Friday, June 24, 2016

So how's that working out for you?

In my last post, I talked about what I would be doing the next six months. And it's been six months! So I have an excuse and/or obligation to write this post. In my head, its title has been, "Your theology is bad and you should feel bad." I'm going to do my best to write with clarity and compassion, but that's not where my thoughts have been. (Another potential title was, "Reclaiming hate as an appropriate emotional response.")

Amy's blog is currently on hiatus, which is what she needs to do for herself, but it does unfortunately deprive me of the ability to link to her much more thorough and moving updates on our experiences at her former faith community, West Hills Friends. Specifically naming them here is not a call-out thing, as some people worry about (in an overly deferential way, in my opinion). It is, instead, both a public service for queers of all stripes who might wish to know the potential limits of a community that is proud of its self-identification as welcoming, and an invitation to that community to fully embrace their understanding of Quaker process as group discernment led by the Spirit. If their words and actions are indeed the result of God's leading following earnest contemplation and prayer, then they should stand confidently by them, whether they supported our family or did not.

Short summary of the past six months: it was full of tiring and frequently intense conversation with the leadership of West Hills Friends. (As a reminder, years of talking came before and led up to the past six months.) The end result was that we chose to put a question forward to the congregation: Would they allow us to use their space for a celebration of our family's mutual love and obligation, and would they allow their pastor to make his own decision about whether he wished to participate? The question was first introduced at a business meeting (roughly equivalent to congregational meetings in other traditions) earlier this spring. At their business meeting in early June, they discussed whether they could answer yes. (Quakers use consensus for their decision-making, instead of voting.)

The result was: at this point and for the indefinite future, no. There were still some members of the congregation who do not feel clarity that it would be okay; there was no "sense of the meeting," which is the prerequisite for moving forward. (As many people on the pointy end of the status quo know far too well, "we haven't decided yet" means "we're not going to stop hurting you.") We emphasized that we were not trying to establish precedent. This request was not a social justice issue. It was a cry for help to give our family access to the tools we need to stay strong in an actively hostile world. Despite every single person who spoke having kind words for our family's rightness, goodness and truth--and their desire for us to feel loved and supported--there were still those who had to add a "however."

Here is a list of the concerns raised:

--Our family might get in legal trouble. (Nope; we are quite open about the fact that there is only one legal marriage in our family.)

--The congregation might get in legal trouble. (Nope; no marriage licenses involved.)

--Generalized, free-floating unease. ("Yeah, don't bother trying to address my concern, even I don't know what it is." In healthy consensus environments, this kind of position results in a "stand aside" instead of a "block.")

--The congregation won't have the time and energy to discuss the request for at least a year. ("Hey, drowning people? We gotta finish painting this lifeboat, grab some lunch, maybe take a little nap. Nothing personal.")

--It's inappropriate to approve one ceremony specifically for our family before taking a public stand on the abstract issue of non-monogamous marriages in general. 

The concern about insufficient time and energy pissed me off the most, to be honest. It's what made it hard for me to keep my composure during the traditional post-meeting "thank you for participating and sharing your truth" interactions intended to reinforce the idea that we're all in this process together. In at least one instance, I had to make an actual choice between shaking someone's hand, walking away, or punching them in the face. It took me a full 3, maybe 5 seconds to make up my mind. I went with the handshake.

To the extent that the last concern--an institutional need to establish clear precedent and guidance for the future--is genuine and not an expedient stalling tactic, I can accept it as a valid starting point for conversation. It just happens to be theologically unsupportable and contrary to the Gospel message. That message begins in the life and ministry of Jesus and continues in the work of the early Church.

When people came to Jesus seeking healing, his reply was consistently a variation on "your faith has made you whole." Jesus never said, "Because you followed policy, I have healed you." When the friends of the paralyzed man tear a hole in the roof of a house so they can get through the crowd to Jesus (Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26), their determination is rewarded. When the woman with hemorrhages seeks his healing power without even asking his permission (Mark 5:21–43, Matthew 9:18–26, Luke 8:40–56), her boldness is rewarded. When the Gentile woman rejects his claims that only Jews deserved his help (Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30), her persistence is rewarded. The act of seeking healing, for oneself or others, in and of itself justifies the healing.

Apostles and evangelists of the early Church followed the same principle. Well before the Council of Jerusalem formally declared that Gentiles didn't need to convert to Judaism in order to be Christian (Acts 15:1-35), Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Peter baptized the Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10). Paul and Barnabas expanded their mission to include any Gentiles who would listen (Acts 13:42-49). The act of seeking salvation, in and of itself, secures that salvation. What is there to stop this person from being baptized? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The entire tradition of Quakerism is built on this idea of continuing revelation. Quakers are called to recognize evidence of the Light in the lives of those around them, and to have the bravery and integrity to acknowledge and respond to that Light appropriately. As I said, nobody at West Hills Friends (openly) questioned our family's rightness, goodness and truth. All the way back in 2014, I was writing on this blog, "I am grateful beyond words that Amy's faith community accepts our entire family, so that we can care for our neighbors and brothers and sisters." I am still stunned and furious that some people we considered our friends--people who supported our family in both words and concrete actions when we experienced disapproval from others--would draw this line and justify it in the name of waiting for God's leading.

What more faith in them could we have shown? Several times over the past years, I defended West Hills Friends when they as a community would do something--usually not directly related to our family--that worried or angered or hurt Amy and made her question whether it was the right place for her. I spoke of their earnestness, their willingness to listen, their warmth and their care, the way their shared spirituality was so compatible with hers. I spoke of how her thread was woven into the fabric of their life now, and how I trusted that they would not tear it. Other times, Amy would be the one to talk me down. Dave, a self-identified atheist, put up with the time and energy we invested in all the ups and downs, because he knew them as decent folks who offered something desperately needed by people he loves.

What more desire for healing could we have shown? We were candid about what the possibility of this celebration had meant for us last year, what the bait-and-switch of the withdrawal of its approval did to us, what the lingering uncertainty about our access to the life of the community cost us. We held nothing back, and in return, it not only didn't affect the outcome, we had some people actively erasing our pain and telling us we shouldn't be hurt. That's not discernment. That's not consensus, which calls for collaborative solution-finding, not just shutting down conversation after a pre-determined amount of time and leaving the problem to fester until the next meeting. That's decision-making by Internet comment thread.

Amy suffers far more pain and consequences than I do from how things ended up. She was much closer to all the individuals involved, and she relied on West Hills Friends for much more of her spiritual nourishment and connection to the Light. But the impact on my life has been drastic. I've written before about how church--not simply Christian faith, but the ritual and practice and community of church--has long been the bedrock foundation of the rest of my life. My trust in the very idea of church has been shattered by this experience. I've resigned my Board position at Metropolitan Community Church of Portland, haven't been to Sunday worship in weeks, and don't expect to return for months. I try to ignore the little voice insistently whispering, "...if at all."

Don't get me wrong: I've had plenty of bad church experiences over the past 17 years. Churches are no more or less messed up than any other human institution. Okay, sometimes it seems like they are more messed up, on average, because people have such a sense of investment and ownership without much actual cost or obligation, in practice. But never before have I felt that the things that make that mess worth it--the promise that God works through you to make the world a better place, that bringing together a diversity of convictions and temperaments reveals more aspects of God, that sharing burdens leads to empathy and understanding--could be so thoroughly weaponized. That people will love you so that they can control and contain you, and maybe that's not the exception. Maybe that's the norm.

I'm becoming more and more radicalized, and I'm not entirely comfortable with this development. I look at the recent United Methodist General Conference, for example, and the social media storm over that denomination's continued abusive treatment of queer clergy and laypeople, and mostly what I feel is disgust that people are still engaging with them. People I am acquainted with, and largely respect, I want to yell at and tell them to give it up already. I don't care about personal relationships or historical tradition. They've had years of second, third, fifteenth chances. There are several viable alternatives that Methodist individuals, or congregations that are in internal agreement on being open and affirming, can take. The moral imperative now is to pick one and go. Strengthen the institutions that are doing the right thing. Starve the institutions that refuse to do the right thing.

But since the Reconciling Ministries Network is publishing think pieces about the unlikeliness of ethical multi-partner families, I'd still probably want to yell at them, even if they dumped the UMC.