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.

5 thoughts on “Fencing the Family

  1. If you live in the city of Sodom, being opposed to homosexuality is the only sin.

    If you live in Sodom, James Dobson is the chief of sinners.

    The ministers in Sodom, preach against the righteous ministers of the gospel of Jesus, who died on the cross for the sins of Sodom.

  2. Dear Anonymous:

    Ah, you have pegged me with your judgment against “Sodom” and against those who dare to love & include the LGBT community in the Body of Christ. Congratulations.

    You may wish to revisit your assumptions about the condition of Sodom and the reasons for God's judgment against the city, according to the retelling of the tale in Genesis 13-19. It's not immediately clear why the people of Sodom are introduced as “sinners” (Gen 13:13); the sin in chapter 19, however, is not about same-gender intimacy. I read two major systemic sins by the MEN of the city: (1) the plan to gang rape Lot's guests or Lot's daughters — and we should ask why God (according to Genesis), and why anti-gay disparagers such as yourself — let Lot off the hook for offering his daughters to the mob!, and (2) the violent inhospitality of the city toward wayfaring strangers.

    While I invite the opportunity for constructive and thoughtful conversation here at “Faith and Water,” I reserve the right to begin screening comments if hecklers such as yourself insist upon assuming that this online space is a free-for-all rather than what it is: an extension of my ministry and an expression of my faith, which are unapologetically liberal and Christian.

    Please refrain from spreading hate and condemnation while you are here.

  3. Let me ask you again, do you believe in sin? If you don't, then why did Christ die? What was the purpose of him shedding his blood?

    If you DO believe in sin, is there such a thing as sexual sin? If there isn't, then why did Jesus say to the woman caught in adultry, “Go and sin no more?”

    These questions are very basic, and not meant to be “heckling.” The very core of the Christian gospel is very simple, but writers like yourselves have difficulty with these simple questions because you need elaborate arguments to justify your theological positions.

  4. Anonymous,

    It is your behavior, more than your words, that distinguishes your remarks as heckling:

    (1) your insistence that a conservative voice must be heard & responded to in a space designated for liberal thought and theological reflection;

    (2) your unwillingness to avail yourself of nearly two years of writing within this blog to understand my theology (a simple search through past postings would lead you rather easily to my “Statement of Faith” from July 2008), insisting instead that I accommodate you by succinctly reprising my theology here in response to your litmus test;

    (3) and, significantly, your unimpressive choice to hide behind the “Anonymous” label. (You'll notice that others who use “Anonymous” here generally have the courtesy to include their names at the conclusion of their comments.)

    All of these behaviors, dear Anonymous, indicate that you are not here for true conversation or spiritual enrichment, but rather to attempt to “peg down” and to self-righteously decry the heresies of a theologically liberal pastor. You will not be given the courtesy of posting further comments at “Faith and Water” if these attitudes continue.

  5. Reading this post, its predecessor, as well as your “Statement of Faith” I must thank your parishioner for sending me the link. And I say to you that you are a Blessing to your parish and this community. Shalom,

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