NYOJoe 002: A book on the church’s silence about and complicity with racism, challenged me to no longer remain quiet about LGBTQIA inclusion in the church.
Show notes & links
- “Did you say ‘social fedia meeds’?” Yes. Apparently I did.
- Blog post: Racism is not ‘someone else’s’ problem
- The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
- ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ by MLK
- How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
- Race Matters by Cornel West
- 1 Corinthians 12
- Ephesians 6
Welcome to Not Your Ordinary Joe, a podcast about living a faithful, Christian life in the real worldâ€¦ hereâ€¦ now. No easy answers allowed.
Reflecting on a book I recently finished, echo chambers and a memory from my seminary days, has me thinking about speaking up, especially about LGBTQIA inclusion in the church.
My name is Joe Iovino, and I am NOT your ordinary Joe.
If you have read any of the descriptions of Not Your Ordinary Joe, youâ€™ve learned that my primary goal is to wrestle honestly with difficult questions and topicsâ€”things Iâ€™m thinking about, learning about, struggling with. Sometimes it may be something Iâ€™ve always been taught or thought must be understood or believed in a certain wayâ€”but Iâ€™m having a hard time with it.
So while I have several easier topics ready to record, I thought I should dive in here in episode 2 and give you a sense of what I want to do. Please know that not every episode is going to be as intense, but letâ€™s get it started.
In recent days, I have been struggling with the idea of complicityâ€”the complicity of the church and frankly my ownâ€”by not having the courage to stand up and be counted. In my recent readings of Ibram X. Kendi, Cornel West, and a rereading of Martin Luther King Jrâ€™s â€˜Letter from Birmingham Jail,â€™ Iâ€™ve been reminded how the silence of the churchâ€”our unwillingness to say what might be unpopular with some of our members, friends, colleaguesâ€”has allowed evils of oppression, like slavery, racism and sexism to continue.
In his book The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Churchâ€™s Complicity with Racism, Jemar Tisby puts it succinctly, â€œBeing complicit,â€ he writes, â€œonly requires a muted response in the face of injustice or uncritical support of the status quo.â€
Then in the last few pages of that book, he continues, â€œToo many Christian leaders refuse to use their platforms to publicly speak against racism. Those who do tend to speak in generalitiesâ€¦ More Christians, particularly people with large platforms, must be willing to take the criticism that comes with taking a prominent stance against bigotry.â€
As a Christian with a platform, I was challenged when I read those lines. And in many ways, that section of Tisbyâ€™s book is the spark that moved this podcast from something I had been talking about for months, to becoming the reality you are listening to now.
I want to use my small platform to come out from the silence. To speak to what I believe God has placed on my heart. To share what I have been thinking about for days, weeks, months and often years regarding LGBTQIA inclusion.
So, since silence is complicity, I need to speak out. To clearly say that I am for LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. We should drop any objections that bar people from membership, leadership, marriage or in any other way limit the participation of anyone due to their sexuality.
How did I get to this place? Let me begin with a confession.
For a long time, I have been silent on this issue. I hinted, but never spoke out about where I stand. When asked about it, my default was that if an alumnus of one of my youth groups asked me to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony, I would make the decision at that time. Secretly, however, I always hoped it would never come to that, and thatâ€™s embarrassing to admit.
Standing up to the church, putting my clergy credentialsâ€”my livelihoodâ€”on the line, seemed foolhardy at best. But I also knew there were â€˜kidsâ€™ I wouldnâ€™t be able to say no to. So I hedged. I stalled. I tried to be the welcoming pastor to the LGBTQIA people I knew, but Iâ€™m guessing they saw right through it to my fear.
Thatâ€™s not to say I have always been in this place. Over the years, my thinking has changed. Iâ€™ve grown.
It started for me in seminary, from a place that might sound a bit strange, but hang with me.
As a student in the late 1980s, I was still questioning the validity of female clergyâ€”I told you, strange place. Itâ€™s so embarrassing to admit that at 23 years old, I wasnâ€™t sure about whether it was OK for women to be pastors. I was raised in what I have come to learn was a fairly conservative United Methodist church, or at least the youth group was.
Then, sitting in a seminary preaching class, I had a lightning bolt moment.
A young woman was sharing a sermon that moved me. Her primary illustration was the day her husband proposed to her. I donâ€™t remember all of the details, but the sermon had to do with electionâ€”I went to a Presbyterian seminaryâ€”and I remember it being beautiful, one of those moments when you get chills because you sense something divine taking place in your presence.
She talked about what it felt like to have someone say they wanted to commit themselves to her, and to ask if she would commit to him also.
What an amazing way to think about Jesusâ€™ invitation to follow him. Itâ€™s been more than 30 years, and I still think about that from time to time.
As a man, a single man at the time, I immediately recognized that this was an experience I was never going to have. This was a sermon I would never be able to preach. What a gift to hear and be challenged to think anew about Godâ€™s love for me and commitment to me.
Within a moment or two, I wondered what the church would be missing out on if this woman was not permitted to pursue her call to ministry. That thought challenged what I had heard (overtly or just absorbed) as an objection to female clergy.
What is it about my Y chromosome that makes me inherently more fit for clergy status than someone without it? Why wouldnâ€™t I want to hear more from the perspective of this thoughtful, gifted preacher? And others like her?
Before long, the whole debate over female clergy was over for me. I knew that any rules prohibiting women from being ordained were not only foolish, but actually harmful to myâ€”and many othersâ€”spiritual growth.
What would the church be missing out on? What were we missing?
Today I wonder, What are we missing when we refuse to listen to those who are different from us?
The echo chamber
In the 60s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr identified 11 oâ€™clock on Sunday morning as one of the most segregated hours in America. Little has changed in the more than 50 years since. When we go to church, not only are we racially segregated, but we are also often economically, politically, and theologically segregated as well. That should not be.
We know, and readily admit, that many in our society live in echo chambers. We tend to fill our social media feedsâ€”and even our selection of news and commentary sourcesâ€”with people who espouse what we already believe. We friend and follow people that agree with us, and likewise unfriend and unfollow those whose opinions differ from our own. Itâ€™s a problem.
For example, Iâ€™m guessing there are those who turned off this podcast as soon as I stated my stance on LGBTQIA inclusion. If you disagree with me and are still listening, thank you.
While we readily recognize it in our podcast and social media feedsâ€”or at least the social media feeds of othersâ€”we donâ€™t typically talk about our churches as theological echo chambers. But for many of us, they are.
We attend churches pastored by those with whom we already agree. And when they step out of line with our thinking, there is always another church down the street or one whose worship service we can watch online in our pajamas, that will tell us weâ€™re already correct in our thinking, reinforce our current beliefs and never really challenge us.
When I was preaching on Sunday mornings as an associate pastor, that could not have been more obvious. Whenever a controversial subject was mentioned from the pulpitâ€”regardless of what was said about itâ€”we were certain to receive pushback, and often threats of people leaving the church.
It was so much easier to preach about things no one could possibly object to. Though Iâ€™m guessing today there are fewer and fewer of those topics.
Two quick examples: The lead pastor in a church I was serving, once mentioned the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a sermon. He talked about his experience of meeting Palestinians in Israel who still had the keys to the house they had been removed from years before. I know we lost one family in leadership over just mentioning that, and Iâ€™m pretty sure there were others as well.
Another time, I was assigned a sermon on sexuality (seemed like I was always assigned those sermons) and I mentioned homosexualityâ€”I just mentioned it was a discussion in the church. After the service, a mom complained to the lead pastor that her middle school son had never heard about homosexuality before and she had to explain it to him. I still have trouble believing that a middle school student didnâ€™t know what homosexuality was, but to their credit, the family didnâ€™t leave the church over it. People are typically more forgiving of the associate 🙂
Additionally, I was criticized for taking our youth group to <quote> too many Native American reservations on mission trips, for talking about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa during a sermon, and for suggesting during a Bible study that Jesus might have been a pacifist and didnâ€™t expect the Kingdom of God to come to earth by force.
While itâ€™s never fun to receive negative feedback, I recognized that disagreements are healthy. Thatâ€™s what fosters conversation and growth.
Far too often, however, when people disagree they leave. But they donâ€™t have to.
When the echo chamber stops echoing and we are being challenged to rethink somethingâ€”even something we think is fundamental or coreâ€”we donâ€™t have to leave. We can choose instead to listen and struggle with a new idea. That new idea might just contain some insight that helps to strengthen our faith, that makes us a better of disciple of Jesus Christ.
When I get to this place, I like to remember that the name Israel, Jacob is told, means â€˜one who wrestles with God.â€™ Hmmâ€¦ maybe thatâ€™s what weâ€™re called to do.
Getting out of the echo chamber
Maybe our churches arenâ€™t supposed to be echo chambers?
What would it be like to hear about your faith from someone whose life experience is different from your own. Maybe itâ€™s a person from another culture or a different experience in the faith.
One of my favoritesâ€”which I donâ€™t do near enough ofâ€”is reading Old Testament commentaries by Jewish scholars.
But it could be as simple as a sermon about Jesusâ€™ invitation to commit to him, from a pastor who compared it to being asked to enter into a lifelong, committed relationship with her husband. A thought, a sermon, an understanding that would have never occurred to me because of my lack of that experience. Had she not pointed that out to me, I would have missed it completely.
The same can be applied to our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters.
Some of the people I know who have the deepest faith, who are most committed to the church at a time when they have every reason not to be, are LGBTQIA brothers and sisters.
So why does the church bar them from leadership? Why do they consistently hear from the church that they donâ€™t belong? Why do we in the church think we have nothing to learn from all of our brothers and sisters? Why canâ€™t we recognize that weâ€™re missing out? To put it as simply as possible, why is this a division we think we need?
The Bible says soâ€¦
Of course, I know the answer to that questions. Most who disagree will say, â€œThe Bible says so.â€
If theyâ€™ve done a bit of homework, they may be able to quote Leviticus, Mark or Romans or another verse whose reference fits neatly within the 280 characters of a Tweet. Case closed, right?
Wellâ€¦ no. We need to look much more deeply at the Bible than that. We need to allow Spirit to speak to us through the Bible and not simply quote it and walk awayâ€”especially with no context.
Iâ€™m working on an episode on the witness of Scripture to share in the coming weeks. Thatâ€™s a separate, complicated conversation, but hereâ€™s a bit of a preview.
There are times when an apparent â€œclear reading of Scriptureâ€ doesnâ€™t match up with my experience of the world. What do you do when that happens?
Most people see two simple choicesâ€”deny scripture or deny their experienceâ€”and people make one of those choices every day.
Some do what seems crazy to me, and deny their reality. Their child comes out to them and they deny that reality. They choose instead, to ignore or abandon their child. My Bible says homosexuality is an abomination, so my child is an abomination. Itâ€™s ugly and extremely hurtful. Families are fractured over this.
Others choose instead to walk away from their faith, assuming the Bible isnâ€™t relevant for the 21st century. Someone recently said to me, â€œIâ€™ve never read the Bibleâ€ and then a few seconds later, â€œI donâ€™t believe in the Bible.â€ Yeah, thatâ€™s the problem that comes from hearing how other people have read the scriptures.
Witness of Scripture
But there is a third choice. When my experience with LGBTQIA friends doesnâ€™t match with Leviticus calling homosexuality â€œan abomination,â€ I need to take another look at the scripture, to go a little deeper, to see if there might be something there.
Because I believe the Bible is relevant for our time and our experienceâ€”as well as for the times and places in which these things were writtenâ€”I want to take the time to understand â€˜the witness of Scriptureâ€™â€”the whole of Scriptureâ€”rather than simply quoting it and walking away.
This mode of thinking automatically puts me at a disadvantage in a conversationâ€”especially one on social mediaâ€”because it doesnâ€™t fit in a Tweet. At best I need a Twitter thread to make the point, and who has time to read all of that that 🙂
But those are the kinds of things we do, right? There was a time when people quoted 1 Corinthians 14:34, â€œthe women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk,â€ to say that women were not permitted to be pastors an preachersâ€”in some circles that time continues into today (Beth Moore just experienced it recently).
Again, we canâ€™t just quote it and walk awayâ€”God said it. I believe. That settles it. Instead, we have to do a little more work. We have to dig a little deeper.
Again, Iâ€™ll work through this more in a future episode, but for now, let me just say that I understand the tension. It feels like weâ€™re picking and choosing what scripture passagess to listen to and which to ignore. Instead, itâ€™s about listening to the whole of the Bible and not just parts of it.
I believe the â€œwitness of scriptureâ€ calls me to recognize and honor the imago deiâ€”the image of Godâ€”in everyone. Thatâ€™s a biblical understanding from Genesis 1, when God says, â€œLet us make humanity in our image to resemble us.â€
All people regardless of gender, skin tone, sexuality, nation of origin, or any other false division we might want to construct are created in the image of God. We are all one people, one family, each bearing the image of our Creator. Who are we to separate that? To say that others in the human family somehow do not belong because of some disqualifying trait?
Maybe youâ€™ve seen the meme that says, â€œIâ€™d rather be excluded for who I include, than included for who I exclude.â€ I used to put it this way: I canâ€™t imagine standing before the pearly gates / judgment seat / choose your image, and being told that Iâ€™m not going to be admitted to paradise because I loved people too much, showed people too much grace, accepted people too easily.
Witness of the elders
One more quick thing that I hope is not an aside.
I have had the privilege of meeting and speaking with several people who were civil rights leaders in the 60s and every single one Iâ€™ve spoken with, has talked about LGBTQIA inclusion. It appears that many of our elders who have thought deeply about racial justiceâ€”who have been discriminated against because of the color of their skinâ€”are on the side of full inclusion.
My reading about antiracism from the likes of Ibram X. Kendi, Cornell West (I recently reread Race Matters), Jemar Tisby and others, has me understanding that any exclusion of anyone does harm to the human family. And as the church, to the body of Christ.
I am finding it increasingly difficult to talk about dismantling racism without also talking about LGBTQIA inclusion.
We have to stop dividing the human family. Stop talking about who belongs and who doesnâ€™t, about insiders and outsiders. I am convinced that as Christians, there should never be a â€˜them.â€™ Weâ€™re all â€˜us.â€™ Weâ€™re all one, deeply-connected family that needs each other. And that is by the design of our creator.
A couple of quick Bible images:
In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul writes about us fitting together like a body, the body of Christ. In that description, he writes, â€œthe eye canâ€™t say to the hand, â€˜I donâ€™t need you,â€™ or in turn, the head canâ€™t say to the feet, â€˜I donâ€™t need you.â€™â€ But isnâ€™t that exactly what we do when we choose to exclude?
Or letâ€™s look at Ephesians 6â€”those verses about â€œprincipalities and powersâ€â€”another passage I have wrestled with over the years. I recently heard a great sermon that reframed the verse by looking at what comes before and after itâ€”Yes, Iâ€™m a big fan of context.
And you donâ€™t have to go far for this one. That verse begins with these words, â€œWe arenâ€™t fighting against human enemies,â€ before it gets to the spiritualizing part, saying â€œbut against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens.â€
Iâ€™ve heard so many people quote the 2nd part while ignoring the first. Even while saying we need to remove some â€œenemyâ€ from our midst.
Look, I get that itâ€™s a lot easier to get elected when you convince people that the â€œother sideâ€ is the enemy. It may even be simpler to convert people to your faith when you convince them that the other churches, denominations, worship styles, theologies, religions, expressions of faith and the people that adhere to them, are the real problem.
It seems to me, however, that whenever we say, â€œIf only we could get rid of themâ€”whoever your them is (the conservatives, the liberals, whoever)â€”then everything would be perfect,â€ you are thinking in a way that is harmful and contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 6 is warning us against that very thing. We cannot split humanity up into us and them. We arenâ€™t fighting against human enemiesâ€”at least we shouldnâ€™t be. And in the midst of an election season, thatâ€™s what weâ€™re hearing over and over again. If you are on one side, youâ€™re hearing Biden is the enemy. If youâ€™re on the other, youâ€™re being told Trump is the enemy.
The same is true in the church. Those people who believe that, are the enemy. Iâ€™m not listening to them anymore.
I wish we could focus less on the second part of that verse and more on the first, â€œWe arenâ€™t fighting against human enemies.â€
So, this is my confession. This is me coming clean. This is me finally saying what Iâ€™ve wanted to say for some time but was too afraid of what the repercussions might be. LGBQTIA inclusion is long, long overdue.
Thank you for listening. Not Your Ordinary Joe is now available on your favorite podcasting site, including Spotify and Stitcher. Subscribe or follow so you donâ€™t miss an episode. And to learn more about me and Not Your Ordinary Joe, go to joeiovino.com/NYOJoe