On The Violence of Dialogue

by Rev. Dr. Julie Todd

In an article on Monday, veteran Methodist activist and lesbian Sue Laurie described how in settings like the pre-General Conference briefing, LGBTQ folks take verbal and emotional beat-downs by their Methodist kindred, while being accused of being the ones wielding the weapons.

This is a classic projection of the violence that is deeply embedded within dominant groups in all forms of oppression, wherein the perpetrators of violence are reversed. In the church, queer folks, who are the actual objects of Christian violence, are portrayed as the problem.

Laurie wrote that Queer Methodists are not the threat they are portrayed to be. LGBTQ Methodists come to the church with band-aids, songs and rainbows, asking for a place at the table. What Laurie means by “a place at the table” is ordination and marriage for LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Church.

We hear that the demand for equality is what is “hurting the church.” How many times have we heard it? “We are all hurt by this debate.” No, we are not all hurt by this debate. As Laurie points out, while many people may be made to feel uncomfortable by the demand for lesbian and gay equality, the discomfort of having one’s opinion challenged and privileges shaken is not the same as the daily violence experienced by LGBTQ persons. The equation of these harms is yet another form of violence.

What Laurie does not mean primarily by “a place at the table” is having a place on a panel. I’m sure that she was very glad that Dr. Dorothee Benz was invited to the human sexuality panel at the briefing. Because when Laurie went to the briefing four years ago, they had a panel on human sexuality; that is, a panel about gay people, with no gay people on it.

In her opening remarks, Benz was quick to point out that the subject matter of this year’s panel was not, as it was titled, “A Conversation About Topics Related to Human Sexuality.” The subject matter of the panel was “in blunt terms, about whether and how the UMC will continue to discriminate against LGBTQI people.”

Though Benz was invited to this particular table, it was not as an ordained United Methodist minister. The year Benz came out as a lesbian is the same year that United Methodists decided to bar gay men and women from ministry. Benz went on to provide examples of how the pain of her own personal experience “does not begin to capture the pain of UMC policy for LGBTQI people.”

After the pre-conference briefing, when an LGBTQ ally suggested on Twitter that Love Prevails members should go on a mission trip with the IRD to “swing hammers” together, just not at one another, LP member Alison Wisneski responded. She requested well-intentioned allies to think about what it means for a queer woman to even consider the notion of spending time with “groups that so openly hate me for my body and everything inside of it,” and with “those who seek nothing but death for me and my family.”

Liberals tend to think that any form of inclusion is good, as an end in and of itself. Inclusion on a panel is better than exclusion from a panel and therefore it is a good thing, right? Under the same logic, “both sides” dialogue is always an unmitigated good. Methodist holy conferencing is especially good, because it is holy.

In fact, this logic is not good. This kind of thinking is lazy analysis that fails to include the dynamics of power and pain. Such inclusion on panels and in debate does not, in fact, create good, nor does it necessarily even mitigate pain. It may, in fact, cause it.

This most recent panel, and virtually all panels that seek to provide “balanced viewpoints” are full of verbal and theological violence directed at gay people. They are also undergirded with infuriating claims: “how much we all love the church”; how important it is that we share the value of God’s grace; our agreement over the centrality of our mission of making disciples; and, above all, the importance of our unity in Christ. The head-nodding and sighing moans of agreement with these declarations only serves to make the hypocrisy of them all the more sickening. Very few see it or feel it, but it is violence. Not the violence of swords or fists, but violence nonetheless.

Recently another UM blog suggested that the “leading champions” of five “major” legislative proposals on human sexuality coming before the General Conference “owe” United Methodists the favor of conferencing together over their proposals.

The author notes that the makeup of these “leading champions” – five straight, white men – “lacks global, racial, gender, and orientation diversity–the lack of which, in-and-of itself may tell us something.” Here the author makes his most truly useful point. The makeup of this group tells us not just something, but everything. There are no gay people in this group of leaders.

Here is a central part of the problem. Whether LGBTQ people are invited to tables or not invited to tables to discuss their very own lives and the life-and-death consequences of our anti-gay policies, the results in the United Methodist Church have remained the same or gotten worse. Violence is perpetrated and injustice remains.

Here is the harsh reality that we who desire and are working for LGBTQ justice in our denomination must face. None of these panels nor proposals to General Conference, not holy conferencing nor the invoking and implementing of a Rule 44 alternative process for General Conference – none of this has anything to do with the true welfare of LGBTQ persons at all. None of this is about “balanced views,” respectful dialogue, shared Christian values, or the gospel of Jesus Christ. All of these efforts are about how to maintain the institutional church at the expense of queer people.

It is especially painful when allies to LGBTQ persons simply do not understand the levels of harm and cost to queer bodies, hearts and minds that are actively and passively perpetuated by such proposals, panels, conversations and conferencing. There are many different versions of the violence that cries “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.”

Traveling about the country at the highest levels of the church over the last four years, Love Prevails’ has encountered a deep and insidious kind of violence inherent in dialogue (panels) and so-called holy conferencing, efforts which have resulted in a deadliness that the vast majority of people in our church simply fail to acknowledge that is real.

The only solution to even begin to repair the harm we have done is to take all of the anti-LGBTQ language out of The Book of Discipline, putting LGBTQ folks as equals at the table. It is the only just and right place to begin.

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