Church, Human Sexuality, Theology

United Methodist Church Bishop’s Homophobic Rhetoric

13 Comments 17 January 2017

On the day that I write this, the death of Bishop Eddie Long fills the headlines. I have mixed feelings about even mentioning his name. Like all humans, he was a complicated soul. Long pastored one of the largest predominately African American churches in Atlanta, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. In an article found in SPLC’s Intelligence Report, he was called “one of the most homophobic Black pastors in America.” In one of the great ironies of his ministry, in 2010, four men accused him of sexual coercion dating back to their teen years. I and many others wrote about those allegations and innuendos floating around the city regarding Bishop Long well before what was then being reported. Not surprisingly, the public responses are the same: highly charged, filled with pain, sorrow, respect for the family and scripture-laden cautions and rebuke. Big sigh.

I also have mixed feelings about this article. I’ve wrestled with whether to write it for days. Frankly, I don’t want to write this article. On the other hand, I believe it is best that these words come from me rather than leave this matter to someone else; someone whose words may not land on the page with as much hope, grace and loving-regard that I want to convey.

Homophobia is a debilitating bane on the Church. It shows up in our liturgy and polity. It shows up in our music, sermons and fellowship. For years I have listened to people justify their homophobic rhetoric, read articles calling for Christians to “stand up against the sin of homosexuality” and declare their words as innocent and/or “taken out of context.” Unsurprisingly, we are divided. The pain is deep, and based on recent events, I doubt healing will come to our churches anytime soon. How can it when people we love and respect tear into our hearts with words so profoundly insulting? Kim Burrell, Shirley Ceasar and now one of our own United Methodist bishops, Sharma Lewis.

Last week at the Convocation for Pastors of Black Churches, Bishop Lewis, brought a remarkable sermon entitled Called to Fresh Vision(Facebook Jan. 11th at 9pm).  Largely via manuscript but seasoned with extemporaneous moments she began with the argument that “a vision is birth out of a concern” and moved on to demonstrate for those gathered the need for vision in building vital ministries. In her final remarks ending what had been a well-received sermon, Bishop Lewis shared about her experience of tarrying before and question God after her 2012 unsuccessful run for the bishop. Speaking about that moment, Lewis revealed the pain of being personally attacked via email. She recounted how she asked God, “Why would they send an email in the middle of the night saying that I’m gay?…I’m too cute to be gay!” Bishop Lewis went on to give the audience an apology for preaching because she felt her sermon – which came after a very spirited time of worship – “got in the way of God.” Among the admonishments that followed, Lewis declared there are times when leaders are “too afraid to say when we’re wrong.”

By her admonishment, I had no reason to believe, but that Bishop Lewis would hear my response to her comment that she was “too cute to be gay” and without delay offer an apology to the LGBTQ community. Moreover, I had known Bishop Lewis for many years, had heard her preach on several occasions, even at the church I pastored in Chicago. As a queer lesbian, I knew she and I held different positions when it came to the rights and lives of LGBTQ persons within the UMC. Our theology differs but – like our relationship as colleagues and as Black women – was not hindered at all by those differences. I had never known her to say utter a homophobic comment. Until that sermon.

I was shocked when I viewed the sermon (and I watched the ENTIRE sermon). Shocked, offended, hurt and then, in denial. Because I love our church, I have always sought to do a proper collection of facts before speaking out on many issues. I prefer going to the source, as I did on this matter. I immediately began reaching out to Bishop Lewis. I wanted to hear from her, wanted her to hear from me, wanted to talk about how offensive her comment was/is and especially wanted to encourage her to make a public apology. I hoped she would be courageous; I hoped she would practice what she had preached, not to be “too afraid to say when we’re wrong.” To date, that has not happened.

So here we are, listening to yet another sermon with language that is specifically insulting to LGBTQ persons. What would have been a sermon worth seeing by a broad range of people is tainted, made particularly insulting by a homophobic and alienating comment. Ironically, just that morning I’d read the brilliant essay by Ashon Crawley entitled, Kim Burrell and Feeling Ugly. In it he writes, “To call our way of life perversion, to declare death on us. In another register, in another key, this is to call us ugly.” Bishop Lewis’ retort, “I’m too cute to be gay,” is another episode of LGBTQ persons being made to feel ugly. One need not even get into the theological implications of her statement to know it’s DOA. Its faulty logic reaches its conclusion based on two premises, one spoken, one unspoken. Minor premise: I am not ugly. Conclusion: Therefore, I am not gay. Unspoken major premise: All gay people are ugly. As a rhetorical device it would look like this:

Major premise: All gay people are ugly.
Minor premise: I am not ugly.
Conclusion: Therefore, I am not gay.

While the major premise is unspoken. It nonetheless is heard, and felt. With this one spoken sentence – frankly something that has been said by more than Bishop Lewis – we are left to wrestle with a host of questions. So, gay people are ugly? How cute do you need to be not to be gay? Is there some cosmetic secret that can resolve gayness? Theologically, how does casting gay in such a way impact what we say about the body of Christ? How do we respond theologically when children and adults lament being called “ugly”? Ought we even buy into the cultural phenomenon of beauty aesthetics? How do you minister through that pain?

I hope Bishop Lewis and others will think long about her conclusion and the ways she will respond now and in the future to emails questioning her sexual identity (so much I can say about people who launch those type horrible attacks) as well as to concerns from the LGBTQ community and its allies stemming from other homophobic comments. I can tell you; the loving response is not what Shirley Caesar advocated: take the cell phones when you want to speak to your members. Neither should it be along the lines of Kim Burrell’s justification that boils down to her basically arguing that her words were misconstrued or taken out of context. We heard what we heard. It’s not digging in like Long and declaring Christianity is being “attacked by the enemy.” The enemy being a type of homosexual Goliath. It’s not retreating into denial and deciding you’ll just be more careful about what you say (because the queers may be in the room). Silence will not resolve homophobia. This is not a demand for political correctness. It is a matter of children of God not having to sit through, over and over and over again, sermons that call us ugly, perverted, sinful, reprobate. This is not about correctness; this is about grace and love.

Right now, the United Methodist Church has entered a season of determining if our denomination will remain “united.” How do we even trust that our episcopacy can lead us forward when we hear such disparaging words? This is not a mistake in preaching. And though I do not feel that it was said to cause pain intentionally, I do know that those words and the absence of an apology reveal what we know to be true: We are not of one mind, and it’s not likely that we will get there when the episcopal leaders of our church say such things and feel no need to repent.

Both Lewis and I have our communities of accountability. My vision for the United Methodist Church is in concert with my concern for the well-being of oppressed persons. It’s not an easy work. People love you for “speaking truth to power” until it’s their sense of power you call to task or until it’s their beloved paragon whose virtue is being questioned. Now as in times past, perhaps, even more, I write as an out queer lesbian elder of the United Methodist Church disappointed by yet another hurtful statement FROM THE PULPIT.

Near the end of her sermon, Bishop Lewis gave the most prophetic words of the night: “We have the opportunity to speak new vision into our community.” I envision a Church so transformed by the power of the love of God that what we say – about Black and Brown people, about women, about the disabled, about the poor, about immigrants, about persons of other faith traditions, and about the LGBTQ community – matches the love of God that fills our hearts.

Church, Ethics, Human Sexuality, Racism

Suffering Servants Silent Leadership: The UMC Council of Bishops Still Refuses to Speak on the Subject of Racism

No Comments 05 April 2015

No CommentThe United Methodist Council of Bishops consists of all active and retired bishops of the denomination. The work of the council is “to speak to the Church and from the Church to the world and to give leadership in the quest for Christian unity and interreligious relationships.” (The Book of Discipline ¶427.2). As a group, the council speaks to the denomination by statements that address matters it deems important to the life of the church and the society in which we live. Over the last decade it has issued at least seven statements, half related to human sexuality. During this same decade, the General Conference, the top legislative/decision making body of the denomination, followed its 2000 Act of Repentance related to the historical and institutional racism of the denomination by several additional acts of repentance and focused studies throughout its annual conferences.

The church was right to repentant of its ugly history of racism. This included the 1772 incident in St. George’s Methodist Church when a white trustee interrupted Richard Allen and Absalom Jones while they were down on their knees praying in the main sanctuary. The trustee told them that they were prohibited from praying in that area and instructed them to go to the segregated Negro section of the church (a newly constructed balcony area). Rather than participate in the foolishness of racism within the church, Allen and Jones walked out never to return. Allen became the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and Absalom Jones, the founding pastor of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (Philadelphia). The very existence of the AME church is a constant reminder of the history of racism from which the UMC must never be allowed to forget.

When our nation was in the throes of disagreement about whether to end slavery, the Methodist church leaders debated over the relationship of members who refused to manumit their slaves. Bishop James Osgood Andrew’s ownership of slaves was among the disagreements that led to the split of the church in 1844 creating The Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Division was no solution; the conversation regarding slave ownership continued through the years. During General Conference 1860 Methodist Episcopal Church, the church debated whether the Book of Discipline ought prohibit holding, buying and selling slaves. Southern state laws prohibited slave owners from emancipating their slaves. “Do the majority intend to say that the Church should place herself in a position to do what the laws will not permit to be done?” Justifying the ownership of slaves, some church leaders argued, “Nine-tenths of the slaves held come to them by inheritance or marriage…the law compels no man to buy or sell but it does compel men to hold.” No sufficient ground was made and so when the northern and southern Methodist churches reunited in 1939 they did so by agreeing to establish a racially segregated jurisdiction called the Central Jurisdiction. Black members of the Methodist Church remained loyal to the church despite its betrayal. When the 1968 merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren eliminated the Central Jurisdiction, it resolved legal segregation but could not end institutional racism.

In 2000 the church amended its constitution to address racial injustice saying, “The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate racism, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large.” ¶5 The Constitution, The UMC Book of Discipline 2012

Given its shameful history of racism, its acts of repentance and its constitutional goals of eliminating racism one would think that the United Methodist Council of Bishops would have issued a statement to address racism especially doing so over the last eight months of unrest in our nation. Gil Caldwell and myself wrote an open letter to the council, which was published September 4, 2014. We did not ask the council to take a stand one way or the other regarding the guilt or innocence officer Darren Wilson. In light of the increasing evidence of racism against Black citizens by the Ferguson municipal court and police department we asked: “Rather than be seen as having never shed its denominational support of racism, we call now upon the Council of Bishops, a predominantly white leadership, to address this urgent crisis impacting the lives of Black people living in Ferguson. We urge you to take a bold stand against racism including the militarized armament and surveillance being used against Black people.”

Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Cameron Tillman, VonDerritt Myers, Jr., Martese Johnson, Floyd Dent, the Department of Justice report on Ferguson, a noose found hanging on campus of United Methodist related Duke University and now the murder of Walter Scott. The Council remains silent. The only mention of the Council on the subject of race in recent news is contained within the terms of the just resolution for a complaint made against one of the church’s most senior Black bishops, Melvin Talbert (retired) for officiating a same-sex marriage: “Encourage the Council of Bishops to actively pursue sustained theological conversation especially around human sexuality, race and gender in a world-wide church.”

The Council of Bishops has not confronted the rampant racism of this 21st century. One could wonder is this because Blacks represent less than 7% of its total membership? We hear you clearly when it comes to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination. Racism…not so much.

While Black bodies bleed on the streets, while black bodies suffer under mass incarceration, while Black police officers suffer the impact of racism on Black communities and within police leadership ranks, and while Black people continue to suffer systemic racism, while the nation and our churches remain divided over this perennial issue you have chosen to remain silent.

Guilty.

 

Citations: NY Times 5/25/1860 “Methodist General Conference…”

 


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