Susan Russell: our missing voices

In a response to a study that finds that the an overwhelming majority of religious voices in the media come from groups opposed to marriage equality or any tacit acceptance of LGBT people into the Church, Susan Russell writes that it matters that the voices of the acceptance are missing.

“Our missing voices matter because the traditional Biblical values we proclaim — justice, love, and compassion — offer an antidote to the judgment, literalism, and condemnation of the religious right. Our missing voices matter because there are legions of folks out there yearning for a spiritual community and thinking they know enough about being a Christian not to want to be one. And who can blame them when everything they know about what Jesus taught is what Jerry Falwell said or Pat Robertson preached.

When I wrote my open letter to the “purpose driven” [sic] pastor, it got over 700 comments, many of them from people expressing amazement that there are Christians who support LGBT equality, economic justice, and contraceptive freedom. Our voices matter, because when we let Rick Warren speak for Christianity, we let Jesus down.

Our missing voices matter because there are LGBT youth growing up with no clue that there’s a God who loves them just the way they are, and that there are communities of faith that would support and encourage them as they grow into the full stature of their gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender adulthood. As my friend Bishop Gene Robinson said, “These are kids who couldn’t find Leviticus if their life depended on it, and they end up suicidal because they’re convinced God thinks they’re an abomination.” Our missing voices matter because no child should ever believe he or she is beyond God’s love, and our voices offer a lifeline to kids who think their precious lives aren’t worth living.

Our missing voices matter because in town halls, state houses, and the halls of Congress, legislators are lobbied by those determined to write their theology into our democracy. Our voices matter because in order for the First Amendment to protect our freedom of religion, it must also protect our freedom from religion, and the best rebuttal to the rabid religious right is a mobilized messaged religious left.”

The study that Russell is responding to shows that, intentionally or not, the news media is silencing the voices of religious tolerance. It would be a wondrous thing if we were to wake up some morning soon and discover that this has changed, but that’s probably unlikely. So what more can we do to make our voices heard?

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  1. barbara snyder

    Here’s an interesting article I read not long ago, also at Huffington Post (was it linked here? I can’t remember): “Religion Is Divisive and Conservative — and a Very Good Thing“.

    It was written by a liberal Rabbi, Eric H. Yoffie – who argues that religion qua religion is both “divisive and conservative,” and gives the reasons he thinks so. (i.e., religion is “divisive” because it deals with weighty matters – and it’s “conservative” because “it resists the tyranny of the new and the culture of now” and “it gives a hearing to the sages of old”).

    Yet the Rabbi is himself a person of liberal views, he says quite plainly. Which means that liberals definitely have a place in (what he thinks to be) a “conservative” enterprise.

    So, it will be interesting to see whether or not we can sell that particular combination of things. To me, it’s an extremely good thing to have competing influences and impulses like this; it means you will have to listen to voices you might not listen to on your own – or ever want to listen to.

    All I will add is that I am wary of wedding religion to partisan (in particular) politics. I don’t want to have to sign anybody’s political dotted line – neither Rick Warren’s nor Susan Russell’s; faith certainly does inform one’s political views – but IMO this doesn’t happen in any sort of straight-line, political platform way. To me, that whole idea is absurd; to me, the salient fact about Christ is that he cannot be pigeonholed. Certainly there are some things that plainly go against the grain of the Gospels (and of the whole Bible, in fact) – but I can’t see how there is just one simple answer to any of the complex problems in the world, even if we do believe that the Bible demands that we care for the poor (for instance). (And I do believe this, I should add.)

    I want to help give gay folks (for instance) a place in the church – not to be “inclusive,” but because I think it’s dreadful to be denied a spiritual life. That’s what’s wrong with Rick Warren, et al.; they deny gay people a spiritual life. Their views on same-sex marriage are miles further down the line than this, and to me are irrelevant to the issue at hand.

  2. Barbara, thanks for linking to that Rabbi Yoffie article. I think he’s right about reinterpreting tradition in the light of reason and modern realities, and wish that we saw more of that rather than the jettisoning of tradition when it doesn’t serve our purpose.

    I’ve got problems with arguments in favor of LGBT people’s place in the Church based on mere “inclusion” or “radical welcome” myself (I don’t know if they’re *your* problems).

  3. barbara snyder

    Thanks, Bill. I agree with you and the Rabbi about “reinterpreting tradition in the light of reason and modern realities.”

    To answer the question at the end of the post: to make our voices heard, I think we’ll need to be sure that gay people – since that seems to be the main thrust of this article – know that they have a spiritual home at TEC (and at other churches where this is true) if they ever need or want it. That seems like a word-of-mouth thing, to me (although I’m sure some publicity about this could be a good thing, too).

    And then we’ll have to make sure we’re welcoming new people who come in the doors, and talking with them, and asking them about themselves, and helping them whenever we can help them. Perhaps a formal ministry in the parishes, that people who are interested in helping with this issue can work for?

    Personally, I don’t think politics is a good way at all to go about this; we get more than enough of politics in our regular lives. But the spiritual life – and how we experience it – is not much talked about anywhere else, and we have a real opportunity there to connect with people.

  4. barbara snyder

    (I mean, I think it all comes down to a rather simple question that everybody has an answer for: How has your faith life helped you?

    What does living in faith (however you understand this) do for you that nothing else does for you?

    Why, in other words, are we here at all? What would our lives be like without our faith? What positive things happen as a result of it – even when these things might at times be difficult?

    Going further, even: what would happen for us, personally, if the church disappeared tomorrow? What would be lost? What would we then seek to find to replace it? Why?

    And then, for the community to assume that others coming can, along with us, find faith for themselves, too.

    This, to me, is “tolerant, welcoming faith.” It thinks and worries about the life of faith (or the “recovery,” in 12-Step terms), and works out the best way for the community as a whole to help community members – old and new – to access it for themselves.

    And to me, it helps to think about questions like the above.)

  5. Gary Gilbert

    Since when is advocating for LGBT equality seen as partisan politics? A religion which claims to listen to conservative and liberal impulses while failing to stand up for equal rights for all is not one I want to have anything to do with, which is why I think a lot of LGBTs would prefer not to do religion. Susan Russell’s approach is to reread the exsperience of those who have been marginalized from a dominant tradition which claims to speak for God. I would rather not do God but if one has to, Russell’s approach has much to approve of. Liberation theology, be it African-American, feminist, or LGBT, rereads the tradition through a hermeneutics of suspicion.

    It reminds me of the way this denomination sometimes brags about how it avoided a split during the Civil War. The question of whether slaves should be freed was a mere political question which ought not get in the way of true spirituality. that attitude expressed the interests of a particular group but certainly not those of the oppressed.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  6. barbara snyder

    Since when is advocating for LGBT equality seen as partisan politics?

    By itself: it’s not at all.

    But then, what do “economic justice” and “contraceptive freedom” have to do with advocating for LGBT equality, either? Because those are put forward as part of the “religious left” checklist in the article.

    And please note: I’m not expressing any opinion on either of those things here. I’m saying that if you’re talking about suicidal gay kids, I don’t think it makes any sense at all to offer a checklist of political positions we ought to take totally unrelated to the issue of suicidal gay kids. The latter is an important enough issue that we could take a lifetime to deal with on its own – and frankly, I really don’t think there’s a political solution to it anyway. There may well be a spiritual solution, though.

    I’m saying: let’s back up and take the initial problem – the suicidal kids – seriously, before we start “mobilizing the political left.” I’m saying, the LGBT issue is much deeper and needs far more attention than just casting a vote for same-sex marriage in New York or California (where same-sex marriage is going to happen anyway, with or without the church’s approval). That, in my opinion, and as I said before, is way further down the line than anything that’s going to help suicidal gay kids.

    I’d also like to add that from what I can tell, some of those suicidal kids aren’t gay at all; they’re just “different,” or at any rate they’re bullied for being perceived as “different.” And that’s where the church and its spiritual help can do something.

    I actually agree with Russell’s point – that our voices are not being heard. I disagree, though, with her approach – and while we’re at it, I totally disagree with her definition of “our voices.” “Mobilizing politically” is not the answer to the problem she’s highlighting. If we’re going to help suicidal kids, politics – if it’s a solution at all – is a long-term process. Spiritual help, though, is obviously needed now.

  7. barbara snyder

    (I admit, though, that I’m not very confident about political solutions to deep problems. I remember Betty Friedan and “the Lavender Menace” – and have taken the fairly clear lesson that political movements will unhesitatingly throw people overboard when it suits their own agendas and interests.

    That’s fine; politics is a bare-knuckle business. A movement that’s going to really help people, though – especially people on the edge – has got to go much deeper.

    Anyway, it wasn’t politics that’s helped to change minds about LGBT people; the political stuff all came later. What changed peoples’ minds and hearts was just about totally personal and relational.)

  8. revsusan

    Coming late to the “comment party” (thanks for posting the piece, by the way! :) I’ve got a few quick comments for @barbara before I go off to all-church-all-day-at-all-saints-church:

    1 – Overall I guess I just don’t buy the dualistic argument that we make a choice between “politics or spirituality” to address the challenges before us. As a wise man once said (disclaimer: he’s my boss!)

    “Faith in action is called politics. Spirituality without action is fruitless and social action without spirituality is heartless. We are boldly political without being partisan. Having a partisan-free place to stand liberates the religious patriot to see clearly, speak courageously, and act daringly.”

    If there was such a thing as being charged with a “political church” All Saints Pasadena would stand guilty. When our rector protested the deportation of Japanese Americans to Manzanar that was arguably a political act. When a later rector stood with Martin Luther King Jr. in the L.A. Coliseum against racism it was such a political act that he and his family got death threats. When our rector emeritus preached peace during the Iraq war the IRS construed that as a political act … and on and on it goes.

    When we act live out our faith values there are political implications. I don’t have time to Google the link right now but go find Bishop Pierre Whalon’s excellent Huffington Post piece of a few weeks ago.

    2 – My comment about a politically mobilized messaged religious left was in the context of neutralizing the lobbying that goes on in our political process falsely claiming to represent their values as “biblical values” and to speak for all Christians.

    3- Finally, per your comment — “Anyway, it wasn’t politics that’s helped to change minds about LGBT people; the political stuff all came later. What changed peoples’ minds and hearts was just about totally personal and relational.” — I’d be happy for you to contact me offline and I can give you decades of reasons why –again — it’s not an either/or.

    The both/and-ness of the work we do requires commitment to what you call the “personal and relational” … and before that could happen the legislative protections making it safe for LGBT people to tell the truth about their lives and vocations in order to had to be in place.

    Our missing voices matter — whether they’re advocating for the full inclusion of all God’s beloved in the church or for equal protection for all Americans on Capitol Hill. Our missing voices matter.

    And now … off to work I go.

    The Reverend Canon Susan Russell

    All Saints Church, Pasadena

  9. ” … and before that could happen the legislative protections making it safe for LGBT people to tell the truth about their lives and vocations in order to had to be in place.”

    I don’t see how that’s the case at all. I grew up in a state where “sodomy” was prohibited by law until 2003, and now live in a state whose sodomy law was only repealed in 1998. Back in Texas discrimination in employment and housing is not prohibited statewide (although a few cities have local ordinances – Austin didn’t extend discrimination protection to LGBT folk until the 1980s). The state’s hate crimes law does not include sexual orientation. The lack of legislative protection to make things safe for gay people does not, however, mean that Texan GLBT people haven’t been making the truth of their lives known all along.

    I note also that even here in Rhode Island, there wasn’t protection for gay people against discrimination in housing and employment until this century,and there are still exemptions made for the employment law.

    Legislative support only seems to happen when there’s the political will for it, and that happens when the facts on the ground change – when the straight electorate gets to know their gay family members, friends, and neighbors.

  10. Ann Fontaine

    No – laws often change before everyone is on board — look at Loving vs. VA or ask anyone who was/is active in the civil right struggle – we need both – pressure from outside and pressure within to change unjust laws.

  11. barbara snyder

    The both/and-ness of the work we do requires commitment to what you call the “personal and relational” … and before that could happen the legislative protections making it safe for LGBT people to tell the truth about their lives and vocations in order to had to be in place.

    I completely disagree. Gay people started coming out in the 60s, 70s, and 80s (and some brave souls even did so in the 50s), long before any protections of any sort were in place. That’s exactly what made protections possible – or even thinkable – in fact.

    Then, the internet made it possible for people to talk in-depth online to others about this issue – again, long before much in the way of protection was in place anywhere. Many of us have been arguing about this issue for 30 years or more, and have watched this happen.

    And even now, a great huge chunk of gay people have no protections of any kind, as a matter of fact. Same-sex marriage and/or civil unions, for instance, are actively banned (i.e., have been made illegal) in at least half the states in the U.S. Only a few states have any sort of workplace protections. Your statement implies that until protections are in place, gay people can have no hope of finding a place “to tell the truth about their lives and vocations.” I disagree; I’m advocating that the church is a place they can do this, even if life is not so good for them anyplace else.

    I am not in any sense, BTW, advocating “spirituality without action.” I’m advocating that we make it known that gay people – and others who are tormented and feeling suicidal – can find a spiritual home and a real welcome in the Episcopal Church.

    I AM saying, I agree, that suicidal people should not have to depend on political solutions to their problems. I AM saying that I think it’s a (really) bad idea for gay people to tie our fortunes and our welfare to the political left. I AM saying that I don’t understand how gay people – and particularly suicidal ones – are helped at all by “mobilizing” on the topic of “contraceptive freedom” or “economic justice,” however worthy those causes might be.

    However, I’ve already said that I agree with you on the topic of “our missing voices.” I just don’t agree with you about whose voices those actually are or need to be. (And as a matter of fact, if you want to get things done politically now, independents are the people you need to appeal to. So to me, an appeal to the left is a waste of time even on those terms.)

  12. Bill Dilworth

    Yes, sometimes the Supreme Court steps in and overturns laws, as in Loving vs VA and the Texas sodomy laws. That’s not the same thing as legislative support – it wasn’t a legislature that did away with either sodomy or miscegenation laws in either of those cases. Legislatures don’t get to work until the political will exists. And I think it’s questionable how much effect “political mobilization” had to do with either case: SCOTUS doesn’t seem to pay much attention to things like public opinion when it comes to making rulings.

  13. barbara snyder

    (I should admit, maybe, that “partisan” is probably not the best word to have used above. I think I got thrown by the mention of “contraceptive freedom,” which is of course the latest “party v. party” issue.

    So: what’s the generic word form that covers the concepts of “left,” “center,” and “right”? Let’s use that word instead, whatever it is….)

  14. barbara snyder

    (Anyway: since we have “separation of church and state” in this country, nothing much is gong to change in the religious sphere until we convince people of the religious basis for our understanding of this (or any) issue.

    The church will not be convinced by political activism, because it doesn’t have to be. By law, it isn’t constrained by what the state does; we need religious arguments

    Unless, of course, we’re willing to wait 200 years or so….

    Meantime, people need spiritual lives and pastoral care and other kinds of help that the state either won’t or can’t give.)

  15. revsusan

    @Bill … I was using “legislative” in a broader sense of advocating for systemic changes through the Body Politic … whether in the state house, on Capitol Hill or at General Convention. Might have chosen my words more carefully.

    As for all the other energy around these issues, I still maintain that reducing ANY of these challenges to either/or choices reduces our capacity to effect Gospel Grounded change.

    It all matters.

    Our votes. Our lobbying. Our voices. Our prayers. Our pastoral care. Our General Convention resolutions. Our amicus briefs.

    Finally … to @barbara for clarity: not sure where the “appeal to the left” you disagree comes from. The only place I mentioned “the left” was in balancing the discourse from “the right” in lobbying elected officials. And I stand by that one.

    Bottom line: Our missing voices matter. All of them. And we ARE a better church and nation for those voices who have gone before us — the Harvey Milks and the Louie Crews — the Adrienne Riches and the Carter Heywards. May we be given the wisdom to continue to speak truth to power in our time as they have in theirs as we work to end bias and bigotry against ANY beloved child of God.

    The Reverend Canon Susan Russell

    All Saints Church, Pasadena

  16. barbara snyder

    Our missing voices matter. All of them.

    Yes, I agree. The truth is, though: I wouldn’t belong to the church at all unless it could help me maintain a strong spiritual center; I once left a heavily political parish for that very reason, in fact. (Maybe that’s what’s bothering me now, in fact.) So I will continue to advocate for that, if I remain in the church.

    But, you are right that all voices matter, and that there’s a need to get our voices heard, in a variety of ways.

  17. revsusan

    And I wouldn’t belong to a church at all unless it could help me maintain a strong spiritual center … which I get here at All Saints as we challenge each other to make God’s love tangible 24/7 by living out our mission statement: “Following our prophetic call, we seek to embody the inclusive love of God in Christ Jesus through Spirituality, Community, and Peace & Justice.”


    The Reverend Canon Susan Russell

  18. Gary Gilbert

    Barbara, How do you disagree with Susan Russell’s approach? It is not clear how you define politics.

    Having worked for six years to get marriage equality in New York State, I can tell you I agree with Susan Russell and Ann Fontaine that mobilization is a key component in liberation. People telling their stories to friends, family, neighbors, coworkers; building strong cases in courts across the country to establish precedents for higher courts; writing letters to the editor in neighborhood newspapers; doing interviews in the media; mobilizing support in the workplace, labor unions, and houses of worship; lobbying elected officials behind closed doors; unseating antigay electeds and electing pro-LGBT candidates; staging demonstrations. All this and more were necessary in New York State to pass civil marriage equality. The courts generally consider the political climate before doing their job of guarding the rights of minorities, and when they do their job, they may still be overruled by legislatures and referenda. In New York State, because our highest court, the Court of Appeals, failed us in Hernandez v. Robles, which said it was rational for the state to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples because they can procreate accidentally, the LGBT movement had to win marriage without the courts.

    Politics was very much necessary and remains so in this state.

    And now even most of the dioceses of New York State are catching up to civil equality. I get many more positive statements about my marriage now that same-sex couples are allowed to marry in New York. There is a saying that in order to change the church it is necessary to change society.

    To quote Susan Russell, “an inch at a time.”

    Gary Paul Gilbert

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