A few weeks ago, just after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's 2013 Churchwide Assembly concluded its business, a colleague posted a link and I followed it. It was about the recent election of a gay bishop and his taking part in a worship service with other pro-GLBT folks in our denomination. Specifically, it was a liturgical critique; ironic, since most of the GLBT clergy I know are also liturgy geeks, but that's an unhelpful over-generalization and I digress.
Our denomination currently has a very nuanced approach to human sexuality. On the one hand, we have affirmed the right of congregations to call gay and lesbian clergy without fear of censure or condemnation. On the other hand, we have affirmed the bound conscience of all, particularly the bound conscience of those individuals and congregations who hold to the belief that same-gender relationships are not part of God's vision. I believe we've made the right choice in walking such a muddled way; as a denomination, we are not of one mind on this, but we don't have to be. What we do agree on is that all of us are doing the best we can to be faithful and respectful to one another. We don't always get it right, but we try to respect one another and work together on the things that really matter: proclaiming God's grace to a rapidly secularizing world in which the church's opinion on such things matters less and less to the population at large.
None of what I wrote above, of course, was reflected in the hack job this website published about my denomination. The overwhelming opinion of the writer and most of the commenters was that the ELCA is just a mouthpiece for liberal Democrats who want nothing more than to promote promiscuity, pederasty and paganism. I wish I were hyperbolizing here, but I'm not. It's out there if you want to go looking, but I won't link or even quote the ugly rumors masquerading as debate there.
At the time, I engaged with some of the folks at the website, because sometimes I'm freaking stupid. I thought I could make a difference. Maybe change some minds. I should have known better. After I made my final comment, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't go back, and until this afternoon I kept that promise. But curiosity pulled me in, and it was about what I expected it would be. More anger, more invective, more slanderous mis-appropriations of stereotypes and belief that every ELCA pastor stand for the destruction of morality and decency in the pursuit of political correctness and so on. It was ugly, awful and completely untrue; it was, as Mark Twain once would have said, Christians being Christians in the worst sense of the word.
The driving force behind such rumor-mongering and character assassination is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of what is different, fear that one might be wrong, fear that control is an illusion. To believe that an entire class of individuals, or indeed an entire denomination, is systematically working to promote evil and the works of darkness, when the overwhelming majority of evidence points contrary to such belief, one must live in almost constant fear. It's one thing to disagree. Of course, one can and must disagree at times. But to systematically believe the worst about people with whom one disagrees is a violation of the 8th Commandment and the Lutheran interpretation of that commandment, which compels us: "We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpet everything they do in the best possible light." (Luther's Small Catechism, (c) 2008 by Augsburg Fortress, p. 8)
Within that fear, I believe, is a longing for the days when "those people" knew enough to keep quiet about who they were. "Those people" are our GLBT brothers and sisters in the present moment. 10 years ago, "those people" were Muslims. 50 years ago "those people" were black. 100 years ago "those people" were women. "Those people" are everywhere now. Regardless of how you interpret scripture, faith and life, the world is now post-Christian. Post-Christendom. Filled with "those people." The church no longer runs the show. For the forseeable future, you will live next door to people who believe differently than you do. Some will share your faith. Some will respect it, even if they don't share it. Some will be amused by it. Some will be openly antagonistic to it. Your choice is simple: will you live in this world in fear, or in faith?
Fear leads to mistrust, slander, betrayal, despair and all sorts of sinfulness. Fear leads us to crave certainty and to believe the worst about everyone around us, particularly those with whom we disagree. Fear leads us to call others slanderous names, to make assumptions based on nothing more than hearsay and prejudice, to write off an entire segment of the church based on nothing more than our worst interpretations of the actions and intentions of those whom we fear. This is the life of fear: to be constantly surrounded by anxiety, misery and hatred.
It is possible to disagree without fear. It is possible to live near people of a different creed without fear. It is possible to live in a church that doesn't agree on human sexuality without fear. To do so requires fear's opposite: faith.
I, for one, choose to believe that God wants us to live in faith. Faith that Acts 10 is happening all around us. Faith that our witness in a pluralistic world must be filled with humility and kindness, not the vicious condemnation of all that is different. Faith that there is room to disagree without disrespect, that even when churches must break with one another, it is possible to do so and still believe each is being as faithful as possible. Faith that living in a post-Christian world will be good for the world and for Christians, because without the help of a Christendom culture buoying us, we'll all be forced to actually trust the Holy Spirit as we swim in the secular soup that is our world today.
We are called to faith, to respect, to truthfulness. We are called to disagree with dignity, to believe the best of those with whom we disagree, to seek ways to live peaceably together, and where this is simply not possible, to dissolve those bonds of fellowship with as much honor as we can muster. Just imagine how people might think better of us Christians if we could do this, if we could even begin to try to do this. "Perfect love casts out fear," argues the writer of 1st John. Let us seek to love one another more perfectly, to cast out fear, to live in faith even as we disagree. Let us not live in fear. Let us live in faith!