Sunday, November 15, 2015

Truth, Lord, Yet the Dogs Eat of the Crumbs...

My initial reaction to the new LDS Church Handbook of Instructions' directives regarding the children of gay couples was something akin to horror. Excommunicating individuals in same-sex marriages was one thing, but why exclude the kids? Wasn't that directly contradictory to the Savior's own teaching regarding children, that his disciples should suffer them to come unto him?

But as I began to reflect more deeply on precisely what the Church is doing through this policy clarification, it dawned on me that this situation is far more complex than it appears either to conservatives or liberals in Mormondom. The piece of this policy which is new -- the policy excluding children of same-sex couples from membership in the Church -- is the piece that both conservatives and liberals have had the most difficulty understanding. Many conservatives have leapt to the defense of the policy by suggesting it is about protecting children from confusing contradictions, or because the children of gay couples are analogous to the children of polygamists. But as I will explain briefly in a bit, neither of those explanations really hold up to scrutiny. Liberals, on the other hand, have viewed that part of the policy as a desperate attempt on the part of Church leaders to insulate the Church from pro-gay thinking, though, as I will also explain, that also doesn't really hold up either.

There are scriptural texts that read on this policy, and they are neither Matthew 19:13-14 ("the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, suffer little children...") nor Declaration No. 1. They are Mark 7:25-30 / Matthew 15:22 -28. These are texts which I think neither conservatives nor liberals will be inclined to read on the new policy on children, even though it seems to me the text most analogous to this situation.

Matthew and Mark both offer an account of a Gentile woman who comes to Jesus seeking a blessing for her daughter, and being rebuffed and refused by Jesus, who explains to her that "it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs" (Mark 7:27). Here's the full version of the story as recounted in Matthew:
And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (emphasis is mine)
This perplexing story doesn't fit the nice, liberal paradigm of a fuzzy, warm Jesus who blesses everybody regardless of race or sexual orientation. In fact, it's hard not to read this text without cringing at Jesus' seeming insult to the woman based on her nationality. But neither does it fit the conservative paradigm of Jesus loving everybody while drawing a hard line against sin. Here, sin has nothing to do with Jesus' act of exclusion. And Jesus, in the end blesses the child because of the woman's persistent and humble faith (though he might not have blessed, if the woman had not persevered). Liberals will fret about this text, because to them it looks like Jesus is unnecessarily toying with or testing someone rather than immediately giving her what she needs for the well-being of her child. Conservatives will reject the application of this text to the new policy on the kids of gay couples because the scope of the Church's work was eventually broadened to encompass Gentiles, something they refuse to consider as possible in relation to gays. But I say, what if what is going on here in terms of the new policy is more complex (and wonderful) than what either liberals or conservatives are willing to countenance at the moment?

Something dawned on me one morning as I reflected on the question: "But... Why the children?" The argument about protecting the children from contradictory and confusing messages makes no sense. There is not a single child in the world who is not already bombarded by a host of messages that contradict what they learn in the home. America has always been roiled in controversy about what kids are taught in schools. Kids learn stuff on the playground, on TV and on the Internet that horrify most parents, gay and straight. LDS parents, of all parents, should know that you simply can't protect kids against contradictory messages. It makes even less sense given that LDS leaders have said children of gay couples are certainly welcome to attend church; just not be members of it. How will that not send a confusing or contradictory message to these kids?

Nor does the argument about kids of gay couples being analogous to kids of polygamous couples make much sense. The reason for that earlier prohibition was rooted in the Church's complicated history with polygamy, a practice based on a doctrine which the Church has never formally disavowed. Kids of gay couples are not going to grow up and enter same-sex marriages (unless they are gay). There's no need for them to "disavow" the practice in order guarantee that they won't enter into it themselves.

Liberals have been arguing that since neither of those rationales for the policy make sense, the only reasonable remaining explanation is the LDS Church hierarchy's animus against gay people, and its desire to keep pro-gay sentiment out of the Church. Exclude the kids and you will not only drive the parents away, but also prevent members of the Church from seeing that not only are gay couples normal, but their kids are just as well adjusted and happy as everyone else's.

I do not find that liberal argument compelling first because of personal experience with the Church's hierarchy that persuades me they in fact hold no animus against gay people: quite the contrary. But also, because I know that growing numbers of Church members already view their gay family members and neighbors in very positive terms, and I do not believe that Church leaders are naive enough to think it will be possible (or even necessarily desirable) to prevent pro-gay attitudes from spreading in the Church.

Defining same-sex marriage as apostasy has also upset liberal Mormons and the LGBT community. The upset is understandable, given the extremely pejorative connotations of the word "apostate" in Mormon circles. But in the strictest sense, the term apostasy is used by the LDS Church simply to differentiate between what is doctrine and what is not. Its purpose is to uphold the teaching authority of the Church, not to classify people in negative terms. And what this policy clarification does is simply to affirm what Church leaders have repeatedly stated in every major recent pronouncement on this subject: that same-sex marriage stands outside the official doctrine of the church. No one should be surprised by this. This is not news.

But in the flurry of arguments about whether the policy relating to the children of gay couples is discriminatory or not and whether it was motivated by animus, people have failed to recognize that the new policy, by addressing the status of children, seems to be the church's first ever recognition that gay couples and their children constitute a family unit. It is albeit a family unit that stands outside the doctrine of the Church. But this recognition, to me, is the only thing that makes sense of the policy as it relates to children.

This simultaneous strengthening of the doctrinal position and the recognition of a kind of integrity of gay families is particularly poignant, given the LDS Church view of salvation as something that happens in and through families. Does this point to a gap between the doctrine as it is currently articulated, and the fullness of human experience, as manifested in gay families?

If it does, this is where Biblical texts related to the New Testament "grafting in" of the Gentiles (such as the story of the "woman of Canaan") become interesting. Mormon liberals frequently compare today's LGBT concerns to the LDS Church's problem of blacks and the priesthood. But in terms of the theological challenge, the relationship of LGBT people to the Church looks much more like the relationship between Gentiles and the Church in ancient times. Unlike the exclusion of blacks from Priesthood ordination in modern times, Gentiles were not excluded in the ancient Church on the basis of race or lineage. Gentiles could join the Church, but in order to do so, they had to submit to the Mosaic law and be circumcised, among other things. What was momentous about the revelation Peter received in Acts 10, and the subsequent baptism of the Gentile Cornelius and his entire household (everyone who claimed his home as their primary residence?), was that it set aside the law that the Church abided at that time. (The Lord to Peter: "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.") The subsequent confusion caused by Peter's precipitous baptism of Cornelius was later clarified at the Council of Jerusalem (described in Acts 15). It was no longer necessary for Gentiles (or anyone) to submit to the Mosaic law in order to be a member of the Church.

Like pre-Jerusalem-Council Gentiles, modern gays can be members of the Church, but in order to do so they must submit to ecclesiastical law that forbids them from having intimate relationships or legal same-sex marriage. The only scriptural law currently prohibiting homosexual behavior is found in the Book of Leviticus, part of the very law that the Council of Jerusalem set aside.

I don't think Christ in the Mark 7 / Matthew 15 texts was merely testing the faith of the woman of Canaan. He was making a clear cut statement about the scope of his ministry, in much the same way, I think, that the LDS Church's current handbook policy regarding gay families does. The exchange between Jesus and the woman about bread, children, crumbs and dogs revealed that saving faith was not confined to the children of Israel; and it was at the point where the nature of this particular woman's faith revealed itself that Christ literally could no longer withhold the blessing from her. "Her daughter was made whole from that very hour."

Another core principle of the Gospel that applies in this situation has to do with the Lord's declaration that he is "no respecter of persons." Regardless of our status in or out of the Church, we are all equal in the sight of God. The happenstances of race or lineage or economic station or gender or sexual orientation or whatever other incidentals that make differences between us in this world are all part of the "person," the outward aspect, that God does not look upon. "For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). In D&C section 1, the Lord says "I am no respecter of persons," but he contrasts that declaration with a world order in which "the devil shall have power over his own dominion," before the Lord "shall reign [in the midst of the Saints], and shall come down in judgment upon Idumea, or the world" (vs. 35-36). Does the Lord remind us that he is no respecter of persons here to emphasize that one of the primary sins of the world upon which he shall come down in judgment is its elevation of the outward over the inward, of the superficial over the substantial, of the "person" over the eternal? Perhaps a necessary precursor to the Lord's coming down will be to eliminate those worldly distinctions from our midst, a work still in progress.

The LDS Church hierarchy has named members of the LGBT community "apostates," something on a par with Jesus referring to Gentiles as "dogs." There may still be, even in the wake of this policy clarification which has cut so many so deeply, LGBT Mormons in same-sex relationships who are willing to persevere in faith within the LDS community. My sense is that if we do, there will be blessings Christ cannot possibly withhold from us or, for that matter, our children.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Prayer of a Gay Mormon Son, Brother, and Dad

Dear Father in Heaven:

I thank you that I always have recourse to you, that in time of pain and trouble I can turn to you and you are always there for me, a never-ending source of light and love in my life. There are times when I know that I could not go on if it were not for you, and this is one of them.

I thank you that you have filled my home with light and peace in this difficult time. At a moment when I might have felt abandoned, I have felt your resplendent presence here in our home, guarding and protecting me and my husband and anyone who comes through our doors in peace, to remind me that it is you who decides who belongs to you. Thank you for making our home your temple.

I thank you that in this moment of uncertainty, people of faith and love of every race, creed and walk of life, humble and kind and wise people, have reached out to me and my husband and our family in love and concern. I thank you that I am surrounded by friends. Please make me a better friend to those who need one.

Thank you for your Spirit, which has given me words of comfort and kindness to speak to those who are mourning right now, and which has lifted me up and given strength to my limbs so that I might reach out, lift up, embrace and love. Thank you for your light unfailing that shines brighter when we share it.

Please bless our son. He has been a light to us, and we are so grateful that he has grown up to be strong, wise, and compassionate. We are so proud that he knows who he is, and is not afraid. We are so proud that he has chosen a profession of service to others, and that his greatest desire is to protect the weak and the voiceless. We are so grateful that he has found someone to love him and be his companion through life, who cares for him and strengthens him. We are thankful for our son-in-law, who is gentle and kind and joyful, and who brings joy to everyone whose life is touched by his. Please bless them both, protect them against life's dangers and challenges. Show them the way of life.

Please comfort our straight parents and siblings, all our family and friends who are afraid and confused and in mourning right now. Please reassure them so that they will know we are OK. We have been trying to reassure them, but they are still grieving. So please reassure them, because if it comes from you, I know they will finally be comforted. Let them not lose faith in you, or in your capacity to take sorrow and turn it to joy, to take pain and turn it to strength, to take misunderstanding and turn it to light, to gather in all the scattered and claim them as your own, to overcome hate through your love.

Please forgive those who, at this time, feel the need to heap judgment and condemnation on others. Please forgive those who think you are defended by their words of condemnation, as if you need to be defended. Please forgive those parents who are cutting off their own flesh and blood. Please forgive the ex-spouses who are now trying to tear custody of children away from their gay ex-spouses as a result of this. They know not what they do.

Please pour out your Spirit on all your gay, lesbian, bi and transgender sons and daughters. Light the path ahead of us so that we can see, even when the world is dark.

Please help us know how to comfort, strengthen and protect those of our children who are now filled with confusion and doubt as they are being told by pastors of your church that they no longer belong to your kingdom. May our constant love steady them and reassure them. May our faith and hope comfort them. Please fill them with light and make them know that you will never forsake them.

You have responded to this situation with a surfeit of love and light so that I might know that this is not about me. It is about teaching us to love each other better. Thank you.

Please teach us to love, even as your Son loved us.

In his name, Jesus Christ.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Children Think

When I was eleven years old, my dad was a stake missionary, and he would take me with him on his assignments. It was happy times for me. I loved being a missionary with my dad.

We visited a family, a single mom and her kids. Her name was Sister Martinez. She was black. She had a son named David, who was eleven years old, like I was. David was kind of shy, but I immediately liked him and wanted to be his friend.

I was eleven years old, so I was getting ready for priesthood ordination, and the first thing I thought of in relation to David was how important it was for him to get ready to be ordained too. And when I brought that up with my dad, that was when he had to explain to me: David will not get ready to be ordained. He can't be ordained. Because he's black.

There's no reasonable way a father can explain to his son why something like that is the way it is. I was eleven years old, and somehow I still hadn't learned to dislike someone or think they were less than me because their skin was a different color.

Dad couldn't explain it, and he didn't really even try. I was left to try to figure this one out for myself. A tall order for an eleven-year-old, even one getting ready to be ordained a deacon.

That one took me a few years, and a lot more maturity.


Mormon parents now get to explain to their children:

Why that little baby can't be blessed.

Why that eight-year-old child can't be baptized. (Doesn't matter how much she loves the Gospel.)

Why that eleven-year-old boy can't be ordained.

Why that nineteen-year-old young woman can't go on a mission.

I'm sure a lot of people are thinking they won't have to deal with this, because those children aren't going to be seen around church any more. But that's not the way the human heart works. By the logic of 1974 Mormonism, 11-year-old John never should have looked into the beautiful face of 11-year-old David, and wonder why the one should be ordained a deacon and the other not.

We are all interconnected, and the edicts of Handbooks don't change that.

And children do think about these things.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The New Handbook

I would not have been surprised by a change in the LDS Church's General Handbook of Instructions that required Church discipline for individuals in same-sex marriages. Many of us have actually been waiting for that shoe to drop.

I guess I was a bit surprised to see being in a same-sex marriage labeled as apostasy.

What really made my heart sink was to learn that the child of a gay couple cannot receive a name and a blessing in the Church. A child of a gay couple cannot be baptized or confirmed, ordained, or recommended for missionary service unless they are of legal age and do not live with their parents, and unless, in an interview with a Church leader they disavow the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.

It is almost as if same-sex marriage has now been officially labeled an infection that must be cut from the body at all costs. If the children can't be separated from the infected tissue, then they are cut off too.


A dear friend of mine messaged me minutes after the news hit the queer Mormon social media. "Talk me down," she pleaded, "Lots of angry tears right now."

For the first time, it was hard to see even a glimmer of a silver lining anywhere.

What really upset me was the children.

Surely the Church would never prioritize boundary maintenance over ministry to children.

I hear Jesus upbraiding his apostles, "Forbid them not to come unto me."

That to me was the sign that there must be something wrong with this. This can't be the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a culture of fear. It is cultural war.


Shock and the hurt... I was on the phone with my husband. Verbally, he shrugged his shoulders. What should I expect? I ache right now at the thought of a husband and a son permanently alienated from the Church that I love. I am shocked that because of our love, they might be forbidden to come unto Christ.

And yet, I can't feel hopeless or despondent about this. A lot of people I know were hoping to see the Church's stance on homosexuality change gradually toward greater openness, with a first step being bishops simply welcoming same-sex couples to worship without excommunicating them. I have always known, deep down inside, that progress would not occur in this way.

There has been deep and dramatic change in the LDS Church in relation to this issue: not in terms of policy or doctrine, but in terms of attitudes. Mormons have crossed a threshold that is making it increasingly impossible for them to think of their gay family members, neighbors and friends as "other," as "apostate." A critical mass of Mormons know first hand that our love doesn't look that much different from theirs, that our families are as much a shelter from the storm for us as theirs are for them. They've seen our hopes and dreams, and our faith, our love for Jesus Christ intertwined with our love for our families. They've only just started to come to grips with the cognitive dissonance that realization is creating.

The cognitive dissonance just got a lot worse.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Hobbit Love

One of Göran's and my more memorable activities was reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings together, from cover to cover. The reading was usually before bed time. I would read dramatically out loud, while Göran would snuggle up against me or rest his head on my shoulder or chest. He loved my impression of the ent Treebeard. (Ents were a magical race of giant tree-like beings that cared for the forests, and that spoke very slowly. Göran thought my version of Treebeard was better than the movies). He was also impressed by my fluent reading of Elvish text, which he attributed to the fact that I grew up speaking Finnish, the idiom that provided the template for the imaginary language that Tolkien created for his books. But what delighted us most was the hobbits.

For us there was never any question that the relationship at the center of the epic -- the relationship between Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee -- was really a gay relationship. The mutual devotion and sacrificial love of Frodo and Sam became a role model for us, an example of the kind of love we felt for each other. We knew that if one of us were ever called to go to the ends of the earth on some great adventure, it would not be possible without the other by our side, and that neither of us would hesitate to give our life for the other.

One of the really emotional moments in Peter Jackson's film adaptation of the epic for me was the scene where Frodo, wanting to spare Sam the danger of the journey into Mordor, attempts to strike out on his own by stealing a boat and paddling out across the great Anduin River. Sam finds Frodo and heads out to catch up with him, but can't swim. As it seems Sam is about to drown, Frodo reaches down and heaves Sam up into the boat where they collapse into a tearful, loving embrace, while Sam swears undying devotion to Frodo. Where you go, I will go, Sam says. From the moment I first saw that scene, it electrified me. It reduces me to a lake of tears every time I see it. That is what our love is like, I thought. Frodo and Sam was Göran and I.

I remember subsequently having a friendly argument with Sam Welter, a close friend of the family, specifically about that scene, and about hobbit love in general. Sam didn't think there was a gay subtext in Lord of the Rings. He insisted I was reading too much into Tolkien's story. (Tolkien was, after all, a devout Catholic, and married with children!) We ended by agreeing to disagree, though Sam acknowledged that he could see how gay men might read those themes into the story.

But now, a recent review by English Literature Professor David LaFontaine in The Gay and Lesbian Review, makes the case in very persuasive terms that, not only was there a gay subtext in the Lord of the rings, but that J.R.R. Tolkien himself may have experienced same sex attraction and likely felt a bond with his friend C.S. Lewis that had homoerotic elements. Those of you who are interested in reading the details of his argument should buy the November – December 2015 issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review. I'm happy to lend my copy to anyone who's interested in reading it! I won't recapitulate the specifics of his arguments here, but he points out that not only does the text have clear homoerotic themes, critics of the day ridiculed Tolkien's work precisely because of this, and Peter Jackson's film adaptation deliberately muted these elements in the text.

I remember watching the film The Fellowship of the Ring with Göran and being disappointed (though not surprised) that Jackson elided the hobbit bathing scene (which was a part of the book Göran and I very much enjoyed). But, in The Return of the King, when Sam finds Frodo with pants on in Cirith Ungol, instead of completely naked as he was in the book, Göran and I were taken aback. Why did Jackson make that directorial decision, when he could easily have found a tasteful way to portray the story as it was written? The film version makes us forget that in the book before Sam does anything else, he lovingly cradles his naked Frodo in his arms.

But what really takes the cake is the scene outside of Mount Doom, famous among gay fans of Tolkien as a portrayal of same-sex love and devotion. Again, Frodo is being tenderly cradled in the arms of Sam, as they prepare to die, and all of a sudden, Sam is going on about "Rosie Cotton dancing." What the heck....???  There's no Rosie Cotton dialog in the book. Jackson almost certainly added it to disperse the undeniable homoerotic element in the pinnacle expression of same-sex love in the three films. (Well, that and Boromir's death scene.)

If the movie, in other words, had portrayed in a more straightforward manner what was told in the books, the film almost certainly would have aroused the same homophobic wrath that Tolkien's books apparently unleashed when they first came out in the 1950s. Jackson, wanting to avoid that, tweaked the film version enough to allow plausible deniability of homo love in the films, while leaving enough in to keep gay fans of the film (like me and Göran) coming back again and again.

Last June, when Göran and I were in Oxford, England, we made a point of visiting the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien and Lewis met to discuss their writing projects. Little did I know that we were visiting a place that maybe ought to be listed in the gay tour books!