By Derek Penwell
When I got to the office one time, I had a voicemail from a young man I’ve never met before. The message began, “My name is Benjamin. You don’t know me, but one of your colleagues referred you to me.”
He went on to say that he’d done some research on DBCC, and the ministry we’re involved in advocating for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. He wanted me to know how much he appreciated our efforts, and how encouraging it is to hear about a church that actually cares for folks who’ve traditionally experienced only heartache at the hands of the religious establishment.
Felt good. Nice to have your work affirmed by a stranger … unsolicited. Put a smile on my face.
He proceeded to relate a bit of his story. He came out to his parents when he was twelve. Being religiously conservative, they did what they believed best—they put him in “reparative therapy”—”pray away the gay.” The whole thing damaged him so badly that he’s assiduously avoided church ever since. I could hear the bitterness in his voice.
Over a very short period of time, I went from feeling, perhaps, a little too self-satisfied at the initial compliment to feeling awful for this young man’s trauma.
Then he said something that struck me as both profoundly sad and strangely hopeful: “I can only wonder how my life would have been different if there’d been a church around that had loved me for who God created me to be, instead of trying to change me from what it feared I represent.”
I started thinking about the Suicide Prevention Workshop we held a couple years ago. Turns out LGBT young people are two and a half times more likely to contemplate suicide than their straight counterparts. More frighteningly, I found out that those same LGBT youth are eight times more likely to attempt suicide.
Why the significantly higher rates?
Bullying, of course. But bullying is something that frequently happens … to a lot of kids. Perhaps even more deeply than bullying, though, LGBT kids experience rejection and isolation at the hands of the very people kids are supposed look to to love them and keep them safe.
Their parents kick them out of the house at alarming rates, making homelessness among LGBT youth twice as likely as among straight youth. The churches they attend often brutalize them in the name of “love.”
Young people are dying at an alarming rate, in order to allow some folks to retain the purity of their personal sense of integrity. That this integrity costs the lives of children is apparently a price they are more than willing to pay.
I realize that the motive for this stringent vision of purity is rooted in what its possessors would term love. And, I should point out, there is something to be said for saying “no” in the name of love—addicts, for example, often require the love found in “no.” And those who affirm reparative therapy, I suspect, would prefer to see same gender sexual orientation as an addiction to be conquered.
Unfortunately, though, reparative therapy is not “AA for the gay.” For one thing, AA actually works, whereas reparative therapy, at least according to the medical and scientific community, does not.1 But the problem has less to do with the fact that reparative therapy is ineffective, than with the fact that it does damage.2
LGBT young people having to find their way without the people and institutions charged with caring for them struck me today as I spoke with a pastor about his church. It seems there are some young adults in the church who would like to have conversation about how the church can become a place of welcome to LGBT people. Apparently, the older people in the church think such a conversation would be dangerous, afraid people will get angry and leave. After all, there are so many more important things in the world.
As the pastor spoke, I thought about Benjamin. I thought about all the LGBT young people going through hell because the people they trust to watch out for them have belittled and abandoned them. And I wondered how life would be different if there were churches around that loved these kids for who God created them to be, instead of trying to change them from what church people fear they represent.
I pray to God we find out.
To wit: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychoanalytic Association, American Psychological Association, American School Counselor Association, National Association of Social Workers, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO): Regional Office of the World Health Organization. ↩
See above note. ↩
By Derek Penwell
Let us imagine that you live in a circle of eight houses, seven of which have fertile gardens in back -- enough to feed a family. Unfortunately, however, the eighth house has a patch of swampy land that makes growing a garden impossible. Consequently, the people that live there spend their lives on the edge of starvation.
In the middle of this circle of houses is a commons that everyone uses to supplement their own gardens. But the gardening done in the commons, split eight ways, is only enough to give each house a little extra produce to sell for “nice things.”
The sharing of the commons is a tradition that has been passed down to homeowners in the neighborhood for generations. Nobody even questions it. The commons arrangement is just the way things are.
However, one-eighth of the commons doesn’t give the family with swampy land enough subsist on.
But that’s the way it goes, right? Life isn’t always fair. There has to be winners and losers.
Then one day, you’re having a cookout at your house with the bounty harvested from the commons. You’ve invited over a friend, who just happens to be a surveyor. She’s interested by the layout of the neighborhood, and the almost perfect solution of a commons. She thinks this is a great idea.
On her way to the bathroom, however, your surveyor friend happens by an antique survey map of the neighborhood hanging in your study. She begins to inspect it closely, as supper is being prepared. As she looks, she notices that the commons isn’t really a commons at all. In fact, the land that the neighborhood has been using freely to supplement each one’s income is actually a tract that legally belongs to the house with the swampy land.
You immediately realize the implications of this discovery: For years, because of a longstanding tradition, everyone in the neighborhood has been fattening their pocketbooks at the expense of the family that lives on swampy land. In other words, you realize that you’ve been getting rich on the back of the neighbor who can least afford it. You have an epiphany: Your neighbor’s family has been starving, while the rest of the neighborhood has taken the proceeds for itself -- the proceeds that rightfully belong to the starving family.
You feel awful. But it was tradition. Nobody knew any better. That you probably should have been more compassionate toward your neighbor all along is beside the point. Now you know.
The moral question is: Having finally realized that you’ve been treating your neighbor’s family unjustly all these years, what are you going to do about it?
- Stay quiet about it and keep the arrangement the way it is. It appears to be in your best interest economically just to keep your mouth shut. Why say anything at all if it’s only going threaten your otherwise comfortable existence?
- You could privately admit to one or two neighbors that -- if it were up to you -- you’d just restore the commons to its rightful owner. You’re humane, after all, you don’t necessarily want to see anyone starve. But then you might continue by telling your friends that, though you’re personally pulling for the family with swampy land, you’re afraid that if you say anything publicly about the injustice, one of two things might happen: 1) your other neighbors might get mad and vote you out of the neighborhood association; or 2) they might just think the whole arrangement is falling apart and vote to disband the neighborhood association all together. And boy howdy! You could never live with yourself if you were the person who submarined such a great arrangement, which seems to meet the needs of so many people.
- Or you could say, “Now that I know an injustice is being committed, I can’t keep quiet about this practice that threatens one of my neighbors, even if speaking up about it makes everyone else angry.”
Whatever you do, though, now that you know your neighbor is suffering unjustly at the hands of people among whom you live and work, morally you occupy a different place than before the surveyor pointed out the inequity.
So, let’s bring this home for the church folk:
If you happen to be a follower of Jesus who believes LGBT people have suffered injustice at the hands of the church, your response to that injustice -- whether you stand up publicly to speak against it or not -- (as difficult as it is to think about) is a moral question.
If you come to believe as a result of your faith that disproportionately imprisoning and killing young African Americans is an epidemic that is just a public manifestation of institutional racism, how you respond to the shooting of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, et al., makes a difference.
If in the course of your life as a Christian and a participant in the great American commons you become convinced that people arriving to participate in that commons from other countries deserve to be treated with dignity and hospitality, whether you choose to stand beside them in the face of hatred is not a matter of moral indifference.
“What will my congregation/denomination think if I publicly name this injustice?” is certainly a question worth asking. But the more pressing moral question has to do with thinking that that question is more important than “What’s my moral responsibility to people facing an injustice that threatens their dignity, their careers, their living arrangements, their ability to be parents -- and in some cases -- their lives?”
True moral knowledge of injustice without action makes you part of the problem. If you don't think so, ask the folks in the swampy land.
By Derek Penwell
A friend of mine had a baby. After the shock of finding herself the proud new owner of a six pound bundle of joy, pandemonium, and excretion, she went to the mailbox and discovered a bill from the insurance company—the presence of which bill shocked no one, since babies (if they ever did) don’t come for free anymore.
However, after she returned to the newly baby-besieged confines of her home, she opened the bill, only to find that the insurance magnates had refused to pay for her epidural (you know, the hope of chemical relief to which many women cling when the pain becomes unbearable). Sagely, the compassionate folks in underwriting had determined that an “epidural is an elective procedure for a vaginal birth.” Consequently, the insurance company refused to pay that portion of the costs.
My friend was furious. And I, though I lack the requisite equipment to give first person testimony on behalf of the advantages of an epidural for a vaginal birth, was pretty certain an outrage had been committed. I have witnessed labor up close; and I feel safe in admitting my uncertainty about whether I would have the pain tolerance to face it without a great deal of chemical handholding.
I told my wife, a Postpartum nurse and mother of three herself, about the insurance company’s dodge. She got a dangerous look in her eye (the same one she got, perhaps not coincidentally, when I tried to convince her of the propriety of taking my last name when we got married) and said, “Some man made that decision!”
That struck me as wise.
Not long ago my daughter said to me in the car, “Did you know Walmart pays its women employees less than its men?”
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” I said.
Disgusted, she said, “It’s not right.”
No, it’s not right. So, to prove her point, when we got home she sent me a link detailing just how “not right” it is. Women comprise only about 15% of the top management positions in the retail division. Both salaried employees and hourly wage earners who are women earn less than their male counterparts. In fact, there are no regions where women make more than men as Walmart employees.
So bad, in fact, is the disparity that a class action suit was brought against Walmart on behalf of all its female employees, a suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court (Wal-Mart v. Dukes).
In a June 2011 the Court handed down a controversial decision, the substance of which argued that “all female employees” was too big to be certified as a class. The practical effect of that decision shored up a corporate structure that, at least according to the data, suggests a de facto system engineered to keep women at a financial and vocational disadvantage.
And I heard my wife’s voice in my head: “Some damn man made that decision!”
Turns out she’s right … literally: The Supreme Court delivered a decision in which the five deciding votes were all male, while of the four dissenting votes, three were female.
What sometimes get lost in the analysis of this decision—focusing as it almost always does on the implications for Class Action lawsuits—is the reality that, according to both statistical evidence and the anecdotal corroboration, women are being systematically discriminated against at Walmart—and that a male dominated court took a look at the evidence, and said, “What’s the problem?” As Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg argued in her dissent: “The Court gives no credence to the key dispute common to the class: whether Wal-Mart’s discretionary pay and promotion policies are discriminatory.”
Translation: While you boys argue over whether “all female Walmart employees” can constitute a class, women continue to get the short end of the stick at Walmart.
But then again, men making decisions about women’s lives and bodies isn’t something new. Men have been running the show forever—not because that’s what God wanted, but because they could. The apostle Paul was pretty clear about what God really wanted in the wake of Jesus’ work: “There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
So, just so we have this straight: Those people who claim to follow Jesus have a duty to embody this new reality, where men and women are not only viewed as equals … but treated, paid as equals.
I realize that for most of the culture suggesting that Christians actually ought to support female equality is swimming upstream. The church has a long history of putting its thumb on the scales of justice on behalf of men. Arguing that the church is pro-woman to many people sounds like arguing that dolphin lovers are pro-tuna—the dolphins make out just fine under such a system, but it’s hell on the tuna.
But I don’t think those of us who take Jesus seriously as the great liberator of humanity, as the herald of the radical nature of God’s unfolding reign of peace and justice, can stand silently by while men continue to make decisions as though they possess greater understanding of the needs of women for their own health and bodies. People who actually believe that “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” cannot continue to live as though males ought to continue to have some kind of privileged status in virtue of possessing the preferred sexual appendage.
And when I say that Christians must make a stand on behalf of an equitable system, I don’t just mean female Christians. If the world we live in is ever going to look anything like the reign of God announced by Jesus, men are going to have to be just as outraged by knucklehead underwriters refusing to cover epidurals as the women who suffer by being told their pain management is a choice.
Male Christians are going to have to be some of the loudest to speak up when it becomes public knowledge that their sisters, and wives, and daughters, and mothers earn disproportionately less at the hands of corporations and industries (I’m looking at you congregations and employers of women clergy).
Those followers of Jesus who are male are precisely the ones who are going to have to raise hell when Abercrombie & Fitch tells women that they’d prefer that only “thin and beautiful” women wear their clothes, who lose their minds when Victoria Secret markets clothing to teenage girls with phrases like “Call Me,” and “Feeling Lucky?”
In order to be faithful, the church needs some masculine feminists.
It’s not about being politically correct. It’s not about paternalistically protecting the women folk from the depredations of a culture bent on maintaining the power disparity. It’s not about chivalry. It’s about doing the right thing.
It’s about living like Jesus. If we take Jesus seriously, seeking justice isn’t an optional add-on after you get your personal life in order; it’s the way to pursue a personal life for everyone that’s worth ordering.
And just to be clear: some man can’t just make this decision … it’s going to take all of us.
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Jesus announces a new order of things in which the anawim—a Hebrew word applied to those who are the very lowest in society, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, the folks who live out next to the garbage dump of life—a new order of things in which the anawim occupy the places of honor, finally get to sit at the big people’s table, no longer handed the crumbs and the leftovers.
Jesus proclaims a new realm—unlike the kingdoms of this world with which the Tempter enticed him out in the wilderness just a few verses prior—kingdoms where some have and others are left holding the bag, where a few get to steamroll their way to the front of the line and everyone else gets flattened, where some have food, and others are left to starve. Because the reign of God does not exist where some are welcome and others are not.
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And don’t you think the church—among the inheritors of this promise to Isaiah—is always in danger of missing this point, convinced as it often is that the reign of God will be established only when the church gets everything right?
It’s easy to forget that the church isn’t an end in itself; it’s a tool, chosen by God to bring about God’s purposes. We find it easy to believe that God’s work will be accomplished by the force of the church’s charismatic personalities or through the power of its innovative programming—when in reality, God’s work very often gets done in spite of what the church considers its strength, rather than because of it.
Because, according to Isaiah, the glory of God shines in bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks. If you want to do the work of God, recognizing your brokenness is a good place to start.
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