Yesterday I was chatting with a parishioner during a hospital visit and, wanting to shift focus for a time from health to something outside the walls of the institution, he asked, “What’s on your mind lately for social justice advocacy?”
I told him I was having trouble focusing. I had made a list of my key advocacy priorities, and the list was so long (immigrants, health care, Citizens United, criminal justice reform, safety net, etc) I didn’t know where to start, or focus energy.
He said, “You know, your basic impulse to focus on the problems of discrimination is a good one. Once we recognize that we’re all humans, and equal in the eyes of God, a lot of the other stuff falls into place.”
I was glad to hear this. Our congregation has been strengthened and transformed through the crucible of anti-discrimination advocacy, and my own life as a pastor has taken unique and life-giving turns as a result.
Over the last decade, I’ve learned something. If you care about something, you have to stick with it for the long haul. In social justice work, persistence and tenacity are some of the greatest spiritual gifts. And resilience.
If you are going to proclaim a counter-cultural gospel, you’re going to need to keep proclaiming. And saying it. And living it.
The prophets kept saying the same thing over and over. And they didn’t do so in light fashion, proclaiming the easy route of tolerance or acceptance. Part of the prophetic is pushing past the socially acceptable into the dangerous territory of change and challenge.
The prophetic voice in anti-discrimination work goes beyond “tolerance” or “welcome” and instead looks for the gifts the “other” offers to the community. It’s not enough to just “let” folks in the door.
Advocacy means bringing the marginalized to the center, repenting of their exclusion, and doing the hard work of reparations by learning from the very group that had been excluded.
With full inclusion, it means queering the gospel, queering Christ, discovering from and learning the virtues of queer community.
This is why we emphasize full inclusion at Good Shepherd, why I focus so much on it in my public ministry efforts, and why we keep celebrating and talking about it, because
- it only becomes gospel when you hear it again and again (this is why we proclaim the gospel weekly), and
- we haven’t perfected it yet, and need to keep improving.
There is a difference between the message of tolerance or welcome and the message of reparations and inclusion. Lots of churches believe they “make room” for those who are different. But inclusion means something more, it means centering on and being transformed by those who have been at the margins.This is hard work. It means lots of change, and the burden of change on the shoulders of those who had been at the center. It means being uncomfortable. It means actual reconciliation, in Christ, the kind that transforms the community more into the likeness of Christ.
And it isn’t as easy as you think to be in Christ’s shoes, to be Christ as community.
The last Sunday of January each year our congregation will be observing Reconciling in Christ Sunday. It’s a chance to join with reconciling congregations all over the world as they emphasize full inclusion as an ecumenical movement. It’s a liturgy thing. It’s a worship thing. It’s designed to challenge the congregation and community, and raise awareness.
And we hope that more of those who have been marginalized will feel welcome as a result.
But we have more work to do than just observe such a Sunday. So we study, and read, and connect, and make friends, like Liz Edman, author of Queer Virtue, originally from Fayetteville, who helps churches and all of us with the work of queering Christianity.
Because the real challenge of inclusion isn’t trying to get LGBTQ+ folks into the doors of the church. It’s changing the mentalities of the members of the churches, and the institutions and structures of the churches themselves, so that they no longer perform the exclusion that has been an unfortunate hallmark of Christianity in our culture.
We focus on queering Christianity because it’s me, the white male pastor, who needs transformation. And thanks be to God some of my fellow LGBTQ+ Christians have been faithful and tenacious enough to bring me to repentance and new life.
In point of fact, they’ve saved and are saving me.