[Ed: Erik Samuelson is a Lutheran pastor who previously shared his experiences with Queerty from the ELCA conference last week, where the church voted to accept clergy in same-gender relationships. Here, he gives us an insider’s view of what the vote means to the millions of Lutherans across America — and, most interestingly, how the vote suddenly made anti-gay clergy the “queer” ones.]
Well, I must say this is a first for me—writing a guest editorial for a queer website—but I’m guessing that it is the first time an ordained Lutheran pastor has been invited to write for this website so we’re all in uncharted territory. And I’ve read a bit of how religion (especially Christianity) gets spoken of on this site, so I suppose I’m opening myself up for a shit-storm of comments and emails—and many of them I’m sure based on horrible personal experiences you all have had, which I get. And for what its worth, I’m sorry that we Christians have allowed this unchecked hate to go on for so long and have been such hypocrites. I don’t intend to defend my faith, the Bible, or my church, or to try to convince you that you should believe what I believe or do what I do. But these things are important to me, and so I’m glad to tell you about them. Do with it what you will.
First, a little explanation of why I’m here: I just returned from the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) where I was one of 1045 voting members who passed a teaching document we call a “social statement” called “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” that (among many other things) makes room for the blessing of “publicly accountable, life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships” as well as policy changes to allow congregations that wish to do so to bless those relationships. Once this was approved it opened the door to a vote that would allow people in same-gender relationships to be ordained and serve as pastors (previously gay and lesbian pastors—like all unmarried pastors—were supposed to remain celibate). That one passed too. We also did some other stuff like commit to raise $10 million over 3 years for work on HIV and AIDS, create the Lutheran Malaria Initiative to end malaria in Africa, authorize development of a social statement on justice for women, recommit to advocacy work in Israel and Palestine, affirm our commitment to Lutheran Disaster Response, and issue calls for action and advocacy in the US government on health care and immigration reform. Dunno why that other stuff never seems to make the news.
(Pictured, above: Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson at an ELCA news conference last week.)
During the assembly I commented on one of the posts on Queerty which got turned into another post both of which told the story another voting member relayed to me. (Apparently a stereotypical “magical homo” tale, according to one commenter. The “homo” in question did pay for my beer the night before, so he was a bit magical to me, but the story is true.). The reason I added my comments is not to put forward some sort of “See, gay people can be nice too!” or “If gay people just became Christian everything would be OK” kind of message, but because by his action I was put in my place and challenged to see the world differently. I thought here, of all places, you would want to hear the story of someone reaching out to someone very different from them in an act of self-giving love. To see someone who has put up with a lifetime of discrimination and hardship reach out to someone who is the object of ridicule and a bit of hate speech (from you all) with love and empathy rather than more of the same was pretty impressive. Shocking actually. More than I did at the time.
A bit about me. I’m a 31 year old Lutheran pastor, serving a small congregation in Eastern Washington. (That’s me in the picture, on the right, waiting to speak at the ELCA conference.)
I was ordained 3 years ago after a 9 year adventure in higher education that resulted in a B.A. in Religion and Classics, a Masters of Divinity, and an M.A. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology with an emphasis in Lutheran Confessional Theology. All of which is a long and expensive way to say I’m a big nerd. I grew up in the Lutheran church in the Pacific Northwest; my father and his father were Lutheran pastors (as was my great-great grandfather). I’m married to an amazing woman and we have two fantastic children (though right this moment they are being a bit obnoxious). I’ve recently started tweeting and blogging at pubpastor.com. I brew my own beer.
The reason I love being Lutheran is the emphasis we Lutheran Christians place on God’s grace. We are all broken, Lutheran theology asserts, and can’t fix ourselves. But God gives us grace—this outpouring of love and reconciliation that leads us into wholeness, and God gives us grace especially when we don’t deserve it. God loves us not because we are lovable, but precisely because we are not. God loves us into wholeness so that we can love other people into wholeness The truth, however, (as many of you have experienced) is that we are better at claiming this on paper than we are actually living it in real life. But I think what happened at the assembly this past week is a step in the right direction.
First of all, I want to make clear what these changes mean for the ELCA. It does not mean that the ELCA categorically says “homosexuality is OK” but to admit to the existing range of Lutheran interpretation and applications on homosexuality (which currently are 1. bad, 2. not good, 3. maybe OK) a fourth possibility (4. good) that allows congregations for which it makes sense (and who believe it Biblically) to bless same gender relationships and ordain pastors in these relationships. (Read it for yourself here; PDF). It doesn’t actually force any Lutherans to believe any differently than they do, except to recognize that there are other points of view, and to trust that we can differ on this point without breaking fellowship (or being nasty) with one another. The ELCA is big enough for people with all of these viewpoints to live in community. This is a very Lutheran attempt to find our unity not in uniformity, but in Christ amidst differences (which are many beyond this issue) and to say there are things we could be spending our time on (say, mission, evangelism, care for the poor) that would be more interesting to fight over than this.
So, you might say, it’s just window dressing, a publicity stunt, and doesn’t actually change anything. Lutheran pastors and congregations are still allowed to exist that teach and preach against homosexuality. And, justifiably, you might be pissed off that we Lutherans are celebrating something that really doesn’t change all that much. And you are right, it doesn’t change all that much—except instead of battling for “one teaching on sexuality for all times and places” the ELCA has chosen to admit that there are a wide range of opinions on this, that a case can be made in may directions from the Bible, and that in all likelihood we aren’t going to agree on them. This comes from a very Lutheran understanding of how we read the Bible: not only on our own, but in community, learning from our different perspectives, and believe God speaks to us (collectively) to reveal Christ (the Word of God) through the words of the Bible. This is different than just searching for eternal truths to beat one another up with. Lutherans sometimes say “We don’t read the Bible, the Bible reads us.” We need one another to fully understand what God is saying to us. And, as my friends at Church of the Beloved in Edmonds, WA sing “We need each other more than we need to agree.” But after this decision (and listen now), disagreeing on homosexuality is no longer a primary issue for us in the ELCA, and now that we’ve agreed to talk about it lovingly recognizing we’re not going to convince one another—we can move on to talk with passion about things that actually matter more (like, for example, as Tour de Revs reminded the assembly, the 2500 passages in the Bible that talk about care for the poor). But still, what sort of Justice is that for oppressed people who have fought for so long just to be treated like human beings?
Early in the the week at the Churchwide Assembly, one of the Bible passages in our daily mid-day worship was one of my favorites, Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And not only did we hear it read, but we sang it again and again together: “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.” Then a young preacher preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard in which she wondered if sometimes when we say the word “justice” what we really mean is “vengeance.” Justice, she said, sounds sweet as it slips softly off the lips, but vengeance is guttural and catches in the throat. We don’t like to say it, so we say “justicccccce” instead. Justice seeks to make things right, for everyone, while vengeance is happy that another is suffering in my place. God is not big on vengeance (despite what you may have been told), but calls us all to seek justice—and not just for ourselves, but for our neighbor. The crucifixion of Jesus is not (despite what you may have been told) the act of vengeance of a sadistic God demanding payment, but an act of justice by a loving God who allows us to crucify him so that we can see where our vengeance really leads. We kill God rather than admit that we are wrong. God breaks himself in Christ so that we can see just how broken we are—and how broken vengeance seeking makes all of us. We seek vengeance and do the unthinkable rather than seek true justice. And what this shows us is that justice (especially for a neighbor we don’t like) is really, really hard. But the amazingness of grace is that God’s justice always, always rises from the dead and leads everyone into new life.
So my conservative friends are going to give me lots of crap for what I’m about to say (and it’s not how I would explain it to them anyway) but I’m willing to risk that so that you folks might gain some insight into what this decision means for the ELCA and for pastors like Ryan. I think what the “magical homo” of my previous story realized when he saw the post about Ryan on Queerty is that when that vote was taken Ryan (and a whole bunch of Lutherans across the country) suddenly became queer. And not in a “I knew that mongoloid was a closet case the minute I saw a photo of him” kind of way like many Queerty commenters have suggested (BTW, my neighbors have a five-year-old son with down syndrome who is an amazing and loving human being, so fuck you) but because what Ryan (and many in that room) suddenly experienced was to have everything they thought they understood about God, the church, and even how the world worked ripped out from under them. Do you remember what it was like the first time you were teased in high school for being gay? Do you remember sitting in a pew when the preacher told you (though he maybe didn’t even know he was speaking to you) that you were going to hell for who you are? Do you remember feeling like everyone is welcome except you? Do you remember fighting so hard against your sexuality and the curious freedom that came when you embraced it? And do you remember the day you showed up at family dinner to tell everyone you care about what is true about you, wondering if you will even have a family after that conversation? People I love have told me stories like this, and I’ll bet some of you have them too. Does it really bring you comfort to do that to other people or to relish in their suffering when it happens to them? Really?
So Ryan, and many, many Lutheran pastors and church members, got to go back to their congregations in places where homosexuality does not have the cultural acceptance it does in places you and I have lived, and try to explain why the ELCA—their church!—had made a decision they honestly thought was contrary to scripture and God’s will. And these faithful people longed to talk about this in a way that wouldn’t totally destroy their community—or their authority to do what they had been called to do in that place—to tell people about Jesus and invite them to follow him. Most people from these places that I have talked to this week, have never talked about homosexuality (except to denounce it) in their churches, but also many have never talked about it, really talked about it, at all. In many places, still, it’s just not what people (especially upstanding Christian people) talk about. And now they have no choice.
Some, I’m sure (maybe including Ryan and his congregation) will be leaving, disowning the ELCA and its queerness, like has happened in other denominations (and so many families). This is what the media were expecting to report, like the Episcopalians there was a monumental spiting of the Lutheran church on this irreconcilable difference, but instead they were left with headlines like “For some strange reason, allowing gay pastors does not destroy the ELCA”–hardly newsworthy (thank goodness for the tornado and conservative interpretations of it or we’d never have even made the evening news).
It’s easier to hate people when you don’t have to look across the table and say “pass the salt” to them. But the witness of the Gospel of Jesus (when we are getting it right) is that everyone means everyone, all are welcome at the table—and that means anti-gay folks as much as gay folks, as hard as that may be. What the “magical homo” did was a very difficult act of justice, kindness, and humble walking with God, when nobody would have been surprised if he were to have acted in vengeance instead (as one queerty.com commentator said: “kick some ass”) and many would have cheered him on. And what I saw again and again on that assembly floor was that gay and lesbian people and their allies (including me) were surprised by the feeling of pain and compassion they experienced when the thing they had longed for finally was reality. They realized that they knew, deeply, what those newly queered folks (their brothers and sisters) were now experiencing—and reached out to them not as opponents, but as fellow broken, hurting, queer people. To use my Jesus language, Jesus broke himself (and continues to break himself for our sake) so that we might be made whole. And followers of Jesus—gay and straight, rich and poor, male and female, Democrat and Republican, fundamentalist and liberal—when we are doing this right, reach out of our brokenness (and I dare say our queerness?) to bring healing to our brothers and sisters.
How queer these Lutheran Christians are, loving people who aren’t like them, loving as would wish to be loved, even their enemies as themselves. Isn’t this the kind of justice we all long for?