This morning I posted a blog entitled Four Unpainted Corners, using a metaphor of four different groups in a large ballroom painting in opposite directions, ending up painted — as far from each other as possible — into the four corners of the space. Well, as we well know, metaphors only take us so far, but three people I deeply respect gave me different perspectives and deeper insights into their feelings — and I believe further illustrate the challenges we face.
A long-time colleague from the conference I grew up in stopped me to tell me he enjoyed what I have been writing, but that he had “a bone to pick” with me. “You know, I haven’t painted myself into any corner. I feel like I am standing in the middle of the room and everyone has painted me into a tinier and tinier space until I can’t turn around without getting yelled at. I see myself as a Bible-believing Christian, and try to live what you call “compatible with scripture.”. For that, I am called a narrow-minded bigot, filled with hate, and stupid to boot. I’m told I don’t know how to read the Bible, that I am misinterpreting what I do read, and that anyone who thinks the Bible is the Word of God is backwards and mean-spirited. I don’t see myself that way, and people who know me don’t see me that way, and my church doesn’t see me this way, but those who don’t know me and disagree with me? They see me this way. And quite frankly, I resent it. And I don’t think it’s fair that you say I and others like me have done this to ourselves!”
“So,” I asked, “if our General Conference determined that homosexuality were no more compatible with scripture than divorce or lending/borrowing money at interest, but were to be accepted on the same terms as we have accepted these other incompatible practices, what would you do?”
“I would have to leave the church. For me this is one step too far,” he said. “I know we allow divorced pastors. I know we ordain women. I guess I knew the Bible said not to charge interest, but I never thought of it as a command. I don’t know how we got where we are today, but I just can’t keep throwing out the Bible to accommodate the world. I just can’t.”
A second conversation was with a current colleague with whom I have deep respect and admiration. He challenged me this way. “We haven’t painted ourselves into a corner. Others have painted us into a corner. We’re told we are not welcome, but we don’t say that to anyone else. There is a denial of any explanation on our part that people are born the way they are.” The sense of this feeling is that gays and lesbians, trans-gender and bi-sexual, are judged not for what they do, but for who they are — they are put in the corner and painted in. The LGBTQI segment of the church never says to their fundamentalist, conservative, traditional, more right-leaning brothers and sisters “you don’t belong here,” yet this is what they consistently hear from others. There is a sense of victimization at the heart of this perspective. “We have not done this to ourselves; it has been done to us by others.”
I noted to my friend that I have seen a shift since 2012, when General Conference was in Tampa. At that time, the call for “amicable separation” or SPLIT, was coming almost exclusively from the conservative/evangelical, fundamentalist, traditional end of the theological spectrum. At that time, I was hearing the LGBTQI community and the liberal and progressive end of the spectrum still talking about one church for all. This year, I am hearing both ends of the spectrum saying, “we’re done! It is time to stop beating our heads against the wall and part ways, amicably or otherwise!” However, this still ignores a fairly large center of moderate and progressive evangelicals and long-time members and friends.
A woman I have known for almost forty years stopped me this afternoon, and she shook her head, pursed her lips and said, “What’s happening? I just don’t get it.” There had been a “Black Lives Matter” demonstration during our afternoon session, that incorporated some “awareness raising” about “homophobia” and “hate.” Tearing up, my friend said, “I don’t hate anyone. I would welcome any gay to our church. I would welcome any fundamentalist. I would welcome a Muslim or a Jew. I would welcome anyone. I don’t hate anybody. I felt like they were yelling at me to stop hating people. And they had such nasty, angry looks on their faces. I couldn’t look at them after awhile. What’s come over us? Don’t we believe that our God is the God of all of us? I don’t hate anyone. I just love my church and feel like I am going to lose it.”
What I found most hopeful was that very few people defended one position over the other or pointed fingers at someone else to say “they are the problem”. Most people came up to me — gay, straight, young, old, conservative, traditional, progressive, liberal — to say “I’m ready to dance!”. So maybe there is still hope for the ballroom in which we still coexist. Maybe instead of coming out of our corners at the sound of the bell ready to fight, we have options. But it isn’t going to be easy. As the conversations I had throughout the day attest, people are hurt, they feel injured, they feel misunderstood, they feel stereotyped and dismissed. We have a very long way to go for true healing, and only by God’s grace will we have the patience and perseverance to make it so. And even when it happens, some of us won’t be here to witness it, and others will turn away, defeated.