I admire the work of James Finn, a Medium blogger who exercises the God-given right of howling protest. He writes on many topics, including being a gay man who is also a foster dad. But he has another niche close to my heart: cogent screeds against the harmful LGBTQ policies of churches. Finn has done his homework. He understands the ugly under-side of these teachings, rooted in a centuries-old view of same-gender sex as deeply perverse, worse than incest, in fact.
Like any whisteblower, Finn gets blow back: accusations of anti-religious bigotry from opponents, and objections from some gay-rights proponents who think his work is counter-productive. As has always been the case for any movement for minority rights — the howling protests make lots of people mad for many different reasons.
James Finn regards himself as an atheist and I’m a Jesus-loving non-atheist. But from my Jesus-loving, non-atheist perspective (there are Jesus-loving atheists — another post sometime) I want to defend his right to howling protest. Because I think it’s a God-given right that we should honor, not denigrate.
In churches that use the lectionary (a regular set of readings for public worship) Psalm 137 pops up every third year. Oh it’s a beautiful psalm of longing for a lost homeland: “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept …” The musical, Godspell, popularized the words of this Psalm back in the 1970’s with a then- contemporary version. This is the part of the Psalm you would hear at church on Psalm-137-in-the-Lectionary Day, the part of the Psalm that provides lyrics to the Godspell song, “On the Willows”:
By the rivers of Babylon —
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Lovely, yes? Poignant. Touching. Soulful. Say you work at corporate headquarters in San Francisco. Your office has a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Your office mate was recently transferred to the Midwest Regional Office in Lima, Ohio. Find Psalm 137 on a Hallmark Card and send it to your friend, missing you and the view. But don’t send a card with the entire Psalm. Because Psalm 137 has an ending that, until recently, was deleted from the lectionary reading, and is often edited out by clergy doing the readings. That ending goes:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter Babylon,
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
OK. Can we agree that’s a howling protest? But there it is affixed to the end of one of the most beloved psalms in the book of Psalms.
What’s going on?
Well, the people who composed that psalm were part of a community that had been brutalized by exile — torn from their homeland by marauding armies that raped, pillaged, and deposited them in a foreign land, where they were subject to withering oppression. Actually, without the raping and pillaging, being shamed and excluded by one’s community is a brutal experience. We are highly social creatures who depend on our belonging to groups for our safety and survival. When that is threatened, we often panic.
The religious approach to shaming LGBTQ people is especially harmful. It’s not just saying, “We don’t like what you’re up to in the bedroom.” It adds the particular shaming of a claim to divine certainty: “Not only do I disapprove of you. But I disapprove of you because your sexuality is abhorrent to God, to all that is good and loving and true.” Intrinsically disordered is the descriptor de jure in religious parlance, and it resonates rhetorically with another religious term, intrinsic evil.
LGBTQ people stigmatized by their church can identify with the longing for a lost home that gave rise to Psalm 137. Many of them have literally lost their families along with their church community. That’s the sad beginning of the psalm. But their longing for a lost home, goes hand in hand with the screeching agony caused by the injury of exclusion and exile from that home. That’s the mad ending. To be raised in a church, to be nurtured to love, admire, and obey it, and then to run into the shaming and denigrating doctrine that characterizes you as morally depraved — that hurts. Injured people are allowed to say “Ouch!”. And if the injury is deep, they are allowed to protest vigorously.
We ourselves would rather be mad than sad. But we’d rather have others be sad than mad. So the final three verses of Psalm 137 bother us, when we are not the people who have been injured. But those verses are crucial to the psalm. They are a measure of how brutalized those people must have been to cry out in protest like this. And the God of the Bible is the God of the Victim, first and foremost — from Abel, to Hagar, to Joseph, to Jesus, and every other scapegoat before and since.
Apparently, in our privileged comfort, it’s important for us to hear the howling protests of those who don’t share our comfort. Because the God we worship (or pretend to) hears their cry and does not shoosh them; does not lecture them about the need to be balanced and proportional in their complaint.
Having read several of James Finn’s posts calling out the teaching of churches that stigmatize sexual minorities, I’d says he’s several steps closer to civility than the person/s who composed and preserved Psalm 137. When Finn notices promising developments in those churches, he commends them.
James Finn has every right to protest policies that stigmatize him as a gay man, policies that apply words like abomination to him, or that regard all gay people who have sex with someone they are attracted to as burning with perverse lust. That doesn’t mean you’re not free to believe such things. It just means that when he feels the pain of what it’s like to be thus stigmatized, he’s allowed to protest, to object, to give voice to the pain.
And trust me. James Finn is not just speaking for himself. He hears often from LGBTQ kids all over the world, suffering from religious trauma, contemplating suicide. They pour out their hearts to him, thank him for speaking in their defense, ask him how he survived the cruelty of having this toxin injected into his soul by people claiming to represent God. He keeps a list of suicide prevention centers handy for his correspondence.
I think James Finn is doing God’s work.
Colin Kaepernick was drummed out of the NFL for respectfully taking a knee during the national anthem to protest the well-documented brutality suffered disproportionately by African-Americans at the hand of law-enforcement officers. Silently he knelt — a gesture that says, “Please mourn with me.” If such a mild protest came with such a big penalty to Colin Kaepernick, obviously we have a problem when people object to injustice in this country. Shame on us.
I know that when I was an evangelical pastor trying to move the church I founded to abandon its stigmatizing LGBTQ policies, those who regarded the policies as a bulwark against an assault on God or nature or the Bible, did a lot of protesting. They threatened to leave or withhold their contributions. They complained they were being ignored, injured, invalidated, by letting LGBTQ people enter holy matrimony, or become pastors. Their protests far overshadowed the objections of those who suffered long under the religious opprobrium of the traditional condemnations. Many “sympathetic supporters” asked my gay colleague, Emily Swan, 37 at the time, to wait a little longer — a few years? a decade? time unspecified — to marry her beloved, so “their friends” would have more time to adjust. These were otherwise compassionate people. But when it comes to giving up a little privilege, otherwise compassionate people do that sort of thing.
Maybe those of us who are straight, who have never felt the soul-searing trauma caused by religious stigma, never battled the voices of internalized condemnation conveyed by our sacred traditions — slimy, serpentine accusations that cause demonstrable harm — should just chill when the rare howling protest is offered. Maybe instead of clicking our tongues and prattling on about civility, we should ask ourselves, “I wonder what it would be like to be on the wrong end of whatever this howling protest is objecting to?”
People who suffer oppression have the right to howling protest. Too bad if it makes the rest of us uncomfortable. It’s a God-given right.
Methodist General Conference Response from a Queer Pastor
I just wrote this article for “Read the Spirit,” an online Christian Magazine. It should come out Monday but I asked if…