Tag Archives: community

Split Court, Split Future?


With this vote on the case United States vs. Windsor, a divided US Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (1996) as unconstitutional and ended Edith Windsor’s six-year battle with the government. After her wife Thea Spyer’s death, the now 83-year-old Windsor was forced to pay more than $600,000 in state and federal estate taxes—a burden that the government would not have levied had her spouse been “Theo” and not “Thea.” (Read the full Windsor opinion.) The majority held that “violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” Federal agencies are already adjusting to the ruling.

The justices also ruled 5-4 in the matter of California’s Proposition 8. In Hollingsworth vs. Perry (formerly Brown vs. Perry and Schwarznegger vs. Perry), the Court found that the petitioners did not have standing to appeal the district court’s ruling of unconstitutionality. The district court had ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and the State of California didn’t appeal that decision; the Supreme Court decided that the civil society organizations who had  promoted Proposition 8 did not have the authority to appeal in the State’s place. (Check out this analysis on SCOTUSblog, and read the full Hollingsworth opinion.)

My Twitter timeline was full of joy about these rulings—yet at the same time these determinations come at the end of a wild week in governance with disappointing impacts nationwide. Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act (1965/2005) was undermined and Section 4 was struck down. The Supreme Court determined that the slavery-era percentage approach to “race” trumped the Cherokee people’s membership rules. And the Court decided that an employer is only automatically liable for workplace harassment if the harasser is a direct line supervisor. (Opinion: Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl & Case Files | Opinion: Vance vs. Ball State University & Case Files)

“Volumes of evidence supported Congress’ de­termination that the prospect of retrogression was real. Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” —Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, dissenting in Shelby Co. vs. Holder

So what’s next for the US? Reactions to this week’s decisions have been divided along lines of ethnicity, class, sexuality, and religion or philosophy; many of us celebrate some decisions while being sorrowful about others because we have more concerns than one.

What’s left after our groups sharply disagree, not just on beliefs or ideas, but also on the practical issues of how to treat whole segments of the population? If we sit at a common table (and there are some who, contra the Supreme Court’s Shelby Co. decision, point to sustained and entrenched contemporary discrimination and dispute that the nation’s table is commonly shared), what is it that binds us, demographic and philosophical differences and all?

Will the US hold together over the next few years? How are we One and not merely Many? Is our collective future to be as split as our Supreme Court is today? I don’t think we can afford that. I’m interested in alternatives. You?

Cheers to Steve Claborn for the Fishkin link on Shelby County, and to Carolyn Parson for the OPM statement.


Filling In the Gaps: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church III

In Part 1 of this series, I reflected on the Seventh-day Adventist denomination’s influence on the sexual orientation change effort (SOCE) movement since the 1970s and its lobbying against civil initiatives for LGBT people to the present day. Then, in Part 2, I suggested that the limits of our church “mother” can inspire us to grow, that this growth is part of our ethical and moral maturity process, and that extending the conversation about sexuality and gender beyond what the denomination has offered to date is an important way for us to care for ourselves while caring for the community that shaped us.

I would like to make it clear… that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction. The moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” —J.K. Rowling at Harvard, 2008

Part of my process growing into adulthood has been acknowledging my responsibility. I don’t assume responsibility for the premises and limits that others taught me, but I do assume it for how I frame gifts as I become conscious of them, and how I write them into the life and experiences I share with others. As Rowling told Harvard’s Class of 2008, there’s an expiry date on blaming one’s parents, so if there ever was a time when I might have considered blaming my family, church, or cultures for what they passed down to me, that time has long gone. I accept responsibility for my life.

Photo of South London landscape, 30 St. Mary Axe in centerI grew up as the last child of Jamaican parents in the United Kingdom during the 1980s and 1990s. While most of the events described in Part 1 were unfolding in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, I was 3,600 miles away in a part of the Adventist community that included Caribbean immigrants, West African immigrants, a smattering of Filipinos, and a small minority of White English and native European people in congregations outside of London.

My 500-member congregation had a very strong lay leadership tradition, and during the early 1990s my mother was one of four women called to the role of elder. From these and other lay leaders before and after my baptism, I learned a great deal about how to teach, share, and support an active congregation. I learned how, under the church’s wings and the wings of my Caribbean immigrant network, to live distinctly from the wider society: we were trained to be Daniels who lived impeccably in both friendly and hostile circumstances, dared to vary from our peers if the cause was honorable, and never brought embarrassment to our faith or Afro-Caribbean culture.

Despite that training, I don’t recall learning how to examine myself as an individual, to situate myself in my several communities and negotiate their competing claims on me. I don’t recall seeing my full reflection in the faces of the elders who surrounded me: I saw partial reflections in this speaker, that artist, this teacher, but never felt wholly mirrored. I knew that I was a member of my immediate family and community family; I didn’t fear being abandoned by them. I saw that I was loved by each of these circles (if not understood) and that my community’s achievement expectations for me were high (they still are!). I thrived academically and otherwise, but did so while not fully recognizing myself in the lives or experiences of any one I knew.

Photo of the hills, Manchester, JamaicaI was about 17 years old and studying at an Adventist college in Jamaica before I met someone who knew he was gay. We became close friends, siblings-but-not-by-blood, and yet our closeness didn’t include his identity or relationships until five years later. We spent our time discussing culture, politics, regional differences, spirituality; we talked in generalities about attractive people and the life lessons we were learning. But in our first five years as friends it never occurred to me to inquire about his orientation or relational life. He didn’t inquire much about mine—and there was little to tell. As much of my own sexuality was still in shadow, I did not see his; I just didn’t ask.

I know now that at least two boys from my English high school were gay; while we were schoolmates, their bullies had tormented them for not being athletic or “manly” enough. But at the time I never made the leap from their gender expression to their sexuality, and I don’t know when they made that connection for themselves. I have no comparable stories about English or Caribbean women to share.

Like many Adventist youth, I’d received the Ellen White compilation Messages to Young People as a baptismal gift and read it; I’d also been given John F. Knight’s books for teenagers, What a Young Woman Should Know About Sex and What a Young Man Should Know About Sex. These church-approved sources were supplemented by classes at school and my parents’ direct contributions at home. My mother and father, a registered nurse and social worker respectively, may not have been comfortable with all of my questions, but they usually responded by being frank and clear, dismissing baseless myths and scare stories, and suggesting that we research what we didn’t know. I’ve kept this model as an adult: it still helps me to fill in the gaps I’ve discovered along the way.

I cannot explain why, despite the parents, books, and cultural and congregational influences that I had, I still came into my 20s with no hook to hang my growing awareness of myself on. Yet that is how I found myself in 2008—hook-less—and so I began to build from scratch. I spent the next 4 years studying classic materials and contemporary research on Christian history and theology, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, working with credentialed counselors, and rebuilding my inner relationship circle. It was an amazing period—equal parts insight and horror, with much of the latter channeling through some of my religious relatives and my denomination. I do not blame them for the role they played during those years. I also had many angels, guardians, and friends, and was not alone.

On this side of the process, though, I sometimes imagine the SDA community being so committed to realism about sex, gender, and relationships that our scholars led the wider Church’s conversation. It saddens me when I see us trailing the rest of the Church with groundless 20-year-old talking points, or expelling leaders for being current or compassionate. It’s possible I’d be writing a different story today if my imaginary denomination were real.

At the same time, I’ve met hundreds of LGBT Adventists in the last several years, all shaped by the sources I’ve mentioned or others similar to them. Some of these people were caught up in Quest Learning Center and survived to share their stories. Others passed through other orientation change ministries and are grateful today to have made it out alive. Perhaps it’s been to our collective benefit that our church hasn’t led the pack: as things stand, the teaching we’ve received has tended toward suppression, occlusion, fear, and the dysfunctions that naturally flow from them. More of that is not what we’ve needed. By filling in the gaps beyond the church, we’ve instead worked to build personal and collective awareness that this life is an opportunity to develop loyalty, joy, care, pleasure, faithfulness, patience, understanding, and love.

Close-up photo of broad green leaves in sunlight.Rowling’s metaphor for adult living is “taking the wheel,” but I’ve experienced it as something less mechanical and fraught than highway driving can be. For me, shaping an adult life is more like tending a garden, noting how seeds and plants grow, which kinds of nurture and resources they need, how good they are as neighbors to other plants, what outcomes they produce, and how each plant is its own kind of beautiful. It’s about development and learning in place, harvesting and stopping to smell the flowers; sometimes, too, it’s about sneezing from the pollen and uprooting plants that don’t fit. I’m still in the midst of the tending process as I write this article, and I expect to keep tending and enjoying this garden for the rest of my life.

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.—George Eliot, Middlemarch

The Atlantic explores the links between relationships and ambition. It’s a great article; don’t miss it. The writer does something of a disservice to ambition by tying it only to conventional material success. A similar disservice accrues to relationships: only family, congregation, and the kinds of tight-knit networks that rally round and bake cookies. I see more complexity though.

My experience is not that relationships and ambition are mutually exclusive, only that certain kinds of relationships preclude certain kinds of ambition, and certain kinds of ambition preclude certain kinds of relationship. Not all family life requires a fixed address and a picket fence. Not all ambitious development requires world-ranging and nowhere to lay your head.

The core issue is the consequence of choice. Whatever you choose, however you pivot, some options will shut down. Others recede for a time. And still others will always be available if you’re creative. Perhaps it’s best that we don’t know which is which ahead of time.

Living Your Life and Using Your Life

This week, one of the NYT’s advice columnists responded to a question about inviting unsupportive relatives to a wedding. I’ve thought about this question before, and not just in the context of LGBT couples: For me, the point of being present at a wedding is to bear witness to the relationship at the heart of the ceremony, to support the couple’s initiation into a new life stage together, and to stand with them as part of their marital community. It’s not just dressing up and eating free cake. How is it possible to fulfill the role of witness without valuing the relationship you’re witnessing?

I read through the comments from the article, and this one struck me:

Remember, your life is not a teachable moment for the rest of the world. It’s YOUR life. This same philosophy, btw, can hold true for any social minority in any way. I’ve been the person with the hidden handicap in the room, and the “unknown Jew” in the room, and the non-cisgendered supportive sister of a gay man in the room, and believe me, I was not put on this earth to educate people. —Jen in Astoria

I wonder if there’s something in the Adventist (and larger Christian) tradition that makes us _want_ to be teachable moments for other people, to be witnesses, or teachers, or Daniels who show others “the right way.”

There can be moral and good and helpful sides to that teaching impulse. There can also be an awful lot of ego involved. If trained to believe that others’ access to truth and salvation depends on you, it could be quite the challenge to just be, living your life honestly instead of using it to instruct others.

Of course others will draw lessons from their dealings with us whatever we do. But people can tell when we’re just being and when we’re using our own bodies as object lessons and other people’s bodies as our audience. Isn’t the second option a tad dehumanizing, even if voluntary? Are we each obliged to use our lives rather than to live them?

Meanwhile, overseas…

Well done to the Hon. Maurice Williamson, Member of Parliament for Pakuranga, New Zealand. New Zealand passed marriage equality legislation today.

All we are doing with this bill is allowing two people who love each other to have that love recognized by way of marriage. That is all we are doing. We are not declaring nuclear war on a foreign state. We are not bringing a virus in that will wipe out our agriculture sector forever. We are allowing two people who love each other to have that recognized…

But I give a promise to those who are opposed to this bill right now. I give you a watertight, guaranteed promise. The sun will still rise tomorrow. Your teenage daughter will still argue back with you as if she knows everything. Your mortgage will not grow. You will not have skin diseases or rashes or toads in your bed, sir: the world will just carry on. So don’t make this into a big deal.

One of the messages I had was that this bill was the cause of our drought—this bill was the cause of our drought! Well, if any of you follow my Twitter account you’ll see that in the Pakuranga electorate this morning it was pouring with rain. We had the most enormous big gay rainbow across my electorate. It has to be a sign! —Maurice Williamson

Habits of Mind

A thoughtful duo of posts from Empire Remixed’s Andrew Stephens-Rennie:

A Lifetime of Habits (April 9, 2013)
Idolatry & the Crisis of Being (April 11, 2013)

My favorite exchange comes from the comment section: A respondent writes:

Habits of living, rituals of inclusion, shape habits of reading.

And Andrew replies:

There is this feedback loop in a closed system – a loop that reinforces prejudice and idolatry – that can only be dismantled (and must be dismantled) by introducing new people, new encounters, new ideas and habits into the system.

Couldn’t agree more. So what happens when that closed system refuses to absorb new people, encounters, ideas, or habits, or expels them as they appear? What can be shared with a closed hand?

The Way of Openness

“The Way of Openness” is a short documentary on a conversation series featuring a range of Los Angeles ministers including Hollywood Adventist pastor Ryan J. Bell. The conversations allowed these ministers to reflect on and share stories with each other in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 8 initiative. Prop 8 is under review at the Supreme Court this month via the case Hollingsworth v. Perry.

While we often hear institutional statements from churches and denominations about sexuality, we haven’t heard much from the point of view of ministers who had and still have active congregations in LA. I appreciated hearing from people across the spectrum on how damaging the acrimonious environment was, pre- and post-vote, and what the city’s way forward might be.

The Way of Openness | Human Relations Commission of the City of Los Angeles

Dr. Neil Thomas, Founders Metropolitan Community Church, Los Angeles: Most of us go into a conversation wanting to win. And when you come to the dawning that you don’t need to win, that there’s nothing to win… When you and I rub shoulders with each other, we realize that we have so much more in common that we could actually work together on that would change the face of this world.

Fr. Alexei Smith, Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese: And the opportunity for us is to realize that, and work to set aside certain dogmatic differences… and to work together for the common good. Think of what a marvelous effect it would have on the city of Los Angeles alone.

The dialogue and documentary were both sponsored by Los Angeles’ Human Relations Commission and the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.

Faith and Life in Separate Unequal Compartments

Re: School Administrator Fired for Views on Gay Marriage

Case facts: A man in Ohio taught at a Catholic school. He wrote internet posts on his own time discussing marriage equality with friends and describing it as “NOT something of which to be afraid.” The school’s principal and diocese learned about his posts; he was asked to rescind them; he did not; he was fired.

I understand that the recent Hosanna-Tabor judgment grants church schools much more authority over some kinds of employees: expect significant restrictions if the church calls you a “minister.” The balance between the rights of religious organizations and individuals’ rights—this balance is in flux, at least as far as the courts are concerned.

Whether employees may criticize their employers on social media or whether a “like” qualifies as free, protected speech is yet another question that labor courts are still figuring out. (See also the NLRB on Costco’s social media policy,) I’ve noticed that the court of public opinion is far less conflicted. By the comments on the OH case alone, one would think that an employee cedes her right to disagreement when she signs on to work and every US worker is always aligned with his company’s values.

However, these general labor questions are less interesting to me than the underlying assumption: that the insights of faith and the rhythms and responsibilities of the rest of life are essentially incompatible: here’s what you assent to on weekends with your religious community—and there are the silences you keep at work. Or there’s your job for the religious school—and here are the conversations or opinions you can’t legitimately have in public.

But for many of us, our “secular” views are the consequence of our “faith”; we hold them because of our religion/spirituality and not despite or in spite of it. Martin Luther King Jr.’s religious views led to his views on employment and voting and poverty and war. As Abraham Lincoln said of the Civil War era’s feuding Christians: “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” As much as these internecine feuds continue on different grounds today, so too people of faith find their spiritual values informing their social, public lives. Vocal evangelicals in Dallas are no more indebted to their religion than progressive Adventists in Hollywood, and secular humanists are just as likely to appeal to their respective philosophical or spiritual traditions in their public work as are Muslims.

Certainly, some people divide “faith stuff” from “secular stuff,” keeping the two in completely separate psychological compartments, but I don’t. Neither do I think a healthy plural society requires me to. I do see an implicit civic request that if I propose public policies, I propose them as an engaged member of society rather than as an aloof religious overlord. I’d also need to propose these policies for the good of all community members and in language and for reasons that are accessible to all, not just people like me.

If I were Catholic, for example, it wouldn’t be enough for me to propose a new law about women’s health and say “But the Bishopric agrees with me. Do as I command!” Instead, at least for credibility’s sake, I would need to appeal to common social values that people of any faith and no faith could validate and work from with me as my peers.

I watched several English churches offer cautionary tales during England’s same-sex marriage consultation. Adventist church administrators were among those who issued statements against equal civil marriage for LGBT citizens, but the Adventists didn’t think to dialog first with the LGBT citizens within their own ranks. Had they framed their public reservations as part of an ongoing conversation with the rest of society and supportive religious groups instead of as an authoritative pronouncement above them, had they also acknowledged that the government’s proposals wouldn’t influence their sectarian rites or rules and that other Christians and religious groups disagreed with their position, they might have gained credibility and not lost it. We might also have seen a stronger policy outcome because of level-ground cooperation between a concerned, heterogeneous religious sector and a shifting political base. The House of Commons approved the civil marriage proposal earlier this month.

But instead of cooperation, a more common pattern of dissociation and pronouncement often plays out, and discontent in plural societies is growing. In the US, a recent Barna Group survey found a “double standard” among Christians who disproportionately expected civic society to adapt to their concerns and “freedoms” but did not want society to grant similar liberty to others. By contrast, 85% of non-Christians and religious skeptics agreed that no single value system should dominate society. Only 37% of responding evangelicals agreed. I find these and other findings quite sobering.

All of this swirls around us at the macro level. Back at the micro level, one Catholic teacher in Ohio is now out of a job. I wish Mike Moroski all the best in finding new work; let’s hope that with his 12 years of teaching experience he won’t be out in the cold for long.