The power of story: An open letter to Bishop Jones

May 4th, 2016

Dear Bishop Jones:

In your recent article “Blest Be the Tie that Binds,” you shared a story about a man who was involved in a continuing adulterous relationship who seemed oblivious to how his behavior would affect his ministry or his family. I found your use of this illustration disturbing for two main reasons.

The first reason is this: Though I believe you were intending to illustrate the consequences of a cavalier attitude about covenant, ethics or policy in the Discipline, you are surely aware that comparing LGBTQ persons to adulterers is a commonplace in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Gay people are accused of having a promiscuous lifestyle and an “anything goes” attitude toward sexual ethics. LGBTQ people — and their allies — are often lumped together with adulterers, child molesters and other sinners. As I understand your article, this is not the point you were trying to make.

Yet as preachers, we learn that images and stories do the theological and rhetorical heavy lifting in sermons and writing. Metaphors and illustrations also carry political and ideological baggage. For example, if I use the phrase “welfare queen,” or tell a story about someone who is poor buying lobster in a grocery store, those stock images reinforce a narrative about the moral value or work ethic of poor people.

Similarly, your illustration made an argument on its own. By using an illustration of a clergy person who saw no conflict between their adultery and their ministry, you reinforced the narrative that LGBTQ persons and their clergy allies are simply interested in sexual license.

I had to read through that section several times and as I did so, I asked myself: Is this just tone-deaf, or is it dog-whistle politics? I finally decided that you were trying to say something about covenant-breaking, not the sexual ethics of LGBTQ persons and their allies, and you were using marriage as an example. The illustration was unfortunate, but not malicious.

But that is only the first reason I found the illustration problematic.

The second is this: The clergy who I know who have made the choice to act in protest by performing gay weddings do not do so lightly or without understanding the consequences of their actions. They are not clueless, nor have they resisted our church’s anti-gay policies for their own benefit. They have often done so at great risk to their careers, their families and their ministry. Comparing them to someone who simply wants to fool around or live in an “open marriage” is inappropriate.

Do you really compare an act of protest and resistance — and accepting the consequences of it — to violating the Discipline because it’s inconvenient? Is it really like breaking covenant or committing adultery?

If we are going to compare the covenant of ordination to the covenant of marriage, I would offer a substitute illustration. These acts of resistance are like one parent publicly standing up to another who has been abusing their child. A wife confronting her raging husband, interposing her very body between him and her child, is not breaking her covenant to love and obey by defying her husband. She is upholding it and forcing him to confront the horror of his actions. Perhaps she did not stand up to him years ago because she was afraid of him. Perhaps she could not leave without putting her other children at risk. Perhaps she actually loved her husband, loved the family and wanted to see them healed and reconciled.

I can imagine, because I have seen it first hand, how some people might blame her for embarrassing the family when his abuse was made public. Some might shame her for not loving and obeying. Some may say it’s her fault for marrying him in the first place. Didn’t she know he had a temper? Hadn’t he demonstrated it in the past? It’s unfortunate that the narrative becomes her story, rather than the story of their children and the family as a whole, but that’s how it happens.

This illustration has the advantage of recognizing that there is harm being done to third parties, parties who have little vote or voice among church leadership because of our “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Of course, like any metaphor or illustration, mine has its weaknesses. Many LGBTQ persons are not powerless (though some are children), and many can and do walk right out not only of the United Methodist Church, but faith in God and God’s people altogether. Some remain for a variety of reasons. But my illustration demonstrates the power of images to shape the way we think about things. Where you see clergy who perform same-sex weddings as faithless, I see them as faithful. If they did not value or understand their covenant, there would be no value in their protest.

I agree with you about this: General Conference speaks for the denomination, and it has decided on its policies and processes. As a denomination, we have chosen to use punishment of clergy as a tool to shame and reject gay people by proxy, because doing so directly is too abhorrent. But if that process of church trials and just resolutions is distasteful or embarrassing for our leaders, they could always choose to be part of another denomination who solve their disagreements in more gracious ways.

Or we could become that church.

Dave Barnhart

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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