From Margin to Center

Today’s post comes in quiet solidarity with my United Methodist brothers and sisters, LGBT persons and Allies, who struggle to be embraced in a church that as yet would rather they be erased. I am stretched taut, between anguish and outrage. These words, which appear in my book, To the Tune of a Welcoming God, come from Orlando in 2005, where Lutherans passed through a similar moment …

From margin to center: holding our ground
David R. Weiss
August 14, 2005

In the Palms Ballroom at the Marriott Hotel the 1000+ voting delegates for the ELCA Churchwide Assembly were seated at tables in the center two-thirds of the room.  At either end of the room two wide swaths of seats held another couple hundred registered visitors.  And, at the outer edges of everything, in two single lines, we stood – about 20 of us at a time at each edge – in silent vigil.  At times wearing stoles given by (or in honor of) gay and lesbian persons called to ministry but removed from their calls or denied the opportunity to answer them in the first place, we were barely noticeable.  We were less than 2% of the people in the room.  And the dais and video screens were positioned so that the voting delegates never even noticed that we were there – unless they looked to the margins.  But we were there.  At the margins, standing in “stolen” silence, bearing witness to stolen voices.  We amounted to next to nothing, no more than mustard weeds . . . scattered on good soil.

We kept that silent vigil throughout most of the plenary sessions from Monday evening until Friday afternoon.  During that time, as hearings and debates were held over resolutions asking that our relationships be blessed and that our calls to ministry be honored, we occasionally heard faithful witness to our lives, our loves, and our calls from the Assembly microphones.  Yet just as often we heard painful witness to a church held captive not to the gospel but to fear and prejudice, to views of Scripture, tradition, and ecumenism that are not life-giving but life-denying.  And we stood, silent, holding our ground.

But on Friday afternoon all of that changed.  Following the defeat of a proposed amendment that would have removed all barriers to ordination of gay and lesbian persons, the only resolution remaining on the floor sought to create a second-class tier of clergy in the church.  It sought to institutionalize injustice under the guise of generosity and compromise.  At that moment, alongside this resolution, we moved ourselves onto the floor as well.  About 100 members of Goodsoil, the alliance of Lutheran groups working for full participation of GLBT persons in the church, left the visitors gallery and moved quietly, respectfully – but quite unmistakably – from margin to center.  Despite the bishop’s request that we return to “our place” in the visitor’s section, we kept vigil in front of the podium, making uncomfortably clear to the voting delegates that real persons, “marked forever with the cross of Christ,” stand – quite literally – at the center of any debate about the fate of our vocations and our lives.

Some persons, including some of our friends and allies, have questioned the wisdom of our actions.  They have wondered aloud, sometimes with anguish and frustration, whether our actions set back our cause.  Whether we alienated persons whose hearts were beginning to soften.  This is a real concern, and we need to sit with it for a while.  If we wish to model what it means to “journey together faithfully amid disagreement,” we must hear these words and let them challenge us.  We must also speak to these words and ask that our friends and allies hear us as well.

We took our action thoughtfully, after hours (really months) of deliberation, prayer, and community-building.  Every person who entered the Assembly floor had received training on active nonviolence, a posture rooted in the teaching of Jesus and refined in the practice of Gandhi.  Each of us had further signed a pledge to regard our adversaries as full children of God.  We respectfully held our ground despite the bishop’s request because our goal was not to demonstrate our good obedience to authority but our resolute faithfulness to the gospel.  In the face of this church’s efforts over decades – including this most recent “faithful” journey – to keep us in the shadows, to talk about us but not with us, our witness was undeniably disconcerting.  And so it had the power to unsettle because it brought to the surface the moral dilemma buried deep in many persons – how dare we treat gay and lesbian persons as though they are ever merely nameless and faceless “behaviors” and “lifestyles”?  We took on flesh for the voting delegates, confronting them face to face with our very real humanity.  No wonder they felt agitated inside.  It is often in moments like this that the Holy Spirit births new awareness in persons, new capacity for empathy, for compassion, for justice.  This moment of agitation, a moment of kairos in biblical terms, sits at the heart of active nonviolence.  As participants in this action we made the audacious choice to play midwife to God’s longing for justice, seeking to create a moment in which God might do a new thing in the hearts of others in the Assembly hall.

It is certainly debatable whether we accomplished that, but I think there is evidence to suggest that we did.  More than a few of the voting delegates wept while we kept our vigil.  Many hymnals were brought forward and shared with us during the singing.  Countless hugs were offered to us afterwards.  And I know that not all of these tears and hugs and hymnals came from our strong allies.  At least some of these came from our adversaries – moved in this moment to do some thing new.  Perhaps most significantly, in the immediate context of our defiant witness the Assembly still refused by a healthy majority to call for a firm enforcement of Vision & Expectations.  In the very moment when they had most reason to legislate us back into hiding (as if that were possible!) they did not.  Altogether it seems to me a moment of decisive victory though not measurable on any voting machine.

We can debate our success further, but any debate should be framed with a clear understanding of the principles of nonviolence.  Obviously, we crossed the boundaries of “Minnesota nice” that colors much of the Lutheran landscape quite beyond the shores of Lake Woebegone, but we must not forget that Jesus crossed those boundaries so regularly that they collected the tales of his boundary crossings and made them into a set of books that we call gospel – good news.

Finally, I want to suggest that as Lutherans we have a unique resource for appreciating the power of nonviolent action.  Luther’s theology of the cross, responsible for the Lutheran love affair with “paradox,” makes this daring claim: that God is most clearly revealed and fully present in deep vulnerability.  That in Jesus we are shown that weakness is not the absence of power but the doorway through which God’s presence moves.  As we stood, making calm eye contact with the voting delegates, we stood at the foot of the cross.  And, my friends, God stood there with us.  We held our ground – “like trees planted by the waters,” we could not be moved.  As we stood there – for nearly three hours – unarmed, unthreatening, unspeaking, simply and vulnerably present to our brothers and sisters, we were the theology of the cross made incarnate.

In “Calling Down Fire,” my pre-Assembly meditation, I wrote, “What the church does with us in that event [of faithful witness] is its own affair.  What God does with us in that event is nothing less than Pentecost.”  You will not read it in the newspaper accounts, but ask any one of us on the floor yesterday afternoon, and you will hear: we “were all together in one place.  And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.”  Our liturgical calendar is off this year.  Pentecost fell on August 12, 2005.

This church – including some of our deepest adversaries and some of our dearest friends is feeling off balance right now.  I will hazard a guess why.  Something transpired in Orlando that none of us could have predicted.  It happened because of the legislative work done, the votes cast, the vigils kept, the messages handed out, the lines crossed, the ground held, and most especially because of the God who came to keep us company.  We did not get the legislative victories we had hoped far.  But more than ever before, in the very midst of a church that continues to disempower us, we claimed our power and held onto it.  If many of us are a little off balance today, I suspect it is because we have lived so long – really all of our lives, every last one of us – in a church clouded on this issue by unabating darkness, and so our eyes were not prepared for the first strong glint of the coming dawn.

* * *

David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press)–from which this post is excerpted. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at drw59@comcast.net and read more at http://www.tothetune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

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