This cartoon by my friend David Hayward, who posts his blogs and cartoons over at nakedpastor.com, captures the tension and emotion I’ve been trying to process in light of several recent realities.
Many of you will be aware of the online petitions that madly circulated the last few days of the Ugandan parliament deliberations. The dreaded anti-homosexuality bill that had been simmering in the background for the last couple years was front and centre with a very real possibility of it being passed into law. For those of us who have been following these developments, who have prayed and interceded with tears for LGBT people in Uganda, this was our nightmare. And we were grateful for the hundreds of thousands of people who typed their name in solidarity with those calling for the only humane response to this bill: its defeat. There was a triumphant media blitz proclaiming just such defeat when the parliament did not have time to vote on this and a few other controversial bills. But perhaps others, like myself, who are close to these issues, who have followed it when it wasn’t in the spotlight, felt a sense of unease with the dramatic proclamations of victory. For me, this unease came with knowing that no change had been accomplished in this turn of events. Life is still hell for LGBT people in Uganda and other parts of Africa and the world. Hearts had not changed. Minds hadn’t even been changed. And with the bill out of the spotlight, what action would the hundreds of thousands of people who signed their names take on behalf of LGBT people who face oppression and injustice? This unease became more tangible with the report that the bill will return to the 9th parliament of Uganda when it is convened.
Some of you may have also followed the controversy that has surrounded Jim Wallis and his Sojourners organization. Sojourners has been working for social justice for decades. They have managed to build relationships and credibility across a wide swath of the Christian community in their fight against poverty and racism. To many, it would seem a no brainer that Sojourner would be an appropriate place to run an ad that advocated a hospitable welcome to LGBT people. So, when Sojo’s turned down the Believe Out Loud request to run their video in their advertising sidebar, many were shocked, confused and felt a sense of betrayal.
The video, itself, seems to be advocating a message that any follower of Jesus should be able to support. The organization who created the video, however, does have a clear position stated as: A partnership of the country’s leading LGBT advocacy groups, both religious and secular, Believe Out Loud seeks to accelerate the existing Christian movement toward LGBT inclusion and significantly increase the number of local churches and denominations that are fully-inclusive of LGBT individuals, both in practice and policy. In doing so, we seek to create a widespread Christian movement for LGBT equality in the church and in broader society.
This clear goal of advancing towards LGBT inclusion and equality will be interpreted by many with a traditional sexual ethic as inconsistent with their understanding of Scripture’s guidance on these matters. And here’s the rub for Sojo – they have deliberately sought to not align with one position or another on LGBT matters because of the polarizing effect that would have on their desire to mobilize their constituency on matters of poverty and race. Bottom line is – their ability to steward influence and raise money for the advocacy issues they have prioritized would be compromised by aligning with one side of the polarized debate on LGBT matters. The question is, how can you advocate for dignity and justice for one group – and seemingly ignore the need for dignity and justice for another? To adapt the words of Desmond Tutu, if I diminish the need for justice for one group, I diminish the pursuit of justice for all groups.
Now some will argue that advocating for hospitality for LGBT people in the church is not a justice issue – because they do not even acknowledge the reality of LGBT people (aka – there are no homosexual people, only heterosexual people with a homosexual problem). Others will refer to the vague, fear-based notion of ‘the gay agenda’. And inevitably, people with such perspectives are unlikely to want to engage in dialogue seeking common ground. Thus the power plays and politics and boycotts rule the day. And the ideal gives way to priorities made in the mess and frustration of reality. Do you sacrifice justice for a small minority group in order to continue to garner influence for the betterment of a larger marginalized group? At what point is your internal integrity at stake because at a foundational level it is the value of our shared humanity that is compromised when we need to sacrifice justice for one group for another?
Lest anyone think these are simple and clear-cut decisions, I’d urge all of us to refrain from quick judgments and pronouncements. The complexity and paradoxes and systems that inform these matters confound the wise and experienced and principled and active. If anything, such challenge ought to humble us.
It has led me to ponder, again, the distinction between activism and advocacy. In previous posts, I’ve suggested that activism is about issues and advocacy is about people. I’m not sure if that would be a universally held distinction – but it has helped me. To add to this, I think activism calls for a holy impatience. Activists are motivated by an incredible sense of urgency. They want to get things DONE. I might suggest that advocates are actually called to cultivate patience. They know that the process of heart and mind change is slow. They know systems don’t change overnight. They understand that the ideal of all issues being equal rarely is workable in the chaotic reality of working towards paradigmatic change. We need activists. And we need advocates. And sometimes the two are not going to understand each other and might even see their work at odds with each other. But I think we will all benefit when we see the role each plays. And some are called to the huge challenge of embodying both activism and advocacy and living in the tension of holy impatience while cultivating patience. They need our prayers and our support – for that is not an easy road to travel.
But none of this theorizing relieves the LGBT person sitting in an African prison, in conditions we in the west can’t even imagine. It doesn’t help the lesbian who is struggling to overcome the trauma of corrective rape. It doesn’t change the desperation of a homeless LGBT youth who is getting to the point of turning to prostitution to survive. It doesn’t silence the bully. It doesn’t reverse job discrimination. It doesn’t nullify prejudice of landlords refusing LGBT tenants.
And ignoring these matters, or justifying our complacency because there are more pressing issues, or telling LGBT to just hang in there these things will be addressed eventually is unacceptable and inconsistent with the character of Christ. Even for those who oppose civil rights for LGBT people, let them hear these words of Miroslav Volf, “Reject the love of enemy, and you undo the Christian faith”.
In times when it is easy to be overwhelmed by the largeness and complexity of the issues, remember that change comes one step at a time. Begin by making more room in your own heart for those who differ from you. Be that intercessor who stands in the gap. Have that conversation in your church about becoming more tangibly hospitable to anyone from your neighbourhood. Train yourself to remember that the diminishment of any human being diminishes you – and so catch yourself when the judgmental thought comes, that look of disdain crosses your face, that desire to avoid rises up in your heart. Speak out at your work place or school when you hear language that excludes or demeans. Read that link your LGBT friend sends you. Don’t tune out. Don’t forget. Don’t distract yourself. Stay present – and in being present be the change you want to see.