More Steps Toward Equality in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick today signed two important bills that advance GLBT equality. One was a repeal of the “1913 law” that prevented out-of-state couples from marrying in Massachusetts if their marriages would not be recognized in their home states. Some historical evidence suggests that this law was intended to block interracial marriages. After gay marriage was legalized here in 2004, the 1913 law was used to restrict out-of-state couples from coming here to marry. But now the way is clear for Northampton to become the gay wedding capital of America. Come up and see us sometime!

I found it amusing that a Republican state senator was quoted in our local paper with the following objection to the 1913 repeal: What if a Rhode Island couple gets married here, moves back home and can’t get divorced because Rhode Island doesn’t recognize gay marriage? Uh, I thought you guys were about protecting marriage. Now you’re worried that divorce isn’t easy enough?

Gov. Patrick also approved the MassHealth Equality Bill, which would grant married same-sex couples in Massachusetts the same access to Medicaid benefits as heterosexual couples. The federal Defense of Marriage Act denies spousal protections to same-sex couples in federal benefits programs, but since Medicaid is also state-funded, the state can make its own policy with respect to that program. The New England Blade has the full story.

While we celebrate, however, let’s remember that GLBT people in other parts of the world are still fighting for their basic rights to be free from criminal sanctions and mob violence. MadPriest has the story, courtesy of Afrol News:

One of Uganda’s key gay rights activists who had led demonstration at an AIDS international conference in the country was arrested, tortured and dumped with bruises on his body in the capital Kampala on Saturday.

Usaam Auf Mukwaya was among the three activists arrested at the HIV/AIDS Implementers’ Meeting last month for protesting against comments by Uganda’s AIDS commission that the gay community was shooting up the number of infections in the country, but would not have access to HIV services.

The activist was arrested by the police while on his way back from Friday prayers. He was reportedly driven to a building where he was led through a dark hall to an interrogation room, and aggressively question about Ugandan LGBT movement.

Mukwaaya was cut around the hands and tortured with a machine that applies extreme pressure to the body, preventing breathing and causing severe pain before being driven out of the building and dumped. He boarded a motorbike taxi to the city center and telephone his colleagues from Shaken and bruised, he boarded a motorbike taxi to the city center and telephoned colleagues from Sexual Minorities Uganda who found him weak, filthy and without shoes and some of his clothing.

There’s been a lot of noise coming out of the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference about “conditions” the conservative faction wants to impose on the ECUSA and other affirming churches: no gay bishops, no blessing same-sex unions, and so forth. Has anyone heard our Archbishop of Canterbury proposing reciprocal “conditions” on the African church leaders, namely that they take steps to oppose anti-gay violence in their home countries? Throwing stones at sinners, after all, wasn’t high on Jesus’ list of favorite hobbies.

If the Communion splits, the Western churches will probably be all right. We are the land of 1,000 Protestant sects. One more or less won’t make a difference. The real losers will be gay Anglicans and their straight allies in the developing world, whose religious leaders will no longer feel any pressure from within the church to defend their civil rights.

Early Reflections on the Lambeth Conference

The Lambeth Conference, the worldwide Anglican Communion’s once-a-decade meeting of bishops, began yesterday in Canterbury, England. Christopher at Betwixt and Between has some timely reflections on our church’s various models of interpretive authority, and their benefits and pitfalls. This is a long post worth reading in full; I’ve merely pulled out a few favorite passages here:

Anglicanism on the whole took on additionally a certain reassessment not only of the relationship of Scripture to doctrine, but also of the community to faith found in the moderation of the likes of Hooker, but perhaps best summed in Article XIX:

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

Note carefully that the Church has erred not only in matters of living and ceremony, but in matters of faith. In other words, the Church can get it wrong with regard to in Whom we put our trust where the Whom and the content explicated from that Whom are not separable. In essence, the Churches of the Reformation put the Church on notice as to the real possibility of error, even in doctrine, having seen that the kernel of the kerygma, God saves or God justifies the ungodly, had been seemingly overthrown.

What this comely development, perhaps the true genuine genius and most vital contribution of the Reformation (and we might say a truly “Modern” contribution at that), does is complicate our “basic” models of interpretive authority a great deal. It forces us to live eschatologically, to live open before the Living God without the crutch of certitude of book or of community. It means that we will remain a wrestling community, and likely a community not of one mind on an assortment of matters beyond those things necessary for salvation found in our sufficient statements of faith contra tendencies these days to sew up our history in neater packages. Such a development actually allows us to remain rooted in history and to recognize that the Church happens in history with all contingency that implies rather than happening in flights of fancy to perfect ecclesiological models, perfect communities, and perfect interpretations of the book.

In other words, neither authority located in Scripture, nor authority located in the community are “done deals” except with regard to some very particular matters, namely that distilled into our various ordinals in one form or another: Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation (but also quite a few other things not necessarily so and not necessarily to be required or even salvific if understood outside of the lens of Jesus Christ and/or the Creeds), and that those things, that content necessary to believe, put one’s faith in, have trust upon are found in our Creeds as sufficient statements of faith.

I want to concern myself more with the catholic model than the Protestant because I think this is actually our greater danger at the present moment, a danger that a thoroughly Anglican appreciation for “epistemic humility” or “contingency” can meet more squarely. You see, to suggest that the community can err in matters of living, ceremony, and even faith is to say that the catholic loop is broken open. The community itself can get things wrong and thus itself is found to be permanently under scrutiny—even if not always open to it….

Being both catholic and Protestant, we not only embrace the community as locus for our life together but we also hold up the community, that means us, to the Gospel critique.

In a time when “community” is celebrated almost ad nauseam and “consensus” has been suggested as the final arbiter of the true and the good, Anglicans should not labor under romantic notions about such things. To do so is to ignore much of our complicated history in favour of an Hegelian or Foucaultian flight from history to processes or humanless discourse. Real flesh-and-blood life, that locus in which we understand God is working (even if our understanding of that work is at best limited), doesn’t work so simply.

No easy resort to absolute declarations that this thing here is the work of the Holy Spirit in our time, but also no easy resort to absolute declarations that this thing here is not the work of the Holy Spirit because or unless the community decides and affirms as such. Such a refusal of a romantic notion of community (of which the Acts version is a prime example in light of the more realistic Galatian or Corinthian letters) also denies that simply because the community decides something that that therefore is the true and good or that that settles the matter (If we take Acts at face value, Paul obviously thought not by then overturning the matter about meat sacrificed to idols–meat likely to have been strangled or still full of blood). If something is true and good, even if the community says otherwise, that something is still true and good. Do we dismiss the marriages of enslaved Africans as not marriages because the Anglican Churches (and others besides) said these weren’t marriages? On the contrary, we in hindsight recognize the brutality of enslavement and the horror of how families were treated under such a “Christian” system. To suggest otherwise is a form of communal relativism that subtly places the community as Archimedian point or suggests the community (the Church) rather than the Community (the Holy Trinity) is God, a dangerous notion or alignment of Church and Trinity to which Anglicans are particularly prone with our “Incarnational spirituality”, but a notion our Reformation ancestors refused to labor under with their more eschatological emphases inherited from St. Augustine. Yes, the gates of hell will not finally prevail against the Church. In the ultimate count, God saves. But the Church cannot save itself, and in the short run sometimes hell has wreaked quite a lot havoc with the ecclesia militans or ecclesia crucis, the Church here on earth. The Scotist points us to yet one more beginning attempt, this one by Primus Jonas of Scotland, at articulating a more complicated Trinitarian ecclesiology than the romantic notions offered to-date.

We know from recent history that a lot of wackos use God, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, etc. to do justify and commit terrible things, even to overthrow core doctrine, and in the moment these things seem good, this overthrow seems necessary, only to lead us into grave error toward our fellows, which is not separable from dismissing the Incarnate God. But we also know that communities can claim consensus for decisions and actions that turns out to be diabolical though in the moment these things seem good, and that sadly, has and does include the Church.

The end result of this breaking open, this development in interpretation of which we are heirs, is that the Holy Spirit remains free, free to unearth the truth, in the book, in the community, in the lone voice, and even in the world if necessary. This undoes a recent Anglican trend to suggest that the community tests without being clear that the community is also tested.

Read the whole post here.

Whereas Christopher urges the differing factions in the Anglican Communion to stay together, recognizing one another as fellow sinners rather than heretics, Hugo thinks it may be time to consider a “good divorce”:

What compromises are worth making, and what compromises end up tragically compromising our essential identity? Sometimes divorce is necessary, I believe. Sometimes, the church needs to experience schism. But some marriages can be saved, and some communions can be held together. By the end of this summer, I suspect those of us in the worldwide Anglican Communion will have a clearer answer as to the way forward.

The essential equality of women with men is not an issue for compromise. Like most progressives, I don’t want to see women bishops sacrificed in the name of unity. I don’t want to see the right of gays and lesbians to have their unions blessed surrendered either, merely out of a desire to remain in relationship with those traditionalists who find women priests and gay spouses to be an abhorrent manifestation of modern perversity. When we prioritize unity over justice, we make an idol out of unity. The right-wing might well say the same about those of us on the progressive left; why should they be forced to live under the supervision of bishops whose authority they find unbiblical?

Rather than search for a compromise that will inevitably end up sacrificing the core dignity of one major constituency in the Anglican Communion, perhaps the time has come to do something really new and marvelous: have the world’s first loving, friendly, and entirely non-litigious schism. Let the traditionalists band together under their right-wing Third World prelates; let the progressives form a loose coalition centered on North America, the United Kingdom, and parts of Australasia. Let each parish decide with whom it will cast its lot, and let there be no recriminations or lawsuits. Let both traditionalists and progressives strive to outdo each other in fidelity to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6.

Unity is a good. It is a very high good. But I think we can all agree it is not the highest of goods, not up there with justice, with mercy, and humility. The Anglican Communion began with a schism, and it has enjoyed a fine run of nearly five centuries. Let it end with another schism, but this time a cheerful one, with no heads sent rolling and no martyrs burnt. I’m not willing to wait any longer for gay marriages for the sake of keeping a traditionalist in Uganda happy; I see no reason why that same traditionalist should be forced to remain in a Communion that sanctions what he finds anathema. Let’s say goodbye with affection, with charity, but for God’s sake, let’s say goodbye.

Meanwhile, Steve Parelli and Jose Ortiz, who run the ministry Other Sheep East Africa, continue to challenge the simplistic analysis of Anglican schism as a culture war between liberal white imperialists and orthodox Africans. Other Sheep hosted a conference on Christianity and Homosexuality in Nairobi earlier this month, where a small band of gay Christians and straight allies risked stigma and violence to discuss how they reconciled their Biblical faith with acceptance of same-sex partnerships. The apparent consensus within the African church, which conservative commentators use to portray the Episcopal Church USA as a fringe party, is maintained by often-brutal silencing of voices that offer a different interpretation.

And, in other news that shouldn’t be news, Brian at Creedal Christian proclaims in the headline of a recent post: “Episcopal Church Website Affirms Orthodox Christology”. To which I can only add, Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only…

Lose Your Life, But Don’t Forget to Find It

There are days when I can barely say the St. Francis Prayer that pops up at the end of the Episcopal morning prayer service. I say it with a lump in my throat, with mental fingers crossed, with my own revisions, if I say it at all. This is the famous prayer that begins “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” and goes on to say, “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.” And all the while my heart is aching for that more-than-human consolation, and for relief from the duty to appear compassionate, sane and cheerful no matter how difficult certain relationships become.

Callan frames this dilemma with her usual eloquence in a recent post about caring for her elderly depressed mother, who doesn’t accept Callan’s male-to-female transition:

Get the ego out of the way, say the Eastern masters. They don’t mention the part where you replace it with the will of a self-pitying narcissist, though many of the gurus, well, they do have their own sense of self.

Hope may be the thing with feathers, but a plucked chicken never has to worry about falling, though her life may be short, fat and consumable by others.

My theory has always been that classic Christian writing puts so much emphasis on shrinking the ego because theology was written by men whose main challenge was avoiding the pride and callousness that went along with their dominant position. For women, who are trained to take responsibility for others’ feelings even at the risk of suppressing our own, taking these teachings at face value can push us more out of balance. It’s interesting that Callan, raised as a man, has for a long time found herself in this typically female situation. Further proof that gender and personality don’t correlate as neatly as ideologues across the spectrum would have us believe.

In any event, her post reminds me of the main stumbling block I faced before I could become a Christian. All this talk of selflessness–didn’t that just put you at the mercy of corrupt human authority figures who were only too happy to prevent you from developing ego-strength? Well, yes and no.

The fools’ gold of Christian morality is a subtle form of works-righteousness that looks (to ourselves and others around us) like true humility. When we are afraid to say “no” to someone who has become a tyrant in our lives, we may think we are demonstrating unselfish Christian love toward them. But are we really doing what is best for them? If not, is it love that moves us, or merely the fear of being wrong?

Jesus said we lose our life in order to find it. If we’re not finding it, and the beneficiaries of our sacrifices also seem to be moving deeper into the prison of the ego and further away from the freedom of life in Christ, it’s time to consider whether we’ve let someone other than Christ be our master.

(A world of thanks to Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Christian psychologists, for their book Boundaries, from which the above insights were taken. This book saved my life and set me on the road to baptism.)

PEN Prison Writing Awards

The PEN American Center, an association of writers working for freedom of expression and human rights, has just presented its annual Prison Writing Awards for the best poetry, fiction and essays by inmates in the U.S. prison system. The stories of long-term inmates reveal that in a misguided attempt to be “tough on crime,” states keep cutting back on educational and rehabilitative programs for prisoners.

We’ve all heard the popular gripe (heck, I used to believe it myself) that society’s deadbeats shouldn’t get an education “for free” while hard-working people can barely afford theirs. Let me tell you, folks, college tuition isn’t a quarter-million dollars because some poor lifer in Florida is getting too much writing paper. Such myths represent an age-old strategy to set disadvantaged groups off against each other, squabbling over limited resources while the CEOs, politicians and lobbyists are rigging the system in their favor.

But don’t just believe me. Go visit a prison in your area, or join PEN’s program to mentor an incarcerated writer (no travel required). You’ll be amazed at how this so-called Christian nation throws away so many precious lives.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Charles P. Norman, 2008 winner in the Memoir category for “Fighting the Ninja”, a graphic account of how HIV/AIDS is allowed to spread through the prison population.

Those on the “outside” can help by demanding that state legislators refocus on education for prisoners and not confuse it with “soft on crime” attitudes. When we had Pell grants and college classes for prisoners, I don’t know how many times I heard guards and others complain they had to pay for their educations while prisoners got them for free. That’s not true. I paid a great price for my education in prison. Life. And I’m still paying.

What they don’t realize is that it’s in society’s best interest that prisoners develop educational and vocational skills, in order to become wage-earning and law-abiding members of society when they’re released. About 90% of those men who return to prison are unemployed at the time of their arrest. Make society safer by educating prisoners. Do everyone a favor.

There’s another aspect of illiteracy, that pertaining to legal and illegal immigrants in prison. I’ve worked with crowds of prisoners in ESL classes (being fluent in foreign languages is a great advantage in prison). Men from virtually every Spanish-speaking country south of us, plus Haitians, are a growing presence in prison. Many are illiterate in their native language, but virtually speechless in English. What has impressed me about these men is their desire to learn.

There are so many sad stories, wrenching accounts of starving families, struggling to come here, work, send money home, literally to save their children. One man, a Cuban, had an American wife and children in Miami. He spoke no English. He was working in another city, got mixed up in something, went to jail, had no way to call or communicate with his family; all his wife knew was that he had disappeared. She didn’t know whether he was alive or dead, had abandoned his four children or not. She’d been living in a rental, couldn’t pay, went home to her family in Kansas City.

Four years later, he was in my ESL class, trying to learn enough English so he could write letters to government agencies to find his family. His inability to speak or write English crippled him, had a terrible effect on his mental state. Fortunately, Luann Meeker, a friend of mine in Kansas City, made a phone call and found his wife and children. He was alive! What a lift. He wasn’t yet able to write a coherent letter in English, but he’d dictate and I’d translate. It was an incredible mail reunion. Later they came to visit him.

Visit his website at

Other Sheep “Christianity & Homosexuality” Seminar in Nairobi

In the wake of the conservative Anglicans’ GAFCON conference in Jerusalem, the Anglican Church of Kenya has now demanded that gays and lesbians stop attending their churches unless they repent and renounce their sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, Steve Parelli and Jose Ortiz’ Other Sheep East Africa ministry continues its brave work to support GLBT Christians overseas. This week, they are offering a “Christianity and Homosexuality” seminar in Nairobi that will address “how biblical scholarship today demonstrates that the received views of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah,’ the Romans 1 ‘against nature,’ and other texts, have been seriously misunderstood, and in turn, unjustly misappropriated against sexual minorities.” Trained as a Baptist minister, Parelli takes seriously the authority of Scripture and has the skills to interpret these controversial Bible verses in their historical context and original language.

Can’t get to Nairobi? Read his extensive seminar notes here (opens as MS Word doc). Key points include: References to “sodomites” in the King James Version are mistranslations of a word for the male and female priest-prostitutes of Canaanite fertility cults. The issue was not their sexual orientation (a concept unknown to pre-modern writers) but the fact that they used their sexuality for idol worship. The story of Sodom itself is concerned with male gang rape as an act of inter-tribal hostility, which has no bearing on the morality of consensual same-sex partnerships, any more than the instances of heterosexual rape in the Bible undermine the ideal of male-female marriage. Similarly, the obscure words Paul uses to allude to same-gender sex acts in the Epistles, to the extent that they can be accurately translated, are concerned with the disordered and abusive quality of the relationship (pederasty, self-indulgent promiscuity, idol worship again).

Whether or not these are the only ways to interpret these verses, Steve and the long list of scholars he cites in his bibliography have made a reasonable case that Bible-believing Christians can support gay rights. Their position is also more in line with New Testament values of charity and inclusiveness, and supported by the evidence of GLBT clergy and lay people who manifest the gifts of the Spirit. Let us disagree if we must, but let us hear no more of the abusive fiction that opponents of homosexuality are the only “orthodox” Christians.

Donations to Other Sheep East Africa can be made here. They particularly need laptop computers for Rev. John Makokha (UMC) and Rev. Michael Kimindu (Anglican Priest/ MCC Minister), who have been persecuted in their churches because of their sexual orientation.

Conway: “I Already Know”

The latest poetic offering from my prison pen pal “Conway” arrived on the back of a masterful drawing of grotesque comedy and tragedy masks haunting a grey prison cell. I admire his determination to get his artwork out to the world, despite the the prison bureaucracy which often bounces back his mail based on ever-changing criteria about envelope size and penmanship. Sadly, I don’t possess a scanner large enough to reproduce it here, but the poem is below. I’m still looking for a publisher for his chapbook, so please contact me if you have a lead.

This poem resonated with my own struggles to keep God’s grace and liberating promises in sight when others’ harsh judgments fill my daily awareness. To “learn what I already knew” and feel in my heart what I believe intellectually–that is a big part of what it means to “work out your salvation”, I think. And perhaps the first priority of Christian communities should be to show one another what it feels like to be forgiven, so that grace becomes as believable as shame.

I Already Know

Some day; I hope to shake off this wrath
exactly as a dog shakes off his master’s bath
unwanted film of rules, rough cuffs and regulations
fences stretched tight to keep people in, dogs out

You know what I’m tryin to say, but not talk about
Just a quick retort, inside another useless sally port
    before, after the doors crack
exposing the exit, entrance, monkey on my back
    peering out, into this promised land
spilling from an unrevealing hand, manacled.

The blue sky, only open door, dangling above me
    Taunting, “come to me” where everyone’s free

If only I believed the rhetoric, the delivery
    of phrases, phases and useless words
spewing from mouths of deadeyed mocking birds
Some day, one day I’ll learn what I already knew
    come to see your view, go to see you…

Chris Abani: “The New Religion”

The body is a nation I have not known.
The pure joy of air: the moment between leaping
from a cliff into the wall of blue below. Like that.
Or to feel the rub of tired lungs against skin
covered bone, like a hand against the rough of bark.
Like that. The body is a savage, I said.
For years I said that, the body is a savage.
As if this safety of the mind were virtue
not cowardice. For years I have snubbed
the dark rub of it, said, I am better, lord,
I am better, but sometimes, in an unguarded
moment of sun I remember the cow-dung-scent
of my childhood skin thick with dirt and sweat
and the screaming grass.
But this distance I keep is not divine
for what was Christ if not God’s desire
to smell his own armpit? And when I
see him, I know he will smile,
fingers glued to his nose and say, next time
I will send you down as a dog
to taste this pure hunger.

    reprinted by permission from the PEN American Center website