We Never Meant to Love You

Though we pressed our bibles to your hands
and promised you life in the deep chilly river
we never meant to love you
and prayed Christ would forgive you for not
being like us, not even at the threat of death.

Though we survived by your blood and thrived
on your charism and consumed your resources
we never meant to love you
and resented that your resilience outlived us,
defied us, but never saved us from this death.

Though we pledged to embrace your spirit
distinct from its desires & needs & dreams
we never meant to love you
and made of your affections a golden calf
for which we killed faith & preached death.

Though we traveled the world in great hopes
of far becoming near and the strange familiar
we never meant to love you
and now you are too near so let us not risk
familiarity, else we care about your death.

Though we etch in our hearts “God so loved”
and pontificate amply of “brothers & sisters”
we never meant to love you
and build walls of ignorance around our hearts
for fear God might put our worldviews to death.

Though we cling to Your name as our own and
make Your body ours with every crumb & cup
we never meant to love You
and crave only a free ride on Your coattails for
our own self rightness against doubt & death.

Fencing the Family

In response to my recent blog/newspaper editorial, several questions have been raised about my inclusion of Dr. James Dobson in a list of self-professing Christians who simultaneously articulate hatred, including, most notoriously these days, the group that calls itself Westboro Baptist Church. I credit the questions about Dobson to be authentic more than incendiary, and I hope to flesh out my thoughts for those who have never heard a nay-saying word uttered against Dr. Dobson and his organization, Focus on the Family.

Let me begin with a (long) sidebar of sorts:

In the mainline Protestant tradition, when Communion is served during worship, the pastor begins the sacrament of Communion with a certain, often traditional, liturgy called the Invitation. For example, I usually begin the Order for Communion by saying, “This table is the table of life. This feast is the joyful feast of the people of God. Men and women, young and old, come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and gather around Christ’s table.”

Next, if you’re listening closely, the pastor indicates who may receive Communion, depending on the traditions of that particular congregation or denomination. You might hear the pastor say, for example: “This table is for all Christians who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God’s people,” which would indicate that all Christians are welcome to take Communion — but not non-Christians or persons who are still discerning their religious home — and it implies that Christians do not have to belong to that pastor’s congregation in order to receive Communion. Another (partial) example of words that a pastor may use to identify those who are welcome at the Communion table: “We cordially invite to partake of this Sacrament all who are truly grieved and penitent for their sins, who look to the Lord Jesus Christ for righteousness and salvation…” which suggests to the unrepentant worshiper that (s)he should refrain from taking Communion that day and hints that the non-Trinitarian should go back to the drawing board to reexamine her/his theology.

In professional, liturgical, churchy language, this phrase within the Invitation that identifies who can receive Communion — and who cannot — is called “fencing the table.” (I kid you not.) The pastor defines the perimeter of those who may receive communion. Strict fencing is called “closed communion” (1 Corinthians 11:27-30); broadly inclusive fencing — or an entire lack of fencing — is known as “open communion.” An easy example: the fencing of the Communion table in Catholic churches to the exclusion of Protestants (and many others, including Catholics who are not in “good standing”) demonstrates closed communion.

(Bear with me, I’m getting to Dobson.)

Fencing the Communion table ruffles my feathers and disquiets my soul. You don’t have to be baptized to know hunger. You don’t have to confess your sins to feel thirst. You don’t need to be an adult or a faithful church member to appreciate the gift of wheat and grapes. Take and eat. Take and drink. Just imagine how ridiculous it would look if your pastor built an actual fence around the Communion table, and an attending Usher/Elder checked names at the fence gate! (Hold on, haven’t I seen that in an ad??!) What can the Body of Christ (the Church) possibly gain from turning some people away from the Body of Christ (Communion)?

Turns out, there’s a prevailing suspicion among Christians that throwing the gate wide open and welcoming all people to the table will “taint” the purity, the quality of community, and the sense of superiority (dare I call it self-righteousness?) of those who already believe that they are inside of the fenced area. This theological xenophobia usually reflects our social xenophobia, and vice versa.

Most recently — just this past Sunday morning, in fact — I “fenced the table” before Communion with these words: “This table is where Christ meets us as we are, nourishes us, and makes us new. There are no restrictions, no requirements. Only Jesus, saying, ‘Come.'” As best as I can, every time I serve Communion, I strive to fence the table by declaring that there are no fences (Ephesians 2:14)!

Just as it is deeply problematic and theologically contradictory, to me at least, that the Church regularly fences the Communion table, it is also troublesome that the Church (not quite all factions, but a whole lot!) actively participates in “fencing the family” — in other words, outlining the perimeters of who can be family, who can love another person, who can walk together through sickness and health, through good times and bad, through life and to death. It’s not just the Church’s “fencing of the family” that raises my ire, but the quality of the gate-keeping (so to speak) and the hatefulness at the gate.

Which brings me to Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family (from which he resigned as chairman in the spring of 2009).

I grew up with Focus on the Family (FOTF) materials — kid and teen magazines, radio programs with beloved characters, parenting books sitting on bookshelves around the house. I can appreciate why some people have responded with bewilderment and even indignation to my critique of the kindly doctor, who has a PhD in child development. Among the questions that I’ve received about my opinion of Dobson and FOTF, it’s not clear to me if Dobson fans are unaware of his demeaning speech and use of political clout to foster prejudice…or if they are aware and supportive of his positions and FOTF’s activities in this regard. For the sake of conversation, I’ll assume the former.

One person, responding to my newspaper editorial, asked if my critique of Dobson was simply a difference of opinion (reflecting my comment that “disagreements are to be expected within the Church”), which is a fair question. It seems, then, that I need to answer by outlining some specifics to distinguish Dr. Dobson (and, by extension, his organizations) as a man/entity who is actively directing hatred toward a group or groups of people…not just some church guy with whom I disagree on politics and religion.

As succinctly as possible, here is my rationale for naming Dobson in a list of hate-speaking Christians:

In addition to starting Focus on the Family in 1977, Dr. Dobson established the Family Research Council in 1981 (which became a branch of FOTF briefly in the late 1980s, before separating again several years later for tax reasons). ***5/5/10 addition: Dobson’s co-founder of the Family Research Council is Dr. George Rekers, who is newly making headlines for traveling abroad with a “Rentboy.com” companion.*** Although FOTF and FRC are officially independent organizations, the connections between the two remain — including the shared name of Dobson, and similar financial resources.

Both FOTF and the FRC have the political sway, monetary revenue, and the ear of conservative/moderate Christians around the country to wield devastating power against the basic rights of a minority group (including: not being discriminated against, not being legally prevented from starting a family, and other “liberal” ideas). The tremendous degree of financial/political/personnel power, in itself, sways me from merely disagreeing with Dobson to identifying him as one who has the clout to negatively impact others (i.e. to turn hateful words into hateful actions).

Both FOTF and the FRC make the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Top Twelve” list of anti-gay groups. The American Psychological Association called out Focus on the Family in 2005 for creating an anti-gay environment “in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.” FOTF supports reparative therapies, which completely undermine a person’s sense of self and self-worth. The Family Research Council has dubious associations with violent hate groups. It has repeated inaccurate and unscientific information about human sexuality from the Family Research Institute, and perpetuates the lie associating homosexuality and pedophilia. (And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg!)

The concluding argument of my blog/editorial stated that violent & hateful language directly fuels and inspires violent & hateful behavior. Dobson might not personally be carrying the protest sign or the gun, but his language and his use of power (through media, money and religion) — through both the FRC and FOTF — lead me to distrust his Christianity and to dispute his fencing of the family.

The Politics of Church Language

I am frustrated and fed up with groups like Westboro Baptist Church that continue to call themselves “Church” or people like those in the Hutaree Militia who call themselves “Christians.” For too long, theological conservativism has gone unquestioningly hand-in-hand with social & political conservativism in American Christianity, resulting in the disastrous usurping of church language (words like “Christian” and “salvation” and “conversion”) by an extreme and increasingly malevolent political agenda.

I am embarrassed and appalled as a Christian to carry the same name as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Diane Gramley (of “Out in the Silence” fame, or is it infamy?), and the like. Hatred and violence and the politics of fear were never never part of the ministry of Jesus, yet often in the public arena when someone mentions “Christian,” people think of these persons first and foremost — before Mother Theresa, before Martin Luther King, Jr., before their local churches that contribute to food banks and organize clothing drives and serve great spaghetti dinners.

It causes me to wonder, sometimes, if there’s another word besides “Christian” by which I might identify my faith and my religious tradition, because you all have corrupted the word and the identity so thoroughly. However, I refuse to give up the language of my faith, and I refuse to give up the language of my vocation. From now on, I will not call you “Church” and I will not identify you as “Christian” if you promote hatred. If you protest an anti-hate or diversity event, you are not the Body of Christ.

We may disagree on theology, on the meaning of incarnation, on political issues of abortion and gay marriage and health care — these disagreements are to be expected within the Church, even though I grow tired of the arguments — but if you issue death threats to politicians who support health care reform and if you condone (overtly or covertly) the murder of Dr. George Tiller, then you have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. Period.

You have already taken words of faith like “Savior” and “salvation” — important words that should be used to indicate Jesus’ actions of healing and border-crossing and reconciliation — and twisted them up into such contortions that no one (outside or inside of the church) thinks that “salvation” relates to anything but heaven & hell & damnation. Words like these have become codes that, when used in public, say nothing about your Jesus and everything about your politics. If I say “Jesus is my Savior” in the public sphere, people assume that I am pro-life and pro-traditional marriage (not to mention pro-NRA and pro-war and pro-death penalty); in fact, I am none of these….consequently, I do not say “Jesus is my Savior” in public anymore.

But I refuse to concede any further church language to you. I will continue to call myself Christian. I will continue to preach Jesus. And every time the opportunity arises, I will redefine in the public sphere what it means to be “Church” because Westboro Baptist is not a church and Dr. Dobson does not promote the Body of Christ. At every opportunity, I will draw very direct lines between those “Christians” who preach and/or condone hatred…and those “Christians” who enact that same hatred through violence (domestic terrorism). I’m not interested in the details, like whether or not you are personally stockpiling an arsenal of weapons or marching in the streets with a “God hates gays” sign; if you speak violently in the name of faith, I will always connect you to those who behave violently in the name of faith.

But I will not surrender my language of faith to your politics of fear.

“I Will Not Slow Down The Witness”

I hope that you have already seen and read the article that follows, that it is circulating far and wide for Christians–indeed, for all people–to affirm and to uphold in our religious bodies and in the public sphere. Here is Bishop John Shelby Spong’s recent essay, linked through another blog that reprinted the essay with permission. Spong begins without apology: “I have made a decison. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone.”

A Manifesto! The Time Has Come!

And let all of God’s people say “AMEN!”