COLUMN: Faith for the marginalized at the intersection of thinking and believing

Monday, June 14, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:49 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 14, 2010

Bill Brownson was perfect on paper. He fit all the qualifications to be the chief financial officer for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. Brownson attended King Avenue United Methodist Church, worked at JP Morgan for 20 years and served on several financial boards and councils in the church. His interviewers overwhelmingly agreed he was the best candidate for the position.

But, when his nomination was announced, it seems most people only read one clause in the nine-paragraph letter: "... lives in Columbus with his life partner of 20 years, Myron Phillips."


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And so began the arguing. The conservative caucus, Evangelical Fellowship of West Ohio, wrote this in its letter to sway people against Brownson's nomination: "Our concern is that this nomination seemingly affirms a lifestyle that the United Methodist Church has consistently said is 'incompatible with Christian teaching.' (¶ 161F of The 2008 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church)."

It is true that the Book of Discipline condemns "self-avowed practicing homosexuality." In fact, some pastors have lost their orders for coming out of the closet. Brownson, however, is a lay person — a leader in the church — but is not ordained, meaning outside of the rules that apply to ordained people. So, the conference was left to decide for itself how to vote on the matter.

To me, it boils down to semantics. There's a difference between the words "think" and "believe." Most people don't distinguish between the two in casual conversation anymore. You think Columbia is great. You believe in dharma. Your friend thinks the SWAT team was wrong to shoot a dog. Your mom believes all dogs go to heaven. The difference lies in how deeply an idea resonates with you. Like faith, belief requires something more intrinsic than thought.

It is in that intersection of think and believe that I have found my faith, currently. I think the institution of church, even the modern church, oppresses women, racial and ethnic minorities and LGBT people. I think organized religion is part of the patriarchal structure of America and the globalized world. I believe, though, in love — the kind Jesus displayed and the kind untouched by popular culture — above all else.

As a self-avowed practicing woman, feminist and ally, I've found that the heart of my faith is really reconciliation: reconciliation of my life to God, reconciliation of my faith to the institution of church, reconciliation of my thoughts to my beliefs. Because, frankly, as a member of an oppressed group, it does take effort to reconcile faith to an institution that professes its love while condemning me.

As a gay man, Brownson is forced to reconcile if he wants to serve. His name no longer applies to his unique set of personal characteristics but to an issue. It has been organized religion's legacy to continue oppression instead of fight it. Since Christianity became the norm instead of the fringe, it has left a path of blood — often as much from the church's lack of humanity as of Jesus' concern for humanity. At some point, every marginalized group has been forced to reconcile its faith and the church. Opponents were willing to overlook every other qualifying characteristic about Brownson because of their fear one aspect of his life will harm the whole institution of church.

Bruce Ough, bishop of the West Ohio Conference, wrote in his letter supporting Brownson's nomination: "Not all who profess Christ as Lord and Savior see the issue of homosexuality in the same way. I do, however, know that Jesus welcomes and loves all with the same love."

It's problematic to think LGBT people are bad for the church but believe God loves everyone equally. It's alienating to know people think you are bad for the church but believe God loves everyone equally.

Only 54 years ago, the United Methodist Church voted to give full clergy rights to women. Out of 1,868 voting pastors and lay people, Brownson won the appointment by 28 votes. I believe,  as the United Methodist Church does, that faith is meant to be practiced in community. Yet, for oppressed groups to truly engage in that community, there will need to be a change in how the church thinks.

Molly Harbarger is an assistant city editor at the Missourian.

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jay wood June 14, 2010 | 11:16 a.m.

I enjoyed your article! I agree with you as well. Personally I have stopped trying to reconcile God into any of my beliefs. It seems the constant search for reconciliation has left me asking why reconcile? If it is that difficult to make it fit, it probably doesn't.

Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful article!

(Report Comment)
Wayne Harbarger June 15, 2010 | 7:46 a.m.

It is easier to find a brand of religion that already fits your beliefs than to to force fit your beliefs to a particular brand. Our opinions differ when you state that faith is meant to be practiced in a community. I believe, not think, the institution of religion is a man made invention which dilutes and distorts a clear vision of God.

(Report Comment)
Kathie Jackson June 15, 2010 | 9:41 a.m.

Thank you for a very thoughtful article. I guess some would call me a church 'insider' since I am a female clergy in a mainline denomination. In my own journey of faith I have encountered critics, people who question my call as pastor since I am a woman, and ardent supporters, people who encourage me, stand by me, and pray for me. I serve alongside people who think and believe ardently that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful. I also serve alongside others who believe otherwise and have labored for years, often at their own cost, to offer their LGBT brothers and sisters equal opportunities to use their gifts in ministry. In spite of the challenges, I still believe that a life of faith must be lived in community. Otherwise, faith - thinking and believing - becomes a solitary endeavor, a pursuit driven by our own agenda. We lose the opportunities to learn from the stories and voices of others who have walked a different path than our own and have much to teach us. Community life was the way Jesus chose to live even though, as the gospels give evidence, it was not often easy. The Church, all of the denominations and each and all of the people in it, does have before it the mighty task of being a reconciling presence on this earth. I agree that we must recapture our first love, our love of God, and live that out by loving our neighbor. Then we truly will be the reconciling ministry that God has commanded. Please keep thinking and believing. Our world and our Church needs to hear your voice.

(Report Comment)
Larry Nossaman June 16, 2010 | 4:19 a.m.

Molly, your arguments would be fine except for one thing - we don't get to make the rules. According to the Bible, God has the right to make the rules about what is acceptable sexual activity and what is acceptable worship and service.

If I took something you created - a piece of art or a piece of music - and, without your permission, sold it and made tons of money, you would have the right to sue me for violating copyright. It is an established principle that the creator of something has the right to decide what happens to that creation. Since God is the creator of this universe, which includes human beings and the institution of the church, he has the right to make the rules.

You can read about the rules related to the topics under discussion in such Bible passages as Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

(Report Comment)
Ann Flower June 19, 2010 | 12:20 p.m.

Would it be wrong to expect a Chevy worker to not drive a Ford to work or visa versa? I think it is oppressive(the word used in the paper version of this article) for you to force your beliefs on me. Christianity is a marriage between Jesus Christ and the church. The marriage between a man and a woman is a parable of that relationship, not a perfect parable of course, because Jesus is perfect and no human husband is. 2 men is 2 Jesus, not possible to a Christian. 2 women is 2 churches worshiping each other, possible, but idolatry, not acceptable to any Christian. If you can fit God into your beliefs, is He/She really God?

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Terry Williams June 23, 2010 | 7:54 a.m.

Thank you, Molly, for a wonderfully written exposition of the philosophical issues at play in this situation. As a seminary student currently living in the West Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, I was overjoyed to come across your article while browsing the web.

While it is certainly true that humans do not have the privilege or the responsibility of making the rules of the universe, it is also clear that the Bible is not the be-all-end-all instruction book for life--nor was it intended to be. The Bible, while condoning the oppression of women and the existence of slavery, speaks in no way to many modern issues which confront the Christian every day. Nowhere in the Bible can one find instructions for ethical internet dating, rules about online banking, or how to properly use a telephone.

As the world progresses, the Bible must be interpreted to remain relevant in the life of the church. To say that the Bible is a simple rule book devoid of any element of human involvement is to deny the beautiful complexity of the divine-human relationship. God co-creates reality through human beings, expressing both our status as children of God, as well as our responsibility to be good and watchful stewards of God’s creation.

Although this issue may be hotly contested, it is no different than objections over race and gender equality which have preceded it. Ultimately, we humans only debate subjects when it is clear that the controversial taboos involved are already dying or dead. Here's hoping the bigotry surrounding homosexual involvement in the Kingdom of God will go the way of racial superiority and gender oppression sooner rather than later.

(Report Comment)
Larry Nossaman June 26, 2010 | 7:19 a.m.

Terry, the Bible speaks to the issues of people of all time by supplying principles to live by. How do I handle Internet dating, online banking and telephone use? Among many other principles, I apply honesty, integrity, fairness and treating other people the way I want to be treated. "All Scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

The Bible doesn't need to change or be interpreted to fit "modern" morals. People have not changed since the first man and woman were created, and the Bible's principles are just as relevant today as when they were first delivered to human beings. They just need to be followed.

(Report Comment)

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