Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part one)

Ted Grimsrud

The place where I have been working since 1996, Eastern Mennonite University, is currently engaged in a “listening process.” This process is meant to provide input for the school’s leadership as it considers making an overt policy of non-discrimination in relation to hiring faculty and staff who are in “covenanted same-sex relationships.” In the public statements concerning this process, the main rationale that has been given for changing hiring practices has been, it seems, that people in the EMU community disagree about these issues, that increasing numbers of new hires at EMU express disagreement with the assumed position of Mennonite Church USA (owner of EMU) that covenanted same-sex relationships are sinful, and a sense that younger people (i.e., including prospective EMU students) are less likely to share the restrictive views of the older generation.

This process is explicitly not about considering these issues from a theological framework. This is from one of the FAQs on the EMU website: “It is not our desire in this listening process to enter into theological debate when some of the most respected theologians and church leaders do not agree on interpretation. Rather, it is our desire to focus on relationships and prayer in a way that reflects the life and love of Christ in the midst of deeply held beliefs and values.”

However, since I am a Mennonite theologian (teaching in the Bible and Religion Department at EMU and an ordained Mennonite pastor), I can’t help but think about these issues theologically. So I want to articulate a theological rationale for EMU to quit discriminating. One reason that I think such a rationale is important for EMU’s consideration is my sense that the only possible reason for discrimination is theological (that is, that God declares such relationships to be sinful). So, this is inherently theological terrain that cannot be navigated without, we could say, a theological compass.

I call my view “inclusive,” as opposed to “restrictive.” That is, I support non-discrimination; straight and gay Christians should have the same set of expectations concerning sexual ethics. If we say that full sexual intimacy is acceptable in the context of marriage (or its equivalent), then that conviction should apply equally for gay people and straight people. That is, if we approve sexual intimacy in marriage for straights we should do likewise with gays. If we oppose sex outside of marriage for straights, we should do likewise for gays.

Moral analogies

As a way of thinking about the moral issues, let me suggest several possible analogies (recognizing the inevitability of over-simplification here and throughout this discussion): adultery, alcoholism, birth defects, left-handedness.

(1) For some, a deep-seated affectional attraction toward a person of one’s same sex is morally analogous to adultery. The parallel would be that it is totally a choice; one is fully morally culpable for this inclination, and to feel this way is a sin. To be attracted to one of the same sex, and especially to act on that attraction, is simply a wrong choice and is to be condemned.

(2) For others, same-sex attraction is morally analogous to the inclination toward alcoholism. Just as, it is said, some people are susceptible to being alcoholic in ways others are not, some people are attracted to others of their same sex. The inclination toward being an alcoholic is not itself sinful, but one should never act on it. When you start to drink, you cross the line and act in sin. Likewise with same-sex affectional attraction. The inclination is not sinful, but to act on it is. Both analogy #1 and analogy #2 would lead to an affirmation of the need to restrict the acceptance of gays—that is, for example, they would both tend to be supportive of discriminatory employment practices.

(3) A third analogy would be with a significant birth defect. I had a friend whose son had muscular dystrophy. My friend used this analogy. It was not at all a moral defect, there was nothing immoral about having this condition. But it was not desirable. However, it was real and the family’s commitment was to help their son live a full life as much as possible. Analogously, same-sex attraction is not a moral defect and a person with such attraction should be encouraged to find a partner and live a full life—even if this is not a desirable orientation. In this analogy, there should not be employment practices that discriminate against those in same-sex marriages.

(4) A fourth analogy, which is what I affirm, is to see parallels between same-sex attraction and left-handedness. Even though in the past, left-handedness was seen as problematic (even morally problematic) and something to change, today we see it as simply totally a morally neutral characteristic that some people have. We don’t really understand where it comes from, and we recognize a spectrum. Some are profoundly left-handed, others comfortably use both hands and feet for different tasks, most are strictly right-handed. We accept left-handedness as normal and even as an advantage at times.

If we think of affectional orientation as completely morally neutral, we will then approach sexual ethics as being the same for heterosexual people, for bi-sexual people, and for homosexual people. The priority for the community of faith will then be to encourage intimate relationships that are life-giving and to oppose behavior that is not life-giving—with the same expectations for mutuality, fidelity, and respect within intimate relationships.

And, if we think of affectional orientation as completely morally neutral, we will strive to resist ways cultures and religious groups do discriminate against and in other ways cause harm to sexual minorities. Churches and other Christian groups should welcome gay Christians as full members and as active leaders with the same moral expectations that are held for straight members and leaders.

The place of the Bible

I affirm these convictions because I think they follow from biblical teaching and because they are theologically grounded. I am troubled by the way discussions on these themes tend to go in Christian circles—where the two options that both sides seem to accept are either believe in the Bible and think theologically (in which case one will take a restrictive stance) or don’t give the Bible priority nor think theologically and ground one’s acceptance of sexual minorities on other criteria (such as human rights, tolerance for difference, the general principle of kindness). That is, both sides seem often to agree that, of course, the Bible does condemn “homosexuality” and if we followed the Bible we would, of course, practice discrimination in areas such as EMU’s hiring practices.

I want to sketch here an approach that bases its welcoming and non-discriminatory stance on the Bible. If we follow the Bible, I believe, we will have no choice but to be welcoming without qualification toward those in same-sex marriages.

In fact (again at the risk of over-simplification) I think there is no necessary correlation between the level of importance or authority one gives the Bible and one’s position on the inclusive/restrictive spectrum.

Consider this kind of quadrant:

(1) Upper-left—Bible as central, restrictive

(2) Lower-left—Bible as peripheral, restrictive

(3) Upper-right—Bible as central, inclusive

(4) Lower-right—Bible as peripheral, inclusive

Perhaps #1 and #4 are the most common approaches (#1 being a stereotypical evangelical and #4 being a stereotypical liberal). However, #2 is not uncommon. This would be where many Catholics, especially, who place a high value on natural law and don’t attend to the Bible that much, would best fit. And #3 is a growing category—this would be where many somewhat theologically conservative Protestants would be, a group growing rapidly especially among younger evangelicals.

What follows works from within the #3 framework: “Bible as central, inclusive.”

The biblical story

The central point for a biblically-based embrace of gay marriage is simply the general theme of the Bible—which is the expansive inclusiveness of God seeking to counter the human proclivity toward idolatry and its resultant injustice and violence. This inclusiveness is oriented around God’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, the people especially in need of healing and shalom. God’s “strategy” is to form a people, to show that people wholeness and peace, and to empower that people to share this wholeness and peace with the world.

The most important attribute of this people is hospitality and healing love. Because the community itself needs to be healthy, the inclusiveness is characterized by a moral rigor that calls members to lives of respect, holiness, compassion, and faithfulness. Hence, standards for fidelity in marriage, for example, are necessary and appropriate—as are expected virtues such as honesty, non-covetousness, and generosity. But the basic dynamic is one of welcome, of expansive inclusiveness, of offering all who would come a place of healing and belonging.

Let me cite just a few examples of this dynamic from throughout the Bible.

The beginning of the people of God comes when God calls Abraham and Sarah, themselves vulnerable outsiders, to parent a people who will bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12). This vocation provides the basic story line for the rest of the Bible (both the successes and the failures). The prophetic vision recounted both in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 of people from all the nations journeying to Mt. Zion to learn the ways of peace and to beat their swords into plowshares characterizes this inclusive vocation.

When Abraham and Sarah’s descendants find themselves enslaved in Egypt, God intervenes and brings them liberation. The exodus story establishes God’s preferential option for the vulnerable as all these slaves had going for them was their crying out for help. God responds and establishes the template for what follows—God is a God who cares for the vulnerable and intervenes on their behalf against those who dominate and oppress.

Following the exodus, the Hebrews’ human leader, Moses, receives from God the directives for how this peoplehood should order its common life. These directives, Torah, make as one of their particular distinctives over against the ways of the Egyptian empire the special priority that is placed on care for vulnerable within the community—widows, orphans, strangers (or, perhaps more accurately, immigrants), the vulnerable in general.

The centrality of this concern for inclusion or hospitality of the vulnerable is underscored in how the story tells of what happens when such hospitality is missing. One of the main points of contention that prophets such as Amos made in critiquing the way of life within Israel was the injustice and disregard in relation to poor and vulnerable people. Such injustice actually becomes the main cause of the failure and ultimate demise of the Israeli kingdom in the Old Testament.

Jesus continue in the prophetic tradition when he challenged the Israel of his day. One of his sharpest points was the disregard toward the vulnerable among his people. He confronted this disregard with his teaching—but also with his counter-testimony. Jesus made a point of reaching out specifically to the marginalized, the vulnerable, the excluded. His was a message of inclusion—God’s kingdom is for all who want to enter it.

Jesus certainly expected a high level of faithfulness of his followers and challenged those who were unfaithful. However, almost always he aimed his critique at people with power who hurt others by their exclusiveness and disrespect. In a story such as the woman caught in adultery, Jesus got in the way of the enforcers of “purity” in the community and exposed their hypocrisy and disrespect. After his welcome and gift of forgiveness, he challenged the woman to live faithfully—but not as a condition of his acceptance. In another story, he allows his feet to be washed by a “woman of the city” (prostitute) and offered forgiveness unconditionally without any hint of a qualification or demand for particular behavior.

Following Jesus, the early church practiced a ministry of inclusion, most notably the opening of what had begun as a Jews-only community to non-Jewish believers. The dramatic account in Acts 15 tells of the debate over such inclusion and the conclusion that God’s message of welcome to all with faith in Jesus took priority over more exclusive traditions. Paul became the “apostle to the Gentiles” and, famously, made the assertion that there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, but we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). The message of inclusion reaches its fulfillment in the book of Revelation with visions in several places in the book of the celebration of the Lamb’s triumph by countless multitudes “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).

The biblical message of inclusion and welcome establishes a strong benefit of the doubt in favor of the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in congregations and other Christian organizations. If there is to be some kind of discrimination that excludes, say, a married gay or lesbian person from employment at a Christian college such as EMU, we should expect the bases for such discrimination to be extraordinarily clear and well-grounded.

[Part Two of this post is here]

5 thoughts on “Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part one)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s