10 May 2011

An Open Letter To Rev. Jim Wallis and Sojourners

There has been a great deal of controversy in the past few days over the progressive evangelical Christian magazine Sojourners' refusal to run a video advertisement from the interfaith group Believe Out Loud. In the video, a young child is shown walking down the aisle of a small church, holding the hands of his two parents while receiving stares and awkward looks from those seated in the pews. The reason for the awkward looks is revealed when the camera pans back to show his two parents are two Moms.

In an article in Religions Dispatches, Rev. Robert Chase of Believe Out Loud decried Sojourners' refusal to run the ad. He noted that Sojourners officials wrote back to him, “I’m afraid we’ll have to decline. Sojourners position is to avoid taking sides on this issue.” Rev. Chase wondered what “sides” of the “issue” they were talking about. He asserted that the ad wasn't about same-sex marriage or the ordination of homosexuals, but rather was simply about welcoming everyone into a congregation regardless of sexual orientation.

In a printed response dated May 9, 2011, Jim Wallis (the CEO of Sojourners) stated that it's Sojourners' official policy to be welcoming of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, and that he and the organization have strived to encourage acceptance and combat bullying and prejudice. He went on to say, however:

“We have also suggested that the major differences of theology and biblical interpretation in the church with regard to issues such as the nature of homosexuality, gay marriage, and ordination are not issues that should be allowed to divide the churches – that local churches should lead the way here, and that an honest, open, respectful, and, hopefully, loving dialogue should characterize the church on these very controversial questions.”

With that background, here's my response to Jim Wallis and Sojourners. If you are also supportive of full LGBTQ inclusion in the Church, please consider taking three simple actions:

READ my letter below
SIGN this letter (as a comment on this post)
SHARE this letter as widely as you can (via Facebook sharing or direct messages, emails, in your own faith community, or wherever you feel the call to circulate the word)

If I can accumulate a decent amount of “signatures,” I'll forward this on to Sojourners and Rev. Wallis.


Rev. Wallis,

I have read the various articles discussing Sojourners' refusal to run the video ad from the group Believe Out Loud, as well as your response on May 9.

First, I take some issue with the characterization of the matter by Rev. Chase. Yes, the ad itself did not explicitly discuss same-sex marriage or the ordination of homosexuals, but both of those issues are very much in the forefront of the debate in so many Christian churches today, and the ad clearly hints at them.

More importantly, however, I take issue with your characterization of the debate and your assertion, “[T]hese debates have not been at the core of our calling.” Sojourners' own mission statement reads, “Our mission is to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world.” How the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the life and ministry of the Church doesn't fit into the core of social justice, hope, and transformation baffles me. And yet, in your own extensive Diversity Statement, Sojourners manages to completely avoid any mention of sexual orientation or gender identity.

There are genuine differences of opinion within the Christian community regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals. However, differences of opinion, no matter how genuine, cannot be the basis for a prophetic response to an issue of such critical importance in today's Church.

I know you are familiar with the arguments, pro and con, from Scriptural authority and Church tradition. The provisions from the Hebrew Scriptures characterizing homosexual behavior as an “abomination” are on the same page (literally) as those condemning the weaving of clothing from two kinds of fabric or the eating of shrimp. The Pauline condemnations of homosexual behavior come from the same author who also wrote, “Slaves, be obedient to your masters,” and, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over men.”

We are long since past the time when it was acceptable in the Church to cite Scriptural authority or Church tradition for the practice of slavery, and most of us have moved beyond barring women from pulpits or positions of authority in the Church. Likewise, it is now time to move beyond our outdated notions of Scripture and tradition on LBGTQ issues, and time for us to proclaim the prophetic message of full inclusion, full marriage rights, and full ordination rights for all of God's children.

Yes, there are two sides to this issue, just as there were two sides to the debate over slavery and the debate over women's rights. Those two sides are Right v. Wrong. Please, consider taking a prophetic stance for right, for justice, for inclusion on this issue also, just as you and Sojourners do on so many other issues we face as a society and as a Church.

Dan Browning

01 May 2011

Courage and Risk

This piece is the result of a rather mundane inspiration. I was updating my Facebook profile recently and I re-read some of my “favorite quotations” I had listed there. I found a couple that particularly struck me, and I realized that I had written a column about a year ago featuring those two quotes. They say it’s good to revisit previous teachings to see how you’re measuring up, so here goes.

The first quote was from J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series: "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default." The second was from Richard Blais, recent winner of the TV reality show Top Chef All-Stars: "Risk failure for greatness at all cost."

What both of these people were saying, and what they’ve demonstrated in their own lives, is that you shortchange yourself when you go through life too cautiously, never taking risks, never daring to succeed because you’re too afraid of failure.

But that’s not what really set me off in re-reading these. No, not with the “you” pronoun, that wasn’t it. What set me off was reflecting on my own life, what I’ve accomplished and how I’ve lived and what I’ve risked to date. Too often I have shortchanged myself because I’ve gone through life too cautiously, not taking enough risks, and not daring to succeed because I’m constantly on guard against failure. Basically put, I suck at being a courageous person.

Turning to a more traditional source of spiritual quotes, Jesus put it this way: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his own life will save it.” It’s one of those wonderful koan-like sayings of Jesus that get folks all tied up in knots. How can someone find his life by losing it? And shouldn’t we want to save our own lives? That’s just basic self-preservation, isn’t it?

I like the idea of saving my life. I don’t want to voluntarily lose it. I’d much rather stick around here another 50 or 60 or 70 years or something approaching an eternity (see previous post for thoughts on that). But that’s not what any of these people are talking about. None of these risk-embracing quotes, not even the one about losing one’s life, is saying that I need to actually, physically die in order to be alive.

In fact, most of us never actually face a life-or-death choice. (Well, unless we consume a standard American dosage of high fructose corn syrup, but that’s another matter.) Almost none of the risks we encounter and consciously make a choice about are the kind that could kill us. And maybe that’s one way to look at risk to make it less formidable.

What if I asked myself, when confronting some decision that worries me and keeps me up at night, “What’s really the worst that could happen if I took a risk here and it didn’t work out?” In almost every situation I face, the answer is something short of, “I’ll die.” It’s also usually short of, “I’ll lose my house, and my spouse and my cat and I will have to live on the streets.” Most of the time, the worst thing that could happen tends to be along the lines of “I’ll have expended a few hours of my time with no fruitful outcome to show for it,” although sometimes it’s more than a few hours and sometimes it would involve actual monetary loss (though not necessarily a devastating one).

So if I’m not facing tangible physical or material threats, what does keep me from taking risks, from acting courageously in the face of life’s challenges? I think that goes back to Rowling and Blais. I fear failure, and the imagined emotional and psychic humiliation that would accompany it. What if I tried some big bold undertaking and I fell completely flat on my face? What would my friends think of me then? What would I think? Wouldn’t I be such a fool for having tried something so outlandish?

But you know what? If my friends would really scorn me for trying something bold and failing, then I need new friends. I need friends who will encourage me – and yes, the etymology of encourage (from Middle English and Anglo-French) is en + courage. Thus, the one who encourages is the one who helps you cultivate and practice your own courage. And if I need friends who encourage me, I need at least twice as much a me who encourages me.

Here’s a suggestion for an existential/spiritual exercise for the coming week, and I’ll keep it in the first person – but feel free to try this at home. Over the next week, anytime I face a choice or decision, if there’s a choice that has more risk or chance of failure to it, but it also has a greater chance for reward or success (assuming that risk isn’t truly life-threatening), I will choose the riskier, the more courageous path.

No one’s born courageous. Courage is something I must cultivate and grow within me, and the way to grow courage is to act courageously.