Include me out

inclusion_circleIn my experience, the warmest gestures of inclusion usually come from people who spend little time talking about how inclusive they are. When a person flashes inclusivity like a badge, especially in comparison to those noninclusive extremists over there, it’s a safe bet an ideological mugging is imminent.

Consider, for example, the Rev. Nanette H. Hilliard, pastor of The Great Awakening, an 18-month-old United Church of Christ Congregation in Virginia Beach. Hilliard and The Great Awakening (one of the coolest, most audacious congregation names in American history) are the subjects of a glowing profile by Steven G. Vegh in this morning’s edition of The Virginian-Pilot. Hilliard is prepared to bless gay couples, but she assures Vegh that she extends compassion to the invincibly ignorant people who do not agree with her. Vegh writes:

Hilliard is similarly broad-minded about the Bible and conservatives who base their rejection of gays on a direct reading of Scripture. “The literal meaning, without any further research, is where they desire to stay. I respect their right to be there.”

Her own approach is to dig deeper, studying the texts’ literary forms, the circumstances of the writers, why the passages were written in the first place.

But, then, the problem is just as likely with Vegh’s reporting style.

He speculates loosely about people’s church backgrounds based on their posture and writes as though Pentecostals consider the Holy Spirit an impersonal force, like electricity:

Take that woman bowing toward the altar on Sunday morning — probably an ex-Catholic. The singing parishioner with an arm raised like a flag pole? Assemblies of God. Now and again, someone will be “slain in the spirit,” Pentecostal jargon for the jolt of religious ecstasy that can knock a body head-over-heels.

He tosses “sex outside of marriage” into a list of legalistic taboos, as if it’s as frivolous as a stolen moment with one’s first Marlboro :

Hilliard grew up attending the Church of God in Christ, where doctrine forbade cursing, tobacco, sex outside of marriage, attending dances and watching movies.

And by story’s end, Hilliard again expresses her kindness toward those pathological, ism-driven souls who haven’t risen to her level of Christian discipleship:

Hilliard knows views like hers are unusual, even unpopular, among many who live and worship in Hampton Roads. She is not dismayed.

“I’m black, I’m female, I’m a divorcee, I’ve been a single parent,” she said. “I’m familiar with ostracism, racism, sexism. I’m familiar with rejection, disapproval, sabotage — and I’m primarily talking about the church.

“But I’m more familiar with the love of God, extended to all people. Jesus Christ has never called me to be popular — only faithful.”

Some reporters actually cover church debates about homosexuality that reflect the theological engagement, honest questions and respectful disagreement existing on both sides. Ah, but when your subject has achieved such a sublime level of inclusivity and her opponents are such indisputable knaves, why bother?

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  • Chris Hawley

    Ironically, although his subject seems to be advocating a more critical, analytical approach to Scripture, Vegh writes his entire article without once applying the same approach to his subject. The granddaddy of all the usual signs are there: Vegh lets his subject speak on behalf of her opponents and articulate their arguments without their consent or input. Hilliard makes the most of the opportunity, and in one telling moment, says she prefers to learn “why the passages were written in the first place”. Why the passages were written in the first place? I suspect Hilliard likes to assign Paul a series of unseen and unproven motives for writing what he did. But we’ll never know exactly what she meant by this, because Vegh didn’t asked.

    Vegh is letting either his agenda or his laziness fuel his writing. If I was a reporter, I would at least seek to get a quote or two from someone within the denomination that disagreed with her — or, better yet, within her own congregation. Not Vegh. He quotes a group of black Baptists ministers, and — get this — St. Augustine. That’s not just lazy — that a rare, core form of uber-lazy, the depths of which are rarely plumbed. In a piece that doesn’t bother reaching back any further back into Christian thinking than the 1970s, suddenly, out of nowhere, St. Augustine of Hippo!

    There’s got to be the potential to form a new journalistic principle from this story alone: if you’re quoting St. Augustine to get a quote from the other side, your piece needs more work.

  • Dan Berger

    Chris Hawley said it well. One more thing to add: “Influenced by the church, entire societies outlawed homosexuality and often punished gays and lesbians harshly.”

    Vegh hasn’t much of a clue about moral history. Where, exactly, was the pre-Christian Golden Age when homosexuality was embraced or even tolerated?

    - The ancient Chinese condemned homosexuality (between men) because it was considered a waste of yang. They thought that men need regular infusions of yin, by intercourse with women.

    - The Aztecs and the pagan Germanic tribes executed homosexuals in quite gruesome ways.

    - The pagan Romans considered homosexual practices corrupt, and thought the Greeks decadent for tolerating (much less encouraging) homosexuality.

    There are bound to be more examples; I’m not much of a moral anthropologist either.

  • Pat O’Driscoll

    Longtime reader, first-time poster. Love the blog, guys … but I gotta say that today you tripped my trigger:

    Yes, I agree that the Virginian-Pilot reporter/writer might be guilty of laziness or of those dread maladies of the mainstream press, ignorance and making assumptions without asking questions, let alone the right questions. (I’ve certainly been guilty of all that at times in my 30-or-so years in newspapers.)

    But Doug, why the acid-tongued harangue against the pastor herself? You seem to read far more haughty contempt for the not-like-thinking masses in her words and answers than the “profile” suggests, at least by my own reading.

    (Aside: To me the story was as much about denominations’ stances on homosexuality as it was about this one pastor and her cool-named church; in fact, the profile material’s almost all in the bottom half.)

    In so doing, you seem to sound just as dismissive and contemptuous of here as you seem to think she is of those who think differently than she.

    If I missed something more telling in her quotes, sing out. If there’s a backstory here about the pastor’s setting up the reporter, the paper or the readers for an “ideological mugging,” I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, I might have to assume that it was the pastor who got mugged — by GetReligion.

    That said, I love GetReligion. Please continue to us this day your daily blog. You folks provoke thought like nothing else I’m reading these days, on- or off-line …

    Best regards.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for the comments and the questions, Pat.

    From my perspective, Pastor Hilliard’s remarks (and the reporter’s paraphrase of her remarks) indicate she is stating these assumptions:

    – People who oppose the church’s blessing of gay couples do so solely from a shallow, literal reading of Scripture.

    – Pastor Hilliard is willing to do more academic heavy lifting than these opponents.

    – These opponents are cut from the same cloth as church members who have subjected Pastor Hilliard to “ostracism, racism, sexism … rejection, disapproval, sabotage.”

    I’ll admit to having trouble writing about these kinds of assumptions, at least in the setting of this blog, without becoming sarcastic. But I know there’s a fine line between sarcasm and contempt, and it’s a line I need to watch frequently.

  • Darrell Grizzle

    Dan wrote, “The ancient Chinese condemned homosexuality (between men)…” The issue of homosexual acts between women has not been typically addressed throughout history. The Hebrew scriptures are silent on the matter. And when Queen Victoria was outlawing “sodomy,” an aide asked her if the law should include women as well as men. The Queen looked at the aide quite acidly and said, “My good sir, women do not DO such things.”