Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An Oscar Reflection: Has the Church failed Dustin Lance Black & Sean Penn?

"...to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches, by the government or by their families...you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours."
- from Dustin Lance Black's speech after winning the Academy Award
for Best Original Screenplay for Milk

"Thank you. You commie, homo-loving sons-of-guns...I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support. We've got to have equal rights for everyone."
- from Sean Penn's speech after winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Milk

I have no doubt that radical voices at the fringes of the Church have expressed outright hatred for anyone who struggles with or practices homosexual behavior; the Fred Phelps cult - which cannot really be termed a part of the Christian Church - has done some horrid, despicable, demonic things.

But the Church has done its best and continues to do its best to express God's love for all people. It is certainly true that:
"The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

This famous quote from paragraph 161G of the Social Principles in our Book of Discipline should not be read or interpreted in a vacuum, or taken out of context:
"Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God's grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."
If a local congregation has told writer Dustin Lance Black that he is "less than" because of his sex decisions, then shame on that local congregation. Every person - straight or gay - is sacred in God's eyes, and Jesus died for each. God loves Dustin Lance Black just as he loves Keith McIlwain or Billy Graham or Pope Benedict XVI or Ellen Degeneres or even Fred Phelps. God may be disappointed by some of the decisions we make (I'm sure that I am a constant disappointment), but that divine love does not cease.

Mr. Black and actor Sean Penn seem to believe something about the Church that is not true, and perhaps the Church is in part to blame. Mr. Black is correct: gays and lesbians are "...beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you." That is a statement with which every thinking, compassionate Christian can agree. What churches have taught him something else? I wish he'd "named names"!

Have we failed to share with Mr. Black the amazing cosmic truth that God loves him, that Jesus died and rose for him, that the Creator of the universe desires to be in a salvific, transformative relationship with him? Shame on us for not reaching this gifted young man with the heart of the gospel, that he now believes something about the Church that is inherently false.

Then again, my understanding is that Mr. Black was raised in a Mormon environment, and, while I haven't seen anything hateful about mainstream contemporary Mormonism, I'm no expert on their theology or practice, other than to say that I don't believe it to be Biblically or doctrinally Christian. So it's possible that Mr. Black is reflecting on some Mormon practice of which I am ignorant.

But both Mr. Black and Mr. Penn mischaracterized the "gay marriage" debate at the Oscars on Monday night. I know a lot of Christians, and I don't know of one who does not favor equal rights. The fact that Christians have opposed California's "Prop 8" and similar measures in other states isn't because Christians want to deny everyone "equal rights", nor is it out of hate.

Christians oppose "gay marriage" because they love gay persons. If indeed homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching", then the Christians are compelled to help those individuals engaged in sinful behaviors to be liberated from those behaviors. This is equally true for those engaged in sinful heterosexual practices, or sinful practices which have nothing to do with sex. Sanctioning behavior believed to be sin would be extremely hateful, and, thankfully, the Church has thus far refused to do so.

To mischaracterize those opposed to sanctioning homosexual practice as hateful is not only a lie, it is mean. And possibly hateful. Or at the very least ignorant.

My prayer is twofold: that we can raise the discourse of the debate so as not to characterize our opponents as hateful, when no one involved in the debate is actually driven by hatred, and that the Church can find ways to be more effective in sharing the life-changing gospel - which is "good news", after all - so that all persons can know and praise God's wonderful work in Jesus Christ, submit to his Lordship (and his alone), and be emancipated from the great bondage of sin - sexual and otherwise.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (BCP)

(Note in the interest of full disclosure: I have not yet seen the film Milk, but have no doubt that the always brilliant Sean Penn delivered an excellent performance.)


Anonymous said...

I do understand what you are saying. But, from my point of view, it's more or less the same. What does it matter whether you oppose my equal rights in my country because you think I'm a despicable abomination, or whether you oppose them because you love me but hate my 'sinful behaviors?' Either way, I'm a second-class citizen.

Whether my membership in the church is denied because I'm perverted vermin, or because of my 'sinful behavior,' either way I'll be asked to leave at an enormous number of Methodist churches. Whether I can't be ordained because God hates dykes, or because I have not yet renounced my 'sinful behavior,' either way, I have to sit in the pews at ordination and choke back tears as I wonder what my life might have been.

I never heard 'God hates fags' in church. I heard what you're saying- that God loves gay people, but hates their 'sinful behavior.' What was I to make of that, as a child who had never even kissed a girl? Mostly, everyone just pretended that gay people didn't exist, which left me with the distinct impression that what my fellow Christians really wanted was for me to quietly cease to exist. They'd deny that they were pushing me toward suicide, but it's hard to see how else I can cease to exist. And lots of gay teenagers do kill themselves. Not because they hear hate, but because the only message they hear about gay people is that they shouldn't exist.

So what is it in me that God hates? If I lie- if I say I'm straight, then pretend to be straight, or even get married and lie in my vows to some nice man who deserves better- then I'd be equal in the state and the church. Does God hate me for telling the truth, and does he require me to become a liar? Because that lie is the closest that I will ever come to being straight. God knows how hard I tried to do what the church told me, and trust God to make me straight through prayer and faith, and so he knows how deeply betrayed I felt when I realized that it didn't work because it wasn't God's will, but just my pastor's.

I understand what you're saying, and I understand that to you, there's a difference between you and Fred Phelps. It probably feels very different to you. It feels about the same to me, though. The results are the same. The most meaningful difference is that I have no doubt that Phelps is being totally honest with me.

I'm sorry if I've hurt your feelings, when I can tell that you're trying hard not to hurt mine. But I think that my feelings and experiences are not too unusual for a gay Christian.

Anonymous said...

Hi Heather,

Thank you for sharing so much about yourself, but I have to strongly disagree with the argument you make. If you are willfully and unrepentingly engaging in homosexual activities, then yes, that is sinful behavior that prohibits you from taking on certain roles in the church. It should be no different than someone who struggles with pornography, prostitution, alcoholism, etc.

If you choose to abstain from those behaviors, as straight, unmarried Christians are also supposed to do (and I admit there is a huge double-standard in today's society regarding that) then there should be nothing precluding you from serving in the church. Many Christians are called to singleness and celibacy and I believe that is how people with homosexual tendencies are called to live their sexual lives. This does not require you to lie to yourself or to others.

We all have tendencies toward particular sinful behaviors- but we don't have to embrace them. I pray that you will not give in to them so that you may live more fully in God's grace.

Anonymous said...

I did. For years and years I served in celibacy. Then I had a series of experiences that convinced me that God was communicating with me through the spirit, reassuring me that my pastors had been misinformed. It took a lot before I was able to accept that word from God, believe me. But serving in celibacy was not a good way to live. Single women are seriously marginalized in every church I've ever been part of, of course, and yes, I did feel pressured to lie. That wasn't the worst thing, though. I lived in constant despair. I put my faith in God, and I wanted to kill myself every single day.

But of course, you must know more than I do about what it is to be gay, and what God wants for gay people. Because you've talked to so many gay people with an honest, open heart, because you've carefully read the psychological research about us, and because you know all about what God's will is for everyone. You can even diagnose sin in strangers on the internet. I'm sure that the fact that your post indicates that you don't even know what Prop 8 said was just a typo.

Your words sound exactly like the pastors of my youth who kindly and lovingly explained to me why God calls women to a life of service and obedience to their husbands, but never to speak, lead, serve communion, or teach boys over 12. They showed me exactly in the Bible where God says that he made me inferior to men. Which it does.

It must be nice to be in power, and not have to think very hard about the suffering of the powerless.

Don't bother to reply; I've already removed your blog from my feed.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Heather, I hope you don't confuse my words with those of Lindsey, and remove this blog from your feed. I don't want to speak for Lindsey, but my post was not meant to offend or upset or to minimize the pain I'm sure you have felt.

I believe strongly that God calls women into ministry just as much as men, and would never suggest that wives accept a subordinate role in marriage...first because I believe in equality, second because if i suggested such a thing, my wife would kill me. Then my mother would destroy my remains.

I do not oppose equal rights; I am all for equal rights. My point in this blog was simply to say that most of those who oppose "gay marriage" (or whatever the correct legal or strategic term is) do so not out of hate or a desire to oppose equal rights, but rather out of love. For both sides to view the other as sincere and loving might elevate the debate and help us to see one another not as enemies but as sisters and brothers in Christ worth taking seriously.

I haven't tried to "diagnose sin on the internet"; I hope you weren't accusing me of such a thing. I also do not ignore the "suffering of the powerless", whether that powerlessness results from race or gender or behavior or economics or anything else. I simply meant to suggest that love and understanding can trump demonization and mischaracterization in mighty ways.

I hope you're able to read this comment. If so, perhaps we can agree to disagree and continue to converse in the love of Christ. If not, grace be unto you.

Anonymous said...

Hey Keith,

It makes me sad that my post was misunderstood as being from you. I thought that I would be able to have a reasonable dialogue with Heather, but it seems that she feels deeply wounded by some members of the Church and nothing I say can change that in an electronic space.

I wish she had not jumped to conclusions because I wonder what her response would have been if she had known that a) I am a woman who has had a lot of leadership roles in the Church, b) I have had long discussions with people who live a gay lifestyle, and c) I even dated a guy (although unknowingly at the time) who left the gay lifestyle.

I tried to e-mail this to you directly so that it would not have to be posted, so feel free to delete my post if you see fit.

Peace be with you.