Men and Women of (Liberal!) Faith

I’m not sure this counts as yet another post in the whole Burwell v. Hobby Lobby series. Perhaps it’s a tangentially related work living in the same universe — think, for example, of the relationship between The Animatrix and the Wachowski’s original Matrix trilogy. Because my train of thought is prompted by a couple articles in the ongoing cultural unfolding about the SCOTUS decision, but I think I’m going somewhere a bit more generalizable.

At least, I hope I am.

The articles separately depict attempts by progressive Christian/religious groups to protest the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, its messages about women’s reproductive rights, and the way it has been so quickly seized to justify anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

First, the protest against the newly-established limits on women’s reproductive freedoms:

A group of clergy handed out condoms to customers in front of an Illinois Hobby Lobby store on Wednesday, staging a creative, faith-based protest against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to grant the craft store giant religious exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.

The action, which was reportedly initiated by a local United Church of Christ (UCC) minister in Aurora, Illinois, included representatives from the UCC, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and Planned Parenthood. . . . “I’m just hoping that (people who see the demonstration) realize that this opinion (of Hobby Lobby’s owners) is not the opinion of religious people as a broad spectrum, but that religious people have many different opinions,” Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, a UUA minister who was at the protest, told the Daily Herald.

Religious leaders also said they hoped the move would draw attention to the danger of allowing employers to privilege their own religious beliefs over those of their employees.

“You can make the religious freedom argument, you can make the argument about contraception, but ultimately, for me, this is about power,” said Rev. Mark Winters, a UCC minister. “Jesus had a lot of issue with powerful people using power over the powerless.”

And now, an excerpt from an article detailing similar advocacy against the faith-based orbs trying to seize Burwell v. Hobby Lobby as a way to justify anti-LGBTQ prejudice:

Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, published an Op-Ed over at Time.com this afternoon saying that she was “devastated” by the letter, and argued that the proposed exemption should be left out of the executive order.

“I was saddened, I was embarrassed, I was appalled, [by the letter]” Jones wrote. “The faith that fought for justice for so many is now being used to justify injustice. The faith community that taught me to never throw stones was asking that Christians have a special permission to throw stones if they wanted. It’s simply theologically indefensible … I do not support a religious exemption that permits Christians to behave worse than their fellow citizens, and the president should not include it.”

Sources close to several progressive faith groups have also informed ThinkProgress that a coalition of denominations, faith-based advocacy organizations, and seminaries are crafting their own letter to President Obama asking him not to include the exemption. In fact, several other faith-based groups have publicly opposed the idea of a religious exemption ever since the Obama administration first announced their intention to issue the executive order a few weeks ago. As Sarah Posner points out over at Religion Dispatches, pro-LGBT faith groups such as Equally Blessed, a Catholic organization, have been vocal opponents of any stipulation that would allow for the discrimination of LGBT people, a sentiment echoed by Rev. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance, who voiced his organization’s opposition to the exemption by saying, “The tenet that religion should never be legitimated as a license to discriminate remains our core belief.”

“The tenet that religion should never be legitimated as a license to discriminate remains our core belief.” I love this.

“Jesus had a lot of issue with powerful people using power over the powerless.” Preach it!

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jesus-facepalmThere’s lots of times where public discourse about religion and spirituality — and especially about Christianity — show a disproportionate representation of individuals using their faith as the foundation for conservative/”right-wing” values.* So, given the over-representation of conservative Christians viewpoints in the public/media landscape of American religion, it could be easy to fall into stereotypes about the negativity of organized religion in general, and perhaps about the problematics of Christianity in specific.

I’m glad that in the midst of this week’s events, where a very specific strand of Christianity has been used as the justification for a morally repugnant court decision, I have so quickly been reminded of all the ways that Hobby Lobby’s strand of Christianity is part of a much larger and more expansive tapestry.

And I even have hopes that the public discourse about being a person of faith might start shifting, bit by bit.

[A]ccording to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in partnership with the Brookings Institution, the religious balance of power is shifting in ways that could make the religious left the new “Moral Majority,” figuratively speaking. If current trends persist, religious progressives will soon outnumber religious conservatives, a group that is shrinking with each successive generation, the data show.

PRRI reports that 23 percent of 18- to 33-year-olds are religious progressives, 17 percent are religious conservatives, and 22 percent are nonreligious. By contrast, only 12 percent of 66- to 88-year-olds are religious progressives, while about half are religious conservatives. The survey used a religious-orientation scale that “combines theological, economic, and social outlooks.”

I know from my own personal, lived experience about the deep traditions of social activism and liberal faith the run in the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists. I know that similar streams of social justice and activism run in the rivers of other faith traditions — even if I am too ill-informed to be able to provide much in the way of detail.

I hope that, as the world spins forward, that every time Christian conservativism is used to justify some miscarriage of justice, as it was in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that there will swiftly and surely be a chorus of voices rising, just like Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, Rev. Mark Winters, Serene Jones and Rev. Welton Gaddy. Rising to proclaim: “We are men and women of faith. We are connected to God, we strive to walk a path of soul and virtue, and this (fill-in-the-blank-for-whatever-new-atrocity-has-arisen) does not represent our understanding of God’s will for humanity!” Let their words be broadcast and shared widely, let the media catch up to understanding that Christianity /= conservatism, and that many Christians believe that Jesus was a liberal.

Let the Good News be spread.

So mote it be.

* Such as the curtailing of women’s reproductive freedom, the perpetuation of marriage inequality, science denial around evolution and climate change, and just a whole bunch of different angle trying to impose a Christian theocracy instead maintaining the USA’s cultural religious pluralism and the political separation of church and state. Y’know, those kinds of things that make me feel so ranty and rave-y.

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Image credit: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/08/the-distinctive-characteristic-of-liberal-christians.html

A Reason or a Season

[Set-up] The Day 6 prompt for Writing 101 is a character study, a prose portrait of “the most interesting person you’ve met in 2014.” I know what follows is more an artifact of imagination and projection than anything else, but this individual has been on my mind now and again for the last few weeks, so I’m going to keep trusting my inner guidance in this, as with so many other things, and write the words I have in me to say. [/Set-up]

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misty-forestOne of the things we’ve been doing as part of growing roots up here in Boston is to attend services and find other (small) ways to become involved at one of the local UU parishes.

All told, it’s sort of been an odd time to be “dating” this new church. The customary minister has been on sabbatical, so the Sunday services have been a patchwork of experiences, from lay-led services (that so often sound more like academic lectures than actual sermons), to guest ministers, to services led by the congregation’s brand-new ministerial intern.

I know enough about how long it takes to get through divinity school to expect that Jeff is actually in his late 20s. However, he has that indeterminate appearance so many young men have — at least to my aging eyes — where his age could possibly be anything from 12 to 29. His frame is slender, such that he looks just the tiniest bit dwarfed by his minister’s robes. The eyes behind his glasses shine with warmth and brightness, but the glasses themselves, paired with the ministerial accoutrements and the care with which I have seen him perform his duties have created in me the strongest impression of seriousness.

The first time we saw him lead a service, Mr. Mezzo even criticized him for that seriousness. “I just prefer a minister who’s less formal, more able to laugh at themselves,” he said in our car ride home that day.

And I understood that, but I had my own theory. “Imagine being so young,” I said, “and you’ve been tasked with providing spiritual leadership and guidance to an established congregation full of people with decades more life experience than you, with more years of involvement in this congregation than you. A congregation that won’t stop comparing your performance unfavorably with that of their oh-so-beloved minister.*

“I remember how intimidated I was with the responsibility of teaching my first college class as a kid of 24, and that was just a low stakes music appreciation class! I can imagine choosing to act with a certain level of gravitas if I were in his shoes.”

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My level of church involvement and attendance is still pretty minimal, so I haven’t have opportunities to get to know Jeff to any particular depth. A couple of conversations during coffee hour, a number of services and sermons. My perception has been that he’s come a bit more fully into a comfort level as his months of service went by. I was glad to see that.

In a weird way, I was also glad to see the announcement that Jeff would be finishing his internship with us at the halfway mark rather than completing two full years of service. He was entirely gracious in his announcement of this news, and shared that he was in a process of discerning whether it sensed best for him to continue the path of UU ordination or if a different faith tradition would be better-suited as his spiritual and ministerial home.

And I get that, I really do. A college friend of mine went through a similar journey as she entered divinity school — leaving the faith of her fathers (Catholicism) to be ordained as a UCC minister, because she knew the call to ministry in her soul was true and deep and not to be denied. I also have my own small degree of resonance, recalling the ways I was brought up an a devoutly atheist household** and remembering my own journey of exploration and discernment towards the understanding and acceptance of Spirit I now possess — however ego-limited, nonetheless true and deep and not to be denied.

I also admit to wondering whether the congregation really gave Jeff a fair shake with this position. Instead of being actively mentored week after week by a sitting minister, he was being used as “substitute teacher” during that minister’s sabbatical. And, what with the number of church members expressing to me how “unfortunate” it was that Mr. Mezzo and I were starting to attend church during this sabbatical:

You’ll see how Reverend ______ is just so much better than this.

Well, if I (minimal participation and all) have gotten such a strong picture of the level of regard these folks have for their sitting minister (and of the attendant, not-so-subtle disdain they have for anyone who isn’t Reverend ______), I kinda think Jeff mighta been able to pick up on it, too.

So between my imagined resonance with his journey, and my soft regret for any discomforts he may have felt during this year, I have been holding Jeff in the light and wishing him all manner of support and guidance and acceptance as he journeys forward. May he find the home that best feeds his soul and where he can most authentically be of service.

I’ve been too chicken-shit to reach out and tell him this. Like I said, he and I barely spoke once or twice. The idea of emailing to share any portion of this just feels awkward and invasive and as if I’d be forcing him into the box of the story I made up about his life, rather than honoring his own knowledge about his own lived experience.

But, however on-point or off-base my understanding of Jeff’s decision may be, even if I never see him or speak to him again: this much I know to be true.

A small prayer, whispered up to the ether. You will always be part of  the church’s family tree in my drawing of its branches. Thank you. I wish you well.

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* More on that later.

** Yes, that’s a del thing. At least as far as I’ve experienced it, it is.

Image credit: http://www.seedsofunfolding.org/issues/02_11/feature.htm