[Oe List ...] 5/17/12, Spong: Conflicting Emotion: Pride in the President, Shame at the Response of Many Church Leaders

Ellie Stock elliestock at aol.com
Thu May 17 08:17:19 PDT 2012



Conflicting Emotion: Pride in the President, Shame at the Response of Many Church Leaders
When the President of the United States, announced his support for gay marriage, the political landscape began to roil and I was filled with two quite opposite sets of emotions.
First, there were the positive feelings.  There was enormous joy when I thought of what this would mean to close friends of mine who have worked so hard, waited so patiently and risked so much to help bring this day about.  I could hear their names and see their faces parading through my mind:  Elizabeth and Barbara, Louie and Ernest, Melissa and Fran, James and Mark, Cynthia and Rebecca, Michael and William, just to name a few.  They dared to confront both their church and society by living out their love with an integrity that was awe-inspiring.  I am thankful they could see this day and grateful for their witness that moved me and others beyond our cultural homophobia into a new sense of what humanity means.
My second positive emotion was an intense sense of pride both in my nation and its elected chief executive.  Here was a man who had known the lash of prejudice in his childhood and who still had decided that he could work within the system, not outside it, to bring about change.  He held high the dream and the promise of America as a land in which people are to be judged neither by the color of their skin nor their sexual orientation, but by the quality of their character.  In a nation politically divided and dealing with vast levels of fear and negativity it was a risky decision. Yet, President Obama chose to risk his presidency on this issue.  He did not come to his decision quickly or easily.  Many elements and many people pushed him in both directions, but he made the decision positively without equivocation and he shared elements of his personal decision making processes, and something of the pain that leaders face when leadership is required. To duck or waffle is easy; to have resolute courage is hard.
My next positive emotion was amusement as I watched the pundits spin the story to justify their points of view.  The liberals were full of praise, but many of them could not resist the exhibitionism that seems to mark those who have never stood where the President stands and who will pay no price for his decision.  They chided the President for taking so long to reach his conclusion, barely concealing that congratulatory self-righteousness of the especially enlightened.  Righteousness is sometimes hard to tolerate gracefully in public places. The conservatives on the other hand were revelatory more than anything else.  Sean Hannity and many of his friends at Fox News dismissed this decision as “pure politics.”  It would loosen the coffers of Hollywood money, they said, and bring new young voters into the political process.  The revealing thing here was that the conservatives interpreted this decision as a political plus.  Having used homosexuality as a wedge issue in the campaigns of 2000 and 2004 to their advantage, they now seem to be admitting that the majority is no longer on their side.
More amusement came from those commentators who appear to identify marriage only with sex.  Senator Mitch McConnell falls into this category, but Bill O’Reilly, again of Fox News, was the star of this point of view.  He likened the President’s decision to “legalizing sex with turtles.”  It was a cruelly inappropriate analogy.  To put it crudely, if Mr. O’Reilly wants to have sex with a turtle there is no law that would prohibit him from doing so.  Sex and marriage do indeed overlap, but they are certainly not identical.  Marriage is a relationship of love, trust and caring, a relationship in which at best both partners are assisted into wholeness, making each other more capable of living, loving and being.  Sex is a function of the human body that can be practiced outside of a loving relationship, but when it is no life is expanded, no love and worth are communicated and no one becomes more whole.  Perhaps Mr. O’Reilly has not noticed that this fight has not been about turtles, but about human beings who want their love for another human being to be lived out in a relationship of exclusiveness and ultimate commitment.
My amusement is heightened when I listen to the irrationality of those whose arguments are designed to keep their prejudices from looking silly.  When gay and lesbian people seek to be included inside the experience and legal protection of marriage, how is it possible to claim that this will destroy marriage?  Abuse, infidelity and divorce destroy marriage, loving gay couples do not.  When people are justifying a dying prejudice, however, we probably should not expect rational arguments, for prejudice is sustained only in irrationality.
There was, however, another set of emotions that enveloped me as this historic announcement was made. “Shame” is the word that best describes this side of the equation.  My sense of shame was directed primarily toward those religious voices, predominantly Christian, that rushed into public with negative responses.  First, there was Billy Graham, a noble man in many ways, who is now in his 90’s and not well.  He was followed by his son, Franklin, whose only claim to fame is that he is Billy’s son.  Both issued statements that this decision by the President was in “direct opposition to the Bible.”  That is a tired, threadbare argument.  It was used to support the divine right of kings and to oppose the adoption of Magna Carta in 1215.  It was used against freeing America’s slave population and later against the dismantling of segregation.  It was used against the movement for equality for women.  It is now used against justice for homosexuals.  How arrogant to use the Bible to place God on the side of one’s prejudice!  No one, not even the fundamentalists, really takes the Bible literally.  If they did they would seek to pass laws that would make being homosexual a capital offense for which execution would be required.  That is biblical.  Execution is also called for in the Bible for willfully disobedient children, for those who worship a false god and for those who commit adultery. With that standard we could keep the electric chairs working overtime. Before one seeks to impose a literal Bible on our society one might actually want to read this sacred text.
Roman Catholic leaders in New York and Milwaukee trotted out their “homosexuals are deviant” argument and reasserted that monogamous marriage between one man and one woman was a “God-given pattern.” They appear not to know about the polygamy so prevalent in the Bible nor its patriarchal abuse. A Texas Baptist preacher was shown on a late night comedy talk show claiming that the President’s decision went against the teachings of Jesus.  Perhaps someone should tell this preacher that there is not one word about homosexuality in any of the four gospels.  No one ever recorded Jesus mentioning the subject.  Next, an African-American bishop appeared on a cable news network to perfume his homophobia with a wealth of words about his “deep concern” for children.  He feared that their educations and values would be altered and that future generations would be adversely affected.  He seemed not to realize that each of these arguments was once used to sustain segregation.  How quickly yesterday’s victims can become tomorrow’s victimizers.  Probably the most embarrassing misuse of Christianity came from Tony Perkins, a graduate of Jerry Falwell’s College, who is now president of the Family Research Center, an offshoot of James Dodson’ Focus on the Family movement.  Perkins, being interviewed by Chris Matthews on MSNBC, made statements designed to show that good parents can keep their children from becoming gay, as he claimed that he and his wife had done, a point of view that is not held by any reputable scientific or medical authority.  When his obvious ignorance was challenged he kept modifying his words in an effort to remove the offense.  It cannot, however, be removed.  Ignorance is ignorance.  Homosexuality cannot be created by improper parenting, nor can it be changed or “cured” by prayer and therapy and all those organizations identified with fundamentalist Christian bodies, that claim to do so, are fraudulent and should be prosecuted for attempting to practice medicine without a license.  The attitude of uninformed Christian people on this subject and the unwillingness of the Christian Church and most of its leaders to stand up for justice and against the oppression of gay people has been and remains the source of my deepest shame as a Christian.  It was a political leader, we need to note, not the Pope nor an Archbishop nor a spiritual leader who took the proper stand on this great moral issue of our time.
This day brought me personally an enormous sense of fulfillment. I recall that in 1986 the Diocese of the Episcopal Church that I was privileged to serve passed a report calling upon my church to recognize and to bless the sacred commitments of our gay and lesbian members.  I remember that in 1989 with the support of that diocese I ordained the first gay man who lived openly with his partner. Those days were not easy and I still feel both the wounds that were inflicted on me by fearful ecclesiastical leaders and the 16 death threats that I received, all from “Bible-quoting” Christians.  Yet when I retired our 35 diocesan, openly gay and lesbian clergy were among the finest priests I have ever known. In 2003 my church ordained its first openly gay bishop.  The victory was worth the struggle and now the President of the United States has lent his voice to this cause.  The Battle has been won.  Rejoice!
~John Shelby Spong
Read the essay online here.

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Pacific School of Religion!

Re-Claiming the Bible in a Post-Christian World

Instructor: John Shelby Spong

Dates and Times: One week: July 16-20, 9am - 1pm

Description: Can the Bible, written 2000-3000 years ago, speak in any meaningful way to the 21st century? If it cannot, then is Christianity at an end? If it can, will Christianity look anything like what we have known in the past? Since creeds and doctrines are all constructed on the basis of what was believed to be "Biblical Truth," can any of the current formularies stand? Since liturgy is based on biblical definitions of sin, salvation and God, none of which make much sense to 21st century people, can Christianity tolerate the revolution that it faces? This class will be taught by one who has been a priest and bishop for 56 years with one foot in the institutional church and the other in the academic world of new insights. It is specifically designed for clergy and questing lay people.

Course Credits & Cost: 1.5 credits - $990; audit - $495; 2.0 CEUs - $350

Course Number: BS-2117 (credit); BS-0003 (CEUs)

Required Text: John Shelby Spong, Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, 2011 HarperCollins, San Francisco. Purchase here.
Syllabus: Re-Claiming the Bible in a Post-Christian World

Question & Answer
Fran from Yachats, Oregon, asks:
How do you get around the common requirement of calling yourself a Christian unless you believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead?  If you don’t believe that why don’t you call yourself a Unitarian-Universalist?
Dear Fran,
Your question makes so many presuppositions that I cannot respond to it adequately without addressing and unloading those presuppositions.
First, I do agree that the resurrection of Jesus is an essential ingredient for the Christian faith and for an individual to make the Christian claim.  I have written two books on the Resurrection. The last of which was entitled Resurrection: Myth or Reality? I believe it is both.
You seem to be asserting that resurrection means believing that the death process was reversed in some physical way in the life of Jesus and that he was resuscitated to life in this world after he died in some kind of physiological way.  That is a typical understanding of those who would be called fundamentalist Protestants or conservative Catholics.  That point of view, however, reveals enormous biblical ignorance and confuses the resurrection experience with a late first century explanation of that experience that has become literalized in traditional Christian circles.
A study of the New Testament will reveal that Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus as Jesus having been raised into the meaning and life of God, out of which he appeared in some visionary way to certain chosen witnesses.  To say it differently, resurrection for Paul was not physical resurrection back into the life of this world, but was much more like the ascension, even though the ascension itself came to be literalized by the 10th decade and began to be thought of as a physical rising into the sky by Jesus.
The first gospel, Mark, written in the 8th decade, includes in its pages no account of the risen Jesus appearing to anyone.  In the second gospel, Matthew, written in the 9th decade, there is the first hint that resurrection might be a physical thing, but that occurs in a discredited narrative where Matthew changes Mark’s original story line where in Mark there was no hint of physicality.
Seeing Resurrection as physical resuscitation is thus the primary addition first in Luke, who wrote in the latter years of the 9th decade or perhaps even in the early years of the 10th decade, and then in John, who wrote at the end of the 10th decade.  Affirming the reality of the resurrection experience is quite different from affirming a late first century explanation and interpretation of the resurrection.  So your assertion that I do not believe in the Resurrection is simply wrong.
Your other suggestion that I should belong in the Unitarian Universalist tradition since, in your opinion, they do not believe in the resurrection, is also misleading.  I have great admiration for the Unitarian-Universalist tradition.  They bring an intellectual openness to theological discussions that I admire.  Their commitment to social justice seems to me to be the deepest of any religious tradition.  So, if that comment was meant to be derogatory, it missed its mark. I can discuss the resurrection more easily with Unitarians that I can with traditionalists and once we get past resuscitation, the conversation explores resurrection easily.
So, let me sum up by saying I see in Jesus one who broke every boundary of human possibility, including the boundary of death.  I do not believe that what the disciples of Jesus called resurrection has anything to do with the resuscitation of a deceased body.  So I not only believe in the resurrection, but I claim my identity as a Christian with enthusiasm.  I hope what this answer does for you is to make you aware that simplistic religious clichés about profound attempts to explore the realm of the spirit are expressions of inadequate understanding and are therefore a very poor reason to be religiously judgmental.
~John Shelby Spong


Read what Bishop Spong has to say about A Joyful Path Progressive Christian Spiritual Curriculum for Young Hearts and Minds: "The great need in the Christian church is for a Sunday school curriculum for children that does not equate faith with having a pre-modern mind. The Center for Progressive Christianity has produced just that. Teachers can now teach children in Sunday school without crossing their fingers. I endorse it wholeheartedly."
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