Saturday, June 29, 2013

Welcome to the first century

I was surprised but not surprised to hear of the closing of Exodus International the other day, if you're familiar with that mixed feeling of being surprised but not surprised. I was saddened but hopeful of what this might mean, yet left with many unresolved questions. I'll leave the working out of all that to Exodus, not being in the know, but I'll explain my own emotions for anyone who cares to listen or respond. It saddens me on the one hand, because I feel like I know the heart of people who run similar ministries, and it's not to hurt anyone. It's to reach out to people with the love of Christ, and it must be so painful for someone like Chambers, so many years of giving and not a word of thanks, just close the door. Much like the closing of residential schools, I grieve for the abuses and the clash of cultures, but also feel sad for the people who poured their lives into educating marginalized young people. It can't be easy to realize your life's work will always be stigmatized. People don't go into ministry (much like education) to get rich, nor do they go in for the recognition. They go in for the people, though it's not an easy job.

Yet, I have no trouble believing that people have been hurt in churches, that gay people have been hurt through Exodus or similar ministries. Speaking personally, I can remember walking away from a church at Christmastime when I was fifteen because I didn't fit there. So I know the feeling, if not for the same reasons. I think people are human in short, and I think the average person sees things the way they see them and spaces in history like are own are filled with shortsightedness. And I also think this is an extraordinarily complex subject that requires a tremendous amount of sensitivity and compassion. And fundamentally there is a worldview difference at the core of tensions between the gay community and religious minorities, and I don't see that going away anytime soon.

I've been thinking about this issue for a while now, and just putting my ideas out there in my own low-key way. In keeping with that ongoing process, what if rather than look at this issue as a freedom of something you're born (in line with race or ethnicity), that we begin to approach this issue as a matter of freedom of conscience? Rather than the current mainstream approach, that sees any difference of opinion as something to be eliminated like racism, that we simply accept that there are different views, and respect each other's boundaries, much like we have historically learned to do in the west with contrasting religious views. In other words, I don't go to a synagogue or a mosque for prayer, because I'm a Christian, but I don't go there looking for a job in ministry and later complaining of discrimination either, if you follow my meaning.

In much the same way, it disturbs me because Exodus is a ministry, a faith-based approach by and for people who are Christians and affiliated with churches. Much like Christian counsellors might see what they do as a form of spiritual outreach for those that are interested in a faith-based approach, it saddens and worries me, when our secular culture is so determined to put everything under the same umbrella, and stamp out increasingly marginalized faith-based views on this issue. I can only ask, when I hear some comments about the closing of Exodus, do we have the right to exist? Do religious organizations or professionals with faith-based insights or opinions have the right to offer services to those that want them? You might not agree with our/their worldview, but do ministries like Exodus International have the right to operate according to the dictates of their own belief systems? From the tone of the culture, I'm not sure we do, quite honestly. Which is why a lot of us (increasingly marginalized religious minorities) are at present more than a bit worried about the future of freedom of religion in the western world. When I hear the cheering and the jeering from the stands, I have to ask, will any ministry efforts directed toward the gay community ever be acceptable to people who seem to be fundamentally opposed to any such initiatives?

But to be very clear, if the closing of Exodus is a symbolic act, that we have made mistakes, that we are trying to do things differently, to use more sensitive language, to be sensitive to the needs of people, then hey I think that's great. And that gives me hope, that we are moving towards a new understanding, a new dialogue in the church and with people who feel marginalized by the church. In that sense I am hopeful of what that symbolic act represents. But if the expectation from the larger culture is that we need to change our core beliefs, then I think the larger culture is asking too much and is crossing a boundary. In a larger sense I think our very polarized culture must realize that there are worldview differences here, and true tolerance would be to accept that, rather than demanding a uniformity of mind.

You know, just a thought, but in the interview that I've linked below, Alan Chambers says late in the interview that he stays out of the politics regarding this issue, concerning the fight for same-sex marriage. Which leads me to the question, would this be as much about ideology, if the gay community knew that they had the support of religious minorities politically? I'll put that out there for anyone who cares to respond.

Personally, I've come a long way from where I started with this issue. I was opposed to gay marriage when it was being put through in Canada. In fact, I was about as opposed as one could be, when I went to a rally in support of the traditional definition of marriage. And you know, being told I was a hate-mongerer by the culture and being told I was a bigot, and reading in the paper that the good ol' Romans got it right and we should start throwing Christians to the lions again -none of that changed my mind. You know what changed my mind? I was listening to a lecture by Nicholas Wolterstorff and he was talking about the history of rights in the western world and how one might argue that it was core Judeo-Christian concepts, such that we are created in the image of God, that had formed the conceptual foundation for human rights in the western world. Also, that it had been historic fighting between Catholics and protestants in Europe and a later new America that didn't want to repeat that sectarian violence and so had enshrined separation of church and state as a guiding principle.

And the light went on. All the arguments, the rage that I felt in the pit of my gut, the torment at feeling that I was being personally attacked by an entire culture, that I was no longer welcome in my own country, and in a moment I connected my hurt to the hurt that I was also hearing expressed from my secular friends, and from the counter-protester challenging a traditional marriage advocate outside the gates of the Canadian parliament buildings as I was walking away in 2005. And in that moment I began to think about gay rights initiatives as a rights issue rather than being consumed with thinking of traditional marriage as a social need, when I connected the bloodshed between the Catholics and the Protestants to the vitriol I was hearing from the gays and from the Christians. But the difference is that the Catholics and the Protestants have agreed to disagree, and set up their own tents, while our culture is still demanding one big universal tent to the other side of a divided house, and what I am trying to say is that there will never be one tent on this issue, in the church or in the town.

Which leads me to another question, when a individual  or community of people says "I'm gay," or "we're gay," is that a statement of personal conviction, or is that a whole worldview that all of society is then expected to conform to, no exceptions allowed? You see, I have no trouble with the first presupposition, that this is a personal conviction for some people and that I should respect that choice. I have a great deal of trouble with the second statement, because I cannot agree with the whole parcel for reasons of conscience. Furthermore, I don't expect that I will ever be able to agree with the whole parcel, because such a worldview would go against my personal beliefs, but I can respect people's right to disagree with me. I can respect people's right to equal treatment before the law. Is that enough?

I read an article the other day that seemed to be saying that current beliefs that homosexuality is genetic do not appear to have much support scientifically (through twin studies). That is my understanding from multiple sources at this point. Feel free to give me new information, but my common sense tells me that such a belief would be hard to prove unequivocally for all people at all times. And even if you could prove it, who's to say an individual could not choose a different path, surely we're not gene machines after all. And yet the tone in the culture seems to be that this belief is scientific and your religious beliefs are backward and you had better agree with progress -or else. It's the "or else" tone that worries me as a religious conservative. It's the,"we're just going to browbeat you until you submit" attitude that I find disturbing. Maybe I'm biased, in fact I know I am, so if you're coming at this from the other side and you're feeling the same way, my apologies. But I can't submit, for the record. I will never submit. No thanks, I have my own beliefs and values thank you very much, but again, feel free to disagree with me. Be my guest. I'm a religious conservative who's trying to meet the other side half-way. Again I ask, is it enough?

The argument that I have been making for some time, is suggesting that rather than approach this issue from the perspective of science and this is what I'm born, which again would be difficult to prove, would be to approach this issue as an matter of conscience for both sides, and give each other a bit of space. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm hoping that religious people would have an easier time accepting same-sex marriage and gay rights initiatives in general if it were framed as a difference in conviction, especially given that many if not all religious communities have been through the fight for rights of conscience ourselves. The historical precedents are there for reference and for dialoging with religious communities in terms of their specific cultural histories, and I'm inclined to think that religious minorities would identify with the acquisition of rights of conscience of another marginalized group for that reason. For example, if someone had said to me in 2005 when I was feeling marginalized and personally attacked, Marg, this is my conviction, this is how I self-identify, much like your personal conviction that you are a Christian. I think I would have had a much easier time understanding where they were coming from, rather than feeling like I was witnessing the desecration of everything I hold dear. And to religious conservatives, what I am suggesting is that we view gay rights alongside religious rights in this sense. "I'm gay, that is my conviction."  I'm Jewish, that is my conviction, etc.

In wrapping up, I think the current understanding of religious diversity in western culture would be a much healthier approach to this divisive issue. What do I mean when I say this? I mean, that rather than dealing with this issue through social pressure to conform to a mainstream view, that we begin to accept that there are differences of conscience for both sides, and to work toward equal accommodation under the law. Isn't that what Catholics and protestants learned to do? Isn't that what the early Christians learned to do, in establishing churches rather than synagogues? Isn't that what protestants churches learned to do as they divided and subdivided and subdivided again? (lol). People may scoff at the number of protestant denominations out there, but it sure beats killing each other doesn't it?

In speaking to the gay community, it's a free market. Go to the church of your choice, or don't go to church if that's your choice. Vote with your attendance or non-attendance, but please allow me and faith based organizations the right to exist. Please allow ministries that desire to reach out to the gay community and gay people that wish to attend such ministries the right to a fair ideological competition. Please allow us the right to disagree, as we learn to accept your right to disagree with us. And to the religious minorities out there who are still wrestling with these huge social changes, it's an emotional issue.  It's a very intensely personal emotional issue because we believe as religious conservatives that marriage is something that's designed by God and is therefore in the best interest of the larger society. There's a lot of truth to that, and there's a lot of people who would like to be part of that, and at present feel excluded from that community of commitment. Religious minorities know what it is to be persecuted for who we are and for our convictions. We've struggled for this historically and religious minorities around the world continue to struggle for it today, often with their lives. Surely we can understand what it means to another historically marginalized group of people, as they struggle for the same recognition, the same freedom, to be the persons that they sincerely believe that they are. I'm not asking anyone to agree, I'm asking people on both sides to support each other's right to disagree and to be seen as equals before the law, in a true spirit of equality and tolerance.

As for where I'm at with all this these days, as much as possible I'm trying to let it go. I was happy yesterday when I heard that equal benefits for same sex couples had been gained through the courts in the U.S. I also felt for the religious minorities who are struggling with these changes, because I know how they feel. It gets better, it does. The world doesn't end. I read an article the other day, again on the closing of Exodus, where one person's closing comment was that the church needs to wake up and realize that we're not in the driver's seat anymore. We're not, the culture has shifted; that's a news flash for anyone who's been in a coma for the last few years, pardon my sarcasm, lol. But to my fellow Christians, take heart. I was listening to a talk by John Piper a while ago where he said that when he has distraught Christians come to him, very fretful about societal changes, he says "welcome to the first century." The first century was an exciting time, a very very exciting time for a brand new joyful baby church. We didn't have any power, at least not of the political kind, but there were plenty of worldviews present in the ancient world, and a lot of very precious wonderful people to exchange views with. So not much has changed, in that most important sense. We may not be in the driver's seat, but we still know where we're going. Wake up sleepy church. A new day has dawned.

Take care and God bless,

M.A. Harvey

Interview with Alan Chambers on the closing of Exodus:

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