A recent poll determined that fewer and fewer people in the United States consider themselves to be religious. I recently attended a meeting of my church’s denomination that helped me understand why. In a world racked by poverty and war, we spend our best energies determining whether gay and lesbian Christians should be allowed to be ordained. As a result of our own sexual obsession, we did not have time to address the most pressing issues of the day. But, then, we never do.
Churches can be like scarecrows — so busy chasing away crows that we never plant any corn. Or, imagine a volunteer fire department so arrogant that it focuses exclusively on screening applicants while the whole town burns down. That, in a nutshell, is what it feels like to serve in a mainstream denomination some days.
Last week we received good news that a very faithful woman who has tried to serve the Presbyterian Church for twenty years was finally cleared to serve the church. Lisa Larges was finally declared good enough to be in our midst.
How strange that people who craft illicit wars or damn millions to live in poverty can be perfectly comfortable in mainline churches. No one would think of questioning their ability to serve the church, but a woman was disqualified all this time without any other justification than that she loved another woman.
It doesn’t matter if that woman is a genius, which Lisa may very well be. I have heard people say she is the best Presbyterian preacher in the country. I have heard other people talk about her compassion. But, none of that mattered because in the mind of some she had violated an obscure passage in an obscure book (Leviticus) that none of us follow and which we only trot out to use against gay and lesbian people.
In thirty years of ministry I have never heard Leviticus used against any other group of people. The church does not screen shrimp mongers, or check for crushed testicles or stop menstruating women as they enter the holy sanctuary. We only use Leviticus to reject one group of people, and I am weary to the bone of our hypocrisy.
I understand why so many people gay and straight would choose to leave the church altogether. People like Lisa Larges are what keep me in. As a white heterosexual male, I am aware that the church gives me privilege over other types of people. Just when I think of leaving for a more tolerant denomination (UCC), I remember people like Lisa. She refuses to give up on the church., saying, “This has been a 20-year struggle for me as an individual, but we all know it is about much more than my personal calling to ministry.”
Some brave gay or lesbian people stay in the church because they refuse to surrender their mainstream denomination to voices of ignorance and intolerance. In a culture where politicians routinely use homophobia as a campaign tool, losing the mainstream church to fundamentalism could very well cost some people their lives. That part I understand, but I cannot understand the optimism of people like Lisa:
“It is clear to me that as long as the Presbyterian Church practices faith based discrimination, it will be fighting a losing battle, because it’s already clear that Biblical scholarship, theological perspectives and cultural changes are moving our church inevitably toward inclusion. That day can’t come too soon, because until it does, our church will continue to wreak spiritual damage in the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender persons and their families, and will turn away a whole generation of young people for whom the church’s current policy is simply unacceptable.”
Five hundred years ago Galileo pointed a telescope into the heavens and discovered that the Bible was wrong about the sun moving around the earth. Looking back, it seems a minor issue, but at the time the church staked its reputation on the matter. Anyone who defended Galileo was said to be attacking the Bible. Today the church still bears a black eye from not looking through that telescope.
In our day, scientists have told us, if we look through a microscope, we will find that human sexuality is not as simple as portrayed in the poetry of Genesis. All of us begin as females and then, for about half of us, male characteristics begin to emerge as a result of hormones released in gestation.
I realize that science cannot fully address the complexities of human sexuality, but it can certainly contextualize the conversation so that ethical decisions are based on scientific fact and not on personal prejudice. The issue of human sexuality offers a second chance for the church to make amends for the error we made in the days of Galileo. All we have to do is look through the microscope and, this time, tell the truth.
My hope for the church does not come from those inside the denominations. As in Biblical days, most religious institutions serve the prejudices of the culture where they happen to live. Unfortunately most religious people worship a God carefully crafted in their own image. But the church is also haunted by prophetic voices from the wilderness, voices like Lisa Larges. If those fierce and gentle prophets do not give up on us, there may yet be hope for the church.
Jim Rigby is a Presbyterian Minister at St. Andrews Church in Austin Texas. In 2007, Jim was named “Texas Public Citizen of the Year” by National Association of Social Workers for his work on gender, economic, and racial issues. Jim has written for Huffington Post, Common Dreams, and many other sites, and his focus is on creating a deeper discussion of the relationship between religion and politics. Is it possible to affirm our different religious (and nonreligious) worldviews in ways that do not lead to intolerance and oppression, or does religion lead inevitably to superstition and sectarian violence? Can we affirm the core values of our own group, and yet, still be good citizens of the world? It is an open question. Jim argues that it is possible, if all religions are willing to go through radical reformations to align themselves to the best science available, to learn to honor artistic expression however different, and to serve universal human rights. Read more from Jim at his blog.