Monday, May 7, 2012

“A Response to Bishop Coyner” or “Why the LGBTQ Protest at General Conference was a Faithful Witness”

Today Bishop Coyner of the Indiana Conference shared his thoughts on the witness protest by the LGBTQ coalition at General Conference. For those who were not watching, last week United Methodists from all over the world voted 53%/47% to uphold the language of our Discipline that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.  The body voted down a change in the language that would recognize that we as a church disagree because we read scripture differently.  The meeting of 1000+ delegates was interrupted by an act of civil disobedience by lay and clergy who surrounded the communion altar table and tearfully celebrated the Eucharist, sang songs and refused to move for several hours.

For some this act was a faithful witness along the same lines as the persistent widow coming back again and again for justice in Luke. For many others, including Bishop Coyner, the protest was a rude, disrespectful interruption that did more harm to the LGBTQ agenda than good.  Many on Twitter called out the actions as inappropriate, especially since it interrupted the Bishop’s prayer and much needed time for business.

Here is the letter written today by Bishop Coyner. I will respond below.

Bishop Coyner’s Pastoral Letter:

"Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right"

My mother always told us, “Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because someone does you wrong, that doesn’t mean you have the right to do something wrong back to them or to someone else.” I thought of her wisdom last week as I attempted to preside during General Conference when the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered) caucus and supporters were demonstrating on the floor of General Conference.

We have had such demonstrations for many General Conferences, usually conducted with permission from, or at least advance information provided to, the General Conference Secretary and other leaders. This year was different because the GLBT folks and their supporters came onto the floor of conference without permission or notice, and three times they came and interrupted prayers. Last Thursday they again came onto the floor during the closing prayer before our morning break, and when I attempted to call the General Conference back to order after that 30-minute break, they refused to leave. They continued to sing and shout and stay on the floor during my opening prayer, and they were especially rude during the first item of business which was – of all things – the monitoring report of Ms. Garlinda Burton, who chairs our General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

After I politely asked the group several times to leave the floor and to allow the General Conference to resume their business, without any response, I finally had to call a recess and announce that when we returned that only official delegates and others with credentials would be allowed in the session. The purpose of that recess (which is described in Rule #3 of the General Conference) was to clear the floor and to allow General Conference officials to deal with the protestors.

I am not unsympathetic to the concerns of many gay and lesbian persons who have been the subject of prejudice and even violence. I understand that many gay and lesbian persons are disappointed and angered by the stance of our United Methodist Church, especially by the fact that they are barred from being ordained or appointed as clergy. I was personally disappointed that a more moderate statement proposed by the Rev. Adam Hamilton did not pass General Conference.

However, two wrongs don’t make a right. Being the victim of prejudice does not give a person the right to bully others. I found it especially troubling that the GLBT caucus and supporters interrupted our prayer times. As I said to the protestors, “You have made your point, but now you are starting to hurt your point.” [emphasis added by me]

I realize that my actions (calling a recess and limiting the floor to persons with appropriate credentials) also may have “wronged” some persons, and so it did not make things right. That’s the problem when anyone tries to respond to the ways they have been wronged by adding further wrongs – it just never gets us to the “right.”
I hope and pray that all of us in the UMC can find more helpful ways to share, to listen, and to heal the wounds that exist in our church. But I am convinced that my mother was right when she said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

First I want to thank Bishop Coyner for openly sharing his thoughts and specifically for expressing his sympathy for the prejudice and violence the LGBTQ community faces. Too many of our leaders do not even give voice to denouncing the harm that many within our community feel. Bishop Coyner at least acknowledged the pain and for that I thank him. However, with respect, I find the rest of his argument to fall theologically short of how I believe we as a community are to respond to the marginalized in our midst.

Before I continue, I know to even compare the persecution of the LGBTQ community with that of African Americans is insulting to some. I agree that the two stories are distinct in many ways, but I believe that the feelings of otherness and the struggle for justice of both LGBTQ and African Americans are congruent in some ways. If you still disagree, please forgive me.  I mean no offense and have no intention of minimizing deep hurt.

I find the position of Bishop Coyner and others who thought the witness protest was inappropriate to be reminiscent of many moderate, white clergy and laity during the Civil Rights’ era in the United States.  In the 50’s and 60’s non-violent witness protests were springing up all over the south that disrupted order. From a bus boycott in Montgomery to sit-ins at lunch counters in Greensboro to a march in Selma to kneel-ins at churches, White people’s lives were being disrupted by a marginalized Black minority trying to be heard. During one of these witness protests on Good Friday 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and placed in a Birmingham jail cell.  He had no paper to write on, but he used the margins of a newspaper to write a letter to his white, moderate clergy colleagues.

Like Bishop Coyner, many of these clergy had expressed sympathy to MLK’s cause, but did not think that it was the right time to disrupt order. They also felt that the very act of protest, whereas it was making their point, was also hurting their point by disrupting order.

I believe that is the position of many who objected with the LGBTQ witness protest at General Conference.  “We are sympathetic with your pain, but this is not the time or place. You are hurting your cause by interrupting prayer and our meeting.”

I also believe MLK’s words in his letter to white moderates rings as true today as they did almost 50 years to the day it was written.  I will let the following portions of the letter speak for itself.  I believe it convicts all of us who struggled with the witness protest we experienced…

Excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail
(for full text:

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." …

…I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in." …

…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town…

…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea…

…You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative...

…You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…

…The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue…

…One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely... …We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."… …Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait."…

…One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."…

…To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority…

…Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience…

…I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

…I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right…

…Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself…

…And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action…

...So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust…

…I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.


  1. Replies
    1. That means a lot coming from Bishop Sara Ann Swenson. Thanks! :)

  2. Thank you for writing this piece (peace).

  3. Aloha, well stated. I am going to post a link to you below of the letter (from white clergy!) who prompted that response. It is important that we not forget the language, so that we can recognize it when it occurs today, and so that we can speak to it, also:

    It would be worth comparing the language between this letter and the language used today by the those who are appealing for doing things quietly and passively.

    Thanks for your words, and thoughtful response.

    Michael Barham+

    1. Thank you for the link to that letter. It might inspire another blog entry on the topic.

  4. I understood Bishop Coyner to acknowledge his own faults in presiding over the situation of a protest on the plenary floor. Thereby, two or three wrongs in secession do not materialize into a correct response. I am curious to know if Bishop Coyner's quote that the protesters might be hurting their cause can be verified by a survey of delagates who are "swing voters."

    1. Good point. I'm sure protests in the 60's energized swing voters in the wrong direction, but looking back we can clearly see the protests, though disruptive, were the right thing to happen.

  5. Thank you for writing this and standing up for "injustice anywhere". I completely agree with the connection between the civil rights movement and what we are experiencing with our GLBTQ brothers and sisters. MLK's words are so relevant and hopeful as we continue to fight for the rights for all. As a white "majority" it is my duty to fight, speak, and stand up for wrongs, but I struggle with finding the balance to not disrupt or bring negative attention to the cause while still lobbying for justice and peace. I am thankful for your witness.