So, the ELCA dropped a draft document for the personal behavior of the rostered leaders – pastors and deacons – within the church. Just when we were riding high on our self-righteousness around the dis-unity of the United Methodist Church, we were reminded that our own denomination can sometimes suck, too. So, in addition to a private email to my bishop and stirring up some shit on social media (see lines 222-229 of TS), I’m adding this think piece on Trustworthy Servants.
But especially this one, which has really shaped my thinking around this document.
Here’s the thing – my bishop was one of the four who wrote this document. I spoke with him in a semi-public setting. As the only self-identifying member of the LGBTQIA+ community that wrote TS, I appreciated what he shared in that meeting. I appreciate the pressure he put on other bishops to do some of the work (he refused to write an apology for Vision and Expectations since he was impacted by it). I also deeply appreciate the fact that he felt something was going to be written and he’d rather be in the room doing the work than having someone else write it.
This acknowledgement doesn’t mean I approve of the tactics or the outcome, simply that I recognize his intention was to move away from a punitive document like V&E. He hoped TS would be different.
My bishop shared with me and other pastors in my conference a key fact that I don’t think has been lifted up enough in the discussion around TS: any document is bound by Gift and Trust, the ELCA’s human sexuality statement.
This social statement is the authoritative word of our institution. Like the Book of Concord as a faithful interpretation of scripture (so says my ordination vows), our social statements are a faithful interpretation of church policy and practice. If it isn’t allowed in Gift and Trust, it can’t be allowed elsewhere.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised that Trustworthy Stewards lacks a progressive sexual ethic. I think about how the social conversations have shifted since 2009. At the 2018 youth gathering we saw then-11 year old Rebecca speak; meanwhile violent attacks on the trans community are rising. Victories and setbacks, but 10 years has brought deep change.
A friend who is considering rostered leadership in the ELCA said we should work to change Gift and Trust and bring up a more progressive understanding of both sexuality and humanity. I shared that I don’t think the ELCA will ever modify Gift and Trust. The division from some and disappointment from others means the church wants to close that book and move forward.
Instead, I believe there will come a time when bound consciousness will no longer be acceptable. I think the practice of the national church – which is rightfully full inclusion – will drive away churches that desire exclusion. Actually, I’m guessing it will be far more trivial things that will break up the ELCA, but the liberal wing of the church will secure as many assets as it can and re-form (rather than reform) under a new denominational identity. This new expression will be willing to be bold in declaring God’s unwavering love for the queer community.
So, until then, we are living under the guide of Gift and Trust. Which begs the question: why do we need Trustworthy Servants as a document? We don’t. We’ve got a social statement on sexual ethics. We’ve got a constitution that outlines the job descriptions of pastors and deacons. And, surprise, we’ve also got Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline. BTW, I had no idea this document existed.
There is enough at play without creating a new document that was non-collaborative, lacks specific accountability from the institution of the church, and ignores the power dynamics in the relationship between bishop and rostered leader.
Hey ELCA church council: just scrap it. We don’t need it.
I know that my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has a terrible legacy. We have been abusive to our LGBTQ+ siblings, oppressive to our siblings of color, entrenched in colonizing thinking and theology. We still got corners of our church (and let’s be honest those corners are really centers) that exclude women from leadership.
So the fact that a white supremacy mindset has made Luther Seminary “toxic” to people of color is not surprising. The fact that United Lutheran Seminary tried to hide or deny they knew their seminary president used to advocate for so-called “conversion” therapy for the queer community is also not surprising.
BUT THAT’S THE POINT: IT ISN’T SURPRISING.
It is still disgusting. It is heartbreaking. But surprising? Shocking? Nah, this is what we’ve come to expect from our denomination. (And, hey, ULS: this is not a matter of a sin of ommission or commission; you didn’t do your homework to find out if the president is a true ally for your community. Your failure to do a good job doesn’t let you hide behind “we didn’t know.”)
I feel a strong pull to advocate for change within our denomination – because I care for the people my church is hurting. I stand in solidarity with them.
And I wonder if it is worth it. I have hesitated to tell my friends of color or queer friends that the ELCA is a place that will honor and embrace them. There are spaces in the church that exist that way – but in the landscape of the denomination these are shelters not tabernacles. They are hard to find and not all that say “all are welcome” really mean it.
I’m yearning for a church that is unequivocal in its embrace of people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. I want my siblings honored. I want queer theologies, liberation theologies, womanist theologies to be at the center not an optional elective. I want to see deep investment in ministries that can thrive with the support of the wider church. I want us to be clear about the God of Justice. I want us to proclaim that a grace-based theology does not tolerate bigotry, violence, or spiritual-abuse.
This struggle has been existing within the ELCA since the founding of the denomination. Right now, that struggle has shifted to make the seminaries the front line. Students: we are with you. You are beautiful and powerful. Your dreams for the church led you to this place and now with the presence of the Spirit we can feel the birth-pangs of that new life. So keep fighting. Keep loving. Keep striving. Keep organizing. Push on. This is your calling. “For such a time as this.” This will shape your theology for years to come. Lean into the work. Take sabbath when you need it. Care for one another. Faculty of good will: exercise your power, organize your voice, follow the students as they lead us.
And those of us in congregations: we are working to build a church that is ready to welcome you, that will celebrate your boldness in this moment. We need your voice and experience to help participate in the establishing of God’s kinship within the church and throughout the world.
The institution may be beyond redeeming, but the struggle is beautiful, the church will stand and the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.
One Christian’s Response to the State of the Union
If you look through my twitter feed there are two moments each year that are prolific in posts. The first is our regional judicatory meetings for my denomination (known in the ELCA as Synod Assembly). The second is the state of the union.
I love politics. I love it like people love sports. As a middle-schooler I watched the McLaughlin Group on Sundays after church with my youth pastor. If there was a fantasy draft for elected officials, I’d sign up. And when folks really start talking politics and policies with me, they see my fanaticism.
Policies and Faith
My evaluation of political action is a deeply spiritual practice for me. In this way I am not all that different than right-wing, evangelical Christians. It is just that the morality I choose to stand on has less to do with bathrooms and bakeries and more to do with what Jesus said: care for the poor, liberation for the oppressed, freedom for the bound, love for the stranger.
I don’t care about my legislators’ motivations. They could come from a strong, evangelical background or be an atheist. They could be Muslim or a lip-service Episcopalian. I don’t measure the policies of the government from a statement of faith. This isn’t creedal.
I care deeply about the implications of my legislators’ actions. If a policy harms the vulnerable, that is an anathema to my faith. If a decision makes the world more dangerous, more violent, then I must resist it.
I pay attention because these things affect lives. Government actions impact both individuals and communities’ ability to thrive.
God is not a Republican… Or a Democrat
A few years back Sojourners promoted the catchphrase God is not a Republican… Or a Democrat. I like this because it is a faith-based group saying no party can lay claim to moral or religious authority. Like Jesus said, “No one is good but God.”
The real question then becomes what are the central tenants of faith that are used to measure a particular policy? Here are my core values:
- Blessed are the Peacemakers – which means I don’t support the war economy, preemptive strikes, or inaction on gun violence in our country.
- God made humankind in God’s own image – which means I want to see equal protection under the law, especially for individuals that have been marginalized
- The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt – which calls for compassionate immigration policies and declares that no ones’ personhood is illegal
- The is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free nor is there male and female – stating that civil rights and human rights define how we shape society
- Whenever you did for the least of these you did for me – which calls for both action and compassion for the hungry, the thirsty, those in poverty, those incarcerated
With these at the center, few policies line up. Obama engaged in more drone strikes than any other president and continued to operate from a militaristic viewpoint. Obama deported more people in his last year of office than Trump did in his first.
It is true that Democrats tend to be closer to the center of my faith, but they by no means hold the moral high ground. When only given two options I’ll take the compromise that does less harm.
But I don’t actually believe there are only two options. I believe there are always an options greater than party, powers and principalities. My hope doesn’t come from a house bill, a senate motion, a presidential signature, or a supreme court ruling. My hope comes from a God that cares enough about our lives that God put on flesh and blood and lived among us in our broken and messy world. The way of Jesus is always bolder and better than any party stance.
People and Parties
What gets tricky for me is that people I love and care about have a very different view on politics than I do. Perhaps they have a separation of church and state in their hearts. “My faith dictates my actions, my political views dictate my voting and support.” I can understand that position. Even when we share a value of care for people in poverty, someone else might say we can’t legislate compassion. That a law won’t end homelessness, only the hearts of humanity can change that reality.
I’ve always had conservatives in my life – in my family, in the congregations I serve, in my communities. I don’t hide my differing political beliefs; sometimes my boldness creates wedges rather than bridges.
I think part of this is because I see political parties as powers and principalities, something bigger than an individual. Our struggle is not against the individual legislators, or someone who’s political belief is different than ours. The rulers, powers, and spiritual forces operate within systems that go beyond the will of any one person. Democrats who wanted a clean DACA couldn’t get it negotiated because the party needed to appear more moderate. Republicans that wanted to fund CHIP couldn’t make it happen because it was a bargaining chip for the other goals of the party.
I can agree or disagree with anyone’s political view. Just as I can agree or disagree with someone’s faith. I am still called to love my neighbor – conservative or liberal, socialist or libertarian. My love for my siblings isn’t defined by our political ideology…or their religious ideology. For me, though, both are defined by my core ideology which is love God and love neighbor.
Truth in Love
If my political analysis sounds like division rather than unity, I can accept that criticism. There were times when Jesus said I came to bring not peace but the sword. When lives are on the line, I cannot be silent. Inhumane deportations and lack of refugee action put people at risk because of gang violence and war rooted in the polices of the USA. Gun violence puts our schools, churches, and entertainment spaces in danger The dissolving of civil rights divisions within the Department of Justice puts communities of color at risk.
These are attacks against structures, parties, and policies. I still love folks that disagree on these policies. Sometimes I love them because I know them, we are knit together in community. Sometimes I love them even though I see them as enemies to the values I hold dear. I can hold in tension both the love and the criticism. But for the sake of the gospel I cannot compromise on my deeply held values.
Dear Scientists, Climate Justice Warriors, Women, Concerned Citizens, and especially People of White:
Many of you have had a political activism stir in you that had been untouched for a long time. People who had never demonstrated were soon grabbing poster boards and creative clever slogans. You took to the streets, marched and cheered, shared hashtags and read woke blog posts. Welcome to the movement!
You were always concerned, making personal choices to make the world a better place, advocating and voting. I know this because I was there, too. Now, we are doing more.
Today and tomorrow are great opportunities to continue your resistance. Today is Dontre Day. This anniversary of the killing of Dontre Hamilton by a fired and pensioned Milwaukee Police Department officer has been transformed by his family into a sign of strength in the community. One of the rallying points for Milwaukee’s cry of Black Lives Matter, the Coalition for Justice and Mothers for Justice United have inspired our city.
Tomorrow is A Day without Latinxs, Immigrants, and Refugees. The annual May Day strike and march becomes even more visible under the immigration attempts of 45. This statewide solidarity action not only shows the strength in numbers but also counteracts the hate-filled anti-immigrant and refugee narrative in our country.
I hope these struggles for racial and economic justice will inspire new activists. There is an intersection between feminists, scientists and people fed up. It isn’t just the small slice of the justice pie for which you fight. We don’t want slices, we don’t want to be divided. Because there is a place where racial justice, economic justice, feminism, environmentalism, anti-war, queer rights all come together. It is the place of liberation. And none of us are free until we all get free.
I’m not discouraged because you are new to activism. I’m thrilled you’re here. I don’t know what your tipping point was. I don’t remember what mine was, but there was a time when I just tried to do good without confronting structures bigger. Now I see that change comes both in the personal and in the body politic. So, thank you for raising your voice, engaging your co-workers, bringing your classmates, changing the congregation. Thank you for resisting.
I want to vote for someone who has been poor.
Someone who has searched for public assistance.
Someone who has come into a church door asking for help.
Someone who has stood at an intersection with a sign that is a plea for survival.
I want to vote for someone who is heartbroken.
Someone who’s son was murdered.
Someone who’s friend was killed for wearing a hoodie.
Someone who’s loved one became a hashtag.
I want to vote for someone who never wanted their name on the ballot.
Someone who’s name was spoken by others but never by themselves.
I want to vote for someone who has lived off food stamps.
Someone who has showed up at a church food pantry.
Someone who has traded medicine for food.
I want to vote for someone who lives grace.
Someone who speaks unity when they have been victimized by division.
Someone who loves their enemy.
I want to vote for someone that puts others in front of themselves.
Someone who understands sacrifice.
I want to vote for someone that embraces nonviolence.
Someone who seeks diplomacy over war.
Someone who looks at the root causes of violence.
Someone who understands the work needed for making peace.
I want for vote for someone who has been profiled.
Someone who’s sacred lands have been under attack.
Someone who lives the value of turning the other cheek.
Someone who has been slandered.
Someone who’s story has been coopted and twisted by the media.
I was invited to a meeting of clergy at a church whose parking lot is the staging ground for a militarized police force in Sherman Park, the site of unrest in Milwaukee. The clergy meeting would be with Governor Scott Walker.
I considered going. Political leaders have power, and it is affirming to have churches recognized and brought into that sphere of influence. Its nice to be wanted. I thought maybe this would be a place to speak truth to power, to push the issues behind the violence: jobs, racism, police-community relations, racism, mistrust of youth, and racism.
But then I remembered Amos, and I stayed home.
A few hours later this picture emerged:
In good vauge-book fashion, I posted this:
Folks pretty quickly figured out what I was referencing.
God told the prophet Amos: “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” There are places where power serves the empire and the work of the empire is not of God.
I wasn’t in the room. I don’t know what was said.
But I couldn’t do what was happening in this room. Not because Scott Walker is a republican and I’m not. I couldn’t do this because several of Walker’s policies – from defunding transit to assaults on voter rights to expanding attacks on public schools – created the conditions that led to a segment of Milwaukee feeling like they had nothing to loose. Because so much had already been taken.
No doubt you will quote to me, “Pray for your enemies.” I do pray for my enemies, but not with them. I will not let my voice be used to justify a curfew that vilifies youth or consents to the national guard being on call. I will not let my prayers be used as a talking point from the governor to the media. I will not say, “Peace, peace when there is no peace.”
The church is called to be the voice of liberation. Church leaders must follow the example of preaching good news to the poor. If it isn’t good to the poor, it isn’t the good news. And if it is good for the powerful, it usually is not good for the oppressed.