Dear United Methodist Church:
I would like to begin by clarifying that while this letter is addressed, “Dear United Methodist Church,” for me to imply a homogeny among those delegates in attendance at the special session of the General Conference in St. Louis last week would be tantamount to my presuming a homogeny among women, among Muslims, among blacks, among gays and so forth. Surely and hopefully, we share a concern for the perils of homogenizing any people in thought, word or action.
So, while this letter is addressed, “Dear United Methodist Church,” it’s more specifically addressed to those 438 delegates (that slim majority of delegates) whose votes sanctioned and solidified a United Methodist Church which will continue to deny its LQBTQ members the beauties of marriage and the callings of ordination as it would continue to deny its greater membership their demonstrations of family and their gifts of leadership.
And lest it appear that I write this letter from the narrow and self-serving platform of an LGBTQ spiritual leader, I affirm that I write this letter from the broad and selfless platform of one who shares your passion for, commitment to, and teaching of, the universal wisdom offered throughout the many books of the Judeo-Christian library.
Certainly, and ironically, we stand firmly together in our belief that the very integrity of the Christian idea is at stake in this conversation – albeit a conversation about a subject matter so obscure as to have been mentioned no more than nine times within sixty-six books written over 1,000 years and completely ignored by all four gospel writers and by Jesus himself.
From those nine mentions presumed to address the obscure subject matter of sexual orientation, among the most referenced is that found in Genesis. Ironic as it might seem, I agree with the importance of this story in our shared commitment to the integrity of the Christian idea.
Certainly, you are familiar with the mythic tale. Paraphrased for today’s reader, it absorbs some two chapters in the Torah and details the arrival of strangers. Lot welcomed the strangers into his home and provided them a feast. At that point, the men of the city (both old and young – every man from every quarter) surrounded Lot’s home and demanded that Lot send the strangers out, that the men of the city might “know” the strangers.
In his attempts to placate the mob, Lot begged the men of the city to abandon their wicked intentions. He went so far as to offer his two, virgin daughters in their stead, at which point the men of the city rejected Lot’s offer, pressed themselves into his home and were stricken blind.
So wicked did God deem Sodom and Gomorrah, that our storyteller ends with the city and its people smoldering in a wrathful fire.
The code governing travelling strangers in that geography and in that era was clear: visitors had no rights and no protections unless and until hospitality was offered by one who was a citizen of the city. If no hospitality were offered, strangers became fair game.
The Hebrew verb translated as “to know” connotes a sex act rooted in dominance. And when we consider the gender context from which this myth emerged, how better to fulfill an intention of dominance than by reducing a male to the role ascribed to a female? So, “Bring them out to us, that we may know them,” details an intention of an unthinkably-cruel violence perpetrated within, and accelerated by, the intoxicating sociopathy of mob-think.
For certainly we can agree that characters presented as “the men of the city (both old and young – every man from every quarter)” would better imply a violent mob than a gathering of homosexuals.
Now, the context from which the story rises was one in which it would have been widely understood that one was to welcome the stranger. “Welcome the stranger” was a dictate appearing more often in Hebrew scripture than “love your God.” In fact, “welcome the stranger” was a dictate appearing more often in Hebrew scripture than any other dictate.
So, the context from which the story rises was one in which it would have been widely understood that one was to welcome the stranger and to transcend that tribal self that would engage the stranger as threat; that would ignore, alienate and “other;” that would debase, demean and dominate. It would have been widely understood that one was to transcend all tendencies of the most basal self to engage in the intoxicating sociopathy of mob-think.
But be clear that this story doesn’t set forth an idea defined by matters of sexual orientation. This story sets forth an idea defined by every moment in which the human transcends that tribal self that would ignore, alienate and “other” those of a different religion, geography, age, social class; by every moment in which the human transcends that tribal self that would debase, demean and dominate those of a different color, politic, gender or sexual orientation.
The integrity of the Christian idea isn’t compromised when you open your door to the strangers. The integrity of the Christian idea is compromised when you open the door to the mob.
To decontextualize is to weaponize and ultimately to victimize.
At the beginning of this letter, I referenced this as a conversation about a subject matter so obscure as to have been completed ignored by Jesus himself. And yet, when asked what really mattered, the Rabbi certainly didn’t exclude those whose sexual orientation leaves them outside of societal norms when he quoted his Bible in response with, “People — love God, and love each other.”
In my tradition, we teach that you are spiritual in nature and human in experience.
In other words, the highest ‘you’ began long before you assumed earthly form and the highest ‘you’ will continue long after you have relinquished that earthly form.
I like to say that each of us has a foot dragging the dust of earth and a hand simultaneously grasping the infinity of heaven. It’s not that this foot dragging isn’t reality, it’s just that this foot dragging isn’t the only reality, much less the highest reality.
And as we are oriented toward a lower level of reality, we define life as old or young. We define life as black or white. We define life as male or female, as tall or short, as eastern or western, and yes, as gay or straight.
And the problem with a lower level of reality is that far too many fearful humans eventually weaponize old against young, black against white, male against female, gay against straight.
But as we become more oriented toward a higher level of reality, we begin to define life in much broader terms.
Labels such as old or young fade in weight as we come to grasp that the highest self wasn’t born and doesn’t die. The highest self has no concept of aging or time or wrinkles around the eyes.
And labels such as black or white fade in weight as we come to grasp that the highest self has no concept of race or ethnicity. The highest self isn’t American or Russian or Chinese; North Korean or South Korean. The highest self couldn’t care less about the results from Ancestry.com because the highest self knows that we’re all siblings in the same family and that it’s a really good family.
And labels such as male or female, gay and straight fade in weight as we come to grasp that the highest self is genderless soul stuff — growing, developing, unfolding as best as it can, through whatever physical form it happens to inhabit at any and every given moment in eternity.
It’s important to remember that lots of early Jewish Christians fearfully voted down the first suggestion that gentiles be welcomed into the Church without observing Jewish law.
And lots of early white Christians fearfully voted down the first suggestion that non-whites be welcomed into the church as equals.
Lots of early male Christians fearfully voted down the first suggestion that women be ordained as pastors, priests and bishops.
And lots of 1960’s United Methodists fearfully voted down the first suggestion that your Central Jurisdiction - established in 1939 to accommodate black Methodists - be dissolved; a vote for the racial desegregation of your movement.
But in all and through all, we’re living in a time when that new consciousness continues to rise, calling us to become more as individuals and to come together as peoples.
So, like the early Jewish Christians and the early white Christians and the early male Christians and the 1960’s United Methodists before you, you might delay this new consciousness, but you will not deny it. This fearful moment is but a temporary ebb in a universal evolutionary flow.
The time will come again (and again and again) for each of us to decide whether he or she will continue to defend archaic homophobic prejudices or give in to this universal evolutionary flow toward Dr. King’s Beloved Community. I might suggest that that the time will come again (and again and again) for each of us to decide whether he or she will continue to defend all archaic prejudices or finally live up to the higher calling represented by those words used to set forth the founding principles of your United Methodist Church itself: to do good, of every possible sort, as far as possible, not to some, but to all.
Dr. Richard Loren Held