The stories are piling up. A gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person is drawn to a church that brands itself as “welcoming”. They search the church website to see whether they are welcome without conditions and find nothing. Instead they often see code words that suggest full inclusion–words like diversity, justice, multi-cultural, etc. In a surprising number of cases, they speak with a pastor who assures them they will be supported. But later, they learn the pastor was fudging his answers. No, they cannot serve in this or that position unless they commit to lifelong celibacy. No, the pastor cannot perform a same-gender wedding, “for the sake of church unity.” For lack of a straight answer up front they endure a kind of psychological torture, falling in love with a church that cannot love them back. Continue reading
How does Third Way, rooted in Romans 14-15, apply in the era of a Donald Trump presidency? Like every application of Third Way, this one depends on how we read the situation on the ground. In this case, what do we make of the words, policies and phenomena surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign and his unfolding tenure as President-Elect? First, some background thoughts. Continue reading
I consider myself a feminist – one who joined the movement to end all forms of oppression. In the past, I have felt profoundly alone in this struggle. I have felt disempowered, vulnerable and angry. The more I experienced and learned about the reality of the world we live in, the more powerless I became. Right now, many people feel trapped by injustice with no real way forward. There is a powerful tide in this world that can overwhelm even our bravest resistance.
An answer to a perennial question
“It is the work of the oppressed to resist oppression, it is the work of the oppressor to dismantle oppression”
This is a paraphrase of a comment I ran into the other day at a local SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice) meeting. For context, we were (and are) a group of white folk working to support social justice organizations and movements led by people of color, and at the time we were talking about why we exist the way we do because, lets face it, it is weird to be an anti-racism organization with overwhelmingly white membership. Now the fact of the matter is that SURJ emerged as a result of a lot of white folk who had become aware of racial injustice in this country asking people of color what they could do to help. One of the most common answers was (and is) that we could help to educate other privileged folks. Hence SURJ, an organization dedicated to “organizing White people for racial justice”.
This gets at the heart of a perennial question for would-be allies: “how can I be responsible with the privilege I have?” I have written in another post about some of the answers I think the Bible provides to that question, but this comment I ran into at our meeting the other day has me thinking about it again. It isn’t a simple question after all, and as someone who considers myself an ally – a feminist ally, an LGBTQ+ ally, a ally to people of color, among other things – and an imperfect ally at that, I hope that I will be forever thinking about and refining my thoughts and actions on this question. So here’s the quote again:
“It is the work of the oppressed to resist oppression, it is the work of the oppressor to dismantle oppression”
My job as Mr. Privilege
I am a middle class, college educated, straight, white, cisgender, American, Protestant male. I am practically oozing with privilege. I live in a society and civilization which was literally built to serve people who are like me. I know this. It means, among other things, that my voice will automatically be amplified in most contexts, that my opinion is far less likely to be questioned on the basis of who I am, that I am able to glide through my daily life without worrying about whether I will be safe when engaging in normal, healthy human behavior like holding my spouse’s hand in public, shopping, walking down the street, or worshiping with my religious community. It means that I have the option to ignore just about every oppressive system and prejudiced person in my society without any fear of personal consequences. And as a Third Way follower of Jesus, it means that I cannot give in to the temptation to do just that.
Where does the Third Way come into it?
Probably the most recognizable difference between a Third Way approach and the more typical “Open and Affirming” approach to sexuality and the Church is the Third Way’s openness to the presence of non-affirming Christians within the community. This is both a tremendous strength and serious challenge for Third Way communities. It means that Third Way communities, while demanding full participation for LGBTQ+ individuals in the full life of the church, risk the possibility of having their spaces (physical churches, small group homes, community gatherings, online and social media spaces etc…) become places where non-affirming Christians (in Romans 14 parlance “the weak”) engage in conversation and behavior which is less than perfectly safe for the LGBTQ+ folk who have already been attacked, harmed, and marginalized by the greater Western church. At the end of the day, for all of its value, diversity is less safe than homogeneity.
In this context, it is the special responsibility of Allies to stand up for our LGBTQ+ members and, when called upon, to engage positively, lovingly, educationally, and firmly with our non-affirming members when they (intentionally sure, but also and more frequently unintentionally) engage in speech or behavior which threatens the inclusion and welcome of LGBTQ+ folk. This does not mean that LGBTQ+ folk should not engage with non-affirming members around contentious and debatable topics, that is up to them. They are living in the environment that a historically homophobic, transphobic church has created and their work in this environment is varied, diverse, and subject to the leading of the Holy Spirit. What they do in that context is a conversation that they get to have among themselves, with the other gifted and brilliant LGBTQ+ leaders in the church, with those they trust within strong community, and, most critically, with the Holy Spirit. Our work as privileged members of the Body of Christ is to engage in the messy, complicated, process of dismantling the systems (whether structural, mental, or theological) which have been used for oppression.
My intention is not to say that LGBTQ+ folk cannot, or should not, engage in whatever way seems best to the Spirit and to themselves, it is to suggest that, as privileged people it is our responsibility to engage in the task of dismantling the systems and structures which give us that privilege.
This is especially vital in Third Way communities because it is in Third Way communities that these situations are most likely to arise. We will all get it wrong sometimes, and a community dedicated to following Jesus and to the unity of His Body along a Romans 14 model must be a community of grace, truth, and humility for the times we get it wrong. We who are allies must be engaged in the work of dismantling the systems which keep us apart. Remember that the divisions of the church in Rome were eventually dissolved, they are not the specific issues that the modern church wrestles with. So there is every reason to hope that this will not always be an issue which divides the church, but that will only happen if those of us who could ignore oppression choose instead to stand on the side of the marginalized.
A call for input
All of this is a statement of how I see myself as an ally. And as such I want to own the fact that my privilege numbs me to jagged edges of this work. So I would be incredibly grateful for input from other allies and from the LGBTQ+ members of the Third Way community. What have I missed? What message do you think the Third Way ought to have for allies as we move forward together?
The Gospel of Mark teaches that nothing hidden will remain covered and all secrets will come to light (Mark 4:22). In this vein, René Girard’s work on scapegoating effectively busts myths. He uncovers the violent origins of ancient myths. His analysis compels us to examine our own tendency towards victimization and violence. Since our victims often seem to be people marked as different, it makes sense to join the work on accepting our differences. As a feminist, I have embraced Audre Lorde’s call to recognize, accept and celebrate our differences. Too often we victimize people who are physically/mentally/socially different. We exclude or condemn LGBTQ+ people from churches and leadership. We want women and men and people of color to fit into certain categories and punish them if they do not fit. However, Girard writes, “Despite what is said around us persecutors are never obsessed by difference but rather by its unutterable contrary, the lack of difference” (p. 22). As we learn to celebrate our differences, Girard challenges us to consider a bigger threat: lack of difference. This insight holds implications for Third Way and may shed light on some of the strong negative reactions to a Third Way approach. Continue reading
The largest evangelical campus organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, is now ready to terminate any staff members who support gay marriage. In the everyday work of campus ministry, this means that staff members cannot bless and support the desire of gay students who believe they are called to faithfulness in a same-gender marriage relationship. Scratch beneath the faux warmth of some phrasing in the IV position, and you will find that it is rooted in the traditional view that all same-gender sexual relationships are indisputably covered by the language of abhorrence used in a handful of biblical texts, including Romans 1. All the important cultural-historical work done to interpret the divorce texts ignored in the work of interpreting the handful of texts that have been used by the church to forbid all same-gender sexual relationships. (The IV policy allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of the ill defined and “wide-open-to-interpretation” phrase, “psychological abuse.”)
But this exclusionary LGBTQ policy is carefully stated to discourage (mostly young) IV staffers from openly expressing their disagreement with their supervisors. Because these supervisors, we now know, will be required to terminate those employees with 2 weeks notice as soon as this disagreement is stated. The IV campus ministers will not be asked their views on the policy, but if they share their views, they will be fired. The wink and the nod here is clear: “If you disagree and want to continue your ministry with IV, don’t reveal your disagreement to us. Keep it to yourself.” Continue reading
Talking about politics?
The general focus here at the Third Way Newsletter is often on issues of gender and sexuality and the Church. That makes a lot of sense given that questions and contentions about sexuality and gender seem to fuel much of the disagreement, debate, and disunity within the church in the global West, and particularly the United States today; LGBTQ+ concerns are the experimentum crucis for a Romans 14, Third Way of dealing with debatable matters in the Church today. Recently though (and I am embarrassed that it has taken me so long to notice) it occurred to me that this year, the church in the US seems to be contending nearly as much around the issue of politics.
Now historically (at least in recent history), I would argue that political disagreement within the US Church has mapped fairly easily onto the larger, pre-existing denominational and identity divides. White Evangelicals vote Republican ever since the rise of the moral majority, historically black churches trend Democrat, mainline Protestants have largely followed their geographical demographics with a bit of a tendency towards the Democrats, Anabaptists and Quakers don’t vote (or secretly vote but don’t talk about it), and Catholics have their own liberal/conservative theological divide which generally maps onto a Democrat/Republican political affiliation. Of course there have been exceptions which have been more or less notable, and in the last few American elections, millennial Evangelicals have gained some attention by shifting towards independent and Democrat affiliation.
But this election seems different, and I think legitimately so. The old categories are breaking down (has anyone decided yet whether the new designation “Progressive Christians” are Evangelicals or Mainline Christians? Where are all of these neo-Anabaptists coming from?) and with them, so are the easily mapped political associations. I know self identified Evangelicals (my own roots) who are planning to vote Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Constitution, and Green; some will be engaging in a principled abstention from voting and others won’t be voting out of cynicism or a generalized political apathy. The political landscape of American Christianity is changing.
What does this have to do with the Third Way?
And there is a lot that is good to be said about this increasing political diversity in the Church. In fact, I am a huge fan of disentangling Jesus’ church from secular politics. I am really happy that being an Evangelical Christian no longer automatically means being a Republican in the US. I think that this shift away from automatic political identification is a positive one. But we need to realize that it comes at a cost. One of the great lessons I have learned over the last several years is that diversity is better, stronger, and more beautiful than homogeneity but it is also harder. A diversity of political affiliation (including disagreements over whether we ought to have a political affiliation at all) within the body of Christ is a strength but is also a place of vulnerability. It is a chance for us to be divided, to lose our love for one another. To borrow a metaphor from Paul, it is when the hand first realizes that it is not an eye, that it is most likely to say to the eye “I don’t need you”.
Of course this is another iteration of Paul’s whole point in Romans 14. We are to be one, despite our political, theological, and other identity differences, we are to recognize our oneness in Christ, we must continue in our love for one another.
In this political season that is not at all easy. Remember, we are talking about real disputable matters here, not matters of no importance. Or relationship to politics (secular or ecclesial) matters. I genuinely believe that the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election will be a matter of life and death for many people. It will determine the foreign and domestic policies which drive military intervention abroad and medical intervention at home. Even the decision whether or not to participate matters. My Anabaptist friends remind me that the act of voting entangles me with the system of Empire and will incline me towards identification with the world, my progressive and conservative friends remind me that silence in the face of injustice (or potential injustice) allows the perpetuation of injustice.
These points are well made, the positions are well reasoned, and I am not neutral about them. I am fully convinced that by supporting the positions and candidates I disagree with, my fellow Christians are actively contributing to damage in the world. And yet…. and yet I also notice that, like me, they are acting out of their best understanding of what God is showing them. I must see that they too are trying to choose, and act out Love Himself. Once again, here again, we must remember that we may be among the weak, or we may be among the strong, and that either way we are called, neither to give up our beliefs, nor to cease in our love for our family in Christ. We can mourn (and I do) the very real damage the Jesus body has done, is doing, and will do to “the least of these” but we must mourn as one body; it is our body, the body of Christ, and if He can love His whole body, I believe that I am to love it as well.
So what am I going to do?
This last Sunday one of our pastors told us that Jesus had broken her heart over the disunity of the Church in this political season. She called on us to join her in fasting and prayer every Tuesday between now and the election for the unity of the Church. I want to extend that invitation to you. I do not expect that I will radically change my beliefs about politics or society, and I don’t intend to back down or stop calling for what I believe to be the most loving actions US citizens can take in November, but I will commit to stand in the Spirit of God and pray against the division of Jesus’ church. I will repent for the times I have allowed politics to make me think of the members of Jesus body as “the other”, and allowed my love to wane. I will pray each Tuesday that God increases my love for those whom I believe are wrong. And I will pray that you will join me.
I had a little break from Third Way Newsletter thanks to a generous 3 month sabbatical from my co-pastor duties at Blue Ocean Faith, Ann Arbor. But I’m back. Here’s what’s been happening in my life as it pertains to all things Third Way.
Second Edition of A Letter to My Congregation
During Sabbatical I finished up revisions for a second edition of the book that got this started. Various reviews and critiques alerted me to a few sources I hadn’t been able to include, primarily the work of James Loader, mentioned in the Tim Keller review. So I incorporated these into the second edition. I made the most changes to the chapter on the biblical texts dealing with same-gender sex. It’s the chapter I was least satisfied with and it felt good to re-work it for added clarity, in addition to a couple of scholarly updates.
I also added two chapters. First, an introduction to the Second Edition, which also dealt with the question of my claim to the label “evangelical.” Second, a “What Happened Next” afterword chapter that updates the reader on the surprising and painful effects (best of times/worst of times) of publishing a book that was ultimately rejected by my former denomination, Vineyard USA. By the way, if you’re ordering the book from Amazon, it usually ships in 2-4 days, not 2-4 weeks as Amazon incorrectly reports. Continue reading
Over the last few weeks (basically since the passage of North Carolina’s HB2) I have seen a particular 2015 Public Discourse Article by Dr. Paul McHugh passed around social media by folks who take the position that we as a society ought not recognized the gender identities of transgender individuals. While that is a position I ultimately disagree with and believe to be deeply harmful to a vulnerable population, I do recognize that there are scientific, philosophical, and theological arguments which can be marshaled in its defense–I think those arguments ultimately fail (I have put forward my own counter-argument to the theological in this series), but some of them are, at least, worth discussion in the abstract. However I think it is important to note that, regardless of your position on the topic, Dr. McHugh’s articles are not useful sources of information for the following reasons.
I suspect that McHugh’s popularity on this subject comes from the fact that, on paper, his credentials are excellent on the subject of transgender psychology. Dr. McHugh is a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who holds his MD from Harvard Medical School, has published significantly in his field, and has a robust history of teaching and practice. So on the basis of his credentials, Dr. McHugh really does merit attention. However the fact is that Dr. McHugh stands practically alone on this topic against other credentialed experts and organizations in this field. Notably, as Mari Brighe points out in her comprehensive article critiquing McHugh, Dr. McHugh’s positions are in opposition to the findings of (among others) the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. In terms of constructive debate and conversation, this means that while it is valid to cite Dr. McHugh as an expert or authority on the subject, it is completely unwarranted to present him as some sort of final word (when dealing with science it is usually problematic to assume that there is a total consensus), and anyone who decides to reference Dr. McHugh in support of an argument or position they are defending should be aware that there are many well credentialed vices which oppose him. While he has a degree of authority on the subject, his expertise must be situated in the context of overwhelming dissent from the medical and psychological/psychiatric establishment. So don’t use Dr. McHugh in an appeal to authority, tactically it will backfire, and more importantly is it a misrepresentation of the overall “voice” of the collective experts in this field. Dr. McHugh is a single, albeit credentialed voice who is considered discredited on this subject by many other experts in the field, so long as he is presented that way, you will avoid misinformation on that count.
Because Dr. McHugh won’t work as a final authority on the subject, any use of his work depends on an analysis of the quality of the arguments Dr. McHugh actually makes. But it is this analysis which makes any use of his work deeply troubling. When writing on the subject, Dr. McHugh routinely cites two specific studies in defense of his conclusions and systematically ignores the many studies which undermine his statements. First, it needs to be said that Dr. McHugh’s failure to even acknowledge the growing body of medical and psychological literature which challenges his thesis causes his case to appear stronger than it actually is and calls his integrity into some question.
More troubling though is the fact that Dr. McHugh fundamentally misrepresents the conclusions of the study he primarily cites (a 2011 Swedish study) and refers to as “the most thorough follow-up of sex reassigned people”. He cites their findings that post-op transsexual people have significantly heightened suicide risks when compared to the general population, and uses that as support for his belief that sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is bad for transgender people. The problem with this use is that the study itself claims the exact opposite. Quoting from the study’s conclusion (emphasis mine):
Our findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism, and should inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment for this patient group.
In fact, the study concludes that sex reassignment surgery does indeed help transgender folk and is saying that after surgery, treatment providers should be careful to recognize that there are ongoing traumas and stresses that trans people will face and that SRS should be accompanied by ongoing care afterwards. This must be stated as clearly as possible The study Dr. McHugh cites as his primary evidence says exactly the opposite of what he claims it implies. Dr. McHugh is a sufficiently thorough and intelligent scientist that it is hard to see his misrepresentation of this study as anything but disingenuous, particularly given the fact that the study’s primary author, Dr. Cecilia Dhejne, stated in the paper itself that the study would not work as an analysis of the efficacy of SRS (here is an interview with Dr Dhejne where she expresses significant frustration at McHugh’s, as well as other people’s, misuse of her study).
The other study Dr. McHugh routinely references in his popular writing is a 1979 study which he encouraged, based on his already existing distrust of SRS. The problem here is that this study, by Dr. JK Meyer, predates many of the surgical techniques and refinements available today, the study consisted of only 50 individuals (all male-to-female transgender persons), and was seen as controversial and problematic from the outset. Even it its problems were overlooked though (and they shouldn’t be), this leaves Dr. McHugh with a single study in contrast with the conclusions of the collective medical and psychological/psychiatric establishment and a much larger body of work which has been thoroughly examined in a number of comprehensive literature reviews on the subject.
People who take a “conservative” position on questions relating to the gender identities of transgender persons need to stop citing the writing of Dr. Paul McHugh. He is not representative of the contemporary medical or psychological/psychiatric consensus and the support he provides for his argumentation ranges from misrepresentation, to disingenuous, to outright misinformation. In citing him you will only convince those who are not willing to research his claim and those who already agree with you and are merely looking for an “authority” to support what they have already decided to believe. This undermines your own credibility and, to the extent that you speak/write “as a Christian” harms your witness. Please take the time to build your arguments on well researched data, presented with appropriate caveats, limiting the degree of certainty you express to the quality and quantity of the data. And when you do, please be prepared to change you mind as well.
P.S. While I have your attention, please stop referring to trans people as “the transgendered” or “a transgender”. Transgender is an adjective (its counterpart is cisgender) used to specify something about an individual person. People aren’t adjectives and, in my experience, transgender people don’t like to be spoken about as though they were. So “Bob is a tall, transgender athlete.”
Tim Otto, pastor of The Church of the Sojourners in the Mission District of San Francisco, interviewed Ken Wilson on Third Way for his Oriented to Faith Podcast. Tim is the author of Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships. He describes Third Way as “a way of including LGBT Christians while not excluding conservatives.” He gives Ken Wilson the opportunity to clarify Third Way as a faithful path through this painful conflict. They explore critiques from people on different sides of the issue and bring light on matters of moral approval, power and privilege as they dig deeper into the Gospel.
In an effort to be seen as loving, friendly, and welcoming, religious organizations put out the welcome mat for LGBT people. But once in the house, the reality of donor-distress-driven policies emerge. A kinder and more honest approach would be to say, “You’re not really welcome as you are. Enter at your own risk.” Read the latest example in Time’s piece by Julie Rodgers.