It’s so simple

Recently I was talking to a family member about the process of encouraging his congregation to become publicly affirming. In frustration he said, “It’s so simple. Why can’t we make a statement that we welcome all people and don’t discriminate on the basis of whatever characteristic? Who could possibly disagree with that?!” Indeed.

I’d like to propose that the difficulty our congregations and denominations have in coming to this “simple” conclusion reveals an underlying problem with how we understand ourselves as a peace church. I watch as the teaching “violence is wrong” is distorted to “conflict is bad,” and the value that “community is good” distorted to “the majority is never wrong.” Conflict is neither inherently bad nor good, and is an inevitable part of genuine relationships. One need not look hard at history to find examples of times the majority has been wrong, especially in relation to minorities.

Violence and conflict:
It is our responsibility to name and challenge violence when we see it. When we stand up to people and institutions that are causing harm, we can expect to find ourselves in the midst of conflict. Often those who bring attention to historical and current discrimination and who call for restoring right relationship are labelled militant, unreasonable, extremist, troublemakers, divisive, and even bullies. This is a clear attempt to blame the victim and deflect attention away from the real problem – the bad behaviour. Avoiding conflict when we see violence means making a choice to allow violence to continue. It is time to (re)learn from the gospels and our scholars a different way to view conflict and understand power.

Community and majority:
Valuing community includes valuing all of the individuals in the community. Healthy communities, similar to healthy families, care for, nurture and protect all of their members. While being in community can require compromise or stepping aside at specific moments, this only works given equal power and mutual respect. Healthy communities do not sacrifice individuals for the convenience of the majority. In fact, healthy communities go out of their way to protect their more vulnerable members. The nature of “majority rules” decision-making is that those with fewer numbers or less power will always lose. This is why nations who believe in protecting minority rights don’t put those rights up for a general vote.

Recognizing violence:
Violence is a strong word, and I choose to use it. The ideology and rhetoric that justifies physical violence against lgbt people is an extreme form of the same ideology that justifies discrimination and exclusion in our church. Without minimizing physical violence (which we should get more riled up about), we must learn to see the violence when “love the sinner, hate the sin” goes unchallenged, when parents of lgbt people are taken out of leadership positions, when a transgender youth knows that to live an emotionally healthy life he will lose his faith community, and when a lesbian couple is grateful they are allowed to attend a congregation though they can’t take communion. Let’s get shocked, saddened and angered into action.

Walk the talk AND talk the walk:
As individuals, and as communities we can work to overcome any discomfort we have learned and internalized. We can actively educate ourselves out of the heterosexism, sexism, racism, ableism, and all the other systemic oppressions that we have been taught. We can strive to treat all people, especially those who have been treated as less-than, with love and respect. We can say, out loud, that we affirm all people, including lgbt people.

When we do these things our communities become healthier places for all of us. All members can bring all of themselves into relationship with each other and the whole. All members find the courage to bring questions, concerns, and affirmations, with the confidence that they will be treated with care and honour as whole people. Who could possibly disagree with that?

Kirsten

Good Cheese

I refuse to support an organization that actively or passively contributes to my own oppression.

This is a recent realization, and I still often feel compelled to be apologetic about this choice.

But I’ve tasted something better. You see, I thought I knew what an “lgbtq-friendly” congregation or organization was. Then I found some that were actively non-heterosexist. It’s like stumbling upon an array of gourmet cheeses when you didn’t know there was anything other than those individually wrapped slices.

The next time I walk in to a place and someone offers me a sandwich with the rubbery stuff, I’ll be saying “no thank-you” and spending my time where I am nourished. It’s true I may go back occasionally, but only to witness to the poor souls who haven’t heard that next door everyone’s enjoying cheddar, brie, and gouda

As the secular and religious lgbtq movement grows it’s getting harder and harder for people, congregations and institutions to serve up believable excuses for continuing discriminatory practices. If your group is thinking about how to become welcoming, check out one of these short papers:

Doing Process Well: Recommendations for Brethren Congregations
Doing Process Well: Recommendations for Mennonite Congregations

And bring on the feta.

Kirsten

Context and history matter

Minority groups understand that context and history matter. A progressive congregation might wonder why they need to bother saying “we welcome lgbt people” – can’t that be assumed? An lgbtq person knows the answer is no. The progressive congregation (whether they like it or not), exists within the context and history of the church, and none of the BMC denominations have ended their discriminatory policies and practices. Right now, an lgtbtq person is likely going to assume a congregation is not welcoming unless shown otherwise.

It will take work to shift the assumption to the opposite. In fact, it will take not only ending discrimination, but also acknowledging past harm and showing over time that attitudes and actions have indeed changed. That’s reconciliation 101.

I say these things recognizing that it is hard to see the effect of context and history when on the privileged side of an equation. I thought I was pretty with-it, but I had some eye-opening experiences when participating in anti-racism training over the past several months, especially when learning some usually un-taught history related to race. (An introductory article I found helpful is Historical Development of Institutional Racism by Robette Ann Dias. Go to crossroadsantiracism.org/working_papers/ and scroll to the bottom.)

I am, hopefully, open to learning about how I’m not as with-it as I’d like to think. I don’t understand when people who have experienced one type of oppression aren’t able to translate that experience to recognizing the oppression of another. How is it that there are lgbtq people who can pinpoint heterosexism, but can’t see their own white privilege? What prevents women (especially those whose lived memory includes the women’s movement) from recognizing their straight privilege? Why do transgender people face oppression not only in wider society, but also within “lgbtq” circles? It sounds like I’m saying I understand when bigotry comes from straight wealthy white guys – which isn’t exactly my point – I don’t want to let them off the hook either.

It would be great if we challenged ourselves to take what we learn from personal experiences and extrapolate to lessons that can be broadly applied; lessons about power, privilege, structures and assumptions. And when you start connecting the dots for yourself, be a good friend and share what you’re seeing with others.

Kirsten

Where’s the middle?

When you ask someone where their congregation is in terms of being affirming towards lgbtq members, the response is predictable. Usually some humming and hawing, and then a “well, some are on one side, a few on the other, and most people are somewhere in the middle.” You will get this same response, no matter how welcoming a congregation is or is not (unless of course, the congregation has made a public statement).

What I want to know is, what does “the middle” mean in this context? Am I, or am I not, a sub-par human being? Where exactly is the grey between being created as a child of God or as an abomination?

Additionally frustrating is that the middle is viewed as neutral, and being neutral is seen as better than taking sides. This is especially true when our pacifist beliefs get distorted to the point where they mean nothing more than the avoidance of potential conflict.

When a congregation has an internal dispute about sanctuary décor or music selection, it is understandable and appropriate for some to find themselves on middle ground, neutral, and possibly taking on a mediating role. But this is not about paint chips or praise bands, this is about people’s lives and how we judge human worth. Besides, how do you mediate a conflict when one party is actively excluded from the table?

When our context is an institution that has historically persecuted and continues discriminatory policies and practices towards particular groups, being “neutral” supports the status quo. This same pattern is repeated throughout history. Silence in the face of discrimination is never viewed as ethically justified when we look backwards in time, yet during each “today” we continue to look for reasons to justify our silence and inaction.

This unwillingness to learn from our past scares me. Until we do some serious self-examining, this pattern will continue. Who will be tomorrow’s marginalized group? Will it be you or someone you love?

Those of us working towards welcome and affirmation sometimes fall into the trap of arguing against those few who are actively working for exclusion and condemnation. Engaging in that argument takes a lot of time and energy, and is unlikely to change that person’s mind. Engaging in that argument also allows the self-proclaimed middle off the hook – they don’t have to do anything, and get to feel good that they’re not as bigoted as those people quoting Leviticus.

It has become clear that the institutional church isn’t going to end its discrimination of lgbtq people until it’s forced to by individual members and congregations. This means the people in “the middle” are going to need to find some moral courage and speak what they are thinking and feeling. Yes, I know there may be some who are uncertain what they believe, but time and time again, individuals share that they are “personally supportive” but can’t say so “publicly” for reasons a, b and c.

We need to ask the people in the middle, and the people in the middle need to ask themselves:

1)      What are the core values of my faith?

2)      What do these values tell me is the right thing to do?

Then do it. I want you to do it even if you come to a different conclusion than I have, because at least you’ll be acting with ethical integrity. When we compromise our own values, we do harm to ourselves and our ability to witness to others on all other issues. This is the true danger the church should be trying to avoid.

 

Kirsten

Gender and Sexuality

There’s a reason BMC changed its name from the Brethren Mennonite Council for Gay and Lesbian Concerns. And I’m not talking about bisexuality — though that calls for a blog post of its own. I’m not talking about sexual orientation in any capacity, actually. Throw out homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, homoflexibility, pansexuality, heteroflexibility, etc. I’m talking about gender. Not sex, not sexual orientation, not sexuality, but gender. I’d like to repeat one bit of that — not sex, but gender – as in transgender.

Perhaps it’s all those Sociology courses I took in college finally getting the best of me, but I’ve reached the limit of how many times I can read sex and gender being interchanged in the Church of the Brethren and Mennonite Church. [Sex refers to one’s biology, whereas gender refers to one’s presentation and identity] I’ve reached the limit of the number of times I can listen to person after person group transgender rights in with homosexuality — as if they are one and the same. These are more than pet peeves and slight annoyances; they are untrue, sometimes even harmful statements.

I’m ready for the lgbt community to finally include its full range of identities. If a group claims to work for lgbt rights, their work can not only focus on homosexuality, or sexual orientations in general. Discussing sexuality and sexual orientation are important matters, but ignoring the fact that the discussion often leaves out transgender individuals harms us all. Doing so creates a dishonest movement, claiming total equality, but working only with sexual orientations. Especially when gender variance continues to flourish in our youth, we should be eager to share resources provided by the BMC office (and elsewhere). I deeply appreciate that, while acknowledging there is still a long way to go, BMC includes the transgender population in the community it serves.

The shameful lack of comprehensive sexuality education in the Brethren and Mennonite communities fuels a lot of this ignorance. It feels as if we are forcing our youth to remain naive about their own bodies, urges, and identities in order to preserve our own intense misunderstandings about the world (after all, we all know decent sexuality education leads to promiscuity, abortion, and homosexuality). I am worried that our denominations seem afraid of the fact that the more we teach our youth, the more they might explore. This exploration is seen as an undesirable and inappropriate process, but I see it as finally allowing our youth to grow outside our unhealthy boundaries and experience a world that seems beyond our control.

Remembering Lawrence King

Lawrence King?s young life tragically ended in his junior high computer lab in Oxnard, California. Larry, who identified as gay and sometimes dressed in a ?feminine? manner, made the mistake of asking his fellow student, Brandon McInerney, to be his valentine. Apparently the idea of this was so abhorrent and shameful to the fourteen year old Brandon that he brought a gun to school, walked into the classroom, and shot Larry directly in the head.

It is tempting to gasp, express dismay, and then convince oneself that this is an isolated incident that is tragic but, thankfully, an anomaly. However, this dismissal ignores the disturbing statistic from the 2005 California Healthy Kids Survey that 28% of gay and lesbian students report being threatened or injured with a weapon, a rate that is five times that of other students and consistent with national findings. In such an environment, it is no wonder that social engagement, educational aspirations and overall academic achievement can suffer. Students who experience harassment because of sexual orientation or gender expression are more likely to skip school, drop out, reject college, suffer from depression and substance abuse, and under perform academically.

Both the Mennonite Church and Church of the Brethren have included language in their sexuality statements that expresses sorrow at the violence and hatred directed towards gay and lesbian people and calls for understanding and even the pursuit of civil rights (note: bisexual and transgender people are not included in the statements ? the obsession is with ?the homosexual.?) Such sentiments, however, have had little impact. This year BMC proposed a booth for the exhibit space at the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference that would focus solely upon providing education related to lgbt hate crimes, job discrimination and housing discrimination. The request was denied, with the committee citing homosexuality as ?an issue which causes passionate divisiveness in our denomination.? It is a telling comment when violence directed towards lgbt people is understood as ?the issue of homosexuality.? Is anti-Semitic violence the ?issue of Judaism??

In practice it is difficult to interpret pious denominational words as little more than an exercise in cheap grace. What efforts have any of the denominations made? What can they point towards in terms of fulfilling this promise? Where have they made a difference? I can think of no instance where the Mennonite Church USA, the Mennonite Church Canada or the Church of the Brethren has spoken out to challenge lgbt directed violence, discrimination or the violation of human or civil rights. Indeed, denominational officials from Mennonite Church Canada were vociferous in their opposition to marriage equality. The courageous congregations and the few pastors who have taken seriously this message of non-violence and understanding have found themselves becoming targets of discipline, derision and hostility.

Lawrence King is dead. May he find a peace that was denied him in life. Brandon McInerney, age 14, will probably spend most of his life in prison. Thousands of young lgbt kids have just gotten the message to be very careful about coming out or displaying any type of gender non-conformity. All are victims of a tragic homophobia that is reinforced by the policies and practices of the Mennonite and Brethren denominations. It is up to each of us to end this shameful complicity. Speak up, come out, talk to your friends, challenge your congregation, demand that your pastor break silence, organize your campus, ask more of the larger church, and get involved in the movement for lgbt justice. For the sake of other young people like Lawrence King and Brandon McInerney, it’s time.

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We have what they need

So occasionally I get sucked into writing on this other blog, and recently I’ve been discussing the topic of sexuality and how the church approaches it. I feel pretty strongly that the church’s problem in dealing with sexuality through history have come because the church has the wrong fundamental approach to the whole thing – that rather than think of sexuality as a part of being human that has the potential to connect us to each other and to the Divine, it all starts from (and usually ends at) coming up with the right set of rules/boundaries/prohibitions to contain and control sexuality. It’d be interesting to go into why this has happened, and continues to happen, but for now I just want to focus on whether/how it can be changed.

Because – I feel like most Christians are all tied up inside over the whole thing. Yeah, most of them can grow up and get married and probably feel less angst about it than they did as teens & single young adults – but certainly many people don’t fit into this cookie-cutter pattern. And yes, celibacy is probably a respectable option if you’re called to it. I’m not dissing marriage or celibacy. But I just think the church really misses out on this whole huge part of what it means to be a human and what that can tell us about God, how it connects us to the Divine. I can’t imagine how one can fully know, accept, and love one’s own body unless one fully knows, accepts, and loves one’s sexuality (as it truly is, not just as you think it should be) – and I really can’t see how one can foster a connection to the presence of God/sacredness/the Divine while being disconnected from one’s body.

So here’s my radical proposition: I think we queers have a special mission, here and now in history, to take this message of sexuality into the church. Being queer has allowed us the pain, the chore – but also the opportunity – of having, by necessity, to break outside the box that the church has always placed around sexuality, to venture out into strange & unknown &, to many, scary territory of sexuality without clearly defined rules/limits/prohibitions/customs to contain & define it. We’ve learned things that few straight Christians get the chance to learn. And the church really needs our message and vision now, a lot, or else it will keep getting more and more dead.

What do you think? Do we queers know something about sex & sexuality that straight Christian don’t, and if we do, should we really go through all the pain & annoyance of trying to convince them that we have something they need?

The Change Must Start Now

BMC is consistently denied exhibit space at denominational events.

A close friend of mine was recently asked to wait 10 years for the Church to be ready for her to be an out lesbian and accepted in ministry.

Brethren and Mennonite listservs frequently opine that “within a few generations, LGBT acceptance won’t even be an issue.”

Denominational staff people have suggested that the youth and young adult population of today’s Church need not discuss LGBT issues, because being LGBT simply “isn’t an issue” for that demographic.

For at least nine years, BMC volunteers have been sponsored by United Church of Christ Partners in Service and/or Lutheran Volunteer Service.

These are just a few reasons why I feel underwhelmed by the overwhelming sense of false support for LGBT individuals within the Brethren and Mennonite Churches. I was raised to believe that any one person could make a difference; as long as I stood up for myself, I was doing the right thing. As I stand up as a lesbian and a member of the Church of the Brethren, I wonder where the support has gone.

We have reached an interesting place in the Brethren and Mennonite Churches. Support for LGBT individuals seems to be spreading throughout both traditions, and at times I am even surprised by the number of people willing to claim an ally identity. All too often, however, I feel perplexed by individuals who personally whisper their support of LGBT individuals, yet remain publicly silent. When times are tough (and times are always tough), these individuals abandon their progressive leanings and remain silent.

Being an ally is a powerful identity. Being a good ally is even more powerful. I am frustrated and disappointed with the repeated experience of allies not exhibiting the kind of bravery necessary to create real change. How many of us belong to congregations who “support” LGBT individuals, but have yet to join the Supportive Communities Network and really come out to their denomination and local community? Granted, this is not an easy task. In fact, LGBT individuals face an enormous risk upon coming out to family, friends, and their congregations. Without facing this risk with courage, we would never see change. Allies also face a risk when choosing to stand up for equality and justice. Taking this risk is what creates an amazing ally. As Anais Nin stated, “…the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” What is stopping us from taking the risk of making our support public?

 I call allies to action. Move your congregation to join the Supportive Communities Network. Speak up at meetings when the vote could easily be turned to a landmark victory for LGBT persons within the Church. Be that voice of dissent, unwilling to budge on issues of equality and justice. Remaining silently supportive is a detrimental act for the movement, and it is causing a great amount of hurt to individuals, families, and the church as a whole. Start the change. Do not allow yourself to relax and wait for equality and justice, because every day the chance for action passes us by. Most of all, stay committed to your beliefs when difficulties arise; for an ally is hardly an ally if they are unwilling to act.

We can no longer wait for a great revolution of change within the Brethren and Mennonite Churches. The change must start now.