Friday, November 15, 2013

The sensitive matter of comparing racial and LGBT civil rights

I've been expressing myself on Facebook rather than this blog for the past months because, frankly, Facebook is less time consuming and less intellectually rigorous. Comments made on Facebook, however, also tend to be much less thoughtful and more susceptible to misunderstanding.

I had a terse exchange on Facebook this week with my friend the Rev. Robert Barnes.

We were having a discussion about Professor Tom Frank's open letter to the Council of Bishops asking the bishops to stop holding trials of pastors performing same sex weddings.

Someone made a comment about the United Methodist Church's history of racial segregation during the time of the Central Jurisdiction. Bob responded with this argument:
  Regarding the segregation issue, the United Methodist Church corrected that of it's own accord, because the correction was inherent in our theology and faith. The battle against racism was and is a long fight in which United Methodists have been mostly ahead of the curve.
I responded to Bob this way:
Actually, the Central Jurisdiction was created in 1939 and ended in 1968. To see how American Methodism was not pioneering in integration read Peter Murray "Methodists and the Crucible of Race." As Al Clipp was reminding me today, the Central Jurisdiction may have lasted longer, but the EUBs refused to merge so long as the Methodist Church was structurally segregated. However, it is encouraging to think that maybe 50 years from now someone may be under the impression that the UMC may have been mostly ahead of the curve on LGBTQ justice!

I forgot to include a smiley face. :>)

The discussion ended up with Bob asking me this question:
Dean, forgive me if I was wrong. So just let me ask you; Do you agree that
a) those who oppose gay marriage and the ordination of homosexuals are not racist (anymore than anyone else) nor are their arguments and...

b) that arguing that our stance on homosexuality must ultimately change for the same reasons that our stance on segregation ended is a spurious claim - because a) is false.
I am not hostile towards you and respect you where we differ; but I strenuously oppose some of the arguments that are raised against the character of conservatives.
 So I want to face these questions and try to respond squarely.

I do not think white people who oppose gay marriage or ordination are any more or less racist as a group than white people who support it. (I will not try to speak for people of other races.) But I also think we should be able to discuss U.S. Methodism's history of racism during the Central Jurisdiction era without those who oppose gay marriage and ordination feeling as though we are calling them racists. 

For me, the most important precedents for the discussion of LGBTQ inclusion are the changes Methodism made concerning the role and status of women and divorced people within the denomination. I often ask my friends who oppose change on biblical grounds how they have been able to contextualize what the Bible teaches about women and divorce but are not able to do the same thing concerning same-sex affection. No one has given me an answer that I am able to grasp yet.

The precedent of race is more complicated. Clearly I would not argue that people who oppose LGBTQ marriage and ordination are racists. Neither would I venture to suggest which side of the struggle they would have been on if they had lived from 1939 to 1968 when race was the issue for Methodism. I do not know what side I would have been on. I understand these are not the same struggle.

But I think there is a lot to learn from the Central Jurisdiction struggle that we can apply to the current LGBTQ- inclusion struggle.

We were fortunate that W Astor Kirk was a member here at Foundry until his death in 2011. At the 1964 Genberal Conference, Bill proposed an amendment to end the Central Jurisdiction to the merger plan for the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches. It passed. The motion that ended the Central Jurisdiction became known as the "Kirk Amendment."

Opponents of ending the Central Jurisdiction petitioned the Judicial Council to argue that the Kirk Amendment was only advisory, not mandatory. Bill took a six month leave of absence from work to prepare the argument supporting the end of the Central Jurisdiction. His argument won the 1965 Judicial Decision No. 232 which supported the dismantling of the Central Jurisdiction.

During the last years of his life Bill worked ardently to apply what he had learned in the struggle to end institutional racial segregation in the Methodist Church to the struggle to end institutional discrimination against gay and lesbian people in the United Methodist Church. He was working on a resolution to General Conference the last time I visited him in the hospital the day before his death.

It is fair to study the Central Jurisdiction struggle to gain some perspective on the LGBTQ-inclusion struggle. While they are different struggles there are similarities.

Do I think that those who oppose gay marriage and ordination are racist? No. Do I think opposition to gay marriage and ordination are part of a tradition and heritage of religious homophobia and heterosexism? Well, to be honest, yes. It is a heritage and tradition all of us who are straight have to wrestle with inside ourselves.

So to my friend Bob: a) I do not think opposing gay marriage and ordination makes anyone a racist more than those who favor it. But b) I also do not think that not being more a racist means that those persons are necessarily free from the tradition of religious homophobia and heterosexism which I believe to be hateful, destructive, and anti-Christ.

Not being more or less racist than the rest of us does not give anyone a free pass on the matter of discrimination against people of different sexual identities.

And, finally, I will add this. I do think that discrimination in whatever form it takes tends to share some common dynamics and, as Bill Kirk taught me so often, we certainly can learn lessons from one struggle that we can apply to another.

I think that, because the current struggle is shaping up in such a way as to seem to pit LGBTQ inclusion against the empowerment of African United Methodists, we are in danger of living out our various traditions of prejudice and discrimination in all sorts of harmful ways.

I think we have to be very self-reflective and prayerful because we who are white, straight, affluent, first-world, and male (or any combination of these)  have within us an assumption of self-superiority and privilege in regard to many other groups. This will not be easy work and none of us get a free pass.        



  1. Thanks, Dean, for this careful and thoughtful post.

  2. I have some concern that even within our struggle for marriage equality, racism rears its head. I struggled with this thought as I went to Arch St. Church last week to stand with other pastors performing a marriage for 2 men who had loved each other and been committed to each other for 20 years.
    Aware that more African American men are in prison than in college, that the churches in the city of Philadelphia are struggling to survive even though they are often a crucial base of support for those African American men and their communities, I felt like my witness that day was made possible partly out of my own privilege. I could take risks that other people could not take. Isn't there some way to challenge the continuing effects of racism with the energy and commitment we felt in that church?
    I would love to see it, and I will look for opportunities to ask my colleagues to take those stands, even if they aren't as flashy or attention getting.
    For the moment though, I had to agree with my colleague Jim McIntire that what matters, matters. We challenge oppression in whatever form it presents itself. We build the alliances and build the momentum for combating oppression in all it's forms.
    I have an African American colleague in my Bible study who has a different stand on marriage equality than I do. He came to Arch St. Church last Saturday to support us even though he struggles with the stance we were taking. He made it clear that he is hoping that we stand with him as well.