Jim Wallis’ Sojourners Throws Gays and Lesbians Under the Bus

Jim Wallis’ Sojourners Throws Gays and Lesbians Under the Bus May 9, 2011

A recent New Yorker cartoon depicts two young schoolchildren making “Happy Mother’s Day” cards. A teacher is also shown leaning over to correct the grammar of a third young child, whose card reads, “Happy Mothers’ Day.” The caption reports the child’s reply to his teacher as, “I have two mommies. I know where the apostrophe goes.”

This cartoon depiction of the well-adjusted son of two women dovetails perfectly with a recent Mother’s Day ad developed by the group Believe Out Loud. This organization holds that it is insufficient merely to theoretically “believ[e] that LGBT individuals ought to be welcomed into our church communities.” Instead, churches should actively be “welcoming and supporting the gay and lesbian members of our communities.” To this end, a promotional video — specifically with Mother’s Day in mind — was developed that shows what every congregation of which I have ever encountered claims most to want: new visitors, in particular new visitors who are young families with children. The twist is that this new young family walking slowly down the church aisle for Sunday worship is a lesbian couple with a young son. Heads turn. Some congregants whisper furtively to one another. Strategically, the designers of the ad have made some of the congregation’s members interracial couples, invoking the historical memory of another set of relationships that was all-too-recently restricted or banned in the U.S. Toward the end of the ad, the white male minister — noticing the mixed response of the congregation — says loudly, warmly, and calmly from the front of the sanctuary, “Welcome. Everyone.” He then gestures for the family to be seated, and some members of the congregation move over to make room in their pew.

As reported in Religious Dispatches, this ad was rejected by Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, which describes itself as, “Christians for Peace and Justice: a progressive Christian commentary on faith, politics and culture. It seeks to build a movement of spirituality and social change.” Sojourner’s official response to Believe Out Loud for rejecting the ad was, “I’m afraid we’ll have to decline. Sojourners position is to avoid taking sides on this issue. In that care [sic], the decision to accept advertising may give the appearance of taking sides.”

I’ve appreciated Sojourners‘ work over the years, in particular Jim Wallis’ 2005 book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. But where Wallis is bold on challenging Christians to follow Jesus’ example of nonviolence (“When did Jesus become pro-war?”), economic justice (“When did Jesus become pro-rich?”), and social justice — including a strong antiracism stance — (“When did Jesus become a selective moralist?”), he is weak on the full-inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Christians. My reading of this stance is that Jim Wallis (a heterosexual, white male) has made the calculated choice to throw LGBT Christians under the bus in the hope that he can continue to be in dialogue with conservative and evangelical Christians in order to challenge them on all the other issues of social justice — except for LGBT rights — that are important to him and others at Sojourners.

Admittedly, there are some admirable passages in Chapter 20, “The Ties That Bond: Family and Community Values,” of Wallis’ aforementioned book that try that make some initial steps toward greater inclusion and equality for LGBT Christians; however, this recent decision to reject the Believe Out Loud ad is a large step background — and, notably, a large step backward taken more than five years after the publication of Wallis’ bestselling book at a time when the culture at large is shifting increasingly toward LGBT equality. In making this calculated choice to throw LGBT Christians under the bus, Wallis is part of a long line of “social progressives” to throw under the bus some individual/group perceived as the leading edge or vanguard of progressive social change.

In the mid-19th century, African-American men looking to secure the right to vote for themselves, threw women under the bus — Sojourner Truth, most famously. Proclaimer of the famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, Sojourner Truth worked tirelessly for both racial equality and women’s rights. But the men at the helm of the abolitionist and racial equality movement insisted that the first priority had to be securing the right to vote for black men. Women needed to wait their turn.

In the mid-20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr. presaged Wallis in throwing gay and lesbian rights under the bus — most famously in the example of Bayard Rustin. Rustin was a member of MLK’s inner circle, a critical component in planning the 1963 March on Washington, and a trusted resource on the nuances of strategic nonviolent activism. Rustin was also gay. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other heterosexual men at the helm of Civil Right movement insisted that the first priority had to be securing the equal rights for African-Americans. Gays and Lesbians needed to wait their turn.

But MLK got it right for the Civil Rights of African-Americans (explicitly) and LGBT folk (implicitly) in his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” in which he made the case to the white power establishment of Why We Can’t Wait. To quote one of seminal passages of the letter,

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”‘

Also, from later in the letter, MLK writes,

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I will close with a quote from the recently-published diaries of the novelist E.M. Forester: “how annoyed I am with Society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal.”

Update: You can read Wallis’ “A Statement on Sojourners’ Mission and LGBTQ Issues” here — published today, May 9, 2011. Wallis takes about 800 words to say what I surmised above: LGBT Christians need to wait their turn behind “poverty, racial justice, stewardship of the creation, and the defense of life and peace.”)

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