On Why I Do This
By Rev. Julie Todd
Someone recently asked me why I continue to do the work of struggling for LGBTQ justice and inclusion in the United Methodist Church. I wrote the following.
The church made me who I am. The core of the Methodist tradition as it was shared with me is that there is no personal holiness in Christ without social holiness. There is no individual salvation until all of creation is loved, free, and liberated from oppression. So my desire for my own redemption and liberation is inextricably linked to actively working for an end to oppression of all kinds. This active liberation is also collective. We are in community as we struggle to be free. And that’s the hard part.
I went to my first General Conference in 1996, two months before I was ordained in the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church. I went to support the witness for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. There I was exposed for the first time to public hate speech direct towards lesbian and gay folk on the plenary floor of the conference. When, as a part of our witness, we held open the doors of the convention center as a symbolic gesture of openness and welcome to the delegates and visitors to the General Conference, many people refused to walk through the doors.
I was horrified by the level of deep-seated hatred, fear and ignorance at the heart of our denomination. I was horrified by how naive I had been about the depth of heterosexism and homophobia, racism and sexism at the heart of our Christian tradition. They are all at the core of much of the white, U.S.-centric institutional practice of Christian faith. This was one of the hardest things to reckon with that I learned at my first General Conference. There’s just no getting away from it: that the violence and oppression at the heart of the church are really that bad. Radically confronting the system shows you this. And in my experience, when we can hold onto the presence of God in the midst of that kind of terrible reality, we are made more holy by our honesty about and fidelity to what is real (I get this language from Jon Sobrino’s Spirituality of Liberation: Towards Political Holiness, Orbis Press).
In the twenty years that I have been actively working with others to change the discriminatory policies towards queer folks in the church, I have seen it get worse. These last four years working with the direct action group Love Prevails has proven to me over and over again how power in institutions corrupts people. The denial is brutal. There is little more heart-breaking than to watch people you love and respect sell out in order to maintain the peace of the institution and the comfort of their status over against the lives of gay people. And call it good.
To this kind of hard truth I often get the response, “well that’s not what REAL Christianity is.” I have no idea what this statement is about except for wishful thinking. There is no free floating orb out there called “real Christianity” or anything so sublime as the heart of the gospel. There is no existential essence of the Christian tradition floating up there with the sky-God apart from its actual practice in the real world.
And social justice practice in the real world, and no less so in the church, it really sucks sometimes. I am still trying to learn to love the liberals who refuse to take up their moral courage and act, as much as I am trying to love the people who hold hateful views towards gay people, as much as I am trying to love the people who understand their bigotry as some sick form of Christian love.
However contradictory this many sound, I do not have to accept that everyone has a right to hold a view which does violence to God’s children. This is a very difficult path to walk, this loving people yet refusing to accept their fear, their complacency and their hatred, particularly when it is couched in the coded language of individual entitlements and rights, which are entirely non-biblical.
I have had to learn to love the people with whom I have been working for change. These people are a complete pain in my ass. Despite wanting the same simple goal of removing all of the anti-LGBTQ language from the United Methodist Book of Discipline, we simply cannot always agree on how best to achieve this. I am tired of the same old-same-old twenty-year-old tactics, love-them-into-life, legislative, reform-oriented, you-tell-me-your-story-I’ll-tell-you-mine, it-will-all-get-better-in-time-once-the-old-people-die, and we-do-this-because-we-love-the-church-so-much. I am so tired of Christian liberals, I seriously could scream. But to this point, I remain committed to making change. And when you work for change, you can only work with whom and what you’ve got. I know I can be as difficult sometimes as the next person. Knowing that and trying to stay humble seems to have to do with the process of holiness.
I would like to smash the system, but honestly, most people are just unwilling to take the risks of giving up their power and privilege to make that kind of difference. In general, people are afraid of confrontation. White supremacy and capitalism have taught us this very well. Don’t rock the boat. The system is fundamentally good. It’s another thing that is really hard to reckon with in reality. That whole taking up the cross thing. Losing our lives in order to save them. Nonetheless, some of the drive-me-out-of-my-mind liberals in the pro-LGBTQ movement are some of the most fun, creative, hard-working and lovely people I have ever known. For better or worse, the Reconciling movement has been the body of Christ to me and I would not still be United Methodist today if it were not for the struggle we have mounted over the years.
For a straight-identified person, I am more queer than most of the outright lesbians I know. And here’s the thing about being in twenty years of struggle with people who identify their gender and sexual orientation in all kinds of ways. You find out the whole gender-normative, heterosexual pair-bonding way of primarily thinking about being in relationships, is well, pretty limited and, when you come right down to it, fairly uninteresting. There are so many more ways to configure friendships and relationships and love and states of being gendered or not gendered, sexual or asexual. It’s just gorgeous to be freed for personal and social holiness in imagining a much broader and more just and more fun way of how to be in this world together. Struggling along with these crazy, drive-me-freaking-crazy lesbigay people in this movement gave me this. It has made me, in that sense, more holy, because I am closer to God in really understanding all of the beauty that is God and in all that God created. I’m really grateful for that.
Reckoning in community with achieving social holiness and social justice is really hard, but it transforms you when you are really open to the Spirit of God in it all. How imperfect the struggle is helps me to understand how imperfect I am, and we all are. It’s really horrible and wonderful all at once like that. The more willing I am to take risks, the more free I am and the more I realize there is very little in this life to lose. And this understanding leads to real personal holiness.
In the world we live in now I don’t think I would be a believer if it weren’t for The Episcopal Church and for 16 years The UMC. Faith is being misrepresented by fundamentalists and legalists. It’s disappointing we live in a tough world where its made tough for those just trying to exercise the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Julie—We love you dearly and are so thankful that you continue in the work that we share.