The Third Generation

Michael Kinnamon shared these thoughts at a recent gathering of the GLAD-PSWR chapter.
As only Michael can in such a short time, he challenges us to remember our history, maintain our unity, and work for justice for all our neighbors.

It is a joy to be with you for this celebration of faith and identity–and especially now that I live in this beautiful part of the world. We who gather here are all made in the image of God. It is very good news! We who gather here are all part of the body of Christ. It is very good news! Thanks for inviting me to help celebrate this together.

I don’t know how long I have been a member of GLAD, but I remember going to almost-clandestine aftersessions at general assemblies in the late 1980s. As I recall, the first time I went we could all fit in a moderate-size room.

I mention this, certainly not to highlight my role, which at that time was simply showing up, but to lament that there is no history tab on the GLAD website. Remembering our history, it seems to me, is a moral imperative, a way of saying thank you to those who have gone before, often when the going wasn’t easy. Rob stands on the shoulders of some very fine people, just as the students who come after him will stand on his. For this lineage of witness, let us say “Thanks be to God!”

My wonderful friend and colleague, Cheri, told me I could speak about whatever is on my heart (a dangerous invitation!), and so I will begin by telling you about my neighbors, Ray and Alice. They were the first to welcome my wife, Mardine, and me to our new neighborhood in San Diego. When we discovered that our sprinkling system didn’t work, Ray sent his lawn care person to fix it; and when I tried to pay the man, he said, “Oh no, Ray has already taken care of that.” When I bought Mardine a rolling tool chest (note the gender roles), Ray put the damn thing together, and then gave Mardine a complete set of tools for Christmas. Ray and Alice give a lot of money through two foundations to support refugee children who are in camps abroad or already in this country. Ray is an avid motorcycle rider who makes a special effort to raise money for refugee children from bikers.

Alice and Ray are also (you can probably see this coming) committed Pentecostal Christians who voted for Donald Trump, because, as they put it to us over dinner, “this country is in terrible shape and we need a change.” “Really?!” I said, too loudly given that we were in the middle of a restaurant. “The unemployment rate is down. The number of persons without medical insurance is down. Crime is down. Military casualties are down. The school dropout rate is down.” Alice cut me off. “That may all be true,” she said, “but I’m talking about our moral condition. This acceptance of homosexuality shows just how far this country has fallen.”

I started by talking about my neighbors–and I use that word both literally and theologically–because Ray and Alice raise for me a number of important challenges and questions. For example, I suspect that all of us object to being lumped in a category. I wonder how many dozen times someone has prefaced a hostile question, directed at me, with the words “You liberals…”. Well, liberal is not, for me, a four-letter word, but I always want to say, “No, I’m Michael, a person far too complex for simple categorization.” Ray and Alice remind me of the need to avoid doing unto others what I would not have done unto me.

This doesn’t, of course, mean keeping silent. Following that dinner, I shared with them a presentation I made to a gathering of open and affirming networks in the various denominations. They were politely unimpressed. But then Ray asked me, “How did you get involved in all this?” And so I told them about my friend, David, at the University of Chicago who invited me–this is in the 1970s–to join him at Gay Pride parades and Dignity services. One day he invited me to go with him to a gay bar, and I remember asking, “What do I do if a man asks me to dance?” “Well,” said David, “I imagine you can say yes or you can say no.”

Then David invited me to go with him to speak to an ethics class at a local community college. “You can be my straight man,” he told me. “You can answer all the stupid questions like, ‘What do I do if a man asks me to dance.’” But when we walked into the room, the students didn’t know who was who, and all the animosity and derision that David lived with was aimed at me. It was a moment of conversion, and I had no doubt God was in it.

This personal testimony did make an impression on our Pentecostal friends, at which point Alice shared with us that she was a hippie in the ‘60s, and how she felt as if her life had no direction, no boundaries, no plumb line, until God found her–her moment of conversion–in a little conservative church. And she is afraid (not quite her words, but my reading of them) that if she lets go of any part of that church’s teaching, all of it will slip away, and she will again be at sea.

Try to understand others, even as you would be understood by them. As Mardine puts it, the four of us create great cognitive dissonance in one another! Is there something of God in that?

Okay, that’s at the individual level. Let’s complicate the picture by looking through a wider, more political lens. Most of us, I imagine, see the current federal administration, in the words of the New York Times, as one of “malevolent incompetence.” Suffice it to say that, in my judgment, much of Trump’s agenda is radically out of sync with the gospel’s call to welcome the stranger, care for the environment, and serve those who are most vulnerable in society.

Alice and Ray, I am pleased to report, are also troubled by some of what they have seen and heard over the past five weeks, especially Trump’s less than passing acquaintance with truthfulness. But their church, as they describe it to us, is filled with more or less enthusiastic Trump supporters who believe his most important accomplishment will be to pack the Supreme Court with men who will roll back abortion rights and challenge marriage equality. Their congregation, their denomination, is likely disappointed that the Trump administration has not yet reversed protections for LGBT workers in companies doing business with the federal government. And it was likely encouraged by the administration’s refusal to support legal challenges to laws discriminating against the transgender community.

This forces us to confront the excruciating tension between unity and justice. The Disciples minister, William Barber, put it this way in an article following his attendance at the National Prayer Breakfast: “As a preacher ordained to proclaim the message of Jesus, I know that the faith which embraces Trumpism is not my faith.” He quoted Frederick Douglass who once declared, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.” That, Rev. Barber concluded, is where we are today. “Scripture is clear,” he wrote, “that there comes a time when religion that simply blesses injustice [must be rejected as] heretical–an offense to the God who has made clear what true religion requires: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.”

Ray and Alice are my brother and sister in Jesus Christ. But what about their church? Are we part of the same body? The ecumenical movement, to which Disciples have given such energy and leadership, insists that in Christ those who follow him have a center strong enough to hold them together across the artificial divisions of human society. But it goes without saying that not all things done and said in the name of Jesus are Christian. Are we at that point? Is support for Trump and his agenda so egregious that it constitutes a dividing line between the true church and the false? However, we answer that question, it is clear that we are in a struggle for the soul of the church, and we who gather here dare not be silent about our understanding of the gospel.

I will end back where I started. If we were to write the history of GLAD, the first years, the first generation, would be the period of claiming our voice. No more clandestine meetings! We, too, are a faithful part of the church! In this telling of our history, the second generation would likely be seen as the period of institutionalizing our gains. More than 150 congregations across the Disciples are officially open and affirming (many more unofficially), as are several general units, and GLAD is one of our most respected organizations.

What I want to suggest is that we may be entering a third generation, a period in which we have gained sufficient confidence to see ourselves as part of the larger struggle against what the World Council of Churches calls “the web of oppression.” Please hear me. The battles for LGBT rights fought by earlier generations are, by no means, over! There is still, as you well know, a great need to extend legal protection in areas of housing and employment and service–which, in this era, will be cast by many as a challenge to religious liberty (as if people of religious faith should be free to practice discrimination). There are Disciples regions that still resist ordaining ministers who are openly lesbian or gay. The continuing challenges are very real.

But a mature movement also sees itself as part of a wider struggle. GLAD members, I think you agree, are not single issue people–unless that issue is justice for all who are demeaned! We are not just a group that supports same-sex marriage. We are people who give thanks for love wherever we see it, including the tough love that speaks truth to power. We are not just a group that defends the rights of the LGBTQIA community. We are people who care about equality for all God’s children and protest discrimination no matter who is its victim.

This third generation of GLAD will also be marked, as I see it, by the self-confidence and maturity to wrestle with the difficult questions–like those raised for me by Ray and Alice. It would be easy simply to dismiss them, but I don’t think that’s where we are today.

By the way, Ray and I, in particular, have continued the conversation. Not long ago, after some exchange between us, he said to me in his gentle voice, “I guess you can feel that way because the Bible isn’t so important for you and your church.” I see Cheri smiling because she knows how obsessed I am with the Bible, teaching it at every opportunity. But Ray, who deplores violence against any person, who gives sacrificially to support refugee children, is not able–dare I say, not yet able–to get his mind around the possibility of loving the Bible and affirming same-sex relationships.

Good friends, these are some of the things on my heart. I have tried (in 20 minutes!) to suggest five things: 1) the importance of remembering our history as GLAD, from generation to generation; 2) the necessity, for the sake of our own spiritual health, of refusing to caricature the Rays and Alices around us (which does not mean keeping silent); 3) the importance, difficult as it is, of facing head-on the tension between unity and justice, of affirming the oneness of Christ’s body and justice for all God’s children; 4) the urgency, especially in the age of Trump, of being far more than a single-issue people, of participating boldly in the wider struggle against discrimination; and 5) the importance of doing all this as biblically-grounded followers of Christ–celebrating the way scripture repeatedly exposes the narrowness of human affections and the pettiness of human exclusions.

Thanks be to God!