voting our imagination

My congregation has just begun a new Lenten book study, Jesus for President, which is not a bad theme to ponder in this maddening primary season. 

As I’ve been watching the primaries play out, with the endless spin and prognostication, one thing seems to be emerging: the competition between those who say they want only to beat Trump in one camp, and those who want a whole new way of doing business in the other camp. 

First, I’ll say I think this is a false choice; polls consistently show that either of the remaining candidates can beat the current president.

So here’s my take: the choice is actually between a) those who want to tend to the few who have too much to count or b) those who think we could do better for the very many who have too little to count on. Between those who demand a political system of ample palm-greasing and those who seem always to come away empty-handed. Between empire and anti-empire. 

And it has been discouragingly familiar to watch empire scramble to wrap around its Manchurian choice these last few days. Jesus isn’t running, but don’t be mistaken: the establishment wouldn’t choose him either. 

Convincing us that we are asking too much is the favorite pastime of those who hoard the good stuff. It is true in every generation. 

We are not asking too much. We are asking, in fact, just the right amount. 

Our defining sacred story begins not with Jesus (and not with Adam and Eve; that is a creation myth that came along later), but with the stories of Israel becoming slaves in Egypt, then escaping slavery and moving through an expansive wilderness to the land of abundant good things. In the wilderness, about 20 minutes after they got out from under the oppressive hand of the emperor, the Pharaoh, people began acting like pharaohs, trying to be in charge of all the good stuff. 

Case in point: they were hungry and God rained manna from heaven. Take what you need, said God, but don’t try to hoard it. Exodus says those who took too much had enough; though who took too little had enough. It was a pretty great system. But some folks tried to hoard, tried to corner the manna futures market. 

Hoarded manna rotted. It was terrible. 

But people don’t learn all that well. So the stories of hoarded and rotting manna still need to be heard. Again and again. 

So, Jesus for President. Right? I don’t know; we haven’t read the whole book yet. But one of my favorite lines so far is about this very thing. 

Referring to the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the parts of the scripture that many of us find the hardest to slog through, the writer notes that the laws were for the sake of creating a people, teaching them how to be neighbors and protect creation, including humanity. And this is where we get to my favorite line: the authors write that it wasn’t “about making …empire better at doing empire. Rather, God would save the world through fascination, by setting up a society on the margins of empire for the world to come and see what a society of love looks like.” 

I love the idea of a world that feeds our imagination, that fascinates us, that invites others to want to be just that way. It can happen. It can happen. 

It cannot if we let fear or greed or empire tell us what to do. 

It is Lent, and among the scriptures we read, there is the prophet Joel calling us to return. 

But return to what? Too many white churches dream of the glory days of the 1950s and 60s. Maybe here in Flint, we would return to anything pre-oil embargo, though some, no doubt would prefer pre-collective bargaining. Others may desire the trickle-down of Reagan, and still others FDR, LBJ, or even the Confederacy. Would we choose the “me” 1980s over the “me-too” 2020s? 

Returning is tricky, because there is a lot behind us, and most of it ranges from bad to worse. It’s been that way for most of human history. And certainly America has never been the beacon on the hill for all its people.

So Lent calls us to return to something we have never seen: the vision of God, the reign of God, the well-being of all beings. 

And when we cannot see, it is vital that we imagine. 

My hope is that in this election season each of us will vote for the candidate who taps our imagination and invites us into a vision of what is possible for all of us. 

If we do that, if we do it right, then maybe wealthy will be a little less wealthy, but everyone else will have food, dignity, well-being and a safe place to live. And won’t that be a good day. 

paris to pittsburgh

Last week, my church hosted a viewing of the 2018 documentary Paris to Pittsburgh, describing the efforts of cities and states to live up to the environmental standards of The Paris Agreement. You may remember that the Agreement is a worldwide covenant to reduce the harm we are doing to the planet, to try to address the climate crisis. The film is about the efforts of cities and states to live up to Paris, though the U.S. has now withdrawn, courtesy of our narrow-minded president. But watching the film, I was disappointed. really disappointed. These are my thoughts.

Experts have known for more than 7 decades that we are damaging the planet by our emissions. Fresh water is disappearing; major storms, flood and fires are increasing and threatening our livelihoods. Habitat is disappearing for people and animals. Perhaps 9 billion people is more than the planet can sustain, along with dwindling populations of wildlife and the ever-increasing populations of farmed animals. 

This film makes the urgent point that the problem is worse than we thought. In America, our ruling party hates science and is doing its best to take us backward. But there is hope. So the (frustratingly off-point) central theme of the film emerges: “Renewable energy is the greatest economic opportunity of the 21st century.” Renewable energy can create jobs to save dying cities, provide student-debt-free futures for students graduating into high-paying energy jobs, open vocational avenues for former prisoners and gang members, lower operating costs for industries, increase populations of lesser-known towns and villages, lower insurance costs for coastal cities, save families and whole cities on high costs of electricity, lower the costs associated with global hostility and regional instability, and make us all feel hopeful again. And this film goes on to tell us how it can do all that. 

It may save our economy, I would suggest, but what it will not do is save the planet, which becomes clear if we listen to the subtext. Here is what it says, deep into the documentary: If we do all the things this film wants us to do, we just may—may—reach the goals set out in the Paris Climate Accord. But we have to realize: the goal of the Paris Accord is not to reverse the damage we’ve done to the planet. The goal of Paris is to limit to merely double the damage we have already done. Merely double. The global temperature has risen 1 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution; the Paris Accord wants it to rise not more than 1 more degree…

…which may stave off the end of the world, but may also leave us with a world we don’t know how to live in.  

The trailer for the film promised conversation about so many things, but it focused narrowly on renewable energy costs and the damage of fossil fuels and coal. The global climate crisis is so much more broad than that. Energy is a substantial part of the problem. But it is not the only thing. Science tells us it isn’t even the biggest thing. 

A study by the Guardian, a study called “the biggest analysis to date,” and cited in Forbes magazine last June, noted that “researchers concluded that shifting away from meat and dairy is the single most effective way to regenerate our ecosystem and prevent its destruction.” “Livestock production,” it said, “is the single largest contributor of emissions around the globe (more than planes, trains and cars combined). Removing it from our food system could allow the planet to regenerate. Raising animals for food is also the largest contributor to wildlife extinction around the world.” “Even the lowest impact beef” [meaning that family farm every anti-vegan seems to have grown up across the street from] “is responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and (requires) 36 times more land than a plant-based diet.” Fish isn’t the answer, either, the researchers went on, as fish farming produces massive amounts of methane. 

While this film touted in the trailer and promo notes that it includes conversation about food sources and sustainability, there was not one word about a plant-based diet. And total food conversation accounted for less than 1 minute of the 75-minute film. Yes, there is a segment about Iowa, shot partially on a dairy farm. It focused on the way that solar panels can lower the cost of all the machines it takes to produce milk. The farmer noted that farming isn’t a great way to make living, but, he said, “it is a great way to raise a family”—while they showed adorable footage of a young boy bottle-feeding a calf powdered milk, which becomes necessary when you take babies away from their mothers. So, maybe it’s a great way to raise some families. (And by the way, 2500 dairy cows produce the same amount of waste as a city with a population of 400,000 people.)

I have been frustrated for a while with public conversations about climate change, because it has seemed to me that solutions generally range from solar panels to electric cars to better light bulbs, with forays into recycling, outlawing plastic straws and taking our own bags to the grocery. All important things. But not enough. We have a serious problem. And, despite this film’s ongoing theme, our serious problem is not primarily—or even secondarily—about the economy. 

I am no expert and certainly my carbon footprint is something greater than zero. Maybe you’d rather I not bring it up now. Half a solution is better than none, right? No. Not really. The thing is we need serious people to take action, but I don’t believe we do ourselves any favors when we avoid conversation about the single most powerful contribution we make to the problem—the single-most powerful contribution we can make to the solution. 

Greta Thunberg, speaking at the World Economic Forum, said: “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” 

This is way too important for us to half-ass. 

scorched earth. literally and not so.

Australia is on fire as I write this, with little hope of a drenching rain for another month or so. The wildfire season on that continent has been brutal, worse than ever. All told, more than 12 million acres of land are burning — an area nearly the size of Lake Michigan—and about a billion animals are dead, some species now extinct. At least 2000 human homes have been destroyed, and an entire population is having trouble breathing through the thick smoke. Experts lay the cause at the feet of climate change.

In the midst of this unprecedented conflagration, just before New Year’s, people around the country begged the leadership in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, to call off the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks show, the largest in the world. Leaders said no. Too late, too many tourism dollars riding on the event.

The world is on fire; by all means, let’s add more fire.

Then there is Iran. “All is well,” tweeted the president in the wee hours. “So far, so good.” This, in response to escalating conflict between and among America, Iran and Iraq. Conflict that Trump initiated months ago. One Iran expert wrote in the New York Times:

“It is important to remember who began this spiral. In May 2018, President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement negotiated by his predecessor at a time when Iran was in full compliance with it. When he did so, the Quds Force and its associated militias in Iraq were fighting the Islamic State in indirect coordination with the American military. The Persian Gulf was quiet.”

But the president promised to prevail, even pledged to commit war crimes, should his ego be sufficiently threatened. (Or perhaps more accurately “additional” war crimes, since assassination of a foreign leader seems to qualify as such.) Pence and Pompeo, hawks that they are, are happy to fuel Trump’s fiery foolishness.

The world is on fire; by all means, let’s add more fire.

Probably not unrelated, on January 20, gun rights defenders and militia members from across the country will gather in Virginia to protest that state’s intent to curb, if not our appetite for, at least our access to, personal firepower. “Virginia has now become ground zero for the tyranny of government and the liberal agenda to take our guns and to destroy our constitution,” posted one website that I hope doesn’t start targeting me with ads now that I’ve scrolled through it.

We are on fire. No doubt American bravado will be on full display in the coming days and weeks, as we fall back into the default position that violence against us calls for violence by us. They offend us, so we should blow them off the map. Or something like that. Americans all around us will call for violence.

(The Iranian response to Suleimani’s murder—missile attacks on US installations in Iraq which killed no one—was more face-saving than warlike, according to analysts quoted in The Washington Post. We’ll see if presidential pride can call it even and live to bluster another day.)

Either way, it falls to people of a certain faith to hold the line, to proclaim again and again, ever more loudly, that violence is not the cure for violence. It cannot be. Adding more fire doesn’t put out the fire. Escalating doesn’t de-escalate. Peace does not come by threats or force. This has to be the very nature of our resistance.

And please understand, by “people of a certain faith,” I’m not talking about Christians. People who claim to follow Jesus will perhaps be among the loudest voices for violence and retribution. No, the peacemaking people I’m referencing may be Christian, but may also be Muslim or Jewish or Baha’i (a 19th-century world religion with its foundations in Iran, I’ve learned) or other. We are people who refuse to fight fire with fire, who lean to the prophets ancient and modern for our belief that violence solves nothing, that posturing and threatening are not the way to live in community—not local community, not global community.

We Americans are accustomed to wondering about the mental stability of despotic leaders of hostile or oppressive nations. But it can no longer be something we point to “over there;” these days, we are living with the mental instability of our own despotic leader. It is times like this that test our faith, that call us to be our best selves—to fight fire with something other than fire.

When a billion are dead, the air is too thick to breathe and tens of millions of acres are no longer habitable, will we still claim to value tourism dollars most? Will oil or ego continue to be our casus belli, our reason for war (even while both are also among the chief causes of our environmental undoing)? What will cause us to reconsider our highest allegiances?

Trump has addressed the nation this morning, content laced with lies, and tone intended to demean and taunt. But this morning’s tweet— “all is well, so far so good”—tells us what we need to know: he is not committed to peace, but to self-aggrandizement. The eyes of the world are on him, just the way he likes it.

In Christian churches around the world, folks have heard this week the Epiphany story of the magi traveling to see the child Jesus, (one tradition tells of them traveling from Persia, now called Iran) and being met by Herod’s ego. The story is a throwback to the story of Moses and Pharaoh, another story of magicians advising the king of a potential rival, and that king likewise responding by murderous rampage. In our worship, we have celebrated light, the light of God; perhaps, the light of something else.

In every age, some Herod or other tries to extinguish the light. In this age, in this place, Trump is our Herod. Our work as people of faith is to keep the light shining, to be light. It will take all our intestinal fortitude, all that we can muster.

The world is on fire and it is hard to breathe. More fire won’t help. Are we willing to try something else?

your church should close

Last month, I attended the last of my three national church gatherings for the year, this time the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), gathering in Des Moines. I gotta tell you, I’ve been a little too hopped up on church. And I’ve been reminded that, as much life as I find in church, I also find a whole lot of, well, death. 

This time, I was mostly in the exhibit hall, staffing a booth for UrbanSpirit

A woman approached my booth and asked me about our work, and I talked about poverty and the related  issues — housing, race, gender, childcare, transportation, food deserts, plus immigration and education. You know the list. 

She mentioned that, recently, in her town, in response to President Trump’s “send her back” moment (when he suggested that four Congressional Representatives who are women of color should quit criticizing America and “go back where they came from,” and “Send her back” became a battle cry among his followers), someone in her town wrote “send them back” in the white stripes of an American flag and posted it for all to see.

She was quite bothered. 

I asked what her church had done in response. Nothing, she said. They were a small church, just 8 of them. (I said Jesus just had 12.) But the pastor was sick. No one had time. And 15 other excuses. I challenged each excuse best I could, but she was adamant that there was nothing her church could do to make a public witness that such a racist act was not okay, that there was at least one church in town that rejected it. 

Finally, I just told her that her church should close and quit taking up space in the community. 

Then, on the way home from Des Moines, a song came on that I hadn’t heard in a long time: Scarecrow, by Melissa Etheridge, about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming who was abducted and tied to a fence, tortured and left to die.  

Melissa recounts the horror: 

We all gasp this can’t happen here!
We’re all much too civilized; 
where can these monsters hide?

But then she answers her own question: 

But they are knocking on our front door, 
They’re rocking in our cradles,
They’re preaching in our churches, 
And eating at our tables.

They’re preaching in our churches. 

Preaching in our churches.  

And I was reminded of the very substantial support that Trump’s racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia get from churches that claim to follow Jesus. Some otherwise-admiring national “faith leaders” actually complained recently, though not about Trump’s racism. They were bothered that he had said “goddamn” twice in a speech. That is, frankly, the least of our worries. 

They’re preaching in our churches. 

Or sitting in the pews doing nothing whilst the racist murderers rage. 

Then, this weekend, barely a week after that Des Moines church event, we all read the horrifying but no longer surprising news that two more white racist gunmen had killed scads of people going about their lives. Shopping. Socializing. 

Part of the church’s problem is that we are paid for in part by community money and we don’t want our underwriting to go away. 

We are subsidized. Not unlike farmers that grow what they’re told in exchange for federal payments. The tax exemptions that we receive allow us to own property more cheaply and take advantage of community services (fire, police, roads, schools, etc) paid for by our neighbors; plus receive donations that are  tax deductible; and offer our pastors housing allowances that are income-tax-exempt. 

So I have two questions. 

First, are we worth it? 

While we take up space, keeping prime property off the tax rolls, and robbing our communities of much needed revenue, are we adding anything of value? 

Second, what would we say if we weren’t afraid? Afraid of losing our tax breaks, but also afraid of annoying our donors, afraid of losing members, afraid of alienating the Lions, Kiwanians, or Chamber of Commerce, afraid of being uncomfortable at church potlucks or family dinners? 

Fear doesn’t become the body of Christ; and we don’t become the body of Christ by being afraid. 

Our love affair with guns has always been about white supremacy (all the way back to bounties on runaway slaves and land-grabs from indigenous peoples). But there is no room in the church for white supremacy. 

Some, I know, are fed up and have no idea what to do. 

So, I have three ideas (and you may have more): 

1. Flood the offices of your elected leaders with notes, cards, emails and phone calls, demanding a change in the way we revere guns, even calling for repeal of the second amendment.

2. Make whatever donations you can to progressive candidates. Especially contribute to the defeat of Mitch McConnell. He has a challenger, Amy McGrath, not a strong or good candidate, and holding many of the same opinions Mitch holds, but at least if she wins, he won’t be the Majority Leader anymore, unilaterally and single-handedly blocking the people’s business. 

3.Raise the conversation in arenas where you expect not to be well-received. Say it and live with the fall-out. Don’t buy the line that churches can’t be political. Preach it, bring it to Thanksgiving dinner, say it in the grocery check-out line. Don’t worry about saying it well. Just don’t let the moment go by. 

Otherwise, we’re just taking up space, worth nothing to our communities — but a heck of a bargain to empire, which pays us for our silence.  

Racism and race-based violence are part of the fabric of America, and will continue to be until we insist on something else. It seems clear to me that people who claim Jesus’ way, the way of the ancient prophets, ought to be in the front of the pack of those clamoring for a new way. 

So, start talking. Or go ahead and close your church.

travelog of a resolution

(Fully aware that I may offend all sides, I want to share my experience of bringing a righteous resolution to the UCC General Synod. This essay has also been published in my congregation’s newsletter and our local association newsletter. You are free to offer comment, as you see fit. Here we go.)

“The system protects itself, by any means necessary.” 

I wrote that on Facebook last month during the General Synod, as I watched a process unfold that was as maddeningly unbelievable as it was predictable. 

Two years ago, Jay Cummings and I wrote an anti-bigotry resolution that was endorsed by Woodside Church Board of Directors and forwarded to Michigan Conference, where it was adopted and forwarded to the General Synod for wider-Church consideration. 

The full title of the resolution was “Stewardship of Exhibit Space as a Resource for a Mission of Justice,” and the gist of it was this: The exhibit hall is a resource for living out our mission, and if any organization has a message that is counter to the UCC declarations about being open and safe space, especially for LGBTQ folks, that oganization will be denied a platform in the exhibit hall and other public spaces during General Synod. 

The resolution singled out one offending organization, the Faithful and Welcoming Churches (FWC), which I find to be neither. It is a collection of about 70 conservative congregations formed in 2005 when the UCC voted affirmation of marriage equality. Its mission is to restore the UCC to its pre-apostate days, the days before the UCC lost its way and became so … liberal. It has been known by other names: Biblical Witness and ECOT (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, traditional). The head of this group is a pastor in N.C., Bob Thompson, who has made it a mission to organize against rights for LGBTQ folk. He’ll tell you that he loves us, loves everybody, in fact; but his work has been to block ordinations and lobby the church against marriage equality — a civil right now guaranteed by the Supreme Court. 

(Other rights such as housing and employment are not yet won; the work goes on.) 

Denying rights is hard to align with “love,” as our friends of color perhaps would attest.  

The “unbelievable and predictable” part began long before we gathered in Milwaukee last month; together with some skewing along the way, the result was deeply frustrating and ultimately inconclusive. 

Prior to General Synod convening, we knew the resolution was drawing attention, sparking debate. Jay, Campbell (Lovett, our Conference Minister) and I were asked to speak with some delegations in advance of the Synod, and then with others in caucus in the early days of the Synod. As part of the Michigan delegation, which brought the resolution, I was assigned to be the proponent of the resolution, the primary spokesperson, and I personally met with three delegations, to help them understand the purpose and the stakes. 

But the predisposition was clear. This wasn’t going to go well. 

First, there was the action by the church hierarchy to change the type of resolution that it was. We submitted it as a prudential resolution, that is, a resolution pertaining to the way we do internal business. It was re-categorized as a resolution of witness, that is, a statement of belief or commitment to the world outside the church doors. This matters, because one type requires simple majority, the other two-thirds. We were being held to the higher margin. 

I vociferously challenged this at every possible level of authority, on the grounds that all the underlying witness actions had already been decided over the past 40 years. It was denied. 

Then, in the first plenary, the first business meeting of all the gathered delegates, as the resolutions as a package were being presented for acceptance as future action items, a formality prior to being sent to committee, I asked again, this time of the floor parliamentarian, if this was a moment I could challenge that designation; he said no, that the proper moment to challenge was on the floor of the Synod when the resolution was presented to the plenary individually by the appropriate committee — in this case, Committee 8. So I waited. 

Second, in that first plenary, as we practiced our voting clickers, it also became apparent that the automatic tally was adding yes + no + abstentions = 100%. This was incorrect, as abstentions do not count. If we were to be held to 2/3, it should only be 2/3 of people actually voting. I raised this issue and it was corrected.

There are two key places that resolutions get airtime prior to the floor debate in a plenary session: first, in an educational intensive, a session to help people understand the background and get a broader view of the issues; and then a committee hearing, when the committee debates, first with and then without the input of anyone interested enough to show up. Delegates are assigned to committees; visitors choose where they’d like to sit in. 

So, third, while the educational intensives for other resolutions seemed designed to help people understand the issue, ours was not really. 

The educational intensive for Resolution 8 was not about stewardship, not about bigotry or violence against LGBTQ folks, not about the work of FWC or the church’s many, many prior actions affirming the LGBTQ community. 

It was instead about civility. It was called “stewarding difference in the exhibit space,” and we were coached on the various ways of responding to issues, drilled on techniques for keeping conversation respectful and keeping people together in hard times. 

While other proponents were invited to speak to their resolutions in their educational intensives, in our intensive I was not allowed; in fact, no one was allowed to discuss the resolution at all. All comments were restricted to conversation about civility and process only. 

The result was that, when we got to the committee, more than a few people who were actually assigned to the committee had no idea what the fuss was about or why this resolution was anything other than an ugly and personal attempt to silence a particularly charming man, who was head of FWC. 

In fact, and fourth, that man, Bob Thompson, was a delegate to Synod, and assigned to Committee 8. I challenged his assignment to the committee, and was told it was random, and that the planners were unwilling to break with the system of randomly assigning. And he was unwilling to recuse himself. 

Bob then masterfully co-opted the committee, at one point stating in a hang-dog kind of way that “if y’all don’t want me here, if y’all pass this resolution, I’ll get the message; I’ll just leave. I won’t be back at Synod anymore.” 

To which the committee responded “oh, no, Bob! Don’t go!” and they all commented on his nice-ness. How could anyone want Bob to go? they mourned. “Who here wants Bob to stay?” One committee member (who was not the chair) actually asked for a show of hands.  

One lone woman called Bob on his attempt to abuse power and privilege. She said, “I feel manipulated by your fragility.” But the committee as a whole was poisoned by his presence. 

Bigotry was not really much discussed in Committee 8; harm caused to the LGBTQ community was a secondary concern to excluding opinions, plus the feelings of Bob, the man who has caused — continues to cause — personal and professional harm to any number of LGBTQ pastors and would-be pastors. 

I had been advised that, as proponent of the resolution, I would have the privilege of 10 minutes to address the committee, a longer period of time than anyone! (Longer, certainly, than any of the FWC people, until we learned the FWC president was on the committee.) 

I wrote and practiced draft after draft of a speech, to ensure I was as efficient as possible and said all that needed to be said in a prescribed period. My remarks came in at 9m50s. 

But because Bob was a member of the committee, he had the floor as often and as long as he wanted. He tearfully told a moving story about one woman, a pastor whose ordination he had blocked, who had written a letter he perceived as an invitation to conversation, maybe even “reconciliation,” he said. 

I later learned from that pastor herself (who gave me permission to share) that the letter and story had been distorted by him and shared by him without her permission, which caused her fresh pain. She said she felt used, harmed yet again. I imagine so. 

Ultimately, the committee adopted a better resolution, with substitute language I had drafted more broadly about bigotry, intended to protect all the “historically under-represented groups” of the UCC, including LGBTQ, Black and LatinX, disabled folks and those living with mental illness. 

But ugly was still to come.  

Among the deleted and rewritten provisions was this mind-blowing moment: 

Regarding one of the action statements, 

“Be it resolved that the UCC motto ‘that they may all be one,’ does not require giving voice to bigotry,” 

the committee balked, and it barely passed 18-17. 

So the one provision stayed in, but then, the committee voted by an overwhelming margin to present the resolution to the plenary with committee recommendation to defeat it. 

The resolution’s final step, then, was to the plenary for action by the entire Synod. 

Remember, this was the moment I was told to challenge the witness v prudential classification? 

So, fifth, just before the resolution was introduced, I was informed by the chief parliamentarian that I had been misinformed by the floor parliamentarian: the time for requesting a resolution be reclassified was two days before — at the moment I had asked the question to begin with. I confess I said aloud “that’s bullshit,” which I’m sure did not endear me to folks in charge. (FYI: Michigan UCC-er and Federal Judge Denise Page Hood was the chief parliamentarian, a lovely person, wonderful to work with.)  

Ours was in the last block of resolutions, and the debate, scheduled for Monday afternoon, was delayed, creating confusion. It  finally began on Monday evening. (Committees had met Sunday morning.) While other resolutions had maybe half a dozen folks lined up at microphones, this resolution had many more, including our Michigan Youth at Synod, with passionate speakers from Woodside & Manistee congregations. 

Anyone wishing to speak was granted one minute, so we had all carefully written and practiced. People had all kinds of comments and critiques, which skewed to calls for civility and unity, and how Jesus didn’t exclude people. Several quoted our church motto, “that they may all be one,” which I pointed out was from a prayer Jesus prayed. Jesus prayed for unity, but worked for justice.   

Lots of folks misrepresented the resolution’s intent. They kept referencing exclusion from the communion table (which no one intends) rather than denial of exhibit tables (which are places to market your message). A confusion that seems baffling to me, perhaps disingenuous. 

So very many people called on us all to be nice, to be kind, even vilifying some of us for wanting to banish the bigotry. Someone misquoted Jesus: “Turn the other cheek.”  Better just to pretend nothing is amiss. Better to glorify charm, whatever the cost. 

Meanwhile, I watched Bob, waiting at a “no” mic, moving  back every time someone else stepped up, clearly intending to have the last word. 

Someone suggested that we should have begun with prayer and so she led us, though no one had led prayer before we voted on carbon dividends or Styrofoam, or divesting from the private prison industry, nor on merging three southern New England conferences into one, or standing against sexual violence or children in cages at the border, or even denouncing neo-Nazis. 

None of those required special prayer, because we expect the church to be able to do its job. 

The vice-moderator then announced her intent to limit debate (because it’s late and we’re tired, so let’s just vote and call it a night), which isn’t how Robert’s Rules work; someone challenged, and she was overridden by the plenary, which voted to continue in the morning if needed. (Correcting her should not have required a vote), Someone moved to table, and it failed. Debate continued, even the next morning. Then someone else moved to table, and it passed. 

So, that was the end. It was tabled. 

But (sixth? seventh? eighth?) Bob got the last word anyway. He approached a “procedural” mic, for a moment of “personal privilege,” and was granted an opportunity to give a commercial for the work of FWC, with no clock running. 

(You’d have to ask a better parliamentarian than I whether that was a reasonable use of the privilege. Given the content of the resolution and the tenor of the room, I would have said not. But the moderator allowed it.) 

Bob talked about how sad they were that their intentions had been misinterpreted, noting the FWC materials have been retooled, (and their website scrubbed, I noted), though he failed to mention that the mission has not changed. He invited folks to drop by the table and experience his nice-ness first-hand. Or something like that.  

I’m told the youth requested later, in the final plenary, a moment of privilege to address the group, but were denied by the moderator. 

Where does all that leave us? 

You may think I’m a jaded conspiracy theorist, but I assessed the wider church’s actions as intentionally working to undermine this resolution. It was hard to see it any other way. Every possible roadblock was employed, not just to keep this from passing, but to keep us from talking about it. Because conversation can be dangerous. It can change things, and change makes us uncomfortable. 

I was deflated by the church’s unwillingness to call out bigotry against LGBTQ folks. I just couldn’t imagine we would allow someone to organize, for example, against the children in cages to whom we were pledging our aid. I couldn’t imagine we would allow antiimmigrant or antirefugee or antiArab activity to have a platform in our halls. 

Or Border Patrol. We protested against ICE during the event, so could you just imagine an ICE table — a table where they tried to explain they were just following orders, just trying to keep our country pure, or our borders safe, or whatever the hell it is they’re doing? 

Later, I spoke with one colleague, a man I love dearly and know to be a progressive mind, who said he was “on the fence” about this resolution. So, I asked whether he would oppose giving exhibit space to some group organizing against the civil rights of black people. He said “you know I would.” I asked what was different, but he couldn’t answer. 

I think a lot of people would have a similar take, and perhaps not know why. 

So, I have a theory about what is different for them. 

In the educational intensive, one of the leaders, talking about the need for civility, said “you know, someone may say ‘I’m gay’ and someone else may say ‘I don’t agree.’” 

That’s the problem. People think we can disagree about LGBTQ, in a way we cannot about color or ethnicity. You’d never hear someone say “I’m black” and someone respond “I don’t agree with that.” 

When I say “I’m lesbian,” I’m not inviting dissent. You don’t get to vote or disagree or really have a valid opinion. You get to say ok. You can also say “eeeeww.” But that’s on you. I’m not lesbian as a way to annoy you or piss off God. I’m just lesbian. Created to be. It’s not like we’re disagreeing about Styrofoam. It’s about you not believing me when I tell you my truth, when I say that lesbian is my being, not a habit or phase or rebellion or fashion or alternative lifestyle. 

Hospitality, then, doesn’t mean giving voice to every opinion, but creating safe space for every person. Even Bob Thompson. He can be in the community, at the table of communion, even stay for fellowship after worship and be cared for and loved. But none of that requires we give him space to organize against another group of human beings just for being themselves. The pain he may claim to feel over losing his microphone is not the same as the pain he causes by working against human, civil and ecclesial rights for LGBTQ folks. 

Jesus said to beware of wolves in sheeps’ clothing, and I think we ought to pay a little more attention to that. 

What makes it worse for me is that so many of my LGBTQ siblings have drunk the koolaid. 

We are struggling with the foot of church hierarchy still on our necks, and very many of us spoke out in favor of civility or some (false) unity instead of justice and safety. It seems to be true still that oppressed people learn to identify in some ways with their oppressors, perhaps without even realizing it. 

But it is also true that, as white gay men and lesbians have moved more into the mainstream (men more than women), we have to be aware of how we are using power, aware of the pain of queer people of color, especially trans people of color, for whom the murder rate is off the charts, and for questioning young people, for whom the suicide rate is many times the rate of their straight peers. It would be unconscionable simply to accept our new membership in the power club and not look back. Power always comes with responsibility, always. Mitch McConnell notwithstanding. 

On a brighter note, as disgusted as I am with the process we’ve just seen — and the fear and reluctance of the church to have conversation or to come to terms with its own bigotry – I have to report that Michigan is alive and well. Several Michigan folks stood to proclaim words of justice, to share stories of personal pain, including our youth. 

And God love Campbell, our Conference Minister; he is a grace. Throughout the tiring   process, he never wavered. He supported, advocated, took calls and criticisms from others. “Campbell, what are you doing?!” they would beg to know. 

I believe him when he says this isn’t over. The Council of Conference Ministers will not hear the end of it from Campbell, and in this, we will have his back. The church will not get to take the easy way of avoiding conversations, all the while pretending there is no pain involved.  

Perhaps it was a mistake to name FWC specifically; they certainly aren’t the only folks harping on us as if we are issues to be addressed or problems to be fixed. But I’m told that naming them, while perhaps contributing to the defeat of the resolution, has shined a light on them unlike before. Since the theme of this General Synod was “Shine!” perhaps we’ve done our work.  

After I got home from synod, another post appeared in my Facebook feed, a meme based on a reflection from Naomi Shulman, whose mother was born in Munich, 1934. I find it a good thing to remember, in these days of inoffensive church and inconceivably harmful state, so I offer it to you, a reflection on civility: 

“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than ‘politics.’ They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.” 

charge to a pastor: thoughts for a new year.

from may 7, 2015…

Denise has asked me to deliver the charge to the pastor today, so I’m happy to share with you these thoughts rolling around in my head:

Work hard; in fact, work all the time. Don’t go bowling or see a movie if there is something else more ministry-like that you should be doing. Set goals and don’t stop until they are met. Take failure personally. Let the anger of one person outweigh the joy of 99 (because isn’t there a parable about that?). Set high standards and never let yourself off the hook. Be innovative. Start new traditions. Buck the system. Maintain a high level of righteous indignation. Stay up on the news. Be creative, spiritual, humble, well-loved. Be an excellent preacher. All the time. Seriously, 52 weeks a year, plus festivals. One single mediocre sermon is beneath you and will undo all the good you are trying to accomplish here. Be relevant, empathetic, deep, engaging, confident. And hip with young people.

And for god’s sake, don’t ever have spinach in your teeth.

This is why, when it is time to hear the charge to the pastor, we ask someone else to do it. Because the voices in our own heads can be unreasonable. Insecure. Overwhelming. judgmental.

So, this is what I offer to you, and what I will do my best to hear today as well:

You aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last. You join a ministry as old as the ages and new everyday. There is some freedom in that.

Believe that God operates through imagination more than intimidation or exhortation. Draw attention to the brokenness of our world and invite folks to see their creative part in mending it. Not just in the congregation, but in the community. We are church for community. It’s the only reason.

Take preaching seriously. An old professor told me once to “Love the people like you’ll be there forever, but preach like you’re leaving tomorrow.” Tell the truth.

“Having a prior commitment” is a good enough reason to say no, sometimes even if it is a commitment to drink wine on your back porch alone or with your partner. And a day off is a day off. My internship supervisor nearly 30 years ago said once “it’s not a day off if I have to shower.” Set your own standard for what that means and honor it.

A multi-dimensional life does more to nourish faithful ministry than a continuing ed course on, well, almost anything. Cross-train. Know how to do stuff. Ministry stuff, maybe, like worship writing or teaching middle schoolers or strategic planning. But other stuff, too, like how to interact with your favorite art or sport or historical period or power tool. Get your hands dirty. Garden. Throw pots, dig through architectural salvage. Keep wet wipes in your car in case you stumble upon something irresistable in a random trash pile.

Honor “process,” but don’t drown in it.

Read. Read the bible, read the news, but more than that. Read beautiful prose and poetry, things that make you laugh and wonder. Things that challenge your assumptions or ignite your passions. Things that take you someplace new.

Pray. Pray for insight, wisdom, grace, energy, patience. Especially patience. Even if you never get any, at least you can say you tried.

Recognize your spiritual gifts. And let others have theirs. Remind others, and yourself, as needed, what I’ve heard before: that martyrdom is a gift you can only use once.
Be kind to yourself. A healthy you is going to be more effective than any other kind. Tend to your body, your spirit, your mind, your emotions. I recommend a counselor, a screened porch, a firepit, a journal. But if you choose a pottery wheel, knitting needles or an animal shelter, I totally get it.

There are a lot of hurting people in the world, people who need more than anything for the church to be the body of Christ, the body of Christ without its collective heel on their throats. Some of them are members of your church. Keep them in mind.

But keep Jesus in your heart. We’re more like him than we know. Practice resurrection, as Wendell Berry has advised. In fact, let Wendell and other modern prophets and poets guide your heart as well. Even if they aren’t religious.
And since we suck at saying all this to ourselves, surround yourself with colleagues and non-church friends who will say it to you.

Serve as long as you are called; then go without apology or regret to the next thing to which God is beckoning. God is still speaking, you know. Even to us.

It is sacred work that can be profane. We are a holy people who can be all too unholy.

Of course the short form of all of this is from a sermon I heard recently: “So be as badass, compassionate and wise as you can. Be empty. Be full. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of being afraid.” You, my dear sister, preached that. To me and scads of other hearers. So I give it back to you.

Do your best. It is enough.

rainbow, plus

As I write this, there is is a 70-ish straight white woman sewing black and brown stripes onto our congregation’s pride flag.

Let me say I’m not necessarily an “early adopter.” And when the story of the Philadelphia flag adaptation became news, I wasn’t sure what I thought. In part I thought it was a bad idea – not because I think the LGBT movement is inclusive enough (it isn’t) or because I think black and brown people want too much (they don’t, and even framing the issue that way makes me grimace).

First, honestly, as I posted on facebook, at a glance, I thought it was a shout-out to bears. Not unworthy of a shout-out, but not the intention.

But more than that, I was remembering my years in Washington DC in the mid-80s, when all the men I knew were dying or losing friends by the dozens or hundreds. The rainbow flag was a sign of life, of hope, of not being completely alone during an administration that wouldn’t even say the word AIDS out loud. I had 4 particular friends during that time, all now dead, three black and one white, and the rainbow flag was, for us, a way of being visible. An indication of a safe place.

I wasn’t against changing the flag because I didn’t like the Philadelphia design, but because I know it is sacred to so many people who remember those days, the lack of visibility, respectability, safety. It is a sacred symbol, and sacred symbols change slowly, a lesson I’ve learned from 30 years as a pastor. I knew that, now, with more stripes, no matter what, the symbol would be divisive when it was meant to be inclusive. That was borne out by the blogs and posts I have read from either perspective.

Here’s what I have realized: It was divisive all along. And it made some people – a lot of people – invisible, though it was supposed to do the opposite.

As a lesbian, maybe I should have caught on to this more quickly. The pink triangle, claimed as a gay symbol for decades now, was a redeemed holdover from the Nazi era, a time when gay men were tattooed with it. But lesbians were not. We were mostly marked with black triangles, signs of threats to society: lesbians and other “unproductive” women, but also vagrants, felons and other social misfits. Even the word “gay,” which, by the time of Stonewall, came to be used almost exclusively about men. “LGBT” came later, and additions of Q and I have now broadened our community’s self-understanding even more. Cumbersome? Maybe. Righteous? Definitely.

I learned of all the very many ways the flag has been adapted over the decades for various communities, purposes and events – apparently all with the blessing of whoever owns the design. Or maybe no one does, as a nod to the society we wish we were. (Gilbert Baker, the designer, died earlier this year; folks who claim to have known him are confidently speculating that he would and would not approve the new design.)

Anyway, the very many adaptations made me remember another fight the gay community had to endure. Ages ago, when the Gay Games were new, they were called the Gay Olympics. Nope, said the USOC. That’s a trademarked name, and you can’t use it. Nevermind there were Special Olympics, Junior Olympics and a plethora of other events using the name (frogs, police, rats and beer among them). The USOC took the Gay Olympics organizers to court, and eventually SCOTUS upheld the ownership right of the USOC. It was the early 80s, and discrimination was the order of the day. There was no way to spin the USOC argument except to call it discrimination.

Likewise, with so many iterations of the pride flag serving so many distinct parts of our community, there is no defensible way to object to the additions of black and brown stripes. To argue otherwise, even eloquently, boils down to racism, an embrace of symbol red-lining. “You, yes.” “You, yes.” “You, no.”

Which underscores the reason to add the stripes in the first place. Our community is not whole. We are not who we want to be. We are not truly who we are.

So here’s how it boils down for me: When congregations walk through a process of becoming open to the LGBTQ community, almost invariably someone will say “We already welcome everyone. Why do we have to name gay people specifically?” And the answer is that LGBTQ folks perceive an invisible asterisk in that welcome, because they, we, have experienced so many times when the welcome wasn’t for us, or it was for us if only we would act straight, or whatever. If people don’t feel welcomed, it is incumbent on us to make sure to welcome them. Specifically. Individually, if needed.

The LGBTQ POC community tells us they aren’t feeling it. With good reason and with a mountain of evidence. We have work to do.

And that is why my congregation’s very own Betsy Ross is adding stripes today. This weekend, you’ll see Woodside’s pride, including black and brown stripes – a symbol of the wholeness to which we aspire.

 

for a beautiful derby day…

I’ve been promising my congregation a thoughtful editorial on “Creation Justice.” I keep postponing, not because it’s not important, but because I’m having a hard time knowing where to begin.

So, how about if I just ponder the bookends of my week?

Last weekend, Woodside hosted John Dorhauer, president and moderator of the United Church of Christ, one of our denominations. On Saturday, as an intro, I gave John a tour around Flint for a couple of hours. I give a pretty good tour – the one the Woodside search committee gave me more than 3 years ago, the tour that was a huge part of my being compelled to accept the call to come here. John said the only place he’d ever experienced anything that came close to what he saw here was Gaza. That’s a difficult comparison to forget.

This weekend, the Kentucky Derby will dominate the world of horse-racing and preoccupy many a Kentuckian, capping a two-week festival that began with the biggest fireworks show in the world. I will not be there, of course, but I lived in Louisville through 18 Derby festivals. Hundreds of thousands of people will sing My Old Kentucky Home, and they’ll listen to Dan Fogelberg’s 1981 tear-jerking song of baby horses, Run for the Roses. There will be myriad heart-warming stories told about the horses, plus the back stories of trainers, owners, jockeys, horse names, omens, coincidences. The favorite story this year — if not the favorite horse — is Patch, a horse with one eye.

But the stories less likely to be told are of the devastations of the racing industry: the over-bred horses that run on ankles like toothpicks, the 1-in-every-500 starts that ends in the death of a horse; the drugging of horses, or the panic in their eyes as ID numbers are tattoed on the inside of their lips; the jockeys’ desire for fair wages; the heightened fear among workers on the backside about immigration policy.

There is also the hideous story of the perhaps tens of thousands of economically valueless colts, bred and then sent to slaughter, to produce lactating mares who serve only one industry purpose, as wet nurses for more promising colts – those privileged weeks-old future racehorses who cannot stay with their own moms, because mothers who can produce winners are shipped off to be bred again almost immediately, after enduring an 11-month pregnancy. (You can read more about horse exploitation at PETA or The Horse Fund. If you think I’m wrong, give me better sources.)

Then, in Kentucky, there is the story of the sales tax-exemptions: racehorses and various aspects of horse racing (boarding, training, breeding) that could have provided millions of dollars to the state coffers, that is, the common good. Could have.

Saturday to Saturday. A tour of Flint, then the Run for the Roses.

In between, Monday I attended my partner’s swearing in as a new attorney, a member now of the Kentucky Bar. At the ceremony, the speaker was Allison Connelly, a law professor and former public defender. She riffed a bit on the 14th Amendment — the one guaranteeing every person due process and equal protection of the law. She talked about how our understanding of that amendment is continually evolving, a generally good thing; then, she called on all the new attorneys to stand on the side of someone, to raise their voices when they see injustice. In so many cases, in civil disputes, (like over water bills), she reminded them, there is no guarantee of an affordable attorney. So, they should offer themselves for free, to help make “equal protection” a reality for someone who has been injured or oppressed.

I thanked her afterward, and pondered how her work and mine are similar, how the call to all of us is really the same: to use our voices.

Flint’s devastation. The Derby’s exploitation. And a law professor’s invitation.

Creation Justice. In the church, it is what we might also call environmental justice. Or stewardship of creation. It might make us think of recycling or adjusting thermostats. But that’s not the whole story.

I don’t think of Creation Justice as having figured out the perfect way to participate in life on the planet. It isn’t simply zero carbon footprint or no cut trees or eradication of Styrofoam, although all of those are worthy goals.

Creation Justice is rather, for me, about equal protection for the whole creation, which is Micah’s reminder that we are to walk humbly with God, which is about remembering that the planet doesn’t belong to us.

It is about mindfulness, about us paying attention, being willing to see, about making connections, about noticing the impact we have and taking responsibility for whatever are the painful by-products and collateral damage of the things we do and make — like horse-racing and fireworks shows and coal-mining and fracking and palm oil and plastic water bottles by the gazillions. And like the way we use animals, what a Stanford Law online journal called “a leading cause of everything,” valuing their lives less than ours, raising them for their meat, their skin, their secretions, using them in laboratories or for our entertainment.

It’s about that, about all that.

And then it is about us raising our voices, calling out the injustices and unsustainabilities, and learning to live a new way — as partners, even as partners with trees, or rivers, or pigs — or horses that can’t yet stand on their own wobbly legs.

Happy Derby, y’all.

 

church, state, excuses and pretenses

Last night, the mayor held a town hall meeting here in Flint, which got ugly. You could argue that it was predestined to get ugly, given that it was about water, that people are still paying high rates for poisonous water, and that there is now an encampment in the city of people from outside the city whose mission has become water protecting/protesting, support/agitation, depending on whom you ask.

But the likelihood of ugly was increased by animosity of police, and by an administration that seems committed to avoiding questions and insisting its judgment be accepted on its face, an administration that doesn’t well countenance dissent.

If you want ugly, turns out, it’s not that hard to manufacture.

Today, in the post-mortem, folks are mostly blaming the venue. The town hall event was held at a church, which has led to cries across the city of “What about church and state?” A church isn’t the place for such a thing, they say. “Why not city hall?”

To be clear, the problem wasn’t that the event was held at a church, but that it was fashioned as church event. Indeed, after what was reported as a prelude of church music, the mayor began by “giving praises to my lord and savior,” by acknowledging all the clergy in attendance, by calling on one pastor to offer a (lengthy and quite sectarian) prayer, followed by a brief announcement from the police chief that un-church-like behaviors such as swearing or men wearing hats would not be permitted, and could in fact lead to expulsion or arrest. Which expulsion and arrests did, in fact, happen. The only thing that could have made it more church-y would have been to take up an offering.

“What about church and state?”

What about it?

The building isn’t the problem. City leadership is the problem.

As pastor of a congregation active in city issues, a congregation at home in a building often used for community events, and as a long-time pastor of churches where community things happen, let me say this: “church and state” is hardly ever about buildings.

Church buildings have a long, long history of usefulness as community venues – health fairs, polling places, town halls such as last night’s, community theatre, “meet the candidate” non-partisan events, “know your rights” forums, voter registrations, food pantries, non-religious day cares, parenting classes.

At Woodside, we have welcomed film-screenings, panel discussions, community forums and festivals, news conferences, protest staging, social service intake interviews, book groups, and a host of other important community events. When the water crisis was just becoming apparent, we invited multiple city and state leaders for conversation, as we tried to understand the situation.

Granted, we choose these community events based on our vision of the common good (so white supremacists, anti-Islam, anti-semitic or anti-LGBT groups would not be allowed to rally in our space), but we do not require folks to adopt a certain set of beliefs or behaviors to attend these vital community functions.

Church buildings are not the problem.

Conversely, I would argue, churches have a responsibility to be available for community events, given the reality that we pay zero property taxes – ZERO property taxes – for the space we take up and the community’s services we use, including the police, the fire and ems, street lights and sidewalks, and clean water (hypothetically). We are exempt from all these costs, and I believe we owe something back to the community that allows us to exist on its dime. Church buildings, then, belong, at least in part, to the commons. If you want to tackle the “church and state” problem, better would be to start with reforming our tax laws so our communities are no longer underwriting our religious existence.

“No hats in church” may be a righteous rule for a church event, depending on the church, but it is not a fair rule – or perhaps even a constitutional one – to impose on folks who just want to hear from their mayor. Why not prohibit tattoos or afros or piercings or leggings or paisley?

“No swearing” may be reasonable for a church, although I’ve been known to swear myself, even from the pulpit, as have some of the most powerful preachers I know; but it is a ridiculous (and, again, perhaps unconstitutional) line to draw when you’re dealing with people who are still, three years later, unable to use their water. We’ve flat run out of nice.

The mayor has a responsibility to be accessible – which means making herself available in the least restrictive environment possible. As soon as she takes her official seat in a public forum, wherever it is located, that space becomes an extension of the mayor’s office, which is itself a public space, a space belonging to all of us, a space where no one set of faith-based sensibilities gets to make the rules.

There is a lot to worry about in Flint, including the state of our water and the state of our democracy. But to lay the blame wholesale at the church door is an utter misdirection and lets our city leaders off the hook.

And, if you think we still need to be respectful of a host congregation’s faith, I’d like to point to the undisputed center of the Church’s faith, the presumed model for Christian living: a man regularly criticized for his manners when what really bothered the authorities was his politics.

 

feeling sort of intolerant, myself

When Barack Obama was inaugurated for the first time back in 2009, he wanted very badly to be the conciliatory one, the person who would somehow entice everyone to play together. His relationship with the LGBT community was still a little if-fy, and he hadn’t yet “evolved” to unabashed support for marriage equality. We knew we couldn’t count on him to lead on this issue. I wasn’t sure what he would do about ENDA, the federal legislation that would prohibit discrimination in employment, (first introduced in 1994); and then there were still issues of public accommodation and housing. All of which, in 2017, is still up for grabs.

(And it’s not looking good for the foreseeable future, as Mr. Trump looks for ways to thread the homophobia needle; at this moment, he is expected to uphold the non-discrimination executive order, but issue another supporting faith-based bigotry, a nice little work-around for those who wish gay people would go away – a prime agenda item of his VP, and consistent with the Hobby Lobby decision of his SCOTUS nominee. Whatever Trump’s current declared intent, we all know that could change, given his short attention span and shifting priorities.)

Anyway, in that first inaugural, so intent was President-elect Obama on creating a space for everyone, he invited purpose-driven Rick Warren to pray during the ceremony.

Rick Warren, you may remember, pastor of one of the largest churches in the world, had been opposed to equal rights for the LGBT community for a long time, had been outspoken about his opposition to marriage equality, had compared homosexuality to incest and pedophilia, had mobilized his massive and massively conservative congregation’s political muscle to oppose LGBT rights, and had supported Ugandan leaders, who advocated the death penalty for gays and lesbians.

All of which is to say that I, with a whole lot of other LGBT folks and allies, was incensed that this enemy of gay participation in the world would be honored on the dais of a presidential inauguration.

According to CNN, an Obama spokesperson said “This is going to be the most inclusive, open, accessible inauguration in American history.”

In conversations about that with others, some folks noted it was important to “bring all sides to the table,” and when we objected, they mocked the LGBT commitment to “the diversity we always talk about.”

How can you value diversity and be so intolerant?

My answer then and now: the opposite of gay is not anti-gay. The opposite of gay is straight. Diversity means inviting gay and straight and folks all along the non-binary spectrum of sexual identity into participation and conversation; it does NOT mean giving airtime to bigotry. And it certainly doesn’t mean giving an honored moment on a historic day to the mouthpiece of those who would oppress any part of the American populace.

We are under no obligation to hand the mic to bigotry or give credibility to willful ignorance. Yes, the constitution prevents the government from suppressing their opinions, but that doesn’t mean we have to endorse it or amplify it, as if bound by whatever ridiculous distortion of “tolerance.” President-elect Obama was being nice — to a flaw; I think nice is overrated and often counterproductive.

I mention this because there was a news item this week about Steve Bannon, the white supremacist leading the Trump White House. It turns out he is a graduate of Virginia Tech, a noble university, and the source of Flint’s earliest and strongest allies in the poison water epoch. (Full disclosure: my partner is a VT grad; go Hokies.) The news article was about a letter circulating on campus and gaining thousands of signatures, asking the administration to create some distance between VT and Bannon. Perhaps they could at the very least issue a statement that white supremacy isn’t the aspiration VT wants for its students? But the administration has so far declined.

Quoted in the Collegiate Times: “Why would Virginia Tech go out and make a statement disavowing anybody? It doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t understand the logic and the reasoning of what you’re asking,” Owczarski (Assistant VP for University Relations) said. “Who are we to determine any of that stuff? He is who he is. We’ll allow his actions and his works to speak for themselves — as we do with all our alums.”

But apparently that isn’t exactly the case, as VT has previously commented at length about folks of whom they are especially proud. In that context, perhaps declaring yourself un-proud as a university is an equally fair and reasonable thing to do.

But here’s the other thing: the Collegiate Times, under a photo of Bannon, identified him as an “award-winning filmmaker.” I searched the google and couldn’t find reference to any award. But even if he had won Something Somewhere from Someone for some work, identifying him in this way lends credibility to his platform, which the VT student/faculty letter calls “sinister and reckless.” With which many of us would agree.

Now, Virginia Tech surely isn’t the university ever to face this – or to face it now. I imagine even the Ivy Leagues have former students they’d like to disown. (My own alma mater — the University of South Carolina– also graduated Lee Atwater, the political architect of the Reagan years.) Critics of education may suggest without the slightest hint of irony that such a disowning would not be good for academic freedom, as if they give a nickel’s worth of damn about academic freedom. I, personally, think it would be helpful if American institutions that are supposed to promote critical thinking would exercise and model it, make it their purpose to tell us where they see it failing.

Now, here’s why it matters. It is possible that you, my people on the left, are being regularly challenged by friends and trolls on the right, who admonish your intolerance of “opposing views.”

So I want to tell you that you have no obligation to give space to bigotry or to consider right-wing hatred as a legitimate opinion worthy of the public discourse. Even tolerance (about as minimal a bar as there can be) doesn’t require us to give bigotry a platform, or to normalize it, or even to acknowledge whatever accolades it may be awarded from its own ilk (unless the point is to discredit the unrighteous award-giver).

Diversity means valuing all the richness and variety of creation; it has nothing to do with equal time for haters.

Conciliation isn’t our obligation right now. Truth and clarity are.