Last night I arrived home after a week in Orlando Florida at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Basically, all of our congregations get together once every 2 years, worship, learn and decide on the business of our Church. It’s an exciting week, minus, I guess, the part where we sit in a room and listen to a moderator strictly enforce a “Roberts Rules” like order.
There was a lot of controversy heading into this week, in part because of one resolution, GA-1327, “Becoming a People of Grace and Welcoming,” which included a statement affirming folks identifying as lgbt. The resolution, which eventually passed, was received by some as an exciting step towards acceptance, while others viewed it as the Church imposing a controversial view. In particular the Hispanic National Board of Directors published a statement in January against the resolution, stating that it threatened the unity, writing that developing a “definite
conclusion to the subject of sexual orientation harms an inclusive church and its effort to include.” The way in which many Disciples read this statement led to the worry that passing the resolution might lead to a split in the church, and so leading up to assembly there was uncertainty about what was going to happen.
I don’t want to write about some meta-narrative of the assembly, about how the assembly “felt,” or what was going through the minds of those present. Instead, I want to write about my own process, because I was really worried about this resolution. I joked (maybe a little insensitively) that I was going to argue for the resolution and vote against it. I voted for it, and even gave my support by standing amongst the witness at the microphone as they told their stories of why this resolution mattered to them. What follows are my own reflections on how I came to vote the way I did:
First of all, I worried about the threat to unity, but not in and of itself. Rather, I worried that one social issue (the fight for acceptance of lgbt people) would trump that of another (primarily the members of the hispanic community, especially as I live in a place where their rights are constantly in jeopardy). The point of unity, as I understand it, is to keep as many people at the table so that our view of who belongs and who does not can be expanded exponentially. That a marginalized group might leave the table over this issue concerned me.
Further, I worried that this resolution did indeed project a paternalistic, “we know better” attitude. In their letter, the Hispanic National Board of Directors concludes with a series of questions which read : “Who speaks for the church, to whom on what? Why? How? Given differences in moral
judgments we are concerned with how Christian moral teachings could and should both respect
differences in moral judgments and identify the limits to such differences.” This is a legitimate set of questions, especially as Disciples come together to make statements which speak for the whole of the General Assembly. The argument can be made that we celebrate autonomy of belief, but the resolutions still read as unified theological statements, and while an individual can surely believe outside of what is decided, I understand when someone is frustrated when they are on the other side of a controversial vote.
Finally, I worried a lot about misrepresentation. If we are as divided on issues of acceptance and sexuality as we seem, then passing a resolution makes possible misunderstanding about the ability of our church to be truly welcoming. Even more concerning is the possibility that we have presented ourselves as a safe space, a place where vulnerable lgbt people can come and be supported. In my mind, this worry goes something like this: a young person begins questioning their sexuality in a conservative church, and so, to try to find out if they are ok/loved/sinners/etc, they search for churches that have openly stated they accept lgbt peoples. They find our denominations statement and take it as a sign that all Disciples churches are welcoming and walk into a pastors office seeking help and encouragement, and instead find hostility and rejection.
And so, with all of this on my mind leading into assembly, I wondered how I would vote, and what was the best action my denomination could take as it prepared to move forward.
And yet, after several days present in Orlando at the Assembly, I chose decisively to stand with and vote on the side of the resolution. Why?
I hold an incredibly privileged place in society. As a straight, white male, no one every questions my sexuality, nor my citizenship, nor my right to be anywhere. No one will ever vote on my right to love who I’m with, nor will there be resolutions regarding my status in society. And so, in relation to the resolution, the fact that I get a choice in which group’s favor I will stand already reveals a great deal of power on my part.
I also know (and often forget) that power, in a patriarchal sense, often gets acted out in the favor of order. It enforces social orders through the production of proper roles in society, and is threatened by any form of disorder. Feminism can be read as the movement to make men and women equal in society, but I prefer to think of it as a movement against patriarchy. While it’s great to see women’s power in society rising, if it comes with the enforcement of patriarchal policies and social roles (see: Sarah Palin and Jan Brewer) then there’s still work to be done.
All of this is to say that so much of my worry regarding this resolution came out of my own position of power and privilege in society. It took me until the GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Affirming Disciples) banquet on Monday night to realize this. As I listened to Mark Johnston tell the story of GLAD, initially living in the shadows of the denomination, being threatened and told that they don’t belong in the church, I realized that my position in these issues cannot be maintaining order. I don’t get to chose for other people whether or not they should be standing up for rights and recognition in the denomination, even if it means possible disorder and disunity. The idea that in this debate I might find the “right” position furthers the idea that I have the power to determine for other people what is the most acceptable, what is most productive, and what is most right. The truth is there is no one correct answer, and so we stand as a denomination with many truths, with many perspectives, and with many possibilities of different unities.
What I realize after my week at General Assembly is that my position in society, with all of its privilege and power, means that I will never be voting on my own rights. And so, rather than exercise my own power by choosing the side of order and status quo in a controversial and contentious debate, I will always choose to stand with those fighting for further recognition and an expansion of their rights, even if it leads to disorder and disunity within my denomination. And this past week, in Orlando I stood with GLAD, and all of the lgbt members of my Church.
During the vote, several dozen people, including me, stood behind those speaking in favor of the resolutions, which eventually passed.