Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Matter of Justice?

It's five days now until Bishops and Deputies gather in Anaheim for the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. As a Deputy from the Diocese of Northern Indiana, I am on the receiving end of a lobbying blitz that I'm sure will continue until well after the opening gavel falls in both houses of convention. Aside from a handful of blurbs supporting candidates for Executive Council and the Church Pension Fund Board of Trustees, it all emanates from the gay-rights advocacy organization Integrity, and its allies (like the Chicago Consultation). I have to tip my hat to them: It is an extremely well-orchestrated campaign, utilizing every tool from a "graphic novel" to YouTube videos to successive emails that build on one another to a slick anthology of academic papers. It is a well-planned, well-executed, and obviously well-funded effort. They are hoping to "shoot the moon"--abrogate 2006's B033 (moratorium on consecration of partnered gay bishops), change the language of the marriage canons to accomodate same-sex couples, grant permission for bishops to authorize emending the language of the Prayer Book marriage rite toward the same end, and task the SCLM with drafting trial rites for the blessing of same-sex relationships. They are quite clear about "local option" not being enough; they want same-sex committed relationships (legal marriages where permitted by civil law) to be on an equal footing with traditional marriage, completely in the mainstream (and therefore at the discretion of every priest, without needing permission from the Bishop).

Conspicuous by its absence from the pre-convention scene is any sign of a politically organized (to say nothing of energized) right flank of the Episcopal Church. Many of the key players in such efforts in the past have decamped to the emergent ACNA, and those who have not are largely lying low, if not in response to sheer demoralization, then in recognition of the undeniable reality of their political position and prospects at the moment--i.e. powerless and bleak.

The consistent talking point from "Integrity & Friends" (and they are remarkably disciplined about staying on message) is this: It's a matter of simple justice. "All the sacraments for all the baptized" is the mantra, and they wrap themselves liberally in the banner of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. "Justice delayed is justice denied."

This is a serious moral argument. God is certainly (among other things) a God of justice. The narrative of Holy Scripture holds justice in high regard, particularly as one reads the Old Testament prophets. God is repeatedly portrayed as on the side of any segment of society that is oppressed or exploited, and ready to exact a price from those who do the oppressing and exploiting. In the Christian moral tradition, justice ranks very high among the virtues to which all the Faithful are bidden to aspire--in the second tier of the "big seven" (behind Faith, Hope, and Charity, and alongside Courage, Temperance, and Prudence). "Do justice" is indeed a moral obligation for a Christian disciple.

Two questions, then, suggest themselves: First, is the moral demand of justice paramount, or must it be held in tension with other equally-ranked moral demands? Second, and more to the point, is what "Integrity & Friends" are asking for in fact a matter of justice at all?

So ... do the demands of justice trump every other concern? To answer in the affirmative would be to side with every nation-state, every tribe, every gang, every family that has ever gone to war unilaterally, or prosecuted a vendetta, or otherwise used coercion on behalf of a cause it considers just. Both the Montagues and the Capulets considered their cause just. The same goes for the Hatfields and the McCoys. It was in the interest of justice that George W. Bush and Tony Blair ordered the invasion of Iraq. The spilled blood of Mercutio is emblematic of the countervailing moral imperative of peace. Is it not telling that the same circles within the church that have virtually made "peaceandjustice" a single word are now clamoring for justice that is coercive and seems to care little for peace within the Body of Christ?

The reality of the Christian moral vision is that the values of justice and truth are always going to exist in a dynamic tension with the values of peace and unity. It is always a mistake to simply drop one end of the rope and let the tension disappear, because it will inevitably come back to bite those who do so. I understand the importance of justice. There are indeed times to take stands and let chips fall. But such times need to be discerned with utmost caution. My challenge to those who contend that, at this moment in the church's life, peace and unity must take a back seat to (perceived) justice and truth is to make a coherent case for why this is so. Is justice truly served when peace is shattered? Is justice authentic when it is bought at the price of unity? Forget not that the "chips" that you are so eager to have "fall where they may" are real people, real disciples of Jesus.

But is it--"it" being what Integrity & Friends call "full inclusion"--actually a matter of justice in the first place? "Justice" is a rich concept in Scripture and in the tradition of Christian theology. In the Old Testament, it translates the Hebrew word tsadiq, which can also be rendered "righteousness." I'm not a Hebrew scholar, but what I gather is that it is difficult to precisely and concisely summarize the etymological ambit of this word. But in any case, it's meaning is dynamic, and always rooted in a context of relationship--relationship in community. To "do justice," then, is to "do right by" the entire community. Of course, this cannot be radically separated from "doing right by" individuals and sub-groups within the larger community, but neither can the doing of justice be reduced to mere fairness, a sort of egalitarianism rooted in the ideal of "equal access for every individual."

Once again, there is an inherent tension between the percieved "rights" of individuals and the well-being of the whole. Advocates of "full inclusion" are quick to hold up the names and faces of real same-sex couples who feel themselves to be injured by the church's general refusal, so far, to give liturgical/sacramental sanction to their relationships. This certainly tugs at the heartstrings, but evades the question at hand, which is the question of tsadiq--justice, righteousness, "doing right by" the whole community of the Church, including the many tens of thousands of still loyal Episcopalians who are scandalized by the proposals of Integrity & Friends, as well as the many tens of millions of Anglican brothers and sisters all over the world whose position has already been made abundantly clear. So, yes, from a biblical perspective, "it" is indeed a matter of justice, and it would be fundamentally unjust for us to move in the direction that Integrity & Friends bid us move.

But I'm no scholar, and this is no theological treatise, so let's lay the sophisticated and nuanced stuff aside and just look at the popular American notion of "justice" that I suspect is really in play here--i.e. fairness, equality. Whether we're talking about gay marriage, blessing of relationships that are "marriage-like," or the consecration of bishops who are living in such a relationship, the underlying premise of the "do justice" argument is that there is no legitimate distinction that can be made between heterosexual and homosexual committed relationships. And if you grant such a premise, the conclusion is, of course, inescapable: Do justice and do it now!

I have neither the time nor, perhaps, the intellectual horsepower to marshall a comprehensive rebuttal to this premise. But for present purposes, it should suffice simply to point out--an assertion that cannot be plausibly contradicted--that this is precisely the meta-question currently on the meta-floor, and that the jury is very much still out on it. There is a coherent theological and anthropological argument, grounded in Scripture, against a presumption of parity between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. This says nothing about anyone's instrinsic worth, whether they are loved by God, or what their eternal destiny is. It does say something about ordered relationships within the Body of Christ, about "doing right by" the whole.

There is also, I would grant, a coherent--though, for many, not yet persuasive--argument to the contrary. This is why I, along with others, call for continued patient conversation and the avoidance of precipitate action. The fact is, there is nothing approaching a consensus on these issue, even within the Episcopal Church. Majority view? Apparently. Consensus? Not so much. And that says nothing of the rest of the Anglican Communion, the mind of which is settled for this generation in the 1998 articulation of Lambeth I.10.

The advocates of the majority view tell us that we must cease creating victims by our discriminatory policies. Until they can demonstrate how their proposals will not just create different victims in different places, their pleas ring hollow.


Dale Matson said...

Fr. Dan,
Are you still predicting B033 will not be superseded/overturned?

Undergroundpewster said...

From the point of view of a rank amateur, it appears to me that ever since the "Philadelphia eleven" that the way things happen in the Episcopal Church is to present the poor pewsters with a fait accompli and thus avoid real attempts to have a theological debate and consensus.

Young fogey emeritus said...

TUP: yup.

Randy Muller said...

Put me solidly in the "demoralized" category. The only interest I have in General Convention now is to wonder at how many different ways the ECUSA will destroy itself.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Two things:

1. See Michael Hopkins' brilliant essay "It's about more than justice" (It's about the gospel!)at

2. When your worthy opponents can not only recite but applaud YOUR message for being "remarkably disciplined", you know the battle is really over.

Not the struggle, but the battle.

Thanks for this wee pick-me-up, Dan, as I finish packing for GC. It was an unexpected, but I'm sure unintended, pleasure.

Buy you a cup of coffee or tea in Anaheim?

Hoosierpalian said...

As a person with an “objectively disordered” sexuality, I know that the traditional teaching of the Church is that I should live in absolute lifelong celibacy. On a practical level, however, I know that, for me, this is an unattainable standard of behavior. Is it then better for me to seek to live in a monogamous same-sex relationship, whether the Church blesses the union or not, or to live an imperfectly celibate life and seek reconciliation after each (for me, inevitable) failure? What would be the pastoral response here?

Daniel Martins said...

You ask what seems to me a very honest and transparent question that deserves an equally honest and transparent answer. I will try to provide such an answer. This is just me talking here, and I could be wrong. But were I your pastor, I would certainly not judge you if you chose Plan A, and I would be ready to absolve you time and again if you chose Plan B. If you chose Plan A, I would offer quiet support, counsel, prayer, and a commitment to "be there" for you. I would not, as you might imagine, attempt to invoke God's blessing publicly on your relationship. This may seem incoherent and/or inconsistent, but I don't think it is. There is a proper distinction to be made between faithful pastoral care and the public stewardship of the Church's sacraments. There's a lot of elasticity in the former, but not so much in the latter. Should you choose Plan B, I would also be committed to "be there" for you, to accept and love you as you are, and to walk alongside you as a fellow sinner on the road to holiness.

Hoosierpalian said...

Thank you for your very kind and thoughtful answer. I think that given the theological differences that divide our Church that it is also generous response, in that you would stand beside me as my pastor in Plan A or Plan B. As my handle might suggest, I reside in the more liberal Diocese of Indianapolis, and except in a handful of parishes, I think I would get an identical answer. I worry that in some places Plan B would be the only option--some of our fellow Christians are just not ready to see same-sex couples, blessed or not, sitting in the pews. Thank you again.