Sunday, April 20, 2008


The following is a letter sent to me by my good friend, Don Charles, regarding a call for true equality in the United Methodist Church, and its not substituting "unity" and "peace" for "justice." Such a call has been essential in virtually all civil rights struggles. What is noteworthy is that the United Methodist Church is among the more "liberal" denominations within the institutional Church.

This is the text of the letter:

A UMNS Commentary
By Steven E. Webster*

Many voices from across The United Methodist Church are suggesting there is no way forward in the 36-year-long dialogue about the role and status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the church. Declaring an impasse, these voices call for an end to this dialogue in the name of peace and unity.

Forty-five years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a now-famous letter from a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., to a group of white clergy (including two Methodist bishops) who--in the name of "unity" and "peace"--had publicly called on King and his allies to cease their disturbing nonviolent protests against racial segregation.

King wrote that the "great stumbling block" in the African-American struggle for equality was not blatant bigotry, "but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."

I embrace our Wesleyan Christian vision of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" and applaud the General Conference for seeking to build unity around four focus areas: 1) developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world; 2) reaching new people in new places by starting new congregations and renewing existing ones; 3) engaging in ministry with the poor; and 4) stamping out killer diseases by improving health globally.

Yet we undercut these same goals when we continue to: 1) reject the gifts and graces of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and their allies; 2) turn off a younger generation that views the Christian faith as "anti-homosexual;" 3) push LGBT youth into poverty and homelessness as families reject them because church and society stigmatizes LGBT persons; and 4) fail to address the role that ignorance and stigmatization of homosexuality (and other sexualities) play in the global AIDS epidemic.

Biblical peace

The United Methodist Church cannot enjoy true peace and unity while it engages in injustice and spiritual violence against some of its members. Biblical peace does not refer to the apparent absence of conflict, and still less to the suppression of dialogue. In the Bible, "peace" ("shalom" in Hebrew) is a holistic concept that includes justice and total well-being.

To fail to address the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the church now would leave in place the status quo in church law that includes Judicial Council Decision 1032, which normalizes the exclusion of LGBT persons from membership in the church. Decision 1032 has never yet been the subject of discussion at a General Conference and runs counter to a (non-binding) plea in our Social Principles that "we implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends."

Even if lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are allowed to attend or join the membership of The United Methodist Church, Decision 1032 further legitimates the widespread practice of "shunning" such persons as unworthy to serve in any of the ministries of the local church. This is spiritual violence, the misuse of religious authority to demean and diminish LGBT Christians.

I know LGBT persons who have been denied the opportunity to serve in the church as leaders of adult education classes, choir members, committee members, or readers of Scripture in worship. It is not unheard of for committed same-gender couples to be denied baptism for their babies and gay youth to be shunned from youth groups in The United Methodist Church.

These acts, justified by labeling LGBT people as "unrepentant sinners" inferior to all the "repentant sinners" in the church, are acts of spiritual violence, harming the souls of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. It is tragic that being from a devout Christian family has been identified as a risk factor for suicide among LGBT youths.

A thorn in the flesh

Some have described the church's long dialogue over these issues as "a thorn in the flesh." Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 that he endured a painful "thorn in the flesh" that would not leave him even though he pleaded with God to remove it. God's answer to Paul applies to us: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."

We feel weary and weakened by this long dialogue over homosexuality, a dialogue in which I have actively participated in many ways these past 36 years. The faith that sustains me is that God intends to perfect us through these trials, and we, the people of The United Methodist Church, look forward to a real peace which is, in King's words, the presence of justice and not merely the absence of tension.

*Webster is chair of the church council of University United Methodist Church in Madison, Wis., and has attended the 2000 and 2004 General Conferences as a volunteer with Soulforce, an organization that describes itself as working for freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from religious and political oppression. He legally married Jim Dietrich, his partner of 27 years, in a civil ceremony in Toronto in 2006.
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