Did you see the courageous and prophetic response given by the United Methodist Church in response to the recent spate of LGBT teen suicides?
I know, me neither.
In light of these recent tragedies, perhaps it’s time to look at the church’s liability, or at least their culpability in the suicides of teens who feel repressed, hated, and bullied by society and institutions in our society.
Consider Jamie Nabozny of Ashland, Wisconsin. A public high school student in the mid 90’s who was bullied, threatened, and terrorized because of his perceived sexuality. School officials knew of the abuse, but said, “Nabozny should expect it if he’s gay.” To make a long story short, he sued, and a Federal Appeals Court finally ruled in his favor, finding that the school district could be held liable for not stopping anti-gay abuse. When the lower court then ruled that the officials were to be held liable, the district quickly settled for a million dollars.
So it follows, does the church by its pronounced stand on homosexuality have blood on its hands?
There is undoubtedly a United Methodist Church in every community that the bullied and now dead children once lived. In every community where a child committed suicide, that church was a reminder to those kids that they were not equal in the sight of God. Some of those churches are undoubtedly conflicted about that stance, and others are quite happy to remind their community that homosexuality is an abomination in the site of the Lord, “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and is not to be tolerated.
Some of us make jokes, others become enraged, and certainly we all cluck our tongues when we discuss the Catholic church’s problems with child abuse: how shameful it is that the institution has actively sheltered the abusers while leading the lambs out to the wolves. Is their error of commission any more grievous than our own errors of omission? How can we continue to ignore the cry for relief from our own discrimination?
Outside of the church, the response to the bullying deaths has been notable. The president of the United States proclaimed yesterday that “homosexuality is not a choice.”
“We’re all children of God,” Obama said. “We don’t make determinations about who we love. That’s why I think discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong.”
15 year old Billy Lucas killed himself in his grandmother’s barn where his mother would find his body, hanging from the rafters. She would later refuse to write an obituary or have a public funeral for him, because “she didn’t want those kids who had hurt him to see him.”
The provocative sex columnist Dan Savage wrote in his syndicated column
” He (Billy) reportedly endured intense bullying at the hands of his classmates—classmates who called him a fag and told him to kill himself. His mother found his body…. I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”
Savage started a website and a YouTube channel called “It Gets Better”, devoted to posting messages from people who want to counsel young people that there is a life and hope beyond the bullies. (Episcopal church bishop Gene Robinson has posted a video.) Some of the videos are incredibly poignant. Savage notes that in real life, gay adults are never allowed to even talk to children about sexuality, so his internet campaign has become an accessible way for teens to get a message of hope and not harm.
The United Methodist Church stands mute.
Before I am attacked from the handful of clergy and churches that really DO actively promote equality and justice for ALL, I need to acknowledge the fact that yes indeed, there are many men and women who are very courageous and who actually speak up for inclusion, tolerance, and equality. There are churches that sponsor PFLAG groups and counseling for teens in emotional distress. There are organizations that highlight this issue: Reconciling Ministries Network and Breaking the Silence to name only two. But many, many, more pastors quietly affirm that they strongly believe in the Grace of Christ for all, but they themselves feel bullied into silence. They need only to look at examples of fellow clergy who were removed from their churches, sent to Siberia, or pressured into preaching an incomplete Gospel. The bullies in this case can come from the ranks of their peers in positions of Episcopal power, or from the front pew positions where the pledge money sits. Groups like “The Confessing Movement”, the IRD, and the Good News movement spend enormous sums of money to keep teenagers like Billy Lucas in the margin, and feeling that way. I’ve always found it sadly ironic that ultra conservative clergy shout about the authority of scripture, yet when it comes to so called “liberal social justice” issues that they can’t get away from, they condemn preachers who are “out of touch with the values of their congregations.”
Talk about a bully pulpit.
The other irony is how many leaders of these movements have never expressed their zealous judgment about other scriptural violations of living a supposed faithful and holy life. Divorce, remarriage, interfaith marriage, children born out of wedlock, young unmarrieds cohabitating, substance abuse…. just not big issues for the (self) righteous wearers of the robe and stole.
How many conservative clergy men can you count that are divorced, have family members struggling with substance abuse problems, or whose own children are gay or conduct their sexual relationships outside of the “traditional” bonds of marriage? Most famously, a Bishop within the church in the 70’s, married with several children, was also a leader in keeping gays out of the church. He died of AIDS, denying even on his deathbed that he had homosexual encounters, though his gay lovers were quick to confirm his indiscretions. I believe all of these men are equal in the sight of God. I believe God will extend His Grace to them if asked, and I would like to think that there is some reason that they cannot see through the log in their own eyes. And as they always like to use the expression “hate the sin, not the sinner” when often they’re covering up for the hatred that they affirm for that sinner, then I will also say, I hate their bigotry, their prejudice, their bullying, and the faux “Christian” cover they give for hateful and destructive acts. I hate the words that they choose that lead children to end their own lives. And I hate when they take their church in the direction of that hatefulness and call it Holy.
Time to Act
Dan Savage, in a follow up column to his “It Gets Better” campaign put it best, in a profane and outrageous column. A reader commented to him that although he did not believe in gay marriage as a Christian, he was heartbroken to hear of the death of the boy. This reader claimed his own fallibility, and stressed he would never allow his kids to be hurtful towards others. He then chastised Savage for perpetrating hatred toward Christians, and for being hurtful in that respect. I’m not going to write Savage’s response here… you need to read it for yourself. I will say that he cares little for this man’s personal sensitivities and feelings over Dan’s choice of words, because, “Gay kids are dying. So let’s try to keep things in perspective….”
The “Holy conversations” are over. It’s time to act, and demand that a church act. The older generation of pastors keeps wanting to kick this down the road so they don’t have to deal with it, hoping and fervently praying that they get their pension before they’re caught in the crossfire. The younger clergy keep thinking that rational thought and cultural acceptance will just blow this away. (Guess what, kids, we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backwards!) And God forbid a child crying out for help appears at your door, asking, “why am I not good enough for God?”
It’s time we cease to treat this as a two sided issue. It’s OK for bigotry like this to be given equal time in our church? How absurd it would be to give “equal time” and “holy conversation” to someone who stood up and said, “We must not let women attain ‘elder’ status in our church, because the Bible says they are to be subservient to men…” Oh wait, we DID say that, not very long ago. How ignorant and hateful we were… then. Meanwhile we drive the faithful away from our church, we cannot explain to our own family and friends why we are a part of a bigoted institution, and the unchurched consider us irrelevant and disdain this deceitful discourse.
Laity, it’s time to remind your minister that you expect his or her sermons to reflect a message of Christ’s love, Grace, and peace. You know, like in the Bible. And then make sure that you support him: participate in the governance of the church, or in a group that helps kids in emotional crisis, or participate in a ground level physical effort to raise awareness. That DOES NOT mean just “put out a message on facebook once in a while”. The angry and prejudiced mob knows about ground level work, and they willing to get their hands dirty. They are obviously not fazed by some blood at their church door. Tell your friends that you no longer want to participate in a message that pushes children to suicide.
Clergy, it’s time to come together and get out of the closet. You are indeed being bullied and threatened both explicitly and implicitly. So perhaps you too, should band together. Has there been one published petition denouncing the homophobic bullying of kids in our communities? Has any group of pastors or Bishops denounced the church’s “official” discriminatory position that tells kids and adults they are unworthy? Are there ten pastors in leadership positions that would sign a letter to the editor?
Wash your hands of this blood, or surely He will wash his hands of us all.