The Church and Movements for Social Change: Old First E-pistle 06.13.13

The Church and Movements for Social Change: Old First E-pistle 06.13.13

I got to introduce the Right Reverend Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay Bishop, yesterday at the Free Library. He was speaking on his new book, “God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage.”

Preparing for that introduction got me thinking a lot about the church’s role in social change. Actually, our telephoning politicians at the end of worship about the school’s financial crisis has had me thinking about it. And the struggle to get subcontracted employees at the airport a living wage.

But this week, I’ve been thinking about parallels and differences between the church’s role during the protests of the Vietnam War and in the struggle for acceptance and equal rights for queer folk.

I’m not enough of a historian to say this with certainty, but I’ve read and believe that the mainline church’s joining the anti-war movement in the 60’s increased its effectiveness. We added strength to the support against the war. Perhaps even more importantly, our involvement affected how the protestors were seen. Making the protest movement more mainstream and, hence, formidable, I have read somewhere, our participation significantly shortened the war.

Think about it: leaders from a major establishment institution (much more “established” and central in our society in the 60’s then today) began to march as protestors. They were seen publicly praying for and with the anti-Vietnam movement. Those alliances made it much more difficult for politicians and the public at large to dismiss the anti-war folks as a radical fringe reaction that need not to have been taken seriously.

(It also occurs to me that I do not know how or if Old First became involved in the anti-war movement in any way?)

It’s also true that mainline church support for the anti-war movement caused dissension within the pews. CALC, Clergy and Laity Concerned, was formed to support pastors who were on the hot seat for their outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War. For some pastors becoming involved in the anti-war protests not only upped tension within their congregations; it cost them their jobs.

Some suggest that the politicization of mainline churches that happened because of Vietnam was the beginning of their membership decline in — one might say “exodus” from — church membership. …That the average person in the pew just didn’t want church becoming that political. I can imagine that watching their clergy and their denominations go “anti-war,” was enough of a reason for many more centrist Christians to question their church. Or as is often the case, it provided that one final reason to just walk away.

But I believe that it was only half of the equation. The other half was the anti-establishment cultural movements of the 60’s — protest against the Vietnam War being a major one, but not the only one, that perhaps culminated in the deathblow against traditional authority with Watergate– made church more suspect for the less traditional, younger people in the pews. We were in a cultural shift in North America, and the church could not easily win with either side. If the right wing of the mainline was unsettled by leadership’s anti-war stance, the younger generations, in their questioning tradition and authority, turned away from a church they could not imagine as offering anything else.

It was the churches inability to tackle two challenges that came almost at the same time, but from opposing directions, that, I believe, account for the walk-out that began then. (One also has to ask how about the effects of the changing attitudes of a secularizing population– did it just become harder to believe?)

The church’s position in the struggle for equality for queer folk has some distinctive similarities and differences. Vietnam was a specific involvement of the U.S. for a relatively short time. Even if it is understood as a part of the larger Cold War era, its reach is much shorter than the cultural prejudice and social stigmatization of gay people. The struggle for gay liberation is taking on millennia of culture, tradition and prejudice. And it’s made amazing strides since the late 60’s, seeming to pick up speed in the last twenty years.

But the movement for social, political and cultural equality for l,g,b,t folk has also become a large cultural divide in North American society. One can squarely place congregations and whole denominations on either this or that side of it. And it has caused tension in the ranks. A few clergy, particularly queer clergy, have lost their jobs over it. And clearly individuals and congregations have “walked out” over the gay issue. It’s caused some significant realignments within the church. It is probably the single, clearest line of demarcation and symbolic for a host of other theological and socio-political stances of any church.

But Vietnam was also more of a external, social issue, a U.S. policy and action that the church felt it needed to speak and act about. Yes, the Cold War used language of the “godless Communist threat,” but I don’t think that mainline pulpits or mainline theology were ever as in service to the cold war as they have been towards the condemnation of queer folk. In western culture, the Christian church has become the primary purveyor of our attitudes and mores about sexuality. In other words, homosexuality not just a problem for our country that Bishop Robinson has taken on. It’s also a problem within the church that he has faced, or asked the church to face.

Both movements had profound effects on how we see our church and understand our faith and theology. The Vietnam War focused Christians on the ancient questions — all the way back to Jesus’ time– of whether or not someone can be a Christian and take up arms. It raised questions about Just War theory and renewed the claims of the peace or pacifist churches.

Likewise, the issue of homosexuality has affected our theology. The idiom of inclusion, which we apply to others well beyond the l,g,b,t community, has become a much more central image for understanding the reconciliation that Jesus preached and leads us to.

I said in last week’s sermon, I sometimes feel like an unwilling prophet. What I meant is that social issues in the church can feel overwhelming. I am incredibly proud when the church takes on some cultural or political cause that affects people’s lives. But I wish ours were a world that didn’t need the church to witness and struggle for so many issues of peace and justice.

It sounds a little rose-colored glasses on my part, but can’t we just get along and treat each other decently, justly? I mean, there’s enough to struggle within our individual lives, sometimes taking on the bigger social issues can feel like “just too much, Lord.”

And how do we continue to promise individuals going through their own personal struggles spiritual succor in communities that have to roll up their sleeves and get involved in this or that political struggle? Do we risk losing our spirituality in the fray of social change?

These are my questions. But if I sometimes doubt, or at least fret, this Sunday’s lectionary passage about Laboth, Ahab, Jezebel and Elijah does not leave much room for us to duck…

See you in church,

Michael