Sunday, February 23, 2014

Religious Freedom Does Not Mean You Have the Right to Oppress Others

I grew up Southern Baptist and was taught by my Southern Baptist minister father and later Southern Baptist college professors that being truly Baptist meant supporting separation of church and state and promotion of religious liberty.  Once upon a time, Baptists were a persecuted minority, and it was Baptists like John Leland who helped get the "establishment of religion" clause placed in the first amendment of the United States Constitution.  Of course, Southern Baptists, along with other Christian conservatives, gave up on religious liberty opting instead for attempts to impose their religious views on others.  (This is one of the many reasons neither I nor my father are any longer Southern Baptists.)   

Still, I am grateful that I had instilled in me a devotion to religious liberty.  One of the main reasons religion has flourished in our nation is because of its lack of a state church.  We are more religious not less, because of the first amendment.  Despite the cries of Christian conservatives that they are a persecuted minority in need of protection, their political clout and financial power prove they are far from being persecuted.  In fact, their claims of being victims are nothing more than excuses to impose their form of religiosity upon others.  It is sadly ironic that religious liberty, an idea created to protect minorities, is not being used to justify the oppression of minorities. 
One of the latest efforts to use "religious liberty" as a justification for oppression is a spate of bills popping up across the United States in state legislatures seeking to allow business, individuals and event government officials to deny service to same-sex couples if doing so goes against their religion.  Arizona just passed one of these bills.  Similar ones have been introduced in Oregon, Idaho, Tennessee, South Dakota, Tennessee, Ohio, Oklahoma, Hawaii and Mississippi.   

Of course, we know locally about the bill passed by the Kansas House (HB2453) that would allow anyone to discriminate against LGBT people and protect them from being fined or being sued.  Thankfully, the bill did not pass the Kansas Senate.  Major employers in Kansas made their displeasure known (talk about a HR nightmare) which certainly stalled the bill's progress.  The fear of same-gender marriage opponents in Kansas is that the Kansas ban will be overturned by the federal district court, just as it has in many other states.   

They want to ensure individuals and businesses can opt not to support same gender marriage.  The way this bill was written, however, went far beyond wedding ceremonies, but would have allowed for anyone in any position to discriminate against LGBT people. Slate's Mark Stern described it this way:   

"When passed, the new law will allow any individual, group, or private business to refuse to serve gay couples if "it would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs." Private employers can continue to fire gay employees on account of their sexuality. Stores may deny gay couples goods and services because they are gay. Hotels can eject gay couples or deny them entry in the first place. Businesses that provide public accommodations-movie theaters, restaurants-can turn away gay couples at the door. And if a gay couple sues for discrimination, they won't just lose; they'll be forced to pay their opponent's attorney's fees."        

Furthermore, the bill would also allow government officials to discriminate as well.  Stern explains:

 "Any government employee is given explicit permission to discriminate against gay couples-not just county clerks and DMV employees, but literally anyone who works for the state of Kansas. If a gay couple calls the police, an officer may refuse to help them if interacting with a gay couple violates his religious principles. State hospitals can turn away gay couples at the door and deny them treatment with impunity. Gay couples can be banned from public parks, public pools, anything that operates under the aegis of the Kansas state government."  

Proponents of the bill say such scenarios are "far-fetched," but c'mon!  If you legally allow the right to discriminate, history shows us that there are many people who inevitably do so. 

What is truly sad about the whole HB2453 debacle is that under current Kansas discrimination law no provision is made for sexual orientation.  Unlike other states which explicitly prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation, in Kansas there is nothing in the law that mentions sexual orientation.  The larger fight is not just over HB2453 (although efforts are already underway to rewrite the bill and keep it going) but over whether or not you can discriminate against LGBT people and get away with it in Kansas. 

On Tuesday (Feb. 25), groups are rallying and lobbying state legislators at the state capital in Topeka.  The sponsoring groups include Equality Kansas, Human Rights Campaign, ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Mainstream Coalition.  I will be attending the rally with several church members.  People who claim to follow Jesus are leading the fight to legalize discrimination against LGBT people, so I feel strongly that the time is now for Christians who support same gender marriage and oppose discrimination in all its forms to make their voice heard in response. 

When HB2453 was before the KS Senate, a rally was put together.  I could not attend, but I'm proud to say Aaron Roberts, pastor of Colonial UCC in Prairie Village (our previous interim minister Doug Roberts' son) did attend and lobby his legislators.  His efforts got press in the Prairie Village and Topeka newspapers.  For his work in support of justice for LGBT people, Aaron received hate mail and even threats.  That's what happens when you stand up for oppressed minorities.

This time, I will make it to the rally.  I hope you will come with me if your schedule permits you to do so.  Let me know if you want to join us.

If you are a KS resident, here's the list of state legislators who voted in favor of KB2453.  If you don't know who your state legislator is, click here.  Here are the ringleaders that the KC Star especially condemned
Grace and Peace,

Recommended Reading 2-23-14 Edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading:
  • I have read a lot of platitudes about Pete Seeger since his death, and that's too bad, because Seeger wanted action and he wanted people to organize to build a better world.  He did not want platitudes.  Here's a piece that gets it right about what the legacy of Seeger should really be; it's called "Pete Seeger was No Saint.".
  • You have to be proud of Mizzou this week (even if you're a Jayhawk) because of the way MU students formed a human wall to block Westboro Baptist Church from protesting Michael Sam.   
  • Have you ever sponsored an impoverished child in a developing country through Compassion International or another similar agency?  If so, did you ever wonder if your money really made a difference in that child's life?  Here's a thoughtful article by a reporter who went to meet the boy in Haiti he had been sponsoring for 13 years.
  • Bill Tammeus had a great piece this week regarding the gatherings of African American youth on the Plaza.  He asks what congregations in KC are doing to offer young people--especially low-income young people--alternative activities?  He mentions The SWECC Coalition, a group of congregations working with students at the Southwest Early College Campus (formerly Southwest High School).  We are one of the churches in the coalition thanks in large part to the faithful work of Jan Parks.
  • I hate to admit it, but I actually liked one of David Brooks' columns this week. In it, he uses Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son to address how middle and upper class Americans should respond to low-income people who have made bad choices.  He seems blind to how his analogy breaks down (most low-income people are not born into wealth like the prodigal of the story nor are they necessarily poor due to their own choices), but I always like it when conservative thinkers are open to compassion.    
  • J.E.Dunn Construction this week filed a friend-of-the-court brief to support Hobby Lobby's lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act's requirement that companies provide insurance that covers contraception.  The Dunn family is Roman Catholic and claims it is against their religion to offer insurance that provides contraception.  However, as this KC Star editorial points out, the Dunn family has no problem taking federal dollars to build a plant which makes nuclear weapons parts, despite the strong moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church opposing nuclear weapons.    
If you want more recommended reading from me, follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Own "Woody Allen Moment"

Recently a public debate has raged about whether your opinion of Woody Allen's films should be impacted or even determined by your opinion as to whether or not he molested his daughter Dylan Farrow when she was seven years old.  In case you somehow missed it, Farrow (adopted by Allen and Mia Farrow when they were a couple) recently published an open letter claiming that Allen molested her over twenty years ago.  This charge first came out in a 1992 Vanity Fair expose as a part of the bitter and public custody battle between Mia Farrow and Allen at that time.  Although many wondered then if Allen's career would suffer, he has continued to write and direct star-studded movies on an annual basis since that time.  It was the occasion of Allen being given a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes this year which prompted Dylan Farrow to publicly declare her accusation in a piece that called out Hollywood celebs for working with and celebrating a child molester. 
Allen has his defenders; so does Dylan Farrow.  It's important to note that criminal charges were never filed against Allen, but untangling the piles of evidence each side brings to the fight is a difficult task.  I have read and listened to a number of discussions regarding the question of if Allen did molest Farrow, then what does that mean for one's appreciation of Allen's art?  It's a difficult question, but largely an abstract one for me.  I'm not particularly a fan of Allen's movies--I appreciate them for being an important part of American cinema, but I don't really enjoy watching them.  I don't think I have ever had a repeat viewing of a Woody Allen film.  If Allen did molest Farrow, I do not feel put in an ethical quandary regarding his movies, because I don't care that much about them.

I did, however, find myself in just such a dilemma this week when I discovered that a theologian who has been very influential to my own belief system was a serial sex abuser.  John Howard Yoder was a Mennonite theologian who wrote a groundbreaking book titled The Politics of Jesus.  Yoder, who died in 1997, published his classic book in 1972 and it changed the way many Christian ethicists understood Jesus' teachings.  Prior to Yoder, conventional wisdom among theologians was that Jesus' teachings were aimed at personal behavior and did not have a social dimension.  Some would allow that Jesus' teachings were concerned with the broader social sphere but they were contingent upon Jesus' belief that the end of the world was immanent.  In other words, if Jesus cared about social justice his teachings are unrealistic because he believed God would soon end the world.  Jesus' teachings in this view are an unrealistic ideal that are unfit for navigating the reality we experience.  Yoder argued convincingly against such a view and convinced a generation of thinkers that Jesus' teachings on nonviolence and equal distribution of the world's resources were meant to be lived out by all who claimed to follow Jesus.

I read the book in seminary and it continues to impact my passion for social justice and equality for all people.  I have quoted Yoder's book in sermons and in classes.  So, when I found out--what has apparently been public knowledge for over ten years, I was shocked.  What does it mean that someone who so eloquently wrote about Jesus' teachings on nonviolence could harass, abuse and assault  his female students and colleagues ?  If his life was so twisted and abhorrent in its abuse of those he was charged to care for, does that mean his writings are therefore bankrupt?

The case of John Howard Yoder is different from Allen in the sense that prior to his death Yoder submitted to discipline by the Mennonite Church, although writings published posthumously suggest he felt he was an innocent scapegoat.  Victims of Yoder have continued to feel the denomination failed to adequately deal with Yoder's abuse, and last year the Mennonites created a commission to revisit the process undertaken to address the theologian's actions.  While some may choose to believe Woody Allen's side of his story, there is no one offering a credible defense of Yoder.

I realize my own sense of betrayal at finding out about Yoder's abuse pales in comparison to the multitude of people who have suffered so greatly by being abused by Catholic and Protestant clergymen.  Throughout my career I have heard the stories of men and women who have entrusted me with their experiences of abuse--sometimes that abuse was carried out by trusted religious leaders.  Each case is a horrible act of betrayal that leaves a lifetime of scars.  I'm aware of this, and don't mean to compare my feelings to one who has been abused.  I do wonder, however, what do I do with the thought of John Howard Yoder that has been meaningful to me?

Let's face it, we don't want to know too much about the people we idolize.  Much of the art, music, philosophy and yes, theology that moves us has been created by deeply flawed people.  Some of those flawed people have done terrible things.  Does their terrible actions make their work less meaningful or even empty it of meaning altogether?  Maybe.

Two weeks ago I participated in our congregation's training for those who want to work with children. The training was largely about ensuring that children in the care of the church are protected from predators.  Our facilitator Dr. Jeanne Hoeft reminded us that child predators hide in plain sight.  They are usually male and heterosexual.  They usually were sexually abused themselves.  It is disturbing to be reminded that serial abusers are in our midst, but the stakes are too high not to have such a conversation.  Jeanne also reminded us that the damage inflicted upon a child by sexual abuse can be heightened or lessened by how other adults in authority respond to acts of abuse.  If those in power sweep it under the rug or move to protect an institution by blaming the victim, the abused person's pain is exponentially increased.  If, however, adults in authority put the welfare of the child first, the pain suffered and its effects can be decreased.

Which brings me back to the question of what do I do as a minister with the work of a theologian who has been found out to be an abuser?  First of all, I know that I won't quote anymore from Yoder's book in my sermons or other ministry settings.  Doing so seems irresponsible given that such a quotation carries with it an implicit endorsement of an abuser's actions.  I would never want to increase the suffering of those in my congregation who have been abused by offering the words of an abuser to them. 

Second, I think it is worthwhile to question Yoder's theology in light of his actions.  One Mennonite feminist writer points out that Mennonite pacifism developed as a way to justify men not going to war--a masculine defense for men who chose not to do what is typically masculine.  Such an ethic remains patriarchal and unconcerned with women and oppressed people.  This seems like an interesting argument for critiquing much that is considered good in Christianity; most of what is preached and taught even in progressive and liberal churches came from men who enjoyed privileged positions.  Because they developed their ideas from a position of power, they did not always consider how those ideas affect or even harm people without power.  Just because something seems progressive and radical doesn't mean that it is immune from also being oppressive.

Finally, I am reminded once again how crucial (and also rare) are communities of faith that offer safe spaces for healing for those who have experienced abuse.  Religion is so easily twisted to do harm; yet I remain a believer that God can work wonders through communities of people who seek to act in humility and to care for one another.  I have experienced the church as a place of great pain and also a community of grace. Because a communities of faith can do such good is precisely why predators will make use of them for their own destructive ends.

Let us be vigilant together as we seek to protect the souls whom God has entrusted to us.

Grace and Peace,

Recommended Reading List 2-14-14 Edition

Each week I share with my church articles, essays and blog posts that I have found meaningful.  Here's what I shared this week:
  • Intelligent thoughts about abortion in Kansas--Okay the intelligent thoughts are not coming from the state legislature which becomes more draconian every day regarding women's sexuality and reproduction.  The thoughts are coming, however, from CCCUCC's own political scientist Michael Smith who teaches at Emporia State.  In his column this week published in newspapers around KS, he points out that new data shows that the number of abortions is at its lowest level in a generation.  This is due to a struggling economy and the availability of contraception, and it is NOT due to ever more restrictive state laws about abortion.  It's too bad that the same state legislators who say they want to limit the number of abortions also are the ones who oppose sex education and birth control.    
  • Intelligent thoughts about homosexuality in Texas--You've probably seen the news that Mizzou's own Michael Sam has come out as gay and stands to be the first openly gay player in the NFL.  Here's a great on-air commentary from a sportscaster in Dallas that points out the craziness of the NFL which gladly accepts players who have committed all kinds of crimes such as beating women, killing people while driving drunk, etc. but doesn't want to accept a gay man. 
  • Why bother going to church?  Donald Miller an evangelical best-selling author announced recently that he doesn't participate in a local church--after all churches are full of hypocrites aren't they?--I was sent this week a response to Miller's individualistic Christianity and I found it to be a refreshing argument for why community is essential to being Christian.
  • The Obama Administration is worse than Bush when it comes to immigration--This past Tuesday night CCCUCC hosted a mock legislative hearing on our broken immigration hearing.  Among those who spoke was an 11 year-old boy who told the heartbreaking story of how his father was deported for being an undocumented immigrant.  So far, the Obama administration has deported far more undocumented immigrants than its predecessor ever did.  This article shows why it is not just the fault of Congress but also the Executive Branch.  
  • The Kansas bill that would legalize segregation based on sexual orientation--Kansas House Bill 2453 was approved and now is headed to the Kansas Senate.  It would allow businesses, individuals and government officials to refuse to serve LGBTQ people if doing so goes against their religious convictions.  This means a police office could refuse to help an LGBTQ person if doing so offended his religious beliefs.  A business could fire a LGBTQ person based on its owners' religious beliefs.  Thankfully as of today, it looks like the bill will not pass the Kansas Senate, but this truly is an awful bill.    
  • Lawsuit filed in MO to force the state to recognize same-gender marriages--I hope you are keeping up with the lawsuit filed by the ACLU this week on behalf of eight same-gender couples asking for the state to recognize their marriages.  Let's pray that Missouri will have the same luck as Virginia
  • Ban the Ban--MORE2 has been working to overturn the Missouri ban on people with drug convictions getting food stamps.  Currently in MO, you can be a convicted murder, rapist or child molester and still get food stamps, but if you are someone with a drug conviction trying to get clean and sober food stamps are not available to you.  There's hope that the state legislature will overturn this cruel law.    
If you want more recommended reading from me, follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Recommended Reading 2-7-14 Edition

Each week I send out a list of articles, columns, op-eds, blog posts, etc. that I found meaningful to read over the last week.
  • KC Public Schools: MORE2 and KC Regional Equity Network are hosting a forum for KCPS School Board candidates at Swope Parkway United Christian Church (6140 Swope Parkway).  Assuming the state board of education doesn't destroy the KCMO district, this is your chance to hear from people charting the future for the district.   
  • The Oppressed One Percent: You may have read about Tom Perkins the billionaire who wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal comparing the resentment towards the 1% to the Holocaust.  Leonard Pitts had a great response to him this week in the KC Star.    
  • Bad Theology and America's Broken Justice System--If you think what churches teach doesn't really matter out in the real world, here is a column that proves otherwise: "How a Poor Theology of the Cross Created America's Broken Justice System."  The understanding of Jesus' death preached in most churches over the last several centuries (Jesus died a violent death to appease an angry God and make up for our sins) has led to a view of suffering and punishment in America that has resulted in our country having the highest percentage of its citizens incarcerated out of all the countries in the world.   
  • Why Does Being Gender Inclusive in Worship Matter?--If you've ever wondered if its worth it to go to the trouble of singing the Doxology or Gloria Patri in our worship service with gender inclusive language or chafed at the changes to familiar hymns made in the hymnal that we use, here is a good reminder why we do it.  This is a nice blog post about the "micro-aggressions" and "macro-aggressions" practiced by American Christianity today.   
  • Q&A With Anne Lamott--Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers.  Her memoirs (Traveling Mercies, Plan B, Grace (Eventually), etc.) are ones I recommend highly.  Here's a small taste of Lamott in an interview with a San Diego paper
  • Shame on America--The KC Star had a heartbreaking story this past week about a family here in KC broken up by our failed immigration system.  This is why we are having the immigration event at our church Tuesday night at 6:30 PM: Standing on the Side of Love/All Faces All Races: A Hearing on Comprehensive Immigration Reform
If you want more recommended reading from me, follow me on Facebook or Twitter.