Eugene Carson Blake, Where Are You Now?

eugene carson blake arrested 7-4-63 baltimore

This photo depicts one of my favorite moments in Presbyterian history. I’ve shared it before; the events of recent days have made me think about it again.

This is the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk – the top church executive –  of the Presbyterian Church from 1951 until 1966. This is a photo of Blake being arrested while protesting a segregated amusement park in Baltimore in 1963.

During his time as Stated Clerk, Blake was a strong advocate for Christian unity, being a major voice of the ecumenical movement and calling for a merger of ten mainline denominations into one body. His focus on church unity led him to also serve as the President of the National Council of Churches while serving as Stated Clerk, and later, as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

But his focus wasn’t exclusively on Christian unity, and it certainly wasn’t on unity at any cost. Blake was head of the denomination during the civil rights movement, a time of intense division in the church.  He knew all too well the differing, and often heatedly debated, opinions within the denomination’s membership over matters of racial equality and justice. These were explosive issues, and any statements about them coming out of the head office – regardless of content – had the potential for further division, and possibly even denominational schism.

And yet, fully aware of that reality, Blake took a strong, uncompromising stand in favor of social justice. He wrote and spoke powerfully against racial discrimination and segregation, and calling for civil rights and equal justice under the law for all people. He stood up for racial equality and non-discrimination in the church as well, against many who appealed to wrong-headed interpretations of scripture to defend their impassioned arguments supporting the racist status quo.

It’s funny; I remember being a young boy in the 1960s and hearing my own Presbyterian relatives bemoaning the “radicals,” who were probably even closet Communists, who had gotten control of the church and who were turning it away from God and toward the very gates of hell itself. Only years later would I do the math and realize they were actually complaining about Eugene Carson Blake and his unabashedly progressive anti-racist theology.

It was precisely that theology that led him to protest racial discrimination, and yes, to even be arrested for his beliefs. It was that strength of character that led him to help organize, and to participate in, Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. It was that clarity of prophetic witness that caused him to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, just a short while before Dr. King gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. He participated in that march, and gave that speech, all the while worried in the pit of his stomach that his participation would lead to further strife and division in the church – and yet, he was convinced that this was where God had called him, and what God was calling him, and the church, to do. There he stood; he could do no other.

For the most part, Presbyterians today are on the forefront of matters of battling racism and white privilege. In fact, our current Stated Clerk and our two Co-Moderators – the top three officers in the denomination – are all direct beneficiaries of Blake’s forward-thinking and uncompromising stance against discrimination based on race or gender.

However, the denomination still has internal divisions, these days largely over the matter of the place of LGBTQ individuals in the church. I don’t have polling data from Blake’s time regarding civil rights to use as a comparison, but with the church membership currently supporting LGBTQ equality in church and society by an approximate 2 to 1 margin (and trending upward), I suspect the division is significantly less than Blake had to navigate. We have, thanks be to God, amended our constitutional documents to permit the ordination of LGBTQ Deacons, Elders, and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, and to permit our ministers to officiate – and be part of – same-sex marriages.

As wonderful as all this is, it’s still only a partial victory. While our constitution allows LGBTQ equality in pulpit and pew, that same constitution permits presbyteries (regions) and congregations to decide for themselves whether to accept it. That means that there are many places within the denomination where LGBTQ people remain unwelcome. This compromise, made in the name of denominational unity, has resulted in a situation within the church where LGBTQ Christians are something akin to the 3/5 of a person that the U.S. Constitution originally considered slaves. Our memberships and ordinations all come with an asterisk – our acceptability for membership or ordination changes not by virtue of our profession of faith, or our preparation and qualifications, but simply by virtue of having crossed a geographical boundary. We are the only group that the denomination allows to be discriminated against by reason of a biological characteristic. To use another historical parallel, we’re living a supposedly separate-but-equal Plessy versus Ferguson existence in a Brown versus Board of Education world. In trying to save the denomination from splitting in two, this compromise has merely established two under one roof.

Would Eugene Carson Blake have supported acceptance of LGTBQ Christians openly participating in the full life and leadership of the church? I’m pretty certain that, in his own historical context, he most assuredly wouldn’t have – in fact, I’d be surprised to learn otherwise. But as firmly as I believe that, I’m just as convinced that if he were alive today, and knew what we now know, that he would be working, and writing, and speaking as courageously for us as he did for others in his own time.

A few days ago, Rev. Dr. Blake’s denomination – my denomination – issued a response to the “Nashville Statement,” the vehemently anti-female and anti-LGBTQ document issued by a number of conservative Evangelical Christian personalities. I’ve addressed the Statement in an earlier post.

Since its release, non-Evangelical Christians, as well as people outside the church, have been issuing an unending flood of denunciations of its backward, hateful content. Really, opposing the content of this theological train wreck is as close to a slam-dunk, no-brainer as things get in the church world – or at least, you would think so. After a couple of days of thoughtful deliberation (we Presbyterians don’t rush into anything), the denomination released a response. Unfortunately, it was an intensely disappointing, dull thud of a response.

There were a number of positive elements in the statement, which can be read here. And it does refer and link to the “Denver Statement,” an excellent and sometimes witty response to the Nashville Statement. But overall, it ended up being just a timid document that shied away from a bold stand for social justice in order to not offend the denomination’s most conservative members, while apparently being less concerned with offending and hurting a large number of others who found themselves once again somewhat under the bus. This was not, you might say, a Eugene Carson Blake moment.

Yes, I hope that someday, we have a courageous, denomination-wide affirmation of LGBTQ people in the full life and leadership of the church in the same manner the we’ve done with women and persons of color. But at very least, the statement could have strongly defended our position that one can be a faithful Christian while holding LGBTQ-affirming views – a position that the Nashville Statement pointedly denies in its Article 10. The Presbyterian response makes ambiguous mention of the Nashville Statement staking out positions “that go beyond anything the PC(USA) has officially taken a stand on.” But this is not one of those things. By our decision to consider both positions equally faithful, we have indeed taken a stand on this particular matter and consider the claim made in Article 10 of the Nashville Statement to be sinful nonsense. The fact that the denomination couldn’t even make a strong denunciation of this point – that it opted for a unity-over-justice position – was hurtful and insulting, and shows that despite the progress we’ve made in the denomination, we’ve still got a long way to go.

I would willingly be arrested defending the civil rights of the current leadership of my church. Given this less than enthusiastic response to the Nashville Statement, I have to wonder if they would they do the same for me.

I have tremendous respect for our denominational leadership. I’m proud of them. I love them. They hold exceedingly difficult jobs, and I’m convinced that they try to do their best to lead wisely, to find the right balance between Christian unity and prophetic witness. And on a personal level, J. Herbert Nelson, our Stated Clerk, rocks an awesome bow tie; not everyone can pull that off. Beyond that, I am genuinely, personally grateful for the strides made in recent years, even if I’d wish for more, which allow me to serve as an out gay ordained minister. But in this case, by way of an overly timid response to this ugly scar on the faith called the Nashville Statement, our denomination has blinked. We’ve missed a major opportunity to do the right thing – to decisively, boldly defend social and ecclesiastical justice for LGBTQ Christians both within the denomination and beyond, against forces within Christianity that would reject and harm us. I grieve over this lost opportunity. Somewhere, I believe Eugene Carson Blake does, too.

Nashville Noise

Jesus-facepalm

You may have seen that a few days ago, something called The Nashville Statement (click the link, if you must) was issued by some group that calls itself “The Council for Biblical Manliness and Womanliness.” Really, I’m not making this up; that’s what they’re calling themselves. It sounds like a secret club started by the Little Rascals after they grew up and the He-Man Woman-Haters Club fell apart, not for lack of woman-hating, but because, well, sex.

gimme the high sign

As silly as the group’s name is, it’s clear that it’s supposed to sound like some respected, august body of religious leaders dripping with gravitas, who, one might assume, somberly gathered together in Nashville to contribute some profound insight into a grave and urgent crisis of our time. In reality, I suspect its list of original 150 signers – which included only a scant few more women than the H-MWHC – was far less such a gathering, and much more something like Tony Perkins having simply texted out the statement to everyone in his phone’s contact list one day, and them texting him back a thumbs-up emoji.

The statement itself is remarkable – but only for its unremarkableness.

It’s really nothing more than a bunch of the usual suspects and self-appointed mouthpieces of so-called Evangelical American Christianity repeating their harmful anti-LGBTQ understanding of the faith, as if people hadn’t already heard those views ad nauseum. The group must have been thinking that they hadn’t gotten enough media coverage lately, so they repackaged their hate and ignorance in the confession format used by many religious groups who were speaking to past historic crises.

In the days since its release, there have been countless responses and counter-statements issued – I’ve read at least half a dozen, and actually signed two. I haven’t had time to offer any thoughts about it until now, because a.) I have a day job, and blogging isn’t it; and b.) I wondered, and frankly still do, if responding to these dead-theologians-walking only served to give them more attention than they deserve. Watching the massive human tragedy unfolding in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey makes me additionally ambivalent about the appropriateness responding to these theological and moral pygmies .

One of the responses that I read was John Pavlovitz’s, titled The Nashville Statement (A Plain Language Translation). I like John’s writing, and this was a good piece, but I have to admit I was thinking based on its title, the article would be more of a point-by-point translation of the Statement’s various Articles out of religious jargon and into plain language that people other than theology nerds could clearly understand. Since he didn’t go in that direction, I thought I’d try to do that now. So here goes. The original Nashville Statement text is in lavender, the definitive gay color, just to tick off its homophobic authors; the translation follows in black.

Article 1

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.

WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

[Translation] God designed marriage for the purpose of conceiving and giving birth to children – so you gays can’t have a legitimate marriage because you can’t have kids.

Don’t remind us that many heterosexual couples choose not to have children, and we consider their marriages valid. Same with heterosexual couples who can’t have children due to age or other biological reasons.

Don’t tell us that every day, we accept as valid the marriages of heterosexual couples who got married in entirely secular settings, or in religious traditions other than our own, and we consider them perfectly acceptable. We’ll plug our ears and say “LALALALALALALA!”

Don’t point out to us that the concept of an unchanging, universal definition of marriage in the Bible is a complete myth, or that Biblical characters’ marriages were completely at odds with modern American cultural norms, or that there are many Christians even today whose understanding of marriage is very different from our own. Plugging our ears again. Just stop it.

And don’t talk to us about gay couples who adopt, providing homes for the unwanted children of heterosexual procreation. Really, just don’t go there, because it’s better for those kids to grow up without loving parents than to be exposed to gay couples living in ways that will make the kids think we’re crazy when we claim that their parents’ lives are immoral and ungodly. Don’t show us the mountain of research that shows that kids raised by gay parents are just as psychologically well-adjusted as those raised by straight couples. Besides, we really know all those homos just want to have sex with those children, and recruit them into their immoral lifestyle.

Article 2

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

[Translation] Sex bad, except within straight marriage, and as we define it. Any other expression of our sexual selves – man, we hate to even say the word “sex” – is absolutely unacceptable. If we have to live our entire lives saddled with guilt because we went all the way with Tammy with the big boobs in the back seat of our car after our Young Life meeting when we were teenagers; or because we’ve been secretly engaging in sex in department store men’s rooms and out-of-town gay bathhouses in order to maintain our straight conservative religious public image, then we’re going to drag you right down into the guilt-pit with us. And while those of us who are straight at least have marriage as an acceptable avenue to enjoy sex, you gays get no such option. You are, by definition, immoral, so you shouldn’t have any moral or legal way to express your chosen lifestyle. We’re going to keep trying to get you to feel that guilt, whether you interpret the Bible the way we do or not, because we make our livings by setting ourselves up as the authority figures who must be revered and obeyed in order for us to use our special mojo with God to absolve you of all that guilt that we’ve instilled.

Article 3

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.

WE DENY that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.

[Translation] Despite the overwhelming, incontrovertible scientific evidence to the contrary, we still stick our heads in the sand and believe that the allegorical biblical creation accounts first composed by pre-scientific nomadic tribesman is historical, scientific fact that tells us everything we need to know about human origins, biology, and anthropology, and God’s attitude about that in complete detail.

We refuse to accept the fact that every year, in one out of every 2,000 births worldwide, the child is born intersex, with genitals that aren’t clearly either male or female. Beyond so-called intersex cases, we refuse to accept the overwhelming positions of medical, psychiatric, and other professional organizations that affirm that gender identity is not decisively determined by physical plumbing; and that it isn’t an exclusively binary reality.

We believe that the Bible mandates a God-designed system where men are at the top of the pyramid (men must be created most in the image of God, since the Bible calls God “he”), and that women must defer and be subservient to men, and that we can treat women as unequal subordinates in countless ways; while simultaneously claiming that aren’t treating them unequally at all, just differently, and we can claim that this is treating them with dignity. We’re tempted here to use the term “separate but equal,” but that language didn’t work out well for us in a previous attempt to treat another group of people “differently.”

Article 4

WE AFFIRM that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.

WE DENY that such differences are a result of the Fall or are a tragedy to be overcome.

[Translation] Even though we believe God is omnipotent and that God’s being and image transcends actual sex and gender, we believe that when setting out to create human beings in the divine image, he (see?) is restricted to only two options, despite the scientific evidence previously referred to regarding actual human sexual orientation and gender. It’s just a black and white issue, because of the whole Adam-and-Eve-is-science thing, so don’t confuse us with your so-called facts, by so-called experts who all graduated from godless, secular institutions rather than the good, conservative, Bible-based institutions we prefer.

Also, we have to say that we disagree with the belief that transgenderism is a now a biological reality different from God’s original plan in creation as a result of “the Fall”/the entry of sin in the world; and that we now need to establish new rules to lovingly accommodate this new reality.

We have to say that we disagree with this idea because we know that some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters have carved out this “Plan B/new reality” way to still cling to the idea of biblical inerrancy, while finding a way to justify being more welcoming to LGBTQ people.

In reality, though, we know that most (alleged) Christians who are “welcoming and affirming” to LGBTQ people have long since moved past that position. They’ve come to the shameful conclusion that there is nothing sinful whatsoever about people being, and living authentically, as LGBTQ; that this is simply part of the normal variation seen in the full spectrum of humanity – all of whom have been created in God’s own image. That is unacceptable heresy to us; you cannot believe this and be considered by us to be a real Christian. Refer to Article 10.

Article 5

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.

[Translation] As we said, gender is a black and white thing – and God doesn’t make mistakes. Don’t confuse us with medical reality. And don’t raise the question that if God doesn’t make mistakes, how do we explain any number of birth anomalies, and why do we routinely engage in surgery and other interventions in order to fix these things without denouncing them as second-guessing God’s will. Stop now, or we’ll plug our ears again.

Article 6

[NS] WE AFFIRM that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers. They are acknowledged by our Lord Jesus in his words about “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.” With all others they are welcome as faithful followers of Jesus Christ and should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.

WE DENY that ambiguities related to a person’s biological sex render one incapable of living a fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ.

[Translation] If we have to grudgingly admit to the reality of people being born intersex, then our advice is to just do your best to be a man or a woman – until we disagree with the way you’re doing it. And if surgeons opt to give you the genitals of one gender but you end up feeling like the other, we don’t want to hear about it. Just suck it up and act as we tell you, since it’s all just a choice anyway.

We have to say that a person’s gender identity doesn’t preclude them from living a “fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ” because a.) we don’t understand that our opponents don’t even remotely believe this; and b.) part of “joyful obedience to Christ” in our eyes is you not living as LGBTQ, since we think that’s a choice that’s contrary to Christ’s teaching. As we said, it’s a choice, and a sinful one that you need to get rid of if you want to be obedient to and accepted by Christ and God, but if you just pray hard enough and live right, God will take away from you. We refuse to recognize the appalling number of suicides of religious youth and adults who, wracked with guilt over being LGBTQ, had tried to “pray the gay away” for years – and when that didn’t work, came to believe that God had rejected them, so they killed themselves.

None of that matters, because upholding our concepts of religious orthodoxy and never admitting that we might be in error trump any evidence to the contrary gleaned from human existence that contradicts our interpretation of scripture. You just have to get right with God, the way we tell you, and God will fix you – and if he doesn’t, it’s your fault.

Article 7

[NS] WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.

WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

[Translation] Yes, we know we’ve already been making these exact same points in previous Articles. But we had one stubborn person who threw a tantrum and refused to sign the statement unless we used his language, so we threw it in here just to placate him. Plus, if we have more Articles, it makes us look like our argument is more complex and thoughtful than just saying we’re homophobic and want to be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people once and being done with it.

Article 8

[NS] WE AFFIRM that people who experience sexual attraction for the same sex may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ, as they, like all Christians, walk in purity of life.

WE DENY that sexual attraction for the same sex is part of the natural goodness of God’s original creation, or that it puts a person outside the hope of the gospel.

[Translation] If you feel attraction for someone of the same sex, it’s inherently evil and you must never physically express that attraction. You can live a “rich and fruitful life pleasing to God” just like us, as long as you deny and push down those feelings and never act on them, no matter how miserable, psychologically and physically unhealthy, or even suicidal, it may make you feel.

We uphold this belief, which is at the core of all “Reparative Therapy” programs, which have been denounced by all responsible medical, psychiatric, psychological, and other professional organizations as dangerously abusive and unnecessary; and which have been banned in multiple states as health threats. We still hold this belief because we don’t really trust in any findings based on higher learning or professional expertise when they contradict our own narrow believes about the nature, authority, and interpretation of the Bible.

Article 9

[NS] WE AFFIRM that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality — a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.

WE DENY that an enduring pattern of desire for sexual immorality justifies sexually immoral behavior.

[Translation] We know that people have what we would call sinful – and others might simply call unhealthy or inappropriate – sexual urges and attractions. We choose to consider homosexuality and transgenderism as merely other forms of unhealthy, inappropriate, sinful sexual expression, because they aren’t part of what we’ve been raised and taught to understand. We refuse to consider that our ways of understanding and interpreting the Bible might be wrong, because that would create uncertainty and anxiety in our lives that would cause us to question other matters of faith that we consider essential. Without that certainty, we aren’t sure what our own lives even are, so we will force you to repress and feel guilt over your reality in order to preserve feeling good about our own.

Article 10

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

[Translation] Not only is being LGBTQ sinful, being welcoming and inclusive and approving of LGBTQ people is, too. It puts a person outside the pale of being a Christian – you simply cannot approve of LGBTQ people living full, honest, authentic lives and consider yourself a Christian, period, let alone a good Christian.

Article 11

[NS] WE AFFIRM our duty to speak the truth in love at all times, including when we speak to or about one another as male or female.

WE DENY any obligation to speak in such ways that dishonor God’s design of his image-bearers as male and female.

[Translation] Don’t talk to us about “preferred pronouns.” We demand the right to speak to you and about you in whatever way we want, regardless of whether it offends you or isn’t the way you wish to be referred to. We will call you a he or a she, a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, based on what we believe, not what you or health care professionals say. We’ll do it while telling you we love you, and that we’re just administering “tough love.” We’ll do it, with all the smug self-righteousness of saying that we’re carrying out God’s will, and upholding God’s standards in a sinful world, because we know best. And if you don’t like it, too bad.

Article 12

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ is insufficient to forgive all sexual sins and to give power for holiness to every believer who feels drawn into sexual sin.

[Translation] This is another one of those places where we’re repeating ourselves in order to placate a cranky signatory. We’ve covered this territory already, but yes, to repeat, what LGBTQ people are doing is wrong, and they need to stop it, and God will change them if they just pray long enough, hard enough, and in the right way.

Article 13

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions and by divine forbearance to accept the God-ordained link between one’s biological sex and one’s self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-conceptions that are at odds with God’s revealed will.

[Translation] Really, just rehashing the same point here again. This whole thing masquerading as a confession is really just a sermon filled with red meat for our followers, and we think that the main point of a sermon needs to be repeated several times in order to drive it home, so here it is again.

Article 14

[NS] WE AFFIRM that Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners and that through Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness of sins and eternal life are available to every person who repents of sin and trusts in Christ alone as Savior, Lord, and supreme treasure.

WE DENY that the Lord’s arm is too short to save or that any sinner is beyond his reach.

[Translation] And to us, every good sermon has to end with an altar call, so here’s ours. Cue Just As I Am, without One Plea. Or in this case, maybe not that particular hymn.

***

Religious people seem to love putting out these kinds of confessions and statements. Some of them are good. Some of them have been milestones in history. Others, like this one, are just mind-numbingly tired, boring, hateful, and counter-Christian statements made by self-righteous blowhards who want to pose as the defenders and arbiters of the True Faith.

For some reason, we religious folk seem inclined to name these pronouncements after the city that gave birth to them. This time, it was Nashville, a fact not at all appreciated by the city itself. In 1924, a group of Presbyterian church leaders issued the Auburn Affirmation, having been drafted at the Presbyterian seminary that existed in Auburn, New York at the time. The Auburn Affirmation was a scathing denouncement of the beliefs that Fundamentalists and Evangelicals considered mandatory to orthodox, true, Christian belief. The first of those teachings – the inerrancy of scripture – is at the root of modern-day Evangelicals’ harmful attitudes toward LGBTQ people and their refusal to consider what’s become obvious to so many others: that LGBTQ people, in the totality of their being, including their sexual orientation, are created just as much in the image of God as anyone else; that God blesses them in their sexual expression and their committed covenantal relationships equally with heterosexuals; that God blesses and encourages transgender people trying to become the people they were intended to be regardless of the vagaries of merely physical characteristics – and finally, that the beliefs expressed in the Nashville Statement are just reheated nonsense, served up by people desperately trying to shore up their relevance in a world that has left them and their beliefs behind.