The United Methodist Church, Shame and LGBT Suicide

My Wake-Up Call

Suicide. This is the deep, dark, truthful mirror the LGBT community is holding up to the church. LGBT young adults who are rejected by their families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their LGBT counterparts who are accepted (see CDC). The church is the family of God. This is the crux of the issue. It’s time for the church to take a look and take responsibility.

[See this study (PDF) for a better understanding of the statistics.]

The differential in these rates of suicide attempts shows me two things.

First, the shame that leads to suicide is largely external. The coming out process entails a lot of fear. I’ve only witnessed it once, and that in a very safe environment. Even then, it was wrenching for the person involved. When those fears are realized and LGBT persons are rejected, that fear becomes internalized shame, with fatal potential. When those fears are met with grace and acceptance, those fears are cast out. When LGBT persons are welcomed by their families, they are significantly healthier. When LGBT young adults know they are supported, they overwhelmingly choose to live, even in the face of rejection and oppression by others. The church is a family.

The suicide rate statistic shows me something else: this is not a fringe issue. It is a matter of life and death and should be treated as such. God’s heart does not break over denominational schism so much as it breaks over those so distraught that they wish that God had never made them. This is the crucial matter. Those pressing for schism in the church are literally tearing apart a family. Those wishing LGBT persons would either leave or shut up are wishing these things upon brothers and sisters. Who shoves a suffering brother to the curb to fend for themselves? Who tells a frightened sister, “I wish you would leave the family?” These are monstrous things.

And yet a confession: I have been guilty of allowing LGBT issues to be a second or third tier cause. I have allowed my brothers and sisters to wish they were dead so as not to offend other members of the family. Certainly I still have a lot to learn. But as I come to grips with the suicide factor, I feel a deeper sense of responsibility. Perhaps I can’t just let the Tim Schaefers of the world suffer alone.

On Frank and Tim Schaefer

Of course, Frank Schaefer has had to deal with this reality firsthand. His recent trial and defrocking was not only about his actions as a clergyman. They were also about his actions as a dad. The strife confronting LGBT persons is not a fringe issue for him; it is a parental matter. It’s been widely reported that his son, Tim, contemplated suicide due to shame felt about his sexuality (his story here). Where did he learn to be ashamed? Church! The church taught Tim Schaefer to hate himself. Luckily, a loving father intervened. Frank’s affirmation of Tim was a life-preserving matter. Who wouldn’t save their son’s life?

I am so scared for those LGBT persons without the loving support of their parents. Is there a sanctuary for them? Is there a lifeline? Certainly many heal from these deep wounds, but the suicide rate suggests that these are hard to overcome. I keep coming back to the Good Samaritan. The body of Christ cannot walk past these beaten persons any longer. Is it okay for 50%-85% of the Levites to walk past on the other side? Is it okay for 50-85% of the priesthood to say ‘If only you weren’t gay…’ or pretend they aren’t hurting? Or is it worse? Are we the robbers? (See Luke 10:25-37) This is what the suicide rate is showing me.

This past General Conference a substitute resolution was introduced that would allow the United Methodist Church to admit that we are deeply divided on this matter (see text here). We couldn’t even admit that we are deeply divided. In fact the vote was 53% to 47% against. If we are NOT truly divided shouldn’t that vote have been more decisive? Even so, the suicide rate is showing me that even agreeing to disagree is not a palatable solution. This matter is calling into question the entirety of our existence. We have to take responsibility for our views, because we are the source of the shame that is killing many LGBT people. Woe to the one through whom that sin comes!

Let’s Not Split…

This is one of the reasons that schism is so disgusting to me. I don’t just disagree with the view that LGBT persons are not deserving of same treatment, same respect, same access to love and acceptance. I think those trying to shame LGBT persons and their allies out of the church are dangerous. I want this view eradicated. I want it to be as offensive as slavery.  If I take my ball and leave what happens? You get further entrenched in your position and the shaming becomes stronger. I don’t want my church to be a source of shame. I don’t want ANY church to be a source of shame. It’s not Christian.

Let’s Talk About the Bible…

We say we are a people of Scripture. And yet, we pluck certain verses to the ignorance of others. We selectively turn off our brains when something challenges our view. We read it dishonest to the bias we bring to the scripture. What do we do when scripture conflicts with scripture? How do we keep portions that inspire while letting the offensive ones die? Let me suggest a test: does the verse/passage in question hold up to the ‘love standard’?

The Bible is not a flat document. Not all verses are created equal. The scripture itself admits this: When Jesus is asked “What is the greatest commandment?” he had an answer. In a sea of commandments, two float to the top: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself. From here we can judge the other commandments. Does the commandment to stone your disobedient child hold up to the love standard (read it yourself)? Of course not! Humanity has rightly fled from this terrible dictum. Likewise, many commandments do uphold the love standard: rules on gleaning and how to treat aliens are especially gracious (see Leviticus 23:22).

As a church, we cannot do away with scripture. It is our story and our guide. But how we interpret and present the Bible is important. Plucking verses out and saying “I was just quoting the Bible,” is dangerous and unfaithful. So let’s debate the Bible, by all means. But the standard is not debatable: the greatest of these is love.

How Romans Helps Me Love My LGBT Neighbors…

There is a biblical lesson that has stuck with me for years: you can’t learn something and then pretend you don’t know it. This lesson stems from Paul’s understanding of the Law. He explains in Romans that the Law’s value is in exposing sin. Once you are exposed to sin, you are responsible for it. He then goes on to lament how impossible it is to uphold the law and how necessary grace is (Romans 7). What, then, about all the things we have learned about human sexuality and sexual orientation: all those things we didn’t know 2500 year ago? Are we supposed to just ignore the lessons and keep promoting the same primitive perspectives as our ancestors? Should we return to the days when we didn’t know women had eggs? Should we return to the days when we thought that menstruation was unclean when in fact it is a purifying procedure? Would our ancient ancestors be disappointed that we hadn’t learned anything new? Now that I know about the prevalence of suicide in the LGBT community, and now that I understand part of the source, I am responsible for using that knowledge for the benefit of others.

How Deuteronomy Helps Me Love My LGBT Neighbors…

At the end of the Torah, Moses presents the law to the people. Obeying the law brings one to life, he teaches; disobeying it brings death. He then exhorts the people to choose life. The church must begin choosing life for the LGBT community. It is clear that the shaming of LGBT has tragic consequences. We must take responsibility for authoring this shame. And we must reclaim our purpose as a community of grace, love and life.

How Jesus Helps Me Love My LGBT Neighbors…

When Jesus upholds the commandment of love, he is challenged on the extent and nature of that love. Who is my neighbor? Jesus is asked. The question comes with a hidden agenda: which person is my NOT neighbor and therefore unqualified for my love? Jesus’ response was the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus chooses the character of the Samaritan to shame the characters of the Levite and priest. The Samaritan acts lovingly. The priest and the Levite choose to remain ‘clean’. “Which one of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The answer: “the one who showed him mercy” followed by a COMMAND to go and do likewise. Some are claiming to be loving their LGBT neighbors by shaming them into repentance. In reality, they are shaming them into death. Others say it is an act of obedience to uphold a certain view of marriage. Others claim LGBT persons are unrepentant sinners and have forfeited their place in the kingdom of God and the church. I see no mercy in these views. You cannot claim supremacy of faith or virtue while failing to show mercy to those living in fear, shame and rejection.

Schism Sucks, Building New Churches Doesn’t Suck

If love is our standard, and if love is expressed as mercy, then what do we do with all of these wounded, abandoned LGBT children of God? Firstly, we should apologize. And I firmly believe, one day, we will. Moreover, conferences should open and build up congregations within each community that are welcoming and compassionate towards LGBT persons. (I never thought I would be talking about congregational development, but here we are.) I hate the thought that with this problem we are complacent and uncompassionate. Even if we cannot prevent some congregations from continuing to shame LGBT people, the church can respond in a creative way to embrace LGBT people across the connection. We have experience in just this kind of ministry. Across the connection, we have responded creatively and missionally to the influx of Spanish-speaking migrant workers, even while some blamed the nation’s problems on the influx of immigrants. Likewise, the church should open gay-friendly congregations in every community, as there are gay persons in need of sanctuary in every community. Those suffering from the rejection of their families need a life line, a safe place, a sanctuary from the shame. We should provide this. LGBT Christians suffering from the shame of the church also need a refuge. As crazy as it sounds, we need compassionate, welcoming churches to heal those damaged by our fellow Christians.

This is a life and death matter indeed. But mourn not for a divorcing denomination. Mourn for those dying of shame. Let us confess that we have not heard the cry of the needy. We have indeed failed to be an obedient church. But our disobedience is not to a human book that changes every 4 years, it is a stark disobedience to the eternal law of love. With confession comes pardon, with pardon comes renewed life. With renewed life comes the ending of shame. Now is not the time for schism. It is time for repentance and recommitment to the laws of mercy, compassion and healing…the laws of love.

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