Commentary: Avoiding Sexuality Issue Is Not True Peace
- April 11, 2008
Commentary: Avoiding sexuality issue is not true peace
A UMNS Commentary
By Steven E. Webster*
Many voices from across The United Methodist Church are suggesting
there is no way forward in the 36-year-long dialogue about the role
and status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in
the church. Declaring an impasse, these voices call for an end to this
dialogue in the name of peace and unity.
Forty-five years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a
now-famous letter from a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., to a group of
white clergy (including two Methodist bishops) who--in the name of
"unity" and "peace"--had publicly called on King and his allies to
cease their disturbing nonviolent protests against racial segregation.
King wrote that the "great stumbling block" in the African-American
struggle for equality was not blatant bigotry, "but the white
moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice, who prefers
a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace
which is the presence of justice."
I embrace our Wesleyan Christian vision of "making disciples of Jesus
Christ for the transformation of the world" and applaud the General
Conference for seeking to build unity around four focus areas: 1)
developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world;
2) reaching new people in new places by starting new congregations and
renewing existing ones; 3) engaging in ministry with the poor; and 4)
stamping out killer diseases by improving health globally.
Yet we undercut these same goals when we continue to: 1) reject the
gifts and graces of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and
their allies; 2) turn off a younger generation that views the
Christian faith as "anti-homosexual;" 3) push LGBT youth into poverty
and homelessness as families reject them because church and society
stigmatizes LGBT persons; and 4) fail to address the role that
ignorance and stigmatization of homosexuality (and other sexualities)
play in the global AIDS epidemic.
The United Methodist Church cannot enjoy true peace and unity while it
engages in injustice and spiritual violence against some of its
members. Biblical peace does not refer to the apparent absence of
conflict, and still less to the suppression of dialogue. In the Bible,
"peace" ("shalom" in Hebrew) is a holistic concept that includes
justice and total well-being.
To fail to address the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
people in the church now would leave in place the status quo in church
law that includes Judicial Council Decision 1032, which normalizes the
exclusion of LGBT persons from membership in the church. Decision 1032
has never yet been the subject of discussion at a General Conference
and runs counter to a (non-binding) plea in our Social Principles that
"we implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and
gay members and friends."
Even if lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are allowed to
attend or join the membership of The United Methodist Church, Decision
1032 further legitimates the widespread practice of "shunning" such
persons as unworthy to serve in any of the ministries of the local
church. This is spiritual violence, the misuse of religious authority
to demean and diminish LGBT Christians.
I know LGBT persons who have been denied the opportunity to serve in
the church as leaders of adult education classes, choir members,
committee members, or readers of Scripture in worship. It is not
unheard of for committed same-gender couples to be denied baptism for
their babies and gay youth to be shunned from youth groups in The
United Methodist Church.
These acts, justified by labeling LGBT people as "unrepentant sinners"
inferior to all the "repentant sinners" in the church, are acts of
spiritual violence, harming the souls of lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender persons. It is tragic that being from a devout Christian
family has been identified as a risk factor for suicide among LGBT youths.
A thorn in the flesh
Some have described the church's long dialogue over these issues as "a
thorn in the flesh." Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 that he
endured a painful "thorn in the flesh" that would not leave him even
though he pleaded with God to remove it. God's answer to Paul applies
to us: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in
We feel weary and weakened by this long dialogue over homosexuality, a
dialogue in which I have actively participated in many ways these past
36 years. The faith that sustains me is that God intends to perfect us
through these trials, and we, the people of The United Methodist
Church, look forward to a real peace which is, in King's words, the
presence of justice and not merely the absence of tension.
*Webster is chair of the church council of University United Methodist
Church in Madison, Wis., and has attended the 2000 and 2004 General
Conferences as a volunteer with Soulforce, an organization that
describes itself as working for freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender people from religious and political oppression. He legally
married Jim Dietrich, his partner of 27 years, in a civil ceremony in
Toronto in 2006.