On Marriage, Primates, and Communion

Primates-2016-mapMy Facebook feed this morning was a long thread of posts on the exact same event: the meeting of the Primates (that is, Presiding Bishops, Metropolitans, Archbishops, etc.) of the Anglican Communion this week. What has many American Anglicans–i.e. Episcopalians–agitated is the specific document that (according to some media sites) calls for a temporary “suspension” of the Episcopal Church of the USA (commonly referred to as “TEC”) from full participation in the Communion and for “sanctions” upon this church, primarily due to the fact that last year’s General Convention (the governing body of TEC) agreed to formally introduce a modified marriage rite for same-sex couples. Many articles have been written by angry Episcopalians condemning the Primates’ communique and heaping scorn on the Primates Meeting for agreeing to it; this article in particular has been getting a lot of traction.

So, Episcopalians are understandably frustrated, and not small number are lashing out on social media. Many Episcopalians have also made a point of publicly endorsing the very views on LGBT equality that have precipitated this conflict, and there is a growing sense of an Us vs. Them coming to dominate coverage of this meeting and the broader issues being discussed. But even though this communique has only been available for one day, already a massive amount of misinformation and problematic interpretation has been published and brandished; let’s take a breath, and then take a few moments here to actually look at the details of the statement and the relevant issues. I do want to point out that others have been quicker to address these misunderstandings, and I definitely recommend reading widely.

First off: those media outlets that are reporting that TEC has been “suspended” from or “sanctioned” by the Anglican Communion are in error. TEC is still unequivocally a member of the Anglican Communion; indeed: the meeting of the Primates doesn’t even have the power to remove a member national church from the Commmunion. (There was an earlier effort to endorse a statement calling for TEC to voluntarily exit the Communion for three years, but even this rather gentle disciplining was not endorsed by a majority of the Primates.) Furthermore, even those Primates who have called for some kind of disciplinary action have been extremely explicit in referring to TEC as a member church and have stressed a desire for unity and cooperation. As I will do throughout this post, I encourage you to actually read the communique itself, rather than relying on media outlets that, generally speaking, seem not to  know what they are talking about (ahem, Washington Post, ahem). The communique is available here. On the particular issue of TEC’s membership in the communion and the desire for substantive unity, I would direct you especially to items 1 and 7 in the communique. So, to be crystal clear, as there has been much confusion on social media about this: TEC is still a part of the Anglican Communion, and no one in the Communion is even disputing this.

Second: the accusations the Primates make in items 2, 4, and 5–that TEC has changed central doctrines and rites without consulting the Communion–are simply true. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the majority of TEC members who endorse full LGBT equality in the church (and I want to be clear that I am certainly a member of this pro-LGBT majority), there is no question that in changing fundamental doctrines and rites of our church without consulting the broader Communion, we have violated the polity of that Communion. Of course, those of us who believe strongly in LGBT equality are likely to stress that we feel that this is a moral issue of such importance that we felt justified–perhaps even led by the Holy Spirit–to make these changes. And in fact I personally hold this position. But the whole point of having a polity, a governing structure, is that it’s supposed to apply to everyone equally. Of course, everyone thinks their position is the morally right one. If every church, or parish, or individual asserted their own doctrinal positions as truth because they firmly believed them to be true, there would be no possibility of community or of unity.

Does this mean that I think we should not have made these changes without consulting the Communion? In truth, I believe TEC could and should have made more of an effort on this front, though I will admit to not knowing the details of every international meeting of Communion churches over the last 20 years. But, let’s be clear: TEC leaders also knew full well what the answer would be if we engaged in such a consultation: the majority of Anglican Primates would not have endorsed pro-LGBT language in resolutions nor any modified marriage rite. So even if we had bent over backward to engage in full range of bureaucratic consultation, TEC still would have been left in the same position: to make changes according to the conscience of the majority of TEC members, or to accept the will of the majority and not treat LGBT Christians with full equality.

I should interject here that I am not a “cradle” Episcopalian; I joined TEC because it manifested two aspects of Christian faith, each of which is equally important to me: first, it is a church that takes liturgy, tradition, and theology very seriously. Second, it is a church that nonetheless is willing to be disciplined and corrected by secular thought and engage in progressive changes when, after prayerful reflection, it finds itself in error. These two currents are definitely in tension, but it is this tension that I think makes TEC unique and critical to the universal church today. It is a creative tension, one where the strength of tradition and the prophetic voice of the Spirit alike both tug on us–we Episcopalians find God pushing us with the hand of tradition even as God pulls us with the hand of progress and critical thought. In other words, for TEC, these two forces are not in conflict, but rather in a dialectical, creative relationship.

What this means for the current controversy, I think, is this: we should make those changes which we feel called to make and we should accept the discipline of our Anglican brothers and sisters. We can endorse both our own understanding of a prophetic call to atone for our homophobic (and transphobic, etc.) past while also accepting that we are members of a worldwide communion of fellow disciples of the Risen One, many of whom do not accept our actions as prophetic but see them as disruptive, myopic, and perhaps even heretical. This is an uncomfortable position–but what else should we expect as worshipers of a crucified man? Jesus never promised his disciples comfort, or an easy life, or even a soothed conscience. He called men and women to speak the Truth as they understood it, but he also himself insisted the the central Truth we had to believe in and live was an absolute respect and love for all others. For most of us in TEC, this of course means demanding full equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters. But let us not also forget that, as Jesus pointed out, it is easy to love those who love us and whom we find lovable (Matt. 5:46-48). We also have to love the Primates who have criticized us and the more conservative Christians in our own nation and even within TEC who find our position problematic. We should speak the Truth as we see it but do so humbly, and prepared to accept that speaking the Truth is rarely easy. Indeed, one sign that one is speaking an important truth is that it should make us and those around us uncomfortable. This was certainly Jesus’ experience as he preached the Good News: to many who heard him preach, it didn’t sound good at all, because He threatened to overturn long-standing traditions and structures of power. (The rich young man of e.g. Mark 10 and the many outraged Pharisees throughout the Gospels come to mind as prime examples.)

But let us remember well that though Jesus spoke the Truth–and did so bluntly–he always announced this Truth as a hopeful promise. The Kingdom is only a threat to those who refuse to see who God really is, and who they themselves really are as God’s creatures. That is to say: Jesus never excluded anyone, but he was honest that certain people fundamentally excluded themselves, if they were unwilling to accept the radicality of His Call. Many of us in TEC might feel that in the 21st century, knowing what we know about human sexuality, to exclude LGBT people from the Church is to fail to love as Christ calls us to. Ultimately, I agree with this. But in doing so, I know that I condemn myself. For I almost never love others as Christ calls me to. True, I do not use someone’s sexual orientation as an excuse to not love–I find other, more acceptable and less controversial excuses. This, too, is a sinful refusal to really understand and live the Kingdom. Likewise, if we erect walls between ourselves and African Anglicans over this issue, we will be failing to love as we are called. Let’s disagree with them, let’s even condemn their position as unworthy of the love Christ calls us to. But let’s never condemn the people who hold those views, however abberant or even hateful we may find them. Let’s admit that we have not played by the very rules we demand others play by. Let’s also publicly and confidently discuss why we feel we had to act regardless. But let’s do all of this with as much humility and love as we can muster. Because living this way is what Christ calls us to do. We call ourselves Christians; let’s try to live up to that name.

So, even as we speak honestly and critique those who have critiqued us, let’s not fall prey to misinformation or insufficiently critical thought. Let’s not demonize those whom we are in conflict with. In short, let’s remember that we are–or, we aspire to be–disciples of Christ. Let’s try to handle this conflict with the ethics and wisdom He has imparted to us. I think our new Presiding Bishop captured our position–in all its discomfort and promise–well in this short message:

When in Doubt, Blame the Victim

A cartoon from 1994 shows that ain’t nothing’s changed in a long while.

Victims of sexual assault know all about victim-blaming. Whenever a high profile case of rape or sexual assault hits the media, there are immediately people talking about how the woman (it’s almost always a woman) “was asking for it” by dressing “like a slut”, drinking too much, or hanging out in a disreputable bar. There’s so much wrong with this attitude that it’s hard to know where to begin. I’m going to resort to a list, just to make sure I cover as much as I can:

  • First off, if we’re looking to blame someone for a rape, it might be a good idea to start with…the rapist. This should be obvious. But it bears repeating. You know what would end sexual assault? If people stopped sexually assaulting people. If there’s a woman wearing a mini-skirt, drinking tequila, and giving you the eye, here’s a hot tip to my fellow men out there: don’t sexually assault her!
  • Secondly, we need to be careful to distinguish between two very distinct things: causality, one the one hand, and culpability on the other. For example, it’d be totally rational to say “you know, any Jews in Europe in 1936 would have been really wise to just leave, if they could.” That’s obvious and uncontroversial. That’s just pointing out causality: Jews who left Europe would have avoided the Holocaust. But to argue that somehow any Jew who didn’t leave Europe was somehow to blame for what happened to them would be monstrous–and totally irrational. So it might in fact be true that certain behaviors may make women more or less likely to be victims of sexual assault (though as far as I know there’s no empirical evidence to suggest this) but this is totally irrelevant to the question of culpability. Even if a woman stripped down and ran through a frat party while snorting coke and chugging whiskey, she still wouldn’t deserve any unconsensual sexual contact. Period.
  • Third, this blaming the victim also distracts us from asking broader questions about sexism in our culture. While the media is paying a bunch of imbeciles to shout at each other about how short a woman’s skirt is allowed to be, the very same media companies are producing sitcoms, movies, and reality shows that portray women as inferior, submissive, unintelligent, sexually duplicitous, and hyper-sexualized objects. While no woman bears any culpability whatsoever for being raped, the media really probably do bear some responsibility for sexual assault in this country. People learn how to act from the media around them, and when sexual assault or domestic violence is normalized, that has a huge impact on how we interact with each other.

But blaming the victim is more than a way to shame the victims of sexual assault and deflect from the myriad ways in which our society promotes sexist and violent attitudes. Political, economic, and media elites don’t just blame the victims of sexual assault, they blame all victims, always and forever. Whether it’s welfare recipients, Palestinian refugees, the unemployed, Native Americans, or anyone else who’s ever gotten in the way of rich people getting more money, the victims of modern capitalism are not just beaten down, they’re lectured to by the very people who’re standing boot-to-throat with them.

This isn’t just arrogance or insensitivity, it’s an intentional strategy, akin to the political strategy behind contemporary Christian fundamentalism: re-phrame the debate to avoid actually talking about injustice. If people are busy arguing over whether a woman is to blame for being raped, then there can be no dialogue about how our society could combat sexism. If welfare recipients are cast as lazy, fraudulent drug-users, then elites can avoid any substantial discussion about the rapidly growing inequality in this country. If the unemployed are represented as lazy, or unskilled, or stupid, then no one will bring up the fact that our government intentionally keeps millions of people unemployed through the Fed’s monetary policy. If Palestinians, every last one of them–Christian and Muslim alike, women, men, children, the old, the young, the disabled, all of them–are portrayed as radical terrorists intent on murdering every Israeli they get their hands on, then the incredibly complex history of the region, the glaring injustice of Israel’s occupation, and the role that the US has played in backing that occupation, are all lost in the patriotic and self-righteous fury.

If we can recognize victim-blaming for what it is–a political tactic designed to keep the oppressed margianalized–then we can combat it. We have to remember that it’s not about responding to elites point by point–it’s about framing the conversation. Conservatives are expert in this, recognizing that their positions would never be popular enough to maintain support if people discussed them openly and directly. So no substantial issue is ever brought up, every debate is redirected into some superficial yelling match. Because they can win there, they can appeal to the lowest common denominator, they can talk about flags and eagles and 9/11, and they can manipulate enough people to get the job done. We have to take the conversation back, frame the issue in an honest way and talk about what really matters. In doing so, those of us who are Christians as well as leftists will not only be playing smart politics, but also emulating Jesus, who didn’t get bogged down in tired legalistic questions with the scribes or Pharisees, but talked boldly about justice and honesty, and was willing to pay the price for speaking the truth.

This also appeared on my open salon blog

Augustine & Newt: A Response to Linda Hirshman

Linda Hirshman has a piece in Salon today vis-a-vis Newt’s less than stellar marital track record. Her main point is laudable: she’s rightly concerned that all the attention paid to politicians’ sex lives distracts voters from the more crucial issue of whether the polices they’re proposing will actually be good for the country. Fair enough, a point well made and definitely something we ought to be talking more about. So I’m glad she wrote about it.

But! She ended up relying on the age-old Augustine bashing to drive her point home. And its here that I have to complain, but just a bit (um, Update: I actually end up complaining a whole lot. Sorry!) She makes two assertions that I think are faulty and poisonous to the whole discourse. First, she claims that the whole obsession with sexuality is a peculiarly Judeo-Christian thing, and seems to imply that if we could get over that cultural baggage, we’d be much better for it. Second, she says that “[m]ost of the fault for this misallocation of our moral indignation lies, of course, in the unruly sexuality of fourth-century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo.” Ouch! This is both wildly untrue and a gross over-simplification of Augustine’s life and thought. But let’s talk a bit about that first claim before we get to good old Augie.

The idea that sexual hang-ups are the primary and exclusive legacy of Judeo-Christian culture is as common as it is untrue. First off, sexuality is generally treated as an important, emotionally-charged, and taboo issue in almost every human society. Sure, it takes different forms, and certainly some cultures are more prudish than others. And in that regard, you could certainly target Christianity as more on the prudish side of the spectrum than some other faiths. But Buddhism, for example, is at least as concerned with the control of the libido as Christianity. Siddhartha made it clear that sexual desire had to be completely abandoned on the path towards realizing Nirvana. Confucian philosophy, which is more social and political than it is spiritual, nonetheless felt that female modesty was crucial in order to protect the lineage of a woman’s father and husband. Islam (which is arguably in the Judeo-Christian orbit, but nonetheless clearly has unique cultural and spiritual aspects as well) is well-known for being highly protective/oppressive/prudish about womens’ bodies and often stresses the need for sexual control. Concern over sexuality is not a Judeo-Christian thing. It’s a human thing. Certainly, there’s plenty to criticize in Christianity’s impact on sexual mores in the West, but to take the whole vast burden of sexual hangups that we humans feel and lay it on just one religio-cultural tradition is absurd.

But Hirshman goes even farther, actually claiming that almost all of the blame actually lies not just with one religion, but with one man–Augustine of Hippo. Augustine is certainly famous for asking God for “chastity–just not now.” And Augustine was quite honest about his years of fornication and his inability, for years, to cease it, despite the fact that he thought it was wrong. But instead of seeing this as evidence of Augustine’s sexual hangups, it could just easily be seen as his being very honest, both with his readers and with himself.

As I just mentioned above, the idea that being unable to rein in one’s sexual urges is a spiritual deficiency is hardly limited to Christianity. In fact, even utterly non-spiritual people might well reflect on the fact that being unable to control one’s libido at all could lead to all sorts of problems, and that giving oneself totally to lust can easily distract us from other important facets of our lives. Seeing an unrestrained libido as less than a good thing is hardly automatically or obviously stupid, retrograde, or repressive.

That said, again, I’m not defending Christianity’s whole record on sexuality–there’s a lot to criticize! But certainly we can engage in that criticism in a more sophisticated way, pointing out specifics and building a strong case, instead of just dismissing an entire 2000-year old religion. A bit of research into the issue could have given Hirshman a much more nuanced view on the issue, and also allowed her to make her point more clearly and forcefully, I think. One obvious detail–almost trivial I’ll admit, but hey! fact-checking is important!–Hippo, Augustine’s home is not in Italy, as Hirshman seems to think; it was located in Africa, near modern Tunisia.

But the problems with Hirshman’s article aren’t limited to problems of historical research and interpretation. She goes on to basically ask, hey, what’s the big deal about adultery? and compares cheating on one’s spouse to any other breach of contract–she compares it to ” wearing a dress to the party and then taking it back to the store”. While I appreciate that she’s pointing out that people who cheat on their partners aren’t necessarily awful human beings, I think her comparisons here are way off the mark. She herself essentially admits as much a few lines later, admitting that, for example, Hilary Clinton was clearly deeply hurt by Bill’s philandering. But immediately after, she suggests that it all worked out, because Hilary almost become the President. Huh?

The idea that our broken relationships, our failures to care and love for each other, are no big deal as long as we do well in politics or business is incredibly cold and mercenary. And at the end of the piece, I’m left wondering what exactly Hirshman is getting at. She begins the whole whole piece by warning us that “[w]hen all morality collapses into sexual morality, the voters will become so fixated on whom the candidates are screwing they don’t notice …  it’s them.” Yes! This is, like I said at the outset of this post, a really good and important point! But by the end of the piece she seems to be living in a world where only politics matters, where our personal lives not only shouldn’t be discussed in public, but really shouldn’t be a big deal, even to us. After noting how Newt Gingrich’s second wife has gone through so much and been treated poorly, she concludes the piece by noting that “it’s so gratifying at least to see him bleed a little.” But seeing him bleed a little isn’t going to help us build a more progressive society, and she seems to be getting derailed by the very personal aspect of politics that she seemed to want to discard at the beginning.

In short, this is a piece I would love to see written…again…by Linda Hirshman. Her main point is right on target, but she tries to pull in so many threads and tie it all together with an over-arching worldview that just doesn’t knot well. I think if she had stuck to the details of the issue at hand, she could have wound up with a much better take-down of the Republicans’ (well, and Democrats’) hypocritical public attitude towards sex. On the other hand, if she really wants to write about how this all ties into Christianity, Augustine, and English Common Law, fine! But she needs to do a lot more research first.

This post appeared on both my main blog as well as my Open Salon blog.