What More Will It Take?

2015-01-14 10.34.42“Hate the sin and not the sinner” is an expression that I loathe.  It disconnects people from their actions and expunges culpability for transgressions and creates a tool to selectively vilify human nature.  For me it also seems anti-human.  I mostly first heard this expression in my early teenage years in relationship to homosexuality.  I was wrestling with whether or not to go to church and I recall hearing these words and thinking “well that kind of sucks.”  I was clear then as I am now that I don’t want any part of me to be hated and being gay is and has always been a part of me.  Moreover, I’ve grown over the years to believe that this kind of thinking (“hate the sin…”) is in part what has enabled the Catholic church to continue to allow sexual abuse on an institutional scale; it is the built in “out”…the “get-out-of-sex-offender-jail free” card.  Ultimately, it is as if there is an unspoken belief that it is possible to separate the pieces of what it means to be human from how those pieces function in the real world all in an effort to achieve sanctity.

I’m taking specific aim at the Catholic church here, but I am also aware that there is no religious institution in this world that is free from sexual scandal.  As I’ve continued my study of human sexuality and religion, it has become clear to me that religion and sexuality (along with wealth) are highly volatile expressions of power that are the most frequent locations of abuse and systemic dis-ease.  As such, they have the capacity to be in direct and devastating conflict with each another and they also have the capacity to amplify each other’s influence for good and bad.

What I find most remarkable however is how the Catholic church and many religious bodies have sought to make their leaders literally holier than thou by holding them to standards that are in absolute denial of how these basic systems of power actually work in human community.  It is not just a question of the glib statement that “power corrupts”, it is more about how the power present in religion, sexuality and wealth define basic elements of human character that are universally intoxicating and exhilarating to the point of the loss of both reason and often physical control.  As human beings, none of us is immune to their lure, whether or not we are clergy and holding any human being to standards that deny this is foolhardy.

What is more, I struggle when Christian faith leaders speak of being called to emulate a “purity” based on Jesus.  As I read scripture, (which I’ve done since the second grade) I find that the most important thing Jesus did was not about purity, but about humanity.  Specifically, Jesus did the single most human thing any of us can do: he died…in pain.  I’m obviously not Catholic and only tangentially Christian at this point, but I’m convinced that if the Catholic church and other Christian sects took more time embracing and exploring the “humanity” of Jesus as a model to emulate, they might start to see their faith as less of a high and unattainable bar to surmount and more of an anchor in the storm of living.

I grew up attending church, surrounded by Christian language and teaching, navigating through several church traditions before deciding that I needed to spend time discovering my own needs without the guilty and shame based influence of the churches I had been exposed to at that point.  Over the next 25 years, without a specific faith identity, I dabbled and explored even spending a few years self-identifying as an active and practicing Catholic.  Later, I investigated monastic life and also worked to understand if I could live a life that included celibacy as part of my faith practice.  In the end, I found myself in Unitarian Universalism, where I serve today as ordained clergy, not because it is perfect, or because its organization immune to the temptations of religious zeal, sexual predation or financial abuse.  Indeed, Unitarian Universalism struggles with all of these as well as a history that is intertwined with the origins and propagation of white supremacy in the United States.  Rather, I am in Unitarian Universalism because what I required most of a faith community was spaciousness to be my most human self.  I believe that the spaciousness to be human is the greatest gift that any faith, non-faith or tradition can afford its followers/adherents and it is what I seek to affirm in my interfaith interactions as a minister.

The sexual restrictions placed on Catholic clergy have their origins in the early church desire for prominence and stability and eventually in the struggle for power and prominence [1].  The result of this practice today is obvious and there is no excusing the sins of abusers to excuse the sinners.  My great hope is for some kind of peace for all of the victims known and unknown in the Catholic church and for those in other religious communities around the world who have been victims of abuse…physical and otherwise.  I also hope that the Catholic church and Pope Francis are willing to evolve and work toward revealing more of human wholeness within their interpretation of Christian doctrine.  I pray that they seek and affirm a Christianity that regards the whole human being, sins and all, as unique creatures who should first be loved and celebrated unconditionally.  Maybe then, those who are called to lead within that community will begin with love and be less tempted to destroy the lives of others in their effort to fill the desolate void of humanity that opens up in a life of constant denial.

[1] A fairly decent piece on Priestly celibacy that has good sources – History News Network


God or “whatever”

I have frequently heard liberal preachers speak of religious inclusion and at some point in their discourse, they offer up a list that goes something like this: “whether you believe in God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever.”

Whatever? I know many Christians who would take issue with anyone who called Jesus a “whatever.”  There is a great deal of privilege that goes with being able to reduce every faith expression from the vast expanse of unnamed, or personally unfamiliar in the Western religious experience down to a “whatever.”  It is the same impulse I believe that lets the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” actually have traction among the some of the religious “nones” (those who are unaffiliated despite acknowledging a spiritual force.) Now, as a writer, I fully understand the casual grammatical placement of the word “whatever” here, but I’m more concerned with the intention behind the use of the word and the telescoping in a list like this from familiar to foreign.  I believe it is worth asking ourselves if we really are committed to inclusion if we’re not willing to complete the list…or at least to try.

Monday night, I was in Pastoral Care class at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, listening to a great lecture and interaction with our esteemed professor from the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Herbert Anderson.   Class was focused around how stories fit into our idea of pastoral care and what story telling, particularly the God story can mean in the pastoral context.  As a Unitarian Universalist who is in no way exclusively bound to the Bible, I was acutely aware of the Christian framing of this whole scenario: God, Jesus and the Bible applied in a deliberate way for healing, but regardless of my own spiritual framework, I still got a great deal out of the class.  I explained to a classmate afterward that I took this as just one mechanism for applying communication in a pastoral way.  I may or may not use Biblical scripture; it may or may not come when someone is in crisis.  No matter what, having the ability to help someone connect a shared human narrative to a lived experience can be a valuable tool.  But I was also reminded by another classmate that in some other traditions, this business of “pastoral care” is not something that one needs to learn or do as a separate skill.  In many ways (as it has been communicated to me by some of my Jewish colleagues) religion is the story; God is the lived experience; ‘pastoral care’ is entirely what it means to be a religious leader.


My broader point may not be entirely clear yet.  This class was, by the professor’s admonition, Christian focused and framed.  But even in stripping away the Christianity, we must be mindful of where this understanding of a religious practice comes from because it may sit completely outside of the way and purpose of another faith tradition.  This is the ‘whatever.’  It would be so easy to say of pastoral care practices that they apply to all religions, Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, whatever…when in fact that is not the case.  But then our modern sense of ironic, tongue in cheek, media scripted humor says that we have an ‘out’ when we get to the end of our specific knowledge and our bulleted lists: Whatever. I say that if we reduce each other, even those we do not know about to ironic, witty or worse, snarky reactions and careless dismissive bucket phrases, we are as good as saying to them “you don’t matter and I don’t care.”  We face a similar dilemma in the LGBTQQI2S world; in an awkward attempt to create inclusion, we have created a trap for ourselves by attempting to reduce our beautiful tribe of gender fluid, sexuality affirming humans to a labeled container that will always be too small.  Coming back to religion, I’m well versed in the origins of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I’ve all too often heard liberal religious folks use it as a bucket to mean “all those other faiths that I don’t have time enough to find out about or are too ‘out there’ for me to wrap my head around but I think they should be mentioned somehow because I want to protect my liberal cred.”

So what is the solution?  First, we in the progressive/liberal traditions need to take our religion more seriously and not be afraid of asking those around us who may not believe our way, or may not believe in anything at all to give us the respect of acknowledging that we do take it seriously.  We’ve all heard the talk of “recovering Catholics,” “bitter ex-Baptists” and “former Mormons” and their situations and feelings are real; but so are our feelings about a life that is shaped and guided by our faith in positive ways.  Common respect.  Second, we need to be careful of making light of those who come from more conservative camps than we do.  Although I think teaching creationism in school is dangerous work, particularly if it is the only thing being taught, I do not think parodying it is the answer.   All parody serves to do is bully the ones we don’t agree with into submission.  We will get much further in coming up with real solutions to keeping schools out of the battle over religion by understanding and being able to actually communicate with those from whom we differ.  We don’t have to learn how to be Evangelical or Pentecostal, but we do have to learn how to live along side those whose beliefs differ from our own.

Finally, I would ask that we make a commitment.  A commitment to real inclusion where when we get to the end of the list we acknowledge that our experience is limited…or better yet, that we don’t speak in lists at all.  Rather, we speak always of the greater body of faith traditions and expressions and that we don’t single out our personal practice as somehow standing above or first in line.  Real inclusion means everyone is at the table and that miraculously, no one is served last.

I will take your faith seriously and not mock your faith in any way whether it be by exclusion, assumption or dismissiveness or invalidation.  My faith is not yours…even if we share the same practice and tradition…nor is your faith mine…our faiths are personal and our experience of community and spirituality are unique…as are each of our stories and each of our lives.  We all own the freedom to live our faith as we feel necessary.

I will take time and care to speak of all spiritual practices with sensitivity, awareness, intention, Grace…whatever.