As my country lurches toward the one day in the year when we are specifically thankful for stuff, I wanted to spend some extra time talking about stuff that makes me happy to be alive and part of the human tapestry. Especially with the news lately about how religion is destroying people’s lives and tearing societies apart, it’s nice to have something to lift the darkness a little.
Before we get to the wonderful news, though, we have to mention briefly, for outsiders, that most Christians regard the entire group of Christian believers as one body. Sometimes you hear this body referred to as “the Bride of Christ” because the end of the world will feature at some point a “marriage feast” between Jesus and his “bride.” (Speaking of which, I once had a religious vision as a young fundamentalist in which I heard a rather distinct male voice in my head tell me I was the Bride of Christ, which bothered me quite a bit as I was dating Biff at the time and we’d been making plans to get married. Now, obviously I’d overheard the reference somewhere, as it’s often mentioned in evangelical circles, but I hadn’t yet learned anything specific about it, so I naturally thought that the voice meant that I, personally, would be marrying Jesus at some point. I was actually pretty distressed about the idea, since Jesus hadn’t asked me about this plan and I wasn’t sure how a marriage with a god would work. My pastor probably thought it was kinda funny when I rushed up to him the next day in tears to ask what the vision had meant! Okay, segue over.)
We also need to briefly talk about the Christian term “sowing division,” also phrased as “sowing discord/strife,” which in Christianese means “to speak out in ways the leadership doesn’t like.” There’s a long Biblical tradition of not wanting to cause discord among believers. One can kind of imagine why, if one knows much about the rather tumultuous early history of the faith. A lot of doctrines Christians totally take for granted today were fought over for years before being adopted. Some of those fights were only settled by imperial decree or the sword. If you’ve noticed that there are some 40,000 denominations of Christians, you’ll probably quickly come to the conclusion, as I did, that some of those fights are still ongoing.
(Can I just leave this here? — For a religion about peace and love, its history is sure marked by infighting and its source materials sure have a lot to say about the subject. It’s almost as if… wait, I’ll get it in a second here; give me a mo. Ah! It’s almost as if the religion doesn’t actually have as its authority a god eager to make sure his ideas are transmitted accurately and reliably. But that can’t be right. That’d just be crazy, right?)
Nowadays, sowing discord is the go-to criticism for any Christian who isn’t toeing the party line. That person is “sowing discord.” That person is dividing the church body. There is a lot of ink spilled (well, especially digital ink) about how to tell if a Christian is sowing discord. If you have an accusation to make or a negative thing to say, it is of paramount importance that you say it the right way, for the right reasons, with the right expectations.
For example, on this link I just gave, notice that #1 on that blogger’s list of “no-nos” is his equation of just linking to a negative comment with spreading gossip:
Am I engaging in a “dude did you see this?” If I find an article of somebody dogging my friend, or another figure, its pointless for me to go to his website and then link to the guy that disagrees with him. It’s just sowing discord. It’s really no different than in your everyday life if you overheard gossip and then told your friend, “dude, do you know what Tom said about you”.
In such a circumstance, a Christian just saying he or she saw another Christian doing something really bad could potentially be “sowing discord.” Just revealing knowledge of wrongdoing could be seen as “pointless” and “gossip.” This particular blogger doesn’t mention if what’s “dogging my friend” is true or not–just that it is being said at all. And that’s what we see over and over again in Christian leadership when scandals inevitably erupt. (One thing you can really see, especially in the comments on that piece, incidentally, is the Christian over-concern with judging other Christians. These guys are very, very, very concerned with making sure they’re judging their peers in just the right way. Let me tell you: I’m so glad I’m out of that religion.)
Obviously a church’s leaders are invested in quelling problems. For a religion whose people are supposed to be inhabited and possessed by a real live god that informs their actions and makes them better people than us heathens, an awful lot of churches seem to see issues with “backbiting” and gossip. And I agree; many organizations suffer from the disharmony caused by gossip and destructive words. I’ve been the victim of these myself in the past. One or two malicious liars or gossips in even a large group can destroy it. We can all agree that this kind of behavior is not awesome.
The problem is that often you see Christians moving from obviously disharmonious and unhealthy practices like unsubstantiated gossip to accusing each and every dissenter of “sowing discord.” It gets to the point where any time someone has something to say that might be construed as a criticism, there’s all this second-guessing about whether or not it’s “sowing discord” and best left unsaid.
If I were a predator or scammer, I cannot imagine a better, more ripe environment for my activities than a group of people conditioned not to say anything negative about anybody who claims to be Christian. Think about it. That’s a group of people who have been groomed since birth just about not to speak out about abuses or say anything negative about fellow Christians–especially Christian leaders. It’s a wonder any Christian leader gets caught doing anything, isn’t it?
When Rachel Held Evans wrote a book about following the Bible to the letter for one year, you can bet that other Christians immediately thought she did it just to mock them. (Interestingly, one of the comments on that blog piece criticizes the blog’s author himself of being “divisive.”). It’s not even Ms. Evans’ first brush with accusations of divisiveness.
Commenters are still arguing over whether or not Rob Bell, who wrote a book criticizing the concept of Hell and other long-cherished Christian notions, is “sowing discord.” Christian Piatt, a growing voice in the religion who seems like a pretty good egg overall, thinks that just telling another person that he or she is “an abomination” is “sowing discord.” Seriously, I’ve lost track of how often I’ve seen in comments and on blogs that this or that author or speaker is just trying to divide the church body. Any time a criticism crops up, you can be sure someone will rush in to defend his or her cherished idol by denouncing and trying to cow the critic that way.
As we saw with Tony Anthony’s denial defense last time we talked, going on the offensive and accusing dissenters of wanting to divide the church body is a primary defense of those who don’t have anything left in the arsenal. It’s the Christian-against-Christian version of the singsong salvos “I’ll pray for you” and “I hope you’re right.”
It’s just so super-easy to use that accusation as a way to control dissent and direct the conversation. Families that leave churches get accused of “sowing dissent” to silence opposition. Ms. Evans, Mr. Piatt, and Mr. Bell, and legions of other Christians get accused of it so they’ll quit asking the legitimate questions and making the legitimate observations they are asking and making that might drain off supporters or increase doubt in the minds of Christians.
So yes: “Sowing division” is one of the worst things a Christian can possibly do, according to the privileged elite who control the discourse on the religion. No matter what sort of a charlatan someone turns out to be, no matter how very obvious the lies, no matter how much damage that person does, Christians aren’t allowed to speak out against abuses or overreaches because that would “divide” the “church body.” The threat of “sowing division” is one that you only see from abusers–it is one of their last-ditch efforts to control others’ minds and tongues. It means that they cannot offer any good, solid reason for not speaking out–so they beg instead for dissenters to stay silent and threaten that if these dissenters do not stay silent, that incalculable harm will come to these dissenters’ faith, friends, communities, and very families.
“Shut up or you’ll break up the family.”
“Stop talking or you’ll make Daddy go to jail.”
“If you say a word about this to anybody, I’ll kill you.”
And I’m here to say: that threat is a harmful, toxic, cruel crock of bullshit.
What folks are really saying when they make that accusation is that the church body depends upon people being silent about abuse. They’re saying that if victims and dissenters speak out, that the resulting disharmony is the fault of those speaking, not the fault of those whose abuses caused the disharmony in the first place.
I view this accusation, therefore, as nothing less than holding someone’s greatest desire–to be in a tribe, to belong, to be loved and accepted–hostage.
So when you see a church leader step outside the party tent, it’s time to rejoice. It’s time to hang out the banners and throw the kazoos into the air. And what better occasion for joy than a wedding?
A retired bishop with the United Methodist Church, Melvin Talbert, presided over the wedding of his gay son not long ago. Now, his church has long stated that it stands on the wrong side of history here–it opposes equal marriage rights for gay couples.
For his incredible humanity, he is going to face an inquisition–a trial. A trial! He is going to be judged in a trial. He could be defrocked over this.
He’s not even the only church leader in this situation. See, originally I didn’t have Bishop Talbert’s name specified up there, but then realized I needed to be more specific because there have been a rash of UMC ministers doing same-sex marriages. Tom Ogletree, the retired dean of Yale Divinity School, did his son’s ceremony. But there are more defections from the party line:
Frank Schaefer, a UMC pastor, officiated his son’s 2007 wedding in Masaschusetts. His son thought that his dad would be upset if he didn’t ask him to officiate, even though he knew the request would put his dad into a serious bind with his church leadership. So he asked, and his dad agreed to do the wedding. Pastor Schaeffer said he did it because “I love him so much and didn’t want to deny him that joy.” And for his incredible love for his son, he is going to be put on trial too. They gave him a chance to swear he’d never do another gay wedding, but since he has two other gay children, he knew he couldn’t do that. So he’s going to be charged because he is “sowing division within the church.”
That’s so far past insane I don’t know whether to laugh or swear. I’ve heard of churches putting members on trial before–a practice so blatantly abusive and fraught with emotional damage that I have trouble figuring out why someone would ever submit to such a horrific invasion of their personal beliefs and sovereignty.
Two Christians refused to bow under to cruelty, inhumanity, and disgusting bigotry.
Two, but they are not alone at all–there are many other ministers who are joining them on the love bus.
Last year, Tara Spuhler McCabe, vice-moderator of the Presbyterian Church’s general assembly, stepped down from her post three days after getting it because a tipster let the church’s leaders know she’d officiated a gay wedding in Washington, D.C. The leaders “censured” her, but she refused to back down. She quit her post rather than buckle under. As that link reveals, the Episcopalian Church is having some major issues around gay rights as well.
Maybe it’s time for a little good old-fashioned discord. Maybe it’s time for a little show of disunity. Maybe it’s time for these leaders to start seeing members bleed away. I wonder how long they’re going to be able to use the “discord” excuse with a straight face? Probably a while, but not forever. Sooner or later folks are going to wonder why all these people seem to be so eager to “sow discord.”
An organization exists for its people, not the other way around. If the organization’s rules need to be changed, then let them be changed. The people calling for Bishop Talbert and Rev. Schaefer to go on trial–on trial, I repeat!–for their heretical views are missing the whole point. And maybe these organizations’ inability to recognize their own idolatry of their rules is why this story is such a big deal.
One of the Methodist leaders of “Good News,” one of the UMC’s groups, had this to say:
“As a retired bishop, assured of his pension, Bishop Talbert has little to lose by taking this action. Unfortunately, his words and actions are already causing great harm to our church, and if he follows through on his plans, the resulting consequences could be devastating to the unity and mission of The United Methodist Church,” he said.
Oh, we can only hope. That’d be the best outcome out of any of the available options.
If these denominations’ unity and mission depend upon bigotry and hatred, if they can’t maintain themselves without oppressing and dehumanizing an entire segment of the human population, then maybe they deserve a little devastation and discord. As Rev. Ogletree put it so well, “these are unjust laws, and therefore they do not really have the authority of law, even though technically they are established in the discipline.”
That’s the problem with love and dignity, isn’t it? To borrow an idea from Winston Churchill, love and dignity always win in the end, after folks have tried out all the other ways of suppressing and brutalizing each other. One step at a time, one defector at a time, we’re going to get there together.
To the people facing trials, know you have my heartfelt hope you win through and change your denominations’ bigoted rules. And if you can’t, well, then they do not deserve you or the many gay people struggling to find their place in such oppressive organizations. You are better than this; you deserve so much more than you are getting at the hands of these foul abusers.