat and spoke and ate with prostitutes and lepers and others considered ‘unclean.’

Nowhere in the bible does it say, “Thou shalt deny sinners health care,” “Thou shalt not sell sinners a wedding cake,” or even “Thou shalt not interact with people whose beliefs or sexual practices you find distasteful.” Who wants to open that door? “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Would it be okay if doctors refused to treat addicts or even people who are overweight? After all, they’re guilty of gluttony, and that’s one of the seven deadly sins.

I know that some people are afraid that priests might be forced to perform a wedding, or sued for refusing. To be clear: there is a difference between religious sacraments and business interactions. Different faith communities have always had the ability to choose who can receive sacraments: we get to decide who gets served communion and who can’t. We get to choose when and how to baptize, and who we are willing to marry. I myself have refused to marry people when I felt their relationship wasn’t healthy. I wouldn’t want Native Americans to be sued because they limit participation in one of their rituals to members of the tribe. That would be a violation of the freedom of religion. However there is a huge difference between being allowed to participate in a sacrament or a religious ritual and having access to a basic service like housing or medical care. Everyone has an equal right to buy a cup of coffee, or go see a movie. This is what our ancestors intended when they declared the separation of church and state.

I am not as familiar with your faith as I’d like to be, and I’d be interested to learn why it is that you feel so strongly that businesspeople shouldn’t have to provide services to people whose lifestyle they see as sinful. One can believe that homosexuality is a sin and still learn and grow from the experience of treating someone who is different with kindness and compassion. I have had many former Mormons in my congregation, and I’ve seen the way the teachings on the sinfulness of homosexuality can rip apart families and damage people’s spirits. I confess I have a hard time believing that this kind of pain is part of God’s plan. Everything that I know of God points toward a desire for healing and love rather than discrimination and pain.

The anti-discrimination ordinance was a welcome step forward here in Moscow; I know people who have been denied service at local restaurants, as well as people who have had a harder time finding a place to live because of their sexual orientation. My faith teaches that everyone deserves to be treated with respect for their inherent worth and dignity. HB 427 runs counter to my faith and my conscience.

It hurts my heart to even think about it becoming law, thus rendering our local ordinance unenforceable. I know of a lot of good people…both gay and straight…who are ready to leave the great state of Idaho over this. I am not one of them; I will stay and become more active in the “Add the Words” campaign instead.

I appreciate your willingness to serve, as well as the time you have taken to read this letter. I would welcome a response, and would also be delighted to meet with you in person. I will be holding you and your fellow Idaho legislators in prayer as you consider this issue.

Sincerely,

The Rev. Elizabeth H. Stevens

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 411 other followers