The Covenant Church has suspended their university chaplain for officiating a wedding

The school I attended for my undergrad degree has suspended their campus pastor because she officiated at a wedding. I’m ride-or-die with queer folk, so I’m speaking up to say that this is (specifically and in order) wrong, cruel, stupid, and fucked up. Read on for details and reasoning. I’ve chosen to engage is semi-polite conversation here, but I don’t actually think that is an appropriate tone for the topic. So, by the end, my language devolves into something more honest and appropriate to the topic.

TL: DR The ECC & North Park University’s action to suspend the ordination of Judy Howard Peterson and place her on sabbatical is wrong, cruel, stupid, and fucked up.

Background and source material:

The Covenant Church suspended their university chaplain for officiating a wedding.

My alma mater has placed their campus pastor on paid sabbatical leave for officiating at a wedding. 1)Technically, the Evangelical Covenant Church, with whom the university is affiliated, has suspended her ordination for officiating at the wedding and the University has chosen to honor the letter of their campus pastor job requirements—which specify she must be ordained—over all other moral commitments they have. I don’t think these details signify, but I recognize and acknowledge them. As an alumnus, this shames me. The Evangelical Covenant Church (Covenant or ECC) is the Church that sponsor’s the university and which suspended the pastor’s ordination. They are not an “open and affirming”2)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_and_affirming organization. They have official doctrines that are clearly bigoted against non cis-het people. 3)https://covchurch.org/resolutions/1996-human-sexuality/. There are more recent updates to these doctrines that do not deny the bigoted declarations, but do leave enough wiggle room for people of conscience to remain in the organization. 4)I struggle w/ making this statement, but I respect the moral integrity of pastors I know in that denomination. I can’t square the logic of this, so I’m choosing to trust that they see something I’m missing. FWIW, I resigned my membership in 1995. For example, there is a document 5)http://www.bemidjicovenant.com/filerequest/2996.pdf that seems to imply that the marriage doctrines apply absolutely to ordained ministry, but also leave room for non cis-het people married elsewhere to openly participate in ECC church communities. This document hasn’t been officially adopted by the ECC despite it being used to justify the pastor’s suspension.

Before I go further, I include how the pastor, Judy Howard Peterson, explains herself.

I officiated a same sex wedding of two beloved brothers in Christ. This broke a religious rule. The church believes the rule is so important that breaking it requires discipline. This discipline will most likely cost me my job, my housing, my credentials and my reputation. And I would put all of this on the line again in order to love like Jesus loves and I would do it without pause because I believe love fulfills the law. (Romans 13:10)

She offers a clear and well-written letter with much more detail, but the important bits are covered above. I haven’t been a Christian since 1995, but I do have an undergraduate minor in Biblical and Theological Studies so I’m familiar with the underlying structures at play here. Using those structures Pastor Judy’s recent choices align with what I read about the man Jesus. The policies of the ECC align with what I read about the chief priests and elders, and the choices of North Park University align w/ Pontius Pilot washing his hands of responsibility and punting to the demands of the chief priests, elders, and crowd. Judy, if you ever read this, I’m in awe of your courage and actions.

Since I’m about to make observations on theology and doctrine here, it’s probably important to establish that I don’t claim any religious credibility. I’ve read the source materials (in translation) and some secondary sources, but I deny both the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of sin, so it’s not like I get a seat at the table for a religious debate. The Evangelical and Pietist branches of Protestant Christianity have a lot of core assumptions that I’m not willing to accept and cause difficulty when evaluating the value of these arguments.

It’s also important to establish that I’m not here to argue for the place of homosexual people in society. I won’t argue that gravity works or that water makes things wet. It’s a core principle. It’s not up for discussion. 6)Now, I absolutely refute fundamentalism, so I’m not going to claim that my strongly held moral beliefs are more true than your bigoted bullshit. (See what I did there?) I’m just not going to sit for a discussion of them. In the same way I wouldn’t enter into debate with a flat-earther about geography or an advocate of slavery about human rights. I’m acknowledging that there’s no argument against the full person-hood of queer people that I’m willing to accept, regardless of it’s rational justifications or how well it is argued.

What I am setting out to do here is, as promised, explain how these actions by the ECC and North Park University are (specifically and in order) wrong, cruel, stupid, and fucked up.

Wrong

The easiest way to unravel this mess is to read the underlying documents up to the first obviously counter-factual point and stop. That point is reached in the ECC’s 1996 resolution on human sexuality. 7)https://covchurch.org/resolutions/1996-human-sexuality/ We need go no further than the first sentence of the declaration. We could probably get caught up in the bits before the declaration, but I’m passing on that because “we choose to believe” type statements deserve different treatment from “this is the way reality is” type statements. The declaration opens with:

God created people male and female

I have no problem with the assertion that a deity created male-identified and female-identified people. (I don’t assert this, but I don’t think it’s problematic to choose to believe that some deity made us. It’s likewise non-controversial to assert that gender identity exists and is most visibly manifested as male and female.) What is clearly & demonstrably false is to move from this banal observation to the assertion that all people can be categorized as either male or female and that this distinction is obvious, absolute, and unchanging. We know this. Setting aside gender identity8)which we can’t do indefinitely, but I’m doing here to streamline the argument I’m making, biologists are aware of a broad range of sex diversity in humans (e.g.,  intersex and xx-male people.) Asserting that all people are either male or female is demonstrably false. It’s simply not possible for a reasonable person to assert that sex is absolutely binary. So while it’s non-controversial to affirm that a g*d created male and female people, it violates independently verifiable biological understanding to assert that humans can all be accurately categorized as male or female.

As far as I know, people who follow the ECC and rely on their chosen texts as “the only true guide for faith doctrine and conduct” don’t insist that the sun goes around the earth. In precisely the same manner, there’s no reason to treat Genesis 5:2 or “God created people male and female” as a point where people of faith must break from observable scientific understanding. There’s no compelling reason to choose Genesis 5:2 as the one time an ancient text’s description of biology requires a break from contemporary scientific understanding when other examples of ancient science are allowed to pass with little comment. Here’s an example that shows biblical divergence with contemporary scientific explanations don’t break your stance on scripture. “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down for about a full day.” 9)Joshua 10:13 NIV We all know that the earth moves in relation to the sun, the sun does not move in relation to the earth, yet people of faith don’t seem to have a problem with this choice of words in the story. The sun, in relation to the Earth, is already stopped, and we know that if the earth stopped rotating that would cause other problems with our physics models. As far as I know, this and other problematic metaphors do not require people of faith to refute contemporary science. The Covenant is not the church of Galileo’s day. At least they don’t claim to be. The human sexuality resolution & Pastor Judy’s suspended ordination contradicts this, but this is why I want to be able to believe that the Covenant’s current actions are in error and contradict their core values. 10)This is definitely an X-Files or William James I want to believe moment. At very least, this line of reasoning demonstrates that ECC doctrine does not need to be closed and disapproving toward queer folk in order to remain faithful to their principles and texts and that the choice of sex and gender as the cornerstone of human sexuality doctrine is arbitrary.11)Based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system. OR (of power or a ruling body) unrestrained and autocratic in the use of authority. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/arbitrary

Cruel

My favorite quote about religion changes over time, but Kafka’s “There is hope, an infinite amount of hope, just not for us.”12)https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Franz_Kafka is a perpetual favorite. Kafka suggests that there is hope for g*d, but not hope for us humans. In their doctrines and policies, the ECC trumpets the blessings and sacrament of sexuality and marriage, while denying them to everyone outside their arbitrarily chosen cis-het binaries. In effect, the ECC declares to arbitrarily chosen communities that sex and companionship are wonderful, and heaven is the ultimate;  You just can’t have them both. This is cruel. It’s cruel because denying whole-hearted and open sexual relations to people is materially harmful to their well being. It’s cruel because the people who are excluded are chosen arbitrarily.

Even if we ignore the previous section and assert that a deity has created the gender binary, that’s a shitty thing for them to do. It’s a shitty thing for people to decide that their god has done. It’s a shitty thing for the people who function as the gatekeepers for their god’s grace to enforce on their congregations. Sometimes, seemingly cruel things are necessary. For example, withholding an addict’s item of dependence causes great suffering, but the suffering is necessary for a greater good. In that case, the ends justify the means. In this case, there is nothing to be gained by causing suffering. There is no greater good being served. Causing suffering for arbitrarily chosen groups can only be called needlessly cruel.

Stupid.

This section is not intended to provoke people who have struggled to keep faith with the ECC’s doctrine. (I’m saving that for the next heading.) My intent here 13)For whatever intentions are worth, I’m a firm believer that impact > intent. is to build on two points from the previous heading, specifically that the ECC’s doctrine here is arbitrary and causes harm. What’s stupid about this is that this cruelty does not achieve anything. I have made the snarky insinuation in other conversations that the purpose of these policies is to ensure that major donors to the Covenant continue to give money. I have been assured that this is not the case. So I’m taking the Covenant at its word and rejected all financial explanations for maintain this doctrine in 2018. This leaves fidelity to scripture as a primary motivation for the mistaken and cruel doctrines. It has been established that there are, at absolute minimum, acceptable readings of the ECC’s chosen scriptures that refute the foundation of the Covenant’s exclusionary doctrine. This leaves the issue at a place where something may be appropriately discussed and debated. 14)Personally, this isn’t enough, but it’s better than the existing status quo in the ECC. There are legitimate readings of scripture that support differing opinions. Thus, open and affirming marriage sacraments are a thing that it is allowable for Covenant pastors to disagree on without breaking with the denomination.15)I’m not sure I’d be willing to belong to a group that leaves open the closed and disapproving option, but that’s far from the first barrier between me and church.

So if the reason the ECC chooses to be cruel cannot be justified by financial reasons and if it is possible to be faithful to their scriptures while fully accepting queer people into the church body, what benefit does standing by an incorrect and cruel doctrine offer? From my perspective as a non-believer outside the organization, there’s no benefit to be gained by being assholes about sex and gender. It’s just stupid.

Fucked up

I struggled with what voice I should use for my contribution to this conversation. While I settled on the kind of reserved and disinterested voice that is more likely to engage in conversation, I don’t think this is appropriate. What is appropriate for this kind of stupid and wrong cruelty is confrontation and profanity. This shit is fucked up. To censor my honest word choice here is to privilege the oppressor by being a collaborator in placing tone barriers to conversation. It gives the advantage to the status quo and puts another barrier between the marginalized and conversations about them. Maybe the last remaining artifact of my North Park College Christian education is a respect for liberation theology. Give the primary option to the marginalized. Tamping these sentiments and outrage down make my arguments more palatable to some but also makes them less true.

Thus, the truest response to Judy Howard Peterson’s suspension is: “THIS SHIT IS FUCKED UP.” Of course, as a white, male-identified, cis-het, tenured, middle-class, American citizen it is even more true to say: “THIS SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND I’M COMPLICIT.” An appropriate response to these arbitrary and cruel exclusions is “FUCK OFF, YOU ASSHOLES!” An appropriate response to the weak-tea compromises people of conscience in the covenant offer to placate the bigots is “NOT FUCKING GOOD ENOUGH!” It feels like a betrayal to self-censor this truth-speaking in order to placate those who might be offended by profanity and blasphemy but not by the Covenant’s Goddesses-damned-fucking-shitstorm-abomination of a doctrine.

It’s not okay to treat the personhood of queer folk as something to be bargained for, as something that can be conceded in order to achieve a nice compromise. We don’t call that Covenant-nice, we call that Covenant-horseshit. It’s not okay for cis-het folk to decide what others can or cannot do with their sexuality. The ECC, as with any other group, is free to choose their own conditions for entry. What makes this a problem that demands confrontation is dodging responsibility for this intentional decision and blaming their g*d or their scriptures for the arbitrary decision to exclude queer people from their sacrament. It is not the case that the ECC is bound by scripture to treat their faithful queer members like shit. It’s a fucking choice and y’all need to fucking own it.16)Better yet, y’all need to move forward beyond this sin and this error and ask forgiveness of those you have wronged. We all need to repent and ask forgiveness.

Obscenity is appropriate here because this situation is fucking obscene.

It’s not fucking okay. I have a choice in how I engage. I can choose between being a fierce partizan uselessly screaming my objections from the outside or using my straight privilege to collaborate with the powers that be. There may be an ethical answer for how to engage in this conversation without either collaborating with the oppressor or being pure and useless.  I’m not smart enough to find it here. So I’ve made the choice of moderating my anger in the first sections of this blog post in order to collaborate and find a compromise. It’s wrong, but the least wrong option I can come up with today. Please forgive me.

That said, this shit is fucked up and I’m complicit.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Technically, the Evangelical Covenant Church, with whom the university is affiliated, has suspended her ordination for officiating at the wedding and the University has chosen to honor the letter of their campus pastor job requirements—which specify she must be ordained—over all other moral commitments they have. I don’t think these details signify, but I recognize and acknowledge them.
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_and_affirming
3, 7. https://covchurch.org/resolutions/1996-human-sexuality/
4. I struggle w/ making this statement, but I respect the moral integrity of pastors I know in that denomination. I can’t square the logic of this, so I’m choosing to trust that they see something I’m missing. FWIW, I resigned my membership in 1995.
5. http://www.bemidjicovenant.com/filerequest/2996.pdf
6. Now, I absolutely refute fundamentalism, so I’m not going to claim that my strongly held moral beliefs are more true than your bigoted bullshit. (See what I did there?) I’m just not going to sit for a discussion of them. In the same way I wouldn’t enter into debate with a flat-earther about geography or an advocate of slavery about human rights. I’m acknowledging that there’s no argument against the full person-hood of queer people that I’m willing to accept, regardless of it’s rational justifications or how well it is argued.
8. which we can’t do indefinitely, but I’m doing here to streamline the argument I’m making
9. Joshua 10:13 NIV
10. This is definitely an X-Files or William James I want to believe moment.
11. Based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system. OR (of power or a ruling body) unrestrained and autocratic in the use of authority. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/arbitrary
12. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Franz_Kafka
13. For whatever intentions are worth, I’m a firm believer that impact > intent.
14. Personally, this isn’t enough, but it’s better than the existing status quo in the ECC.
15. I’m not sure I’d be willing to belong to a group that leaves open the closed and disapproving option, but that’s far from the first barrier between me and church.
16. Better yet, y’all need to move forward beyond this sin and this error and ask forgiveness of those you have wronged. We all need to repent and ask forgiveness.

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