Shuck and Jive

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Two for Three Ain't Bad But Still Oppressive

There was a bit of excitement at the Presbyterian General Assembly yesterday. Members of Soulforce participated in a demonstration during the proceedings. They held signs and sang a few tunes and were arrested for trespassing.

(Soulforce demonstration at GA. Photo by Erin Dunigan. See more photos here.)

I wish I had been there. I have been watching the proceedings on livestream and tweeting along with other members of the Peanut Gallery Advisory Delegation (those twittering with the #ga219 hashtag). But it is hard to get a feel for the mood when you are not physically present.

Last night, there was twitter talk about this demonstration and I picked up on some energy of LGBT activists who
didn't appreciate the action by Soulforce. I felt a little funny about it myself. I used the analogy of an uninvited neighbor interfering and taking sides in a family spat.

There was some question whether or not Soulforce and the other advocacy groups who are within the church (TAMFS, More Light Presbyterians, Covenant Network) were on the same page. Yet I was challenged by others who thought Soulforce did a good thing. After a night's sleep and more reflection, I now have more appreciation for the demonstration.

If the PCUSA is a "family" we are an abusive, dysfunctional one. This family has treated its own LGBT family members like crap for a long, long time. Maybe it has been going on so long that it takes intervention from someone outside the family for us to realize how we are perceived from the outside.

Of course, the PCUSA is not a family. It is a religious corporation. It is an institution. It is an oppressive institution. The PCUSA participates in and contributes to spiritual violence against LGBT people through our policies and our inaction. Obviously, there are many who have been devoted for decades to justice and equality. I mean no slight whatsoever on individuals and groups who have been working and sacrificing for equality within the church and doing so from their own particular stance of conscience and strategy.

Nevertheless, as a whole, the PCUSA is oppressive. The effects of this oppression, this spiritual violence, go beyond our denomination. The General Assembly silenced Committee twelve and did not even hear the recommendations regarding marriage equality. We can talk about that in terms of Presbyterian family dynamics, procedures, and whatever. Fine. But Soulforce reminded us that this silencing shows our true colors as a denomination. We need to be reminded of that. Sometimes it does take a group from the outside, like Soulforce, to show us and to shame us.

Some of us have been at this for a while and so we tend to know all the players and the arguments and the strategy and we tend to think along those lines. We don't want to anger the opposition unduly. They are after all, family. We are happy when we get small victories. We need to celebrate them, claim them, and work from them. We should never forget, however, that these victories also remind us of what we do not have. There is no reason, none, that we shouldn't as a denomination embrace full equality now.

In today's Johnson City Press, an Associated Press report reads,

Delegates to the Presbyterian church’s convention in Minneapolis voted Thursday for a more liberal policy on gay clergy but decided not to redefine marriage in their church constitution to include same-sex couples. Approval of both measures could have made the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) one of the most gay-friendly major Christian churches in the U.S.
"Could have" means "didn't."

As Soulforce reminds us, "Justice delayed is justice denied." More Light Presbyterians reported on the demonstration and arrest. Other news reports are here and video here. Also a report from Presbyterian Outlook, and GLAAD.

In terms of what happened at GA:
  1. The GA passed a revised G-6.0106b that will now go to the presbyteries. Get your game on!
  2. The GA approved directing the Board of Pensions to Same-Gender spouses and Domestic Partners. No ratification is needed by the presbyteries.
  3. The GA did not approve any changes to the definition of marriage or make any statement regarding clergy who officiate at weddings in states where same-gender marriage is legal.
Two for three.


  1. The Soulforce demonstration at the GA serves only to irritate the already tired commissioners and add another $100,000 to the coffers of the Lay Committee. I do not consider myself a victim of spiritual abusive. I must admit that, at times, I do relish a good fight with our fundie brothers and sisters.

    I liked your comments on small victories. The struggles of people of color and women, even after all these years, are by no means over, nor will the struggles for the lgbt community end with ordination and marriage rights.

    Overall, I thought the GA went well: Belhar, FOG, ordination, Middle East Report. ..

  2. Thanks, John!

    Good thoughts. I am glad you thought the middle east report went well. It seems the process of compromise and discussion was fruitful.

  3. Sometimes it takes a well-meaning neighbor to come over and tell you it's time to trim the grass. (And there is that pesky Reformed notion of communal accountability....)

    We get so insular in the PCUSA that sometimes we think that the oppressive policies of the PCUSA only affect us, when in fact they affect the entire Christian outreach in exactly the same way that we're tarred with the same brush along with much more virulently homophobic groups.

    People do hate to be called out on their crap in public don't they? And Presbyterians don't like actual displays of emotion. (The constant ranting against "emotion" by the BFTSs, as if emotion is a bad reason to make a decision, should be evidence enough of that.) So, I'm not surprised some people are ticked off.

    The Lay Committee will already make enough money off the actions of our own GA. Any additional coin they get from the Soulforce demonstration will be small in comparison.

    How many of us have railed against the abuses in the Catholic Church? Is that the same or different than what Soulforce did at GA?

  4. >>Sometimes it takes a well-meaning neighbor to come over and tell you it's time to trim the grass. (And there is that pesky Reformed notion of communal accountability....)<<

    Yes, but sometimes help isn't necessarily help. There seems to be an issue of pragmatics here.

    It seems to me that there are approaches to change that are relevant to certain times and places but not others. Protest is a very aggressive approach. Aggressive approaches seem to work best when a group has little to no power to enact change. Aggressive approaches carry with them a price: as people see the aggressiveness, they will tend to shy away from it. As a result, aggressive approaches (unless they can be backed by power) necessarily take a step back away from the overall goal. However, the trade off is attention. Aggression can force an issue to the surface, bringing general awareness to it, which then serves as the foundation to move forward in the future.

    Once a certain momentum has been gained, however, it is necessary to shift gears. As the ideological discrepancies level out, aggressive behavior seems to affect those in sway negatively, thus pushing potential allies into the camp of resistance. At this point, the quest shouldn't be for exposure, but for the hearts and minds of those already paying attention. This is the time for more subtle approaches to narrative and theological nuance. It is a time for undermining the ideological foundations of the opposition (such as literalism) and re-shaping that which is perceived to be meaningful.

    There is a certain energy to protesting. When it's over, there's an event that one can point to and say "I was there." Standing for justice is (if we are honest) a "feel good moment." Weaving narratives and reshaping meaning doesn't bring the same sense of accomplishment; gratification must be deferred to a later time.

    Human egos like their gratification. Therefore, it's natural for us to want to go with overt protest against a power structure over subtle reframing to win hearts and minds. The problem is that this urge seems to slow down momentum toward the goal of justice (if not actually reverse it) the more the issue nears the tipping point. If standing for justice actually delays justice, then we have to ask: are we really standing for justice, or are we using justice as a means to stroke our own egos?

  5. @Alan and @irreverance

    Good thoughts, both of you.

    Someone said that Soulforce might not have changed minds but it felt good to have them there.

    I don't really think there is a right or wrong or perfect strategy as to how to do things. If there was a perfect strategy, it would have been executed and we would have equality now.

    I don't think this was an ego thing either. I don't know. I wasn't there. All I know is what I see via the media and through others' observations and comment.

    My take is that these folks from Soulforce offered a gift. Like the woman who anointed Jesus' feet they "did what they could."

    Think of all the different LGBT rights groups (even within the PCUSA) who have differing foci, agendas, and strategies. Which one is right? Who does the right amount of push and dialogue and back and forth? I don't know. Who is to say that any of these groups control "the movement?"

    I like it when people care enough to do something.

    I am fine with all y'all's perspectives on this too.

    I have decided to choose to be grateful for these folks for taking the time and the risk and the expense of disrupting our little party. Who knows? Maybe one of those YAADs will be inspired to become an activist.

    Keep at it Soulforce. Thanks.

  6. To be fair to those who think the Soulforce protest was bad form, I have to say that I had a similar feeling when I heard that a number of non-Presbyterians took up open-mic time during committee hearings to extoll the virtues of Doctor Liberace's He-Man Quackery Camps.

    So, though I'm fine with Soulforce's protest, I understand how some people would be put off.

  7. Lest we forget. The homophobia was so thick that the homophobians couldn't even allow the debate on marriage. What other committee was silenced like that?

    This was a shit deal. Soulforce is NOT the problem. They simply brought attention to the problem.

  8. I don't like tricks that use Robert's Rules to get what one wants. I have a strong suspicion that a lot of people were confused by the motion and that some voted for it who did not understand the significance of it.

  9. Bob, it's all they've got left. You've got to feel a little sorry for them ... almost. Remember that these are the same BFTSs who have sent several overtures to force GAs not to discuss issues, etc. They don't want to talk about justice because they know that their threats of schism are no longer working and their arguments have failed. (Note also the venom directed against YAADs. The BFTSs see which way the wind is blowing and they're scared and angry.) They're desperate. Shutting people up is all they have left (thus the calls to get rid of YAADs.) Let's not forget that "Shut up!" was the theme of one rather amusing blog post from one of their "classical" cheerleaders.

    They don't want votes, they don't want discussion. Above all, they don't want people to question them. It becomes more and more obvious to me that they have no clue what it means to be a Presbyterian. If they want to join a church that refuses to allow the people in the pews to have a voice in how the denomination is run and also demonizes gay people, I'd suggest the Catholic Church. They'd be much happier there.

    BTW, I never buy the "they didn't understand what they're voting on" argument. Polity stuff can be complicated, but it really ain't rocket science. It really isn't that difficult. Unfortunately we will certainly see plenty of demonization of our commissioners over the next week or so. Regardless of the sour grapes from the BFTSs, our commissioners are not rubes and they're not dupes and they're not heretics and they're not apostate.

    We've had a special committee do a study. Now we'll have a couple years to study the study. Then they'll be out of excuses. The BFTSs have got one thing right, at least, this will be back in 2 years.

  10. I think I can count on one hand how many people in my presbytery will be "studying" those marriage reports.

    There just really isn't a whole lot to study. You do the just thing. For those who are constitutionally incapable of doing the just thing, one excuse (like more study, being tired, confused) is as good as another.

    In the meantime, if you are a gay or lesbian couple who want to get married, there are plenty of us who will sign the papers and give it all the sacred mojo we can.

    Others of us--who live in states (like Tennessee) that won't grant marriage equality before Saudi Arabia--will cross state lines to do it.

    We'll see if those who need more study or are too tired and confused to have debate will need more study or be too tired and confused to file charges.

  11. @Alan

    There is a terrible irony about sending an overture to not talk about an issue for a particular period of time. If it is for two years a committee still has to talk about the two years. I suppose a committee could discuss and vote on the overture to not talk about the issue and then answer all the related questions with that overture but I think it is highly unlikely that a committee would do so. If the overture extends beyond two years the GA cannot bind future GA's. The only way to do that would be to amend the Form of Government.

    This is specifically about the motion to answer all previous questions with the motion made by the commissioner, not the vote on ordination. I thought that since the commissioners voted for ordination they would also vote for marriage. It's logical, isn't it?

    As to commissioners not understanding the motion to answer all previous questions with one motion you have a higher opinion of commissioners than I do. When the clerk asks a question of the commissioners so that they can try out the electronic voting pads one of the traditional questions is "Did you read all the materials for GA?. There are subsequent questions on the same subject. Invariably a majority of commissioners have read less than 60% of the materials.

    I am not convinced that commissioners understood that little arcane motion. Yes our commissioners are intelligent but that doesn't mean they understand parts of Robert's Rules that are rarely used. And many presbyteries send commissioners because it is their "turn" or a particular congregation's turn. It is considered an honor. That doesn't mean the commissioner actually does the hard work or understands what's going on. It also doesn't mean they understand Robert's Rules.

    Of course if the Stated Clerk explained it carefully that is another question.

    I see situations at presbytery meetings where the moderator him/herself doesn't understand the rules and the clerk has to explain them. And a lot of commissioners don't understand Robert's Rules. I can't count the number of times I've seen a Stated Clerk explain what a substitute motion is and then have to put up with questions that cover the same ground that the Clerk has just explained.

    No Robert's Rules aren't rocket science but you have to actually read them to know what's going on.

  12. It didn't fool the YAADs. They voted no 70-30.

    This was the second time this commissioner had tried it. The first time he was out of order.

    The next day the commissioners had a second chance to wake up but voted down motion to reconsider 60-40.

    The surprise was that "my side" the side for marriage equality didn't realize the strength of the opposition.

    You are right, on one level it doesn't make sense to vote for ordination and against marriage, but we simply have bee debating ordination longer.

    I think this group would have voted down marriage equality, probably by about 55-45 to 60-40. They might have barely passed allowing clergy to bless civil unions or whatever that was.

    This parliamentary move allowed squeamish moderates to say no to equality without having to say no. As usual.

  13. "I thought that since the commissioners voted for ordination they would also vote for marriage. It's logical, isn't it?"

    It is. But if logic had anything to do with this, we would have settled this 30 years ago.

  14. @Bob

    Regarding whether we should be debating marriage first.

    Like John McNeese, I don't care if people are married or not. Some single people whether straight or gay have sex. Fine. That has little to do whether they can be ordained officers in the church. These things are separate issues.

    Obviously, not all people gay or straight want to be married. Those who do should be allowed. If it is available for straights, it should be available for gays.