Sunday, June 26, 2011

At Cross Purposes?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 26, 2011

A couple of months ago, I was talking with a friend who is one of the organizers of the local PFLAG group (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). She had asked about renting a room here in our building to hold their meetings and I was encouraging her, telling her a little bit about the layout, that sort of thing, and mentioning that Unitarian Universalists have long been in the forefront of civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks.

She seemed excited and interested and was willing to prepay the first few months’ worth of rent right then and there. But then she hesitated, put her wallet back in her purse, and said ruefully, “I’d better check with the rest of the group before I commit us to renting from you. There are a few in the group who won’t walk into a church, even a liberal one, because of the wounds they’ve experienced in other churches.”

I’d had a similar experience at another time with a conservative Jewish friend who was talking with me about where she attends synagogue and why. Her group of Chabad Lubavitch Jews were very uncomfortable meeting in a sanctuary which was called a church. They preferred secular rooms in a hotel to anything which might display a Christian symbol such as a cross.

And in my first congregation, down in Portland, the very fact of meeting in a United Methodist sanctuary, with its several crosses prominently displayed, was enough to encourage a small group of congregants to kick up a fuss and push for a change of venue.

Where does this anger and fear come from? And why does it pop up in our midst? It’s been said that Unitarian Universalists are open to religious symbols from all world religions----except Christianity.

There is, among many Unitarian Universalists, a deep discomfort with Christian ideology and doctrine. Some say it’s because of the supernatural aspects of Christianity---the virgin birth, the physical resurrection and the deity of Jesus, the anthropomorphic definition of God. Others say it’s because of the pain inflicted upon those denounced and excluded because of their race or gender or sexual orientation or culture or religion or other arbitrary characteristic. Some folks have experienced cruelty firsthand that had nothing to do with exclusion and everything to do with control of a child or a woman.

Yet we express respect for other similarly supernatural or exclusionary religions and we select inspirational quotes and stories from traditions which also have their negative histories; Islam, for example, has both cruelty and compassion written into the Koran, yet when our friend Jamal Rahman comes to speak to us of Islam, we pay attention as he unwraps the mysteries of his tradition and explains its contradictions.

What’s going on here? I’ve thought about this a lot and, though I don’t have my own painful past experiences with Christianity, I do think I’ve figured a few things out.

Pain is a powerful deterrent, even keeping us from experiencing delight and love when we’ve had hurtful experiences. Rape or abuse victims often struggle with life’s opportunities and challenges because of the pain inflicted by a rapist or an abuser. Love and pain are often so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.

We’ve doubtless had our own experiences with love and pain, some of those experiences healthy and normal and others degrading and humiliating. We may have learned our own ways of avoiding pain, healthy and unhealthy as those ways may be.

It can be hard for a man who was the victim of molestation at the hands of an adult male to trust other men, to express affection to a male friend by an embrace or holding a hand. It can be hard for a woman who has been sexually assaulted to work through the pain and fear engendered by that violence. A gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person can find it very difficult to put him or herself again in a situation which has previously resulted in humiliation. A child treated cruelly remembers that cruelty and tries to avoid it as an adult.

It’s hard to leave behind old, painful experiences, but our own desire for health may cause us to seek a healing solution, rather than try to avoid all contact with anyone or anything that might remind us of the old trauma. We tend to support efforts to help our wounded veterans heal from the effects of Post-Trauma Stress, rather than continuing to experience and re-experience the pain and conditioned responses of psychic and physical battle wounds.

So I would like to suggest that it makes sense for us to take a hard look at whatever pain Christianity has caused us and come to grips with it, rather than avoiding Christian symbolism, criticizing “churchy” hymns and language, and generally scorning Christianity as if it were a noxious religious movement.

Because it’s not. And, it’s our own history we’re scorning. We may have moved on down the evolutionary religious path, but we still started out as Christian, we owe a great deal of our existence to the effort to reclaim the best of Christianity while letting go of the worst and moving on.

And we have a lot of Christian cousins who are walking only a little bit behind us, letting go of exclusionary doctrines, opening their arms to all folks, working for justice and equity and world community, reinterpreting the Bible through a lens of liberation and acceptance of others.

And we miss out when we overlook the strides many Christian denominations have made, when we fail to encourage their hard work and refuse to forgive them for their errors.

I feel very sad about the great pain caused by such monumentally damaging events as the Crusades, the Holocaust, the dogmas which deny women the right to choose or to protect their bodies from pregnancy, the church laws which prevent women from serving as clergy, the literal interpretations of ancient purity laws which ostracize and condemn sexual minorities.

A great deal of harm has been done by these kinds of practices and policies. Christian church leaders often forget that their founder, the Jesus they claim to revere and follow, did not utter any of these statements of exclusion. In fact, scholarly research is hard pressed to reveal exactly what Jesus did say about anything, since the Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were written long after Jesus’ death, years after those with first-hand experience of Jesus’ ministry had died, all based on oral reports handed down from generation to generation and written down by ancient scribes in their own words, not Jesus’.

When I first came to serve this congregation, in 2003, I lived in Seattle for a couple of years and during that time I got connected with an interfaith clergy group called the Religious Coalition for Equality, which was working to support legislation giving all couples the equal right to legal marriage.

It was a exciting thing to do, to sit down with other clergy (Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, and UU) and talk about how we could best make this happen.

It was a revelation to me to find many Christian clergy walking with me and others as we marched on the King County Courthouse to give our clergy petition to Ron Sims, King County Executive, asking for marriage licenses to be granted to same-sex couples and supporting the men and women who had attempted to get marriage licenses and were denied.

And scanning the list of signatures on that petition, I found a preponderance of Christian clergy representing all mainline denominations. There were United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, Unity, Catholic, Episcopalian, Disciples of Christ, and….Baptist. American Baptist, that is, not Southern or Conservative or any other of the many Baptist brand names.

In fact, when I was first invited to be part of the Religious Coalition for Equality, I was a bit taken aback---but proud and pleased---to find that my former Christian tradition, American Baptist, was strongly represented and, in fact, we held our meetings at the First Baptist Church of Seattle.

It was hard for members of the gay community to walk through those doors in the early days of our work together. It took a great deal of courage to be openly gay and attend a mainline church. But once they’d taken that step, most found a welcoming and supportive environment where they could be themselves without fear of condemnation.

This past winter, a rash of highly publicized suicides by teenagers suspected of being gay or lesbian resulted in a campaign spearheaded by the controversial sex columnist of Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, Dan Savage.

Prominent and not-so-prominent men and women across the nation, from all walks of life, told the stories on video of their own growing up gay experiences, with the theme of “It gets Better”.

Though the word hasn’t gotten out to every American teenager yet, and there continues to be bullying and humiliation directed toward those presumed to be gay or lesbian, the “It Gets Better” campaign has had a great deal of airplay, with over 22,000 videos produced and distributed on YouTube and other outlets over the past several months. You may have seen some of those videos and thrilled to the stories told by people you may not even have known were gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.

Some of those videos were made by straight friends who told their own stories of transformation and could testify that, for former bigots as well, things could get better. I could make a video myself, telling the story of moving beyond my own discomfort with the visit of my friend Fern, who came out to me in the 70’s and scared me to death when she wanted to stay overnight.

I think liberal Christianity could use an “It’s Gotten Better” movement! But we Unitarian Universalists have a complicated history when it comes to our relationship with our Christian cousins.

Did it start with the controversy in 325 of the common era, when those who denied the Trinity were condemned as heretics? Or in 544 c.e. when the doctrine of universal salvation was rejected as blasphemy? Those ancient roots established our spiritual ancestors as free thinkers and question askers, not always compliant with orthodoxy.

Our heresies endured, throughout subsequent centuries, across Europe and into North America. Both were persecuted in Europe and both emigrated to the American colonies as Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom.

Here in the newly established United States of America, our founding fathers and mothers proclaimed their separation from traditional Christianity in such areas as women’s rights, the divinity of Jesus, and heaven’s rewards for all.

As President, Thomas Jefferson compiled his own version of the four Gospels, removing passages which he felt were against the life and morals of Jesus, a little book which is available still and known as “The Jefferson Bible”.

William Ellery Channing preached a revolutionary sermon entitled “Unitarian Christianity” in which he delineated the differences between orthodox Christianity and that of seekers of a less supernaturally-based faith.

Other preachers such as Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson further explored the limits of traditional doctrines and set forth their thoughts about a free thinking, open minded faith, presenting the findings of science as more valid than ancient purity laws defining human life and opening eyes to God as seen through Nature’s wonders in the literary awakening known as Transcendentalism.

Eventually, the two denominations of Universalism and Unitarianism became stand-alone alternatives to traditional Christianity and in 1961, merged to become who we are today, the Unitarian Universalist Association.

One of our major sources, rational humanism, a reaction to the evangelical fervor and emphasis on supernatural events of traditional Christianity, influenced the continuing development of our faith and its emphasis on rationality and scientific inquiry dominated our faith for many years, until a hunger for spiritual expression began to assert itself and many of us began to take another look at the spiritual practices of more ancient faiths.

Buddhism, Hinduism, paganism, these all had mystical practices that offered something science did not: a pathway into the mysteries of mind and body that could not be explained by rational means.

As this hunger for spiritual experience developed, so did resistance on the part of those whose UUism was largely humanistic. Spirituality seemed to some too much like supernaturalism, irrational rather than rational, and the phenomenon known as “cross cringe” began to emerge, as UUs distanced themselves from a Christianity that no longer worked for them.

The symbol of the Christian cross came to mean subjugation, hypocrisy, and patriarchy in the minds of those who were trying to find a way to combine rational thought and spiritual practice, and many found comfort in Eastern and indigenous spiritual practices rather than the spiritual practices of Christianity.

Unfortunately, this had the effect of distressing the large numbers of Unitarian Universalist Christians who began to feel unwelcome in our midst yet didn’t really fit in traditional, even liberal, Christian congregations.

Something had to happen and the UU Christian Fellowship emerged as a way to recognize and honor the values imparted by our Christian heritage and to support those whose Christianity fit well within our UU community.

I wrote an essay for my blog several years ago about “cross cringe” and one of my readers made this comment:

"IMHO, it would help UUs and Xtians on either side of the "cross-cringe" divide to be reminded that the UU concern for things like justice, equity, compassion, and radical inclusion (sprang)… from the mouth of Jesus, who himself was retelling the message of the Hebrew prophets and who in turn has been retold and preserved through the Christian tradition for 2,000 years…

We UUs of today learned our own cherished principles from our Christian UU predecessors, who learned them from reading Jesus in the Bible. We may have wandered so far away from a formerly Scripture-centered religious orientation that some of us no longer pay much or even any attention to the Bible, but it is still the original source of most of our UU values; we didn't just think them up on our own.

To Christians, the Cross is not a symbol of hypocrisy, patriarchy and subjugation, but of the same principles that we too hold dear, and that our only recently divergent traditions were originally learned from the same source. 

To reject the supernatural cosmology of Christianity or the abusive practices or attitudes of certain Christian subcultures is one thing, but we cannot reject its moral principles and sources without ultimately also rejecting our own, for they are in large measure the same."

I think my reader is saying something we need to think about. When we lump all Christian thought and all Christian behavior and all Christian practice into one objectionable pile, we do ourselves and our neighbors a great disservice. Would that we could come to see the Christian symbol of the cross as a reminder of the compassionate spirit, selfless action, and inclusive practice of the teacher Jesus, whose teachings changed the world, even though they have been much distorted and altered over the centuries. There are still Christians who strive to follow those footsteps, many of them within our own communities.

It is a disservice to our faith when we fail to live out our own principles of acceptance and respect for others’ spiritual paths, especially when our own heritage is what we are rejecting.

We are no longer adolescents who feel the need to disparage and rebel against our parents’ ways. We are loving, compassionate, justice-seeking adults, trying to teach our children to be respectful and caring in a world that often seems to discourage love and compassion.

The Jewish prophet and teacher Jesus of Nazareth is quoted in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke in this way:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

So as we work to encourage our b/g/l/t friends and our Jewish neighbors to trust us with their spiritual lives, to reassure them that we UUs have friendship and hospitality to share, as we urge victims of violence to look for peace of mind and heart through therapeutic experience, may we also see that, as Jesus’s ancient words point out, we too may have a vision problem, a problem we need to address before we consider others’ limitations.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering our long history and the ways our Christian ancestors have shaped us. May we honor that heritage, in addition to the several sources which also shape our faith, and may we open our hearts to the understandings and wisdom of all our sources, not just the ones we like the best. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Robin Edgar said...

Excellent sermon Rev. Ketcham!

One that will hopefully be much more widely publicized within the U*U "church".

BTW May I take it that the pun in the title was intended? ;-)

I will probably comment in more detail later after having "digested" what you have said here but I feel the need to point out one error. . .

You said/wrote -

:And we have a lot of Christian cousins who are walking only a little bit behind us, letting go of exclusionary doctrines, opening their arms to all folks, working for justice and equity and world community, reinterpreting the Bible through a lens of liberation and acceptance of others.

In fact U*Us have a lot of Christian cousins who are walking quite a bit ahead of U*Us when it comes to opening their arms to all folks, actually *working* for justice and equity and world community (as opposed to just talking about it. . .), and reinterpreting the Bible through a lens of liberation and acceptance of others. Heck how many U*Us even bother to read the Bible at all, let alone reinterpret it in any way? I might add that *some* U*U reinterpretation of the Bible is rather suspect. I have seen U*Us misinterpret and misrepresent what is said in the Bible more than once. . .

More later.

Joel said...

Thank you for pointing out the fallacy that all religions are equally superior to the Christian one. I encounter that assumption frequently, and it's often difficult to respond to.

Miss Kitty said...

WOW. Wonderful sermon, Ms. K, and you've given me so much to think about, especially in my own "cross cringe." Pixie and I grew up with one of the most hateful, nasty, and vindictive kinds of Christianity out there; I can make things better by carefully considering all the matters you've brought up here.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, all, your thoughts are valuable to me.

Joel Monka said...

As the others said, excellent post. One weird thing is that despite the "cross cringe" factor, the UUA changed its logo from the double ring off center chalice to a chalice modified to be as close to a cross as it's possible to get, at the center, with rays coming from it; something very like what you'd expect from evangelical Christians.

ms. kitty said...

I noticed that too, Joel, and wonder if it had to do with responding to the growth of the UUCF, or just being more comfortable with the cross as re-considered or re-imagined.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

Interesting how you talk about both the GLBTQ and Christian communities side by side...

Words like "queer" were used to disparage those whose sexuality was too far off society's norms. The Nazis used the physical label of the pink triangle to mark homosexual men in concentration camps. Now both the word and the shape have been reclaimed and transformed into symbols of pride.

So why can't we do the same with Christianity? When you think of it, that's what the early church did by embracing the cross as a symbol -- transforming it from an instrument of torture to a sign of triumph. And given that Jesus would eat with hookers, tax collectors and other social outcasts, how appropriate for the church to open its doors to sexual minorities.