Episcopal Cafe has been one of a number of progressive religious groups to express their deep disappointment by the recent decision of Sojourners to reject a Mother's Day ad by Believe Out Loud, a Christian group working for full inclusion of GLBT persons. Sojourners responded not once, but twice yesterday to defend their position. The response to Wallis's rationale for the decision has largely been negative, at least from my most recent perusal of the comments on his blog post.
My own view is that Wallis' position is indefensible, and reflects a lingering theological abstraction in some evangelical thinking. Note the language referring to GLBT people as 'wedge issues' or as 'controversy' and the eloquent responses by GLBT persons to Wallis, rejecting this way of seeing them as issues. And who can anymore honestly think that full welcome requires one to chose this over and against orthodox and biblical faith? Has he not read James Alison and Eugene Rogers or spent time listening to the many many other gay Christian writers, thinkers, and worshippers who are often more theologically literate and biblically rooted than the denominations in which they serve?
The ad itself was not at all controversial in my view, and so it is rather shocking that Wallis, who has made a life's work fighting for justice, cannot see this as simply another aspect of his justice work. It is tempting to try to 'keep the dialogue safe and open' as he says, but part of fighting for justice will also mean taking stands that one knows will cause such dialogue to break down over irreconcilable positions. Perhaps this inability to make a strong stand on full inclusion reflects some of the theological problems with Wallis' recent Covenant for Civility. While in principle civility is an important virtue, and one can certainly see evidence of its erosion in American public life, anyone who recalls the fractious battles over Civil Rights in the 60's knows how readily such a call for civility was all too often mobilized by those seeking to cling to power in order to squelch any real dissent. Prophetic dissent, as Wallis' mentor William Stringfellow often noted, will necessarily be seen as uncivil and be parsed as impatience and arrogant pride by defenders of the status quo. One can see this view in the debate between Wallis and his opponents in the comments to his recent blog defense.
More troubling to me in Wallis' defense of his rejection of the ad was his third point, in which he says: 'We have also suggested that the major differences of theology and biblical interpretation in the church with regard to issues such as the nature of homosexuality, gay marriage, and ordination are not issues that should be allowed to divide the churches – that local churches should lead the way here, and that an honest, open, respectful and, hopefully loving dialogue should characterize the church on these very controversial questions.'
Again there is the theological abstraction: it is 'issues' rather than loving, committed Christian persons that he sees here. Further there is his troubling use of the passive voice: such issues 'should not be allowed to divide the churches.' My own denomination is one that is now so divided. But the question is: who is dividing it? Surely not LGBT persons and their allies! Again and again we have insisted that there is room for all at the table even as we move forward boldly for full inclusion, only to be met regularly by rather uncivil and often rather violent rhetoric against GLBT persons and their allies. The church is insisting that the denial of full inclusion of GLBT Christians in all aspects of church life is no longer a legitimate position. But in most cases it is those holding this position who have excluded themselves, as in the recent boycott of the Primates meeting by conservative Anglican leaders. For sure, it is a challenge to come to the table when one's position is no longer recognized as authoritative, and is even held as illegitimate. But it can be done. Again, in my denomination, Dan Martins, who rejects gay marriage and same sex blessings, has stayed in the church and was recently elected bishop of Springfield, which required the consent of the church who, as a whole, no longer accepts his view as legitimate. He received those consents and is now the bishop of Springfield. This isn't to say that it will be easy for Bishop Martins to be at the House of Bishops meetings, nor will it be easy for those who see his view as de-humanizing of GLBT Christians. But the prophetic witness is never easy, never without pain, and division, as Paul has reminded us, is sometimes necessary in order for the truth to be made manifest in the fires of dissent and passionate love.
Perhaps around the editorial tables at Sojourners such scenarios are not yet conceivable. But more often and perhaps in this case the peace has been kept only by putting dissent 'on the back burner', which is exactly what Wallis defends when he says that Sojourners simply doesn't have time to focus on GLBT justice.
Fair enough, no one has time for everything, but it seems dishonest to say, as he does, that a simple stand on the side of justice for GLBT persons would necessitate taking him away from his own mission fighting poverty and economic injustice. That's another false choice and one suspects he knows it.