Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. – Mark 3: 1-6
Jesus’s example in the Gospels could not be clearer: again and again, he chooses people over policies, he values relationships more than rules. Jesus consistently responded to the needs of the people around him and put the law in its place: “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” –Mark 2:27.
The United Methodist Church today exhibits far too much hardness of heart, and there are far too many who remain silent when confronted with the question of whether we should do good or harm to God’s LGBTQI children. When a clergy person comes out or a pastor offers ministry to a same-sex couple, the Pharisees and Herodians in our church demand punishment in the name of covenant.
This is not a church Jesus would recognize.
Nor John Wesley. Wesley, too, chose people over policies when he ordained bishops in America without church authority. The profound emphasis on grace in Wesleyan theology is hard to discern in the shrill calls for harsher penalties. Meanwhile, the immense damage done to countless young people who are taught that they are an abomination (or in Methodist speak, “incompatible with Christian teaching”) makes a mockery of Wesley’s admonition to “do no harm.”
Our United Methodist Church does harm each and every day to LGBTQI people and especially LGBTQI young people – in our pews and far beyond. Our official condemnation and policies of discrimination help hold up the edifice of state-sponsored discrimination in a majority of U.S. states and in countries across the globe. They provide moral cover to parents who throw their kids out when they come out and contribute to the crisis of queer homeless youth in the U.S. They foster the intolerance that fuels rising hate violence against queer people, the main targets of which are trans women of color in the U.S. and queer people of color worldwide. And they model bullying for children, part of the reason 74% of queer students in the U.S. are verbally harassed at school, 56% feel unsafe, and 16% are physically assaulted.
As Christians, we are called to welcome and defend the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. We cannot claim to follow Jesus and yet do nothing in response to our own church’s mistreatment of some of “the least of these.” As Methodists, we are compelled to witness against the distortion that Methodism has become.
Yet what are we to do? Everywhere we turn, institutional channels of change are foreclosed.
For over 40 years – 40+ years of spiritual wilderness, of hate and exclusion and condemnation – we have gone to General Conference and advocated for change, pleaded, begged for our dignity and humanity. All for naught. An anti-queer majority at General Conference, a combination of U.S. and international conservatives, led and whipped into a hateful frenzy by southern white Americans, has refused to consider our humanity. We are told we are prostitutes, pedophiles, murderers.
If we look beyond General Conference, our way is equally blocked. Annual conferences are not allowed to set policy that contradicts the Book of Discipline. And if we pass a resolution that says we will not discriminate, the judicial council invalidates it. Meanwhile, our trial courts have consistently upheld our unjust laws and found guilty those who were moved to break them. Our bishops, with one shining exception, have said – collectively as well as individually – that they must uphold the Discipline and that they have “no choice” but to do so. Our legislative, judicial, and executive branches are all foreclosed to us.
No matter where we turn, what church body or leader we look to, what prescribed process we follow, we always hit the same brick wall. While Jesus showed us it is “lawful to do good on the sabbath,” our entire church has rejected that teaching. We are in thrall to an unjust book of rules and we are told that the only way to change it is at General Conference, but at General Conference a tyranny of the majority is hellbent on denying our humanity.
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. – Matthew 21: 12-14
Throughout his ministry, Jesus challenged rules of social hierarchy, exclusion, and privilege, and rules that interfered with meeting the needs of the poor and the outcast. In situation after situation, surrounded by people in need who were clamoring for his help and desperate for his ministry, Jesus had a choice to make: he could meet the needs of the people standing in front of him or he could follow the laws and customs of his society. He could not do both. There was no way for Jesus to be in ministry with the poor without breaking the rules.
Thank God for Jesus’s example – because in The United Methodist Church it is impossible to be in ministry with LGBTQI people without breaking its rules.
Jesus did not ask for permission before healing on the sabbath. He did not send a letter to his bishop saying he was planning to touch and heal “unclean” lepers. He did not submit a petition to the Temple authorities suggesting the removal of the money changers. Nor did he negotiate a witness in which the blind and the lame would be allowed on the Temple floor for a symbolic moment of ministry.
No, Jesus took matters into his own hands, and so must we, because the system is rigged against us, too, and we will not change it without challenging the rules that keep it in place. This is not easy, but if we are serious about following Jesus, we must do it. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” – Luke 14:27
Since 2011, thousands of clergy and lay supporters across the denomination have banded together in annual conference networks to do weddings for all couples on an equal basis, in open defiance of our church’s rules. They have helped breathe new life into the church as they provided desperately needed ministry to those cast out by The UMC. None of this happened because anyone in any leadership position in the church said, “we need to find a way to stop denying LGBTQI people ministry, we need to address the spiritual crisis our clergy face on a daily basis as a result of the church’s requirement to discriminate.” Are you kidding?
If we had not taken matters into our own hands, it would not have happened. If we do not continue to do so, it will not happen.
Nor will change happen at General Conference if we do not directly challenge business as usual there. There are no checks or balances to counter the General Conference’s anti-queer majority: No constitutional protection, no 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal treatment or dignity. And no institutional leaders willing to prioritize justice over order.
Come May 2016 this body will once again affirm that LGBTQI people are “incompatible with Christian teaching,” that we should not be ordained, that our marriages may not be consecrated in the church, and church funds may not be spent to defend our human rights. This outcome is as assured as a vote in a southern U.S. legislature in 1960 on ending segregation.
If there is to be a different outcome then we must take matters into our own hands and somehow force the system to recognize our humanity. What will it take? Inspiration and instruction come from Jesus’s example, and also from the Civil Rights Movement, here in the words from the Letter from Birmingham Jail:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…. to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
As it stands, LGBTQI people are legislated about by General Conference, but never negotiated with. Out queer clergy are banned by the Book of Discipline, and queer lay people can be denied membership at the discretion of a pastor. The church excludes and silences us, yet pretends the so-called “holy conferencing” that every four years affirms our exclusion is somehow a legitimate process.
What must we do in order “so to dramatize the issue” that LGBTQI people’s demand for inclusion can no longer be ignored?
We must find a way to make it impossible for delegates to continue to step over our bodies, ignore our hymns, and stick to their schedules. It will take my body, and yours – all of ours – to do this.
If we do not disrupt business as usual, then nothing will change. The money changers, the dove sellers, the discriminatory legislation, the foundational hate language in our Book of Discipline – it will all continue.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4: 16-21
This passage of scripture is much loved and often cited, yet rarely does anyone focus on its core lesson, contained in the word “today.” Jesus claims the promise of liberation not as an abstract goal or an aspirational future but as the demand of the present.
This scripture is balm to all those who have been told, over years and centuries, to wait for justice. That someday, but not today, the world will be ready for desegregation… for women in leadership or ministry… for a free Palestine… for gender-neutral bathrooms… for end an end to racial profiling, Muslim profiling, police violence, mass incarceration… for affordable housing and living wages… for an end to the fossil-fuel economy… for LGBTQI people everywhere in the world to have human and civil rights and be free from violence…for queer people to be included in The UMC.
But the demand of the scripture, and the example of Jesus’s ministry, is that the time is now and we are the agents of change. For over 40 years we have wandered in spiritual wilderness as a denomination, and LGBTQI people have pleaded for our humanity from an intransigent General Conference. No longer. No more business as usual. The time is May 10-20, 2016, the place is Portland. Join us.
Join us in doing good and saving lives on the sabbath.
Join us in overturning the tables in the Temple.
Join us in inviting into the Temple and bringing healing to those who have been harmed by The UMC.
Join us in letting the oppressed go free.
Attend one of these non-violent direct action trainings:
- How Did We Get Here? Where Do We Go from Here? - August 23, 2018
- On bishops, choices, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit - November 8, 2016
- Statement read to the Council of Bishops - November 1, 2016