Orlando: The Compassion – and Complicity – of Christians

The horrific massacre of 49 people and wounding of 53 more at Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando confronted certain Christian leaders with the dreadful reality that their own denominations might be complicit. The possibility that their Biblically-based anti-homosexual beliefs and discriminatory practices could have contributed to the anti-LGBTQ climate inviting such shocking violence was too repulsive for them to consider. Thus they responded with denial — and compassion. Yet the reality of their complicity must be acknowledged and transformed, if LGBTQ persons are going to feel safe and be themselves in nightclubs – and in sanctuaries. The reality of Christian complicity must also be confronted if Jesus’ fundamental teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is to include everyone – rather than be perverted by denominational beliefs that brand certain neighbors as “incompatible” (United Methodist Church), “objectively disordered” (Catholic Church), or engaging in a “sinful” not “valid alternative lifestyle” ( Southern Baptist Convention).

Nor is the complicity of Christians limited to their creation of an anti-LGBTQ climate. They bear responsibility for accommodating and supporting our government’s imperialistic foreign policy and criminal wars in our name, which is the stated motivation of so-called “home grown terrorists” for their blowback violence in Orlando, Boston and elsewhere.

The compassion – and complicity — of Christians is readily seen. Just days after the Orlando massacre, the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, held its annual meeting in St. Louis, Missouri. The reported response of some 6,000 “messengers” (delegates) was to open each session with prayer for the victims. Rev. Ronnie Floyd, SBC president, was quoted: “Please know, for all of you in Orlando, the Southern Baptist Convention is very, very committed to praying for you.” (“Southern Baptists pledge prayer for Orlando,” By Bob Allen, Baptist News Global, June 14, 2016)

The first resolution adopted by Convention messengers was: ‘ON THE ORLANDO TRAGEDY,’ which “resolved that the messengers in the Southern Baptist Convention . . . pray for the surviving victims, all affected families of those murdered, injured and otherwise harmed, and first responders.” Also resolved: “That we extend our love and compassion to those devastated by this tragedy and pledge to come to their aid by donating blood and other supportive means.” And “that we regard those affected by this tragedy as fellow image-bearers of God and our neighbors, and therefore condemn this act of terrorism and others like it and pray for the day when these senseless acts of violence cease.” (The Southern Baptist Convention’s Cruel Response To The Orlando Shooting,” By Zack Ford, ThinkProgress, June 15, 2016) While the 6,000 SBC messengers “regard those affected by this tragedy as fellow image-bearers of God and our neighbors,” they could not bring themselves to identify their “neighbors” as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons, which leads to another enacted resolution.

In the face of the shocking violence in Orlando just days earlier, The Southern Baptist Convention messengers, representing some 6,000 local churches, adopted a resolution ‘ON BIBLICAL SEXUALITY AND THE FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE.’ This resolution reaffirms the biblical statement that “marriage is between one man and one woman ordered by God,” and rejects same-sex marriage, legalized by the Supreme Court in 2015, as it “does violence to the Constitution and is contrary to the Bible and natural order.” The resolution favors the enactment of religious freedom laws that protect the conscience of Christians, by giving them the right to discriminate against persons whose lifestyle conflicts with their anti-LGBTQIA biblical beliefs. The resolution also “applaud[s] and support[s]” state political leaders’ resistance to the Obama administration’s new requirement granting transgender persons access to public bathrooms and locker rooms of their gender. (Ibid)

The paternalism – and blatant denial – of the Southern Baptist Convention is seen in another ‘WHEREAS’ of its resolution on ‘BIBLICAL SEXUALITY.’ “RESOLVED: That we reiterate our love for our neighbors who identify as transgender, seek their good always, welcome them to our churches, and, as they repent and believe in Christ, receive them into church membership (2 Corinthians 5: 18-20; Galatians 5: 14).” (Ibid)

Numerous Christian clergy and lay persons responded to the victims of the Orlando shootings with compassion: giving blood donations, surrounding survivors and their loved ones with physical and pastoral care, and providing comfort and empowerment with their prayers. These acts of compassion are not meant to be minimized. Nor is another indispensable element to be minimized: prophetic care.

Something else is going on among Christian leaders of anti-LGBTQIA denominations when prayer is their primary response to the Orlando shootings. Their refusal to acknowledge and confront their own denomination’s complicity in creating an anti-gay climate, and their refusal to demand that their government end its imperialistic policies that create enemies and the motivation for blowback violence suggest that, in fixating on “praying for the victims,” they are compensating for their comfortable commitment to the status quo. “We pray for the day when these senseless acts of violence cease.” Here, prayer is the hiding place of moral cowards. The moral posture of folding one’s hands and doing nothing.

The horrible violence against LGBTQIA persons at the Pulse gay nightclub led the Vatican to issue a statement, which began, “The terrible massacre that has taken place in Orlando, with its dreadfully high number of innocent victims, has caused in Pope Francis, and in all of us, the deepest feelings of horror and condemnation, of pain and turmoil before this new manifestation of homicidal folly and senseless hatred.” The statement continues, “Pope Francis joins the families of the victims and all of the injured in prayer and compassion.” Then these words: “We all hope that ways may be found, as soon as possible, to effectively identify and contrast the causes of such terrible and absurd violence which so deeply upsets the desire for peace of the American people and of the whole of humanity.” (“Pope Francis decries Orlando massacre and prays for victims,” Vatican Radio, en.radiovaticana.va)

So much for the culpability of the U.S. bipartisan government’s imperialistic policies that terrify, kill radicalize, and lead to blowback violence. So much for Christian complicity for accommodating – and even blessing – those policies – including one of Pope Francis’ predecessors.

In 2004, a year into America’s unnecessary, falsely-based war against defenseless Iraq, President George W. Bush visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and presented him with the Medal of Freedom. And, in accepting the Medal, Pope John Paul II responded, “Mr. President, as you carry out your lofty mission of service to your nation and to world peace, I assure you of my prayers and cordially invoke upon you God’s blessings of wisdom, strength and peace.” (‘ADDRESS OF POPE JOHN PAUL II TO THE HONORABLE GEORGE W. BUSH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,’ w2.vatican.va, June 4, 2004)

Various Christian leaders used the word “senseless” to describe the horrific attack in Orlando. If the massacre of gay nightclub partygoers is defined as “senseless,” the complicity of Christian leaders and their anti-gay denominations disappears.

Still, there is movement on Pope Francis’ part. In response to the Orlando massacre, he is quoted as saying “that Christians and the Roman Catholic Church should seek forgiveness from gays for the way they had treated them.” But he watered down that statement somewhat by also saying that “the church should ask forgiveness for the way it has treated women, for turning a blind eye to child labor and for ‘blessing so many weapons’ in the past.” (“Pope Francis Says Church Should Apologize to Gays,” Reuters, The New York Times, June 27, 2016)

What would “forgiveness” involve for gay persons? If forgiveness did not include the Catholic Church ending its branding of gay persons as “intrinsically disordered,” “forgiveness” becomes a hollow, hypocritical act, which comforts the forgiver and legitimizes The Church’s continued discrimination against the forgiven.

Florida Catholic Bishop Robert Lynch is one of the few Catholic bishops reported to have acknowledged the complicity of the Catholic Church in the massacre of people in the Pulse gay nightclub. To him, they were not “objectively disordered” second class church members. He wrote, “Sadly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people.” He then wrote these challenging words: “Those women and men who were mowed down early yesterday morning were all made in the image and likeness of God. We teach that. We should believe that. We must stand for that.” (‘ORLANDO, ORLANDO WE LOVE YOU,’ bishopsblog.dosp.org, June 13, 2016)

The United Methodist Church is still struggling “to stand for that.” United Methodism’s official position is that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Thus, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained as ministers.” And, “ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions should not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our church.” Also, “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2004, paragraphs 304, 341, 161)

The United Methodist Church engages in forked tongue theology by calling homosexuals “individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God,” and in the next breath rejects their integral identity in declaring that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” (Ibid) The practice of discrimination with a straight face. In reality, LGBTQIA United Methodists are relegated to an inferior position, and forced to ride in the back of United Methodism’s family bus — never behind the steering wheel.

Suddenly, however, in response to the appalling massacre of human beings at Pulse gay nightclub, certain United Methodist leaders are referring to LGBTQIA persons as beloved members of The Church’s family. Florida Bishop, Rev. Kenneth Carter and his Cabinet issued a statement “publicly denounce[ing] this act of violence against our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and acknowledg[ing] how this act deeply affects and diminishes each of us as individuals and the entire human family.” (‘BISHOP/CABINET STATEMENT ON ORLANDO SHOOTING,’ firstchurchorlando.org, June 20, 2016) The statement would have been more convincing if the Bishop and his Cabinet acknowledged, repented of and expressed commitment to ending the ways in which The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline diminishes LGBTQ persons.

Responding to the horror in Orlando, United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, episcopal leader of the New England Area, embraced LGBTQIA persons as family. In his statement to over 600 congregations in his jurisdiction, he wrote, “The deep irony is that gay nightclubs are supposed to be places of refuge and welcome for our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters; instead, this became a place of horror and death.” He continued, “These were the precious children of God, created in God’s own image, causing harm to no one.” (A message from Bishop Devadhar: Florida nightclub shooting,” mail.google.com, June 12, 2016)

In 2012, Bishop Devadhar arrived to head United Methodism’s New England Area. At that time, representatives of the Conference’s Reconciling Retired Clergy for Inclusion [of which this writer was a member], who were performing same-sex marriages in violation of The Book of Discipline, met with him to share their work and seek his support. In a telephone conversation, Rev. Richard Harding, who founded the Reconciling Retired Clergy group, recalls that the Bishop was sympathetic to the group’s criticism of The Book of Discipline’s discriminatory positions and expressed empathy for their mission of inclusion. But he indicated that, as Bishop, his commitment was to uphold The Book of Discipline until its anti-homosexual positions were removed by The Church’s General Conference (which convenes every four years).

Rev. Harding states that Bishop Devadhar did not threaten or try to bring church charges against the retired clergy members of the New England Conference for performing same-sex marriages. Before and during his tenure, the work of the Reconciling Retired Clergy and certain activist ministers and lay persons has resulted in a dramatic movement in the Conference for inclusion. That movement was seen last month at the New England Conference’s annual meeting: its Board of Ordained Ministry adopted a resolution, “oppos[ing] all forms of personal bias and discrimination, including institutionalized discrimination written into our Book of Discipline, as criteria in evaluating potential clergy members.” (“New England Conference Board of Ordained Ministry committed to justice and fairness for all ordination candidates,” by Reconciling Ministries Network, June 16, 2016)

At that same annual meeting last month, clergy and lay members, by a vote of 445 to 179, passed a resolution that states, “the conference ‘will not conform or comply with provisions of the (Book of) Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA persons.’ (The acronym refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual.)” (“New England Conference passes ‘act of non-conformity,’” By Sam Hodges and Beth DiCocco, www.umc.org, June 17, 2016)

Bishop Devadhar is positioned to play the key role in whether the above resolutions will become church law. As reported, he “has 30 days to make a decision of law on the legality of the conference action, which was challenged immediately after the vote.” (Ibid) That should be an easy decision for the Bishop. The issue is not the “legality of the conference action,” but the morality of its action. The “legality” of The Book of Discipline’s discriminatory positions on homosexuality is immoral.

In his statement on “the horrific tragedy of the shooting in Orlando,” Bishop Devadhar also wrote, “As we are able, may we comfort one another, but may we also intentionally seek to comfort our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual brothers and sisters,” (“A message from Bishop Devadhar: Florida nightclub shooting,” Ibid) As Presiding Bishop of the New England Area, he is “able” to “intentionally” bring “comfort” to LGBTQAI United Methodists in New England — and also provide a much needed model for many other Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church. It is a matter of being guided by morality, not legality.

Bishop Minerva Concano, head of United Methodism’s California-Pacific Conference provides a timely model of morality for Bishop Devadhar and other Bishops of The Church. In 2013, when Rev. Frank Schaefer was defrocked by the Eastern Pa. Annual Conference for performing his son’s same-sex marriage, Concano invited him “to come and join us in ministry in the California-Pacific Conference.” Her invitation to Schaefer continued:

While I recognize that our brother Frank has been defrocked by those in authority in his conference . . . those who have acted in such a way have done so in obedience to the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, an imperfect book of church that violates the spirit of Jesus who taught us by word and deed that all of God’s children are of sacred worth and welcomed into the embrace of God’s grace.  I believe the time has come for we United Methodists to stand on the side of Jesus and declare in every good way that the United Methodist Church is wrong in its position on homosexuality, wrong in its exclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and wrong in its incessant demand to determine through political processes who can be fully members of the body of Christ. Frank Schaefer choose to stand with Jesus as he extended love and care to his gay son and his partner. We should stand with him and others who show  such courage and faithfulness. (“Bishop Carcano’s Invitation to Rev. Frank Schaefer, www.calpacumc.org, Dec. 20, 2013)

But biblically-based and culturally indoctrinating homophobia dies hard. Just two months ago, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church met in Portland, Oregon, and continued its four decades-long practice of kicking the can of real inclusion down the road: another commission was formed to study The Book of Discipline’s discriminatory positions on homosexuality.

Perhaps the Orlando massacre at Pulse gay nightclub, coming on the heels of General Conference’s continued failure to end The Church’s anti-homosexual practices, influenced Bishop Carceno’s response to the massacre. She wrote, “I have been struck by a concern that has penetrated my heart. Is it possible that we United Methodists with such a negative attitude and position against LGBTQI persons contribute to such a crime?” (“Response to the Attack in Orlando, Fl,” California-Pacific Conference, The United Methodist Church, www.calpac.org, June 12, 2016)

The Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial group within United Methodism, was more direct than Bishop Carcano in its accusation of The Church’s complicity. The Network laid the Orlando shootings at the entrance of The United Methodist Church doors, stating,

The tragic loss of life in Orlando is a product of political, religious, and cultural teachings which all contribute to a society that demonizes those who are different. As an organization committed to the renewal of The United Methodist Church, we are especially aware of the ways in which the denomination’s refusal to end its anti-LGBTQ theology and practices make it complicit in society’s violence towards trans and queer people. This complicity is rooted not only in the clear prejudice that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” but also the inability of the largest mainline protestant denomination to say anything meaningful that would disrupt the lie that LGBTQ people are any less valuable than other children of God. (“How long, O God: The Pulse massacre and the ongoing violence against LGBTQ people,” by Reconciling Ministries Network, www.rmnetwork.org, June 12, 2016)

Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, disagreed with the charge that The Church is complicit in the Orlando massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub. He is quoted as saying, “It is a bit of an overreach to say that somehow The United Methodist Church has been complicit if you understand that to be an ‘accomplice,’ which is the technical definition.” (“Taking Stand Against Hatred and Bigotry, By Linda Bloom and Sam Hodges, The Vision: The Newspaper of the New York Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, June 2016) The Reconciling Ministries Network was quite specific in its indictment; it did not say that “somehow” the denomination was “complicit.

The United Methodist Church is complicit in the Orlando massacre in more ways than one. As President of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Ough’s statement on the Orlando massacre is revealing. He expressed compassion: “We pray for the victims, their families, and the LGBTQ community targeted by this hateful attack.” Then he said, “We stand against all forms of violence, committed anywhere in the world by anyone.” He also said, “As we battle terrorism, let us not become terrorists in the process.” (“Council President: Statement on the Orlando shooting, United Methodist Communications, Office of Public Information, www.umc.org, June 13, 2016)

“We stand against all forms of violence, committed anywhere in the world by anyone.” Never mind the horribly violent, destructive falsely based, pre-emptive criminal war against Iraq, launched by a United Methodist president. Instead of bringing the worst war criminal of the 21st Century to a church trial, the Council of Bishops joined in creating a monument to him: The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Disregard the fact also that the Council of Bishops has made no strong statement opposing the Obama administration’s continuation of our government’s pursuit of world domination, under the pretense of waging a “global war on terrorism,” using weaponized drones that violate other countries’ national sovereignty, fill their skies with fear, kill innocent children and women and men, and create endless enemies and blowback violence.

Bishop Ough has it backwards. We Americans are “battling terrorism” because of the terror our government has sewn, and continues to sow, in our name.

“We stand against all forms of violence.” Disregard the fact that just last May, delegates at United Methodism’s General Conference voted down four resolutions calling for The Church “to divest from pro-Israel companies . . . that activists claim support the Israeli ‘occupation’ of Palestinian lands.” (“Anti-Israel Resolutions ‘Go Down in Flames’ at Methodist Church Meeting,” By Ahuva Balofsky, BreakingIsraelNews, May 18, 2016)

This divestment effort, which addresses the many decades of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, was undermined by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In advance of the General Conference, she released a public letter to the leaders of prominent Jewish groups, “denouncing” the General Conference resolutions as “’counterproductive’ . . . pointed out that anti-Semitism is on the rise globally,” and said, “’We most never tire in defending Israel’s legitimacy.’” (“Hillary Clinton Criticizes Group Advocating Boycott Against Israel,” By Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, May 10, 2016) Bishop Ough’s statement, “we stand against all forms of violence anywhere,” does not apply to the brutal violence Israel is perpetrating in stealing the Palestinian people’s land and forcing them to live in prison-like conditions.

Our government’s support of Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people is one of the reasons stated by Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks against America. Thus Hillary Clinton’s unconditional support of Israel needs to be kept in mind, as she responds to the Orlando massacre by counting herself as one of the “millions of allies of the LGBT community . . . across the country,” and saying that “hate has absolutely no place in America.” (“Political, Religious Leaders Respond to Orlando Shooting, Mourn Victims of Terror Attack,” By Ernie Howell, www.inquisitr.com, June 12, 2016) With her tireless support, hatred of Palestinian people has a big place in Israel.

A key quality of Christian and other faith leaders is compassion: to bind up the wounds of the fallen. An equally critical role is speaking truth to their own institutions when they push people down in branding them “incompatible,” “objectively disordered,” or not living a “valid lifestyle.” Compassion contains an indispensable moral quality: it involves prophetic as well as pastoral care. The two roles are inseparable, as the well-being and rights of people are interrelated.

Thus along with confronting one’s own denomination’s discriminatory practices, prophetic care also requires speaking truth to political power by demanding the end of our government’s imperialistic bans and barriers and bombs that cause people to fall — creating enemies and resulting in blowback violence against Americans in Orlando and elsewhere. The prophet Micah was clear about the pastoral-prophetic roles: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6: 8)

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Amazon.com. Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.