Thanks to the Rev. David Pettit for today’s letter to the 2016 General Synod. Submit yours to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters can be published by full name, first name only, or anonymously.
Dear General Synod 2016,
I have trouble taking your recent actions seriously. Did you know that without health insurance a set of epi-pens that can save the life of your child with allergies will cost you $1,400, annually? We have such a child, and thank God we have health insurance. But is protecting the life of one’s child a privilege only for some? I preached on Psalm 82 this past week. In Psalm 82, God brings accusations against the assembly of gods for their complicity in confusing the will of divine for that of power and privilege. But this is not all. Having sat with this summer’s lectionary (Amos and Isaiah) alongside news of our country and our world, I have been struck by cries, outcries, and injustice. I am struck by their specific cries of weighted scales, of deals tilted toward the connected and privileged, and of the injustice of lending money to the downtrodden with interest, taking advantage of their need for personal gain. I am struck at how much these injustices reflect our own economic reality. And now I am struck at how attention that ought to be directed to such grave matters gets averted – to fear of the refugee, to scrutiny of the “lazy,” to the supposed threat of trans-gender, to redeeming traditional marriage and so on. Re-direct, and deflect.
I have trouble taking your actions seriously because of an elder who just celebrated twenty-five years of a committed relationship with her partner. And they are wonderful. This elder, in particular, is as wise and competent, compassionate and open, resolved and gentle, as any elder I have worked with or pastored. She leads, along with others, our ministries to the downtrodden, disadvantaged, and marginalized. She and I, along with Jesus, take Isaiah and Amos and Micah quite seriously. I suppose, you might say, we take them literally. I realize that the actions of General Synod 2016 are based on taking other parts of scripture literally, more obscure parts really. But I cannot help but hear a hermeneutical thread running from the Psalmist of Psalm 82, Isaiah, Amos and Micah all the way down to Jesus and his ministry. Jesus ministers to the down-trodden, the destitute, the marginalized. He seemed uninterested in “traditional” marriage, which by the way is quite different from what you and I know as “traditional” marriage.
There are many things I do not know about this elder, which is true of all my congregants. In fact, in what I view to be an appropriate and professional decision, I have refused to inquire into her bedroom activities. I have also refrained from disclosing mine – though I suspect that neither of us would have anything exotic or interesting to share. But I know this elder and her partner well enough. I also know and work with a number of others who self-identify as LGBTQ. So when I heard of the comments and arguments offered from the floor at GS 2016 (and witnessed at GS 2015 the unwillingness to recognize the LGBTQ among us with names and a humanizing eye contact), I couldn’t help but wonder if you do not know LGBTQ people by name, and have not worked alongside of them. I may be wrong. But I have trouble taking your actions seriously.
It was years ago that I started to realize that the bumper sticker slogan, Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin was only meaningful to those who wished to hold fast to their moral judgements, but needed a way to keep their conscience intact. We don’t like to feel judgmental, and often wed it to the language of love. But Angela was her name. She was a teenager when I, twenty-years ago, was a youth director. She was a fun and funny kid. But teenage years are tough. In depression, she began cutting herself. She was in and out of treatment facilities. The last one was for a long time, but too far to visit. When she finally returned home, Angela visited my office. She mustered her courage and, with wiggling posture, she explained how she had come to terms with being gay. I listened with great care. I did not flinch. I was okay hearing it. I really was. I had grown accustomed to accepting teenagers where they were at. But I was not, at that time, ok accepting that this was who she was at some core level. I believed that she could still change. She heard that. Her head fell. She left my office downcast. That was the last meaningful conversation we had, and I have been haunted ever since. I was unable to accept what she had wrestled with in a life-threatening way, had struggled to acknowledge, and had finally articulated. But I learned something from Angela’s courage.
There are ministers and longtime members among us who are LGBTQ. They were weaned and trained on notions of Reformed polity and theology and they actually mean it when they talk about assemblies, “reasoning it out together.” They are friends and colleagues who are doggedly committed to their Reformed brothers and sisters. And they “stand by their oath even to their hurt” (Ps 15). Abused and demeaned, they continue to muster patience and humility. They carefully choose their words and summon the strength to advocate for their own space and dignity within their beloved RCA. I admire them. I really do. But they do you a disservice, I fear, in giving you the impression that an already marginalized group will continue to put up with the abuses of GS 2016.
Most won’t stick around, I fully expect. I may be wrong. But I suspect that most walk off like Angela, realizing that sanity, safety, and health is not something that the Reformed Church desires of all of its members. The church, for them, is not a place of dignity, community, acceptance, or love. They will go and, in their going, we will lose the kingdom.
So while we quote our bumper sticker, Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin, and while we justify this unwillingness to listen and be open to change, the average person will likely walk away knowing that we are incapable of truly loving. Or worse, they will live closeted lives believing that which underlies this fearful platform – that if they were known, they would not be loved, received, or accepted. Yes, I have trouble taking your actions seriously.
Why? Because while you were busy defending traditional marriage, many were otherwise preoccupied with grieving the massacre of LGBTQ lives in Orlando. How will those affected by such horror respond to our bumper sticker? Do you think that they will view the Reformed Church as “radically inclusive?” I participated in General Synod 2015. And I found the taglines of “Transformed and Transforming,” “reasoning together,” and “radically inclusive” to be as authentic and believable as Angela did the whole Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin thing.
While I appreciate the concern that our church not follow head-long after our culture, I have trouble taking your actions seriously because such a notion obscures the fact that we already have fallen head-long after our culture in so many ways. I am pretty sure that is what Amos, or Isaiah, or Micah, or Jesus would have to say to us. But like directing our scrutiny at refugees on the morning after another attack, we avoid certain realities, and project our fears upon the already marginalized.
I have trouble taking your actions seriously because according to our polity two-thirds of classes will need to ratify these actions. I doubt that will happen. What then shall we do?
I have trouble taking your actions seriously, though I suppose I should, because I made the mistake of not taking Donald Trump seriously, too. But I do now—utterly so. And in the face of both Trump and current societal challenges, we need a church that does not, that will not shy away from its prophetic office, that will find its voice along with Amos, Isaiah, Micah and Jesus. We need it more now than ever. I just wonder if anyone will take us seriously.
Rev. David Pettit